In Education the Little Things Can Mean a Lot
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
When I was a high school football coach one painful lesson I learned was that the smallest details could become critically important. Often a simple, easily correctable oversight would ruin my carefully constructed strategies. My most vivid example involves a plan that I created for my star wide receiver, which if implemented correctly, would result in a long pass completion and a win for my team in a critical district game. Unfortunately I placed far too much emphasis on the ultimate result and not nearly enough on the basic fundamentals – the little things. After three consecutive penalties against my star receiver lining up incorrectly, the play had to be scrapped and ultimately the game was lost by less than a touchdown. Sadly, throughout my teaching career I encountered many similar “little things” that subtly undermined the effectiveness of the overall educational system. In an economic climate where money for schools is in extremely short supply, making cost-free adjustments to remove these negatives should be given a high priority.
A Prime Example
This year the first semester of my former school system is appropriately scheduled to end on January 28, which marks the ninetieth day in the 180-day school year. But logic appears to unravel when the year was further subdivided into quarters. In the school year 2009-2010 the system’s first “fourth” consists of 38 days while the second contains 52 days. The difference between the two “quarters”, 14 days, represents almost three weeks of classroom time. Factoring in the numerous schedule changes, late arrivals and general confusion of the first few days of any school year, the disparity becomes even greater. In terms of actual instructional days the second quarter in this calendar is approximately 50% longer than the first.
Size Does Matter
So why does this situation trouble me as a professional educator? Is not a ninety day semester equal to a ninety day semester regardless of how it is divided? Not necessarily. Forty years of experience have convinced me that the results of the first grading period are the most critical for many adolescents. This initial evaluation can set their expectations for the entire year. A poor grade at the beginning of the year can discourage some young students for the rest of the course, while a superior grade can instill confidence that will positively impact their overall performance. I am not, of course, saying that shorter grading periods cause poorer grades. What I am arguing is that basing the first, possibly critical, grade for a course on work done in a significantly diminished time frame is extremely unwise and unnecessary. And more importantly like so many “little things” this situation is easily avoidable. Why, you may be wondering, is the division of the semester so unequal in the first place? The explanation for this glitch is based on the solar system and the U.S. Constitution, i.e. in 2009 Labor Day is late and Election Day is early. The argument for closing the schools on Election Day makes sense—the buildings are needed to provide space for the public to vote. In addition to Election Day, teachers are given a “workday” on Monday because of the fear that a Tuesday student holiday would result in significant absenteeism on the previous day. I will not debate the merits of these decisions but rather question why they must also be used to mark the end of the grading period. The original premise for having workdays prior to issuing grades was to allow teachers to grade papers, record the results and manually average all of the information. With the advent of computer grading programs much of those reasons are obsolete. For the benefit of the students there are few teachers who would disagree with the idea of extending the quarter to the Friday of the next week. That would give the first grading period 48 days which, allowing for three days of relative instructional inactivity at the beginning of the year, would equate to 45 instructional days which is exactly one-fourth of the year. The two workdays could be used to grade and record all work until that point. And the ultimate cost to make the system better? Zero.
A Bunch of Little Can Become a Lot
So where else can changes be made to improve the educational environment? In a world of multi-million dollar bond issues, costly technology initiatives, and high-cost guest speakers, what other no-cost “little things” can be done to improve student performance? Here are a few:
Make the increasingly complex job of teaching easier.
Try as much as possible to limit teaching preps to no more than two. A third preparation translates into hours of extra time spent on a single class at the expense of the other four classes.
Schools should also try to minimize the number of teachers who have to change rooms throughout the day. In the brief time between classes stationary teachers are organizing worksheets, loading power points, answering students’ questions and removing materials utilized by the previous students. These tasks are even more difficult if the two classes are different courses. But it is nearly impossible if one is moving through a hallway with a cart headed to a different classroom through hundreds of students. While in many buildings space is limited, there are creative, cost-free ways to keep staff members in place. If a school is on block scheduling, teachers can share two rooms but remain in one on one day and the other on the next. When this arrangement is not possible, place off periods or lunch between location changes so it can be done in a more orderly manner.
Maximize teacher prep time during the in-service week before the opening of school. I once did a survey of my school’s faculty asking how much time they spent working on classroom preparation immediately prior to the school year. More than 50% had to come in for at least the two Saturdays before opening day in addition to spending hours after contract time during the week just to be ready for the first day of school. Lessen the number of hours of staff development and faculty meetings and use that extra time for individual teacher planning. Think of this trade-off in these terms. Just how attentive do you think teachers can be when they are preoccupied with critical tasks that will impact the success of their first week of school? Staff development opportunities can be postponed until later in the year when there is less pressure.
Reduce classroom surprises. Nothing disrupts the learning process more than interruptions. A college professor once told me, “I don’t know how you high school teachers ever get anything done between fire drills, class meetings, moments of silence, announcements, etc.” And no interruption is as bad as the ones that come as a surprise. There is nothing inherently wrong with students going on field trips but strict guidelines should be in place to ensure that they have the least amount of negative impact as possible. Notice of impending trips should be given well in advance as well as a comprehensive, accurate list of the students involved. Teachers can plan more effectively if they know whether two or twenty-two students will be missing in a particular class period. All such trips should be carefully vetted as to their relative value to the course curriculum. Likewise all other changes in the day such as pep rallies, class meetings, and special events should be announced far enough in advance to allow teachers to adjust their lesson plans.
Hold meetings when they are necessary, not simply because they are scheduled. Just because the original calendar says there will be a class meeting or faculty meeting each quarter should not mandate that meeting occur if there is nothing to discuss.
Maintain parity when disrupting classes. When planning a pep rally, fire drill and class meeting within a two-week period do not schedule them to impact the same class.
Have the students cheer in the afternoon, evacuate in the morning and meet somewhere in between. Teachers can deal with losing a small portion of a class but not multiple times especially when it can be avoided. When making a special bell schedule for an assembly, carnival or PSAT test, do not simply replace an entire class; restructure the entire day with each period shortened by fifteen to twenty minutes. It is easier to maintain instruction if all classes meet less time rather than one class be shortened by a significant amount. Teachers can easily overcome the loss of a few minutes by talking faster, slower or removing a portion of the material; they cannot compensate for a class that never met.
This list is obviously incomplete. I am confident there are many other adjustments available and I would be very interested in hearing about them from other educators. But regardless of the specific items under consideration, fixing the “little things” will improve the educational system. Of course, they will only correct a very small portion but with a price tag of zero the cost-to-value ratio is immense and the resulting improvement in morale is immeasurable.