Education and the chocolate factory: Teachers need time for teaching, support for learning

By Deborah Gatrell

Pressure on public school teachers resembles the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel are working in a chocolate factory. At first, the belt bringing chocolates through for them to individually wrap — a simple task — moves at a leisurely pace and they have a lovely time working and socializing. The belt speeds up and they work frantically, keeping up for a while. The belt then speeds up further and it’s all they can do to make the chocolates disappear — eating some, stuffing others in their pockets, and wrapping a few. The situation is chaotic.

Were Lucy and Ethel lazy or unprepared? Were they untrained? Did they need additional tools that were not available? Were they asked to do more than was humanly possible, or did they just need more time? It’s a useful analogy to consider in education conversations because these same questions are tossed around about teachers and the failure of the education system to close achievement gaps for all students.

Children need caring adults in their lives. Most American youngsters spend about half of their waking hours in schools. According to respected education researcher John Hattie, a top predictor of student achievement in school is highly-effective teachers. Turnover is significantly higher in education than in other professions, which suggests expectations exceed the capacity of teachers to keep up with the demands placed on them. The importance of pay cannot be overlooked, but it is not the only critical factor. Teachers are clear in stating their need for time and support — two things that would dramatically improve working conditions.

Time for Teaching

Teachers need time to meet their students’ needs. At present, in most school environments, preparation time is minimal or non-existent. Asking individual teachers to differentiate lessons for the needs of 30+ students is difficult under ideal conditions. Without help, it is nearly impossible, when reading abilities vary up to 12 years and multiple students require other special accommodations.

Teachers must have time to prepare, collaborate, reflect and give effective feedback to students if we want improvement on our middling academic results. Teacher time can be increased two ways: smaller classes at all levels or more pull-outs (elementary) and fewer sections (secondary). Paraeducators also play an important role.

Support for Learning

Improving support requires investment in mentoring, professional development and technology. New teachers need effective mentoring but in the Utah education system, this is usually “accomplished” after-hours. Quality mentoring happens when master teachers are in classrooms working with new teachers, especially new teachers working under emergency (Alternate Route) credentials. These teachers have the highest attrition rates. Mentors usually teach full course loads and have little time to support other teachers. We must change the system to ensure effective mentoring by master teachers during school hours.

Let’s not forget the needs of career teachers: All teachers need tailored high-quality training to support their growth and improve student learning. Schools rarely have funding for outside opportunities. Internal training is often one-size fits all. Few schools have instructional coaches to work directly with teachers. Administrators are so busy completing accountability tasks that they have little time to visit classrooms or provide ongoing support. We must change the system to ensure tailored, effective professional development is available to all teachers and that they have time to participate in this training.

Technology is a useful tool, but training is critical when new tools are put in classrooms, and effective follow-up and technical support are also essential. We miss opportunities when we throw technology at teachers and expect them to figure it out. If teachers are to effectively use evolving technology, training must improve, include long-term support, and be matched by corresponding infrastructure improvements such as bandwidth increases.

Lucy and Ethel found themselves in over their heads at the chocolate factory and high teacher attrition in Utah education indicates this is the case for many professional educators, too. Machines can competently wrap chocolates, but they can never replace the power of an effective teacher.

To retain and develop more excellent teachers, and in doing so increase student learning, we must invest time and money in education with targeted support for teachers. It’s a win-win solution that would demonstrate respect for the profession and a commitment to our children and the future of our communities.

Gatrell is a Utah Teacher Fellow, a partnership between Hope Street Group and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She teaches high school social studies and geography in Salt Lake County’s Granite School District. Follow her on Twitter at @DeborahGatrell1.