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Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | December 9, 2012

The Time to Do the Right Work


Ship in a bottleAs a writing teacher, one of my greatest struggles involves getting kids to understand the writing process. Writing can be frustrating, arduous work. Understandably, then, when a kid puts the last period on the last sentence in the last paragraph, the impulse then is to put down the pen or click "print" and pass that piece on to the teacher.

As adults, we know that the last period is not the finish line, and that often the toughest work begins when the writing is "finished." The act of meaningful revision--the analysis of effectiveness, the cutting and splicing of sentences, the refining of vivid vocabulary--that formidable work often makes the first stages of writing seem simple. We know, though, that the difference between mediocre and exceptional comes with the time invested in revising, polishing, and refining. It is hard work. It is the right work to do, and it takes time. If that work is skimped upon or shirked, the end product will not have achieved its full potential.

When I had the opportunity to present to the Gates Foundation last week, the other presenters and I never met ahead of time to coordinate our message--yet the same point resonated loud and clear: the new evaluation system is the right work to do to improve teaching, schools, and student learning. 

And the corollary to that point: doing this work will take time.

Yes, I've written about time again and again and again. But at the Gates meeting, the common theme--that doing this right will take time--was communicated from all fronts. Michaela Miller, OSPI's TPEP project lead, described how critical it is to give pilot districts the time to learn and adjust. Dana Anderson, Assistant Superintendent of ESD 113 and lead developer of the eVAL support program, illuminated how time is necessary for exploring and refining the technology tools that can assist with implementing effective evaluation. Gary Kipp, Gene Sherratt and Paula Quinn, all leaders of AWSP, each emphasized the time demands that the new system will place on evaluators--but in the same breath emphasized that these time demands were for the right work.

Time is a friend and foe in public education. If you were to ask a TPEP pilot administrator or teacher about their biggest concern related to the new evaluation system, I would bet my salary that the top concern will be about time to do this work properly.

When I think about all the things on our plates, it is so easy to see how the demands of the new evaluation system will be taxing on our time. It can easily be seen as "one more thing." When I teach about study skills and strategies to the ninth graders in my freshman intervention program, I talk about the big ideas when it comes to time:

  • Be specific about what you want to accomplish; don't be vague by just listing what to "work on."
  • Prioritize by impact and value; avoid "productive procrastination" as a form of task avoidance.
  • Realize that how you use your time is always a choice.

I think these three ideas are worthy to remember as we face the time demands of the new evaluation system. 

First, "implement TPEP" as an action item is cripplingly vague. It is as unhelpful as when I see my students write "study for science" in their study plan. What does that action item mean when those action verbs are so vague? When the action that needs to be taken is unclear, it is easy to avoid.

Avoidance of a task makes the task loom larger and more ominous; the task grows into a psychic weight upon us. We can talk abstractly about how much time we expect this to take, but all this talk about time is not action. Paula Quinn (AWSP) shared at the Ed Pathways meeting a likely breakdown of the demands on administrator time, based on feedback from pilot districts. The number of hours it will take to do it right were beyond intimidating. In fact, as I sat there watching, I thought, "Oh, no, she's going to use this as evidence to scrap the whole deal." I'm certain that these numbers would have teachers and administrators all over the state jump to exactly that. But she didn't. She reiterated in no uncertain terms: yes, we now have a picture of the time demands of this work, but it is the right work, and doing the right work--the hard work--will always demand time. When we look at the prospect of 80 to 100 hours added to an evaluator's workload over the course of a year, it is easy to remain intimidated by the task. The work is the right work and is worth doing, so it is critical that the work not be ominous and vague, and that a few of those hours are taken to clearly define the exact action to be taken.

When time as a finite resource is the critical resource for success, we have to prioritize based on impact and value. Each of us, and each of our systems, is probably guilty of what I call "productive procrastination" as a means of task avoidance. When I have 150 papers to grade, it is truly astounding how much laundry I can do and how clean I can make our house. When we have a tremendous and intimidating task to undertake, it is amazing how much work we can do around the work that needs to be done--without ever actually undertaking the real work. When we have a new, big task, it is not just task avoidance to point at the rest of our to do list and challenge "so how do expect the rest of this to get done, huh?" That's fear. The fact is, if the work is important enough, we can make a way to reorganize that list. Maybe it means getting good at delegating. Maybe it means giving up something that you might like but which may not be necessary or which may not fit into the new model of public education, or which can just as reasonably be done by someone else. 

This obviously relates to my third idea, that how we use our time is always a choice. Choices inherently cause us stress. Choices mean the closing of one door in favor of the opening of another, and as such carry with them the kernel of worry that the wrong door was closed.

Unfortunately, time is a significant factor in the success of a school system. As all the other variables are redefined, shifted, multiplied or divided, time remains finite, constant, and critical. Time is what is necessary for a successful shift to this evaluation system. Time is what is necessary for any reform to stand on stable legs. 

When we think about all the things within our control in our profession, time may seem like it is not one of them. But it is, even with its finite nature.

However, as important as our wise use of time is one more factor: our patience. 

When something takes time, what we see while work is in progress can sometimes be unsettling. It's like when my wife asks me to clean the garage but gets worried when she sees the piles I create during the process--and asks me whether I plan to leave the piles there when that is where the car goes. (I've learned to not let that be the start of an argument.)

When my students sit down to revise their writing, I see impatience. The work is hard, they want it to be finished. These are the same kids that turn their essay in at the start of the period and ask whether I have them graded at the end of the period--even though we've been doing an activity together the whole time.

As important as the commitment to devote time to the right work is our patience to let the work happen--and trust that if the work-in-progress doesn't yet resemble what we expect of the finished work, that's okay. Because we're doing the right work.


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It's interesting how an increasing unwillingness to work for free is happening alongside a growing right to work movement.

If union membership becomes voluntary, those same teachers who don't want to work for free will probably opt out of union dues.

They'll be so surprised with their TRI pay disappears.

I hear the "work for free" resistance as well, and I too think it is a symptom of a confluence of factors: the societal blame too often levied on teachers/schools, the stagnant wages or voter-approved pay that doesn't materialize, the real or perceived increased obligations and expectations of standards and testing and new policy... I can see why there's the resistance. I've been a resister myself in many situations.

This may not be a popular position, but the unwillingness to "work for free," as well intended as it is (to avoid further exploitation), might work against our efforts to be seen as professionals. Should we be martyrs? Absolutely not!! I've ranted about that again and again. However, as professionals, when we are asked to do something "new," we need to be wise enough to recognize that our profession is more than a to-do list of exclusive and disconnected tasks that any unskilled body could handle. When the unwillingness to "work for free" comes up, sometimes it is an oversimplification--it assumes that we are only being asked to do more. In reality, I think we are being asked to do differently--to replace some old behaviors or practices with new and improved ones--not to do the old and the new together simultaneously. Unwillingness to "work for free" I think is actually rooted in a fundamental fear of change. Being skeptical about change is important, but we also need to recognize that change means changing what we do, not necessarily adding to what we do. Of course, there will be some initial needs (time, resources, training, etc.), but we can manage that. Time can and is our enemy even when our list of obligations never changes. I think it is important to notice and accept when change can mean a more efficient and effective use of our time...I'm optimistic, and that's unusual for me.

I had a conversation with the other two fourth grade teachers in my building this past week. We talked about this very issue. We know what we want to work on, we know what we want to focus on, but we don't have the time to do it.

Something else: In the twenty-eight years that I've taught, I've never seen teachers so unwilling to "work for free." In the past, teachers willingly worked well past their required hours; now, not so much. I don't know if it's stress, burn-out or being fed up with the current climate, but it's something.

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