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An Educator's Lament: Why Isn't Teaching Enough?

John Scopelleti: "[In Massachusetts,] the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the administrators who must bow to them are choking teachers with paperwork." (audiolucistore/Flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
John Scopelleti: "[In Massachusetts,] the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the administrators who must bow to them are choking teachers with paperwork." (audiolucistore/Flickr)

I have just begun my 10th year as a public school teacher. A few years ago, I was named a Massachusetts Teacher of the Year finalist. I used to love my job wholeheartedly, but I'm not sure that's true anymore. The reason for that is very simple: Education is no longer about teaching.

The new paradigm in education is a simple one: paper over people. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the administrators who must bow to them are choking teachers with paperwork. Teachers are required to earn a master's degree. That's good: Teachers should be masters in their subject area. All teachers are required to renew their teaching licenses every five years through coursework and other professional development. That's also good: We should always be improving our skills and knowledge.

I used to love my job wholeheartedly, but I'm not sure that's true anymore. The reason for that is very simple: Education is no longer about teaching.

But in the past few years, there's been a push for more and more paperwork. DESE wants "a culture of inquiry to promote systemic data use," in which our children become little more than data points on scatter plots. In the 2010-2011 school year, for example, DESE introduced Student Growth Percentiles, which measure how student scores change from one year to the next compared to other students with similar scores. In other words, it's not enough to get our students to pass or excel on state-mandated tests; now, we need to compare their scores with their "academic peers." Education is becoming a statistician's field, not a teacher's.

Despite all of the requirements we need to maintain our licenses, teachers are now bad until proven good. DESE's new teacher evaluation system measures teacher performance along 33 criteria. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but teachers need to provide evidence that they are satisfactorily meeting each of these criteria. Some might be done by administrator observation, but most need an extensive paper trail, especially if a teacher wants to be considered "Proficient" or "Exemplary" instead of "Unsatisfactory" or "Needs Improvement." Education is becoming an archivist's field, not a teacher's.

None of this is fundamentally bad. Other types of professionals submit to job performance evaluations, too. There's no reason teachers should be exempt from demonstrating their qualifications and skills. But consider what teachers already do: plan lessons; make photocopies; check homework; create assignments; maintain online gradebooks; read and write Special Education reports; update bulletin boards; attend staff meetings, department meetings, evaluation meetings and Special Education meetings; respond to phone calls and emails from parents, colleagues and administrators; read books to prepare for class; prepare technology for ourselves and our students; take attendance; bring absent students up to speed; and somehow deal with chronically absent or tardy students. Education is becoming — it has become! — an executive secretary's field, not a teacher's.

Many occupations require their employees to do more with less nowadays, but what all of these other responsibilities mean for teachers is that we have less time to focus on teaching. I have 246 minutes each day with my students, and I wish I could say that they had my undivided attention during that time. They do not. All of the non-teaching responsibilities in education have an attritive effect. I only teach during my class time — I'm not kicking back with my iPad — but with so much of my brain occupied with an ever-growing to-do list, I cannot always be truly present and focused on my students and their instruction. I'm always thinking of something else that I have to do. I have to.

Shouldn’t the majority of a teacher’s attention be focused on teaching students? Isn’t that more important than paperwork?

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just not as good at multitasking as I think I am. But I know a lot of teachers in a lot of schools, and they are all feeling crunched, encumbered and — always, always, always! — expected to do more every year. I know good teachers who are retiring early or switching careers. I also know many who want to switch careers but can't.

I love teaching. There is something incredibly powerful about taking children from one place and moving them to another, be it academically, intellectually or emotionally. And Massachusetts teachers are some of the best in the country – arguably, the world. We have been for years, well before DESE's push for data-crunching and evidence-archiving.

I understand that there is more to education than just simply teaching. But at what point do we have to ask ourselves — as educators, parents, politicians and taxpayers — when enough is enough? Shouldn't the majority of a teacher's attention be focused on teaching students? Isn't that more important than paperwork?

In my classroom, I expect my students to give me their undivided attention. I just wish that I could give them the same.


Related:

John Scopelleti Cognoscenti contributor
John Scopelleti is a teacher, father, husband, writer and runner. He is the author of a recently-completed memoir about masculinity.

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