By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
For me it was always the worst week of the school year.
For the first 34 years of my career, I dreaded the August in-service. During each and every one of them I considered quitting the profession. This angst was the result of the knowledge that somewhere in the vicinity of 150 students would be appearing in my classroom in a few short days and I was not ready for that influx. The tedium of the time spent not preparing for that invasion wore me down mentally. Even in retirement those memories were vivid. I warned my daughter-in-law prior to her first in-service that she would have thoughts of vocational suicide during that week. Sadly she found my prophecy accurate.
A brief history
My displeasure was not the result of a lack of effort on the part of those planning the August teacher training. They were sincerely trying to accomplish important educational goals. Actually, that is not completely accurate. In my first three years the sessions (at the time three days in duration) consisted of the assistant principals reading the teacher handbook aloud from the first page to the last as the faculty assembled in the school library.
Over the years the time devoted to in-service expanded to five days and the administrative staff abandoned the group reading of the handbook and began implementing significantly more interesting activities. But lost in all of the teaching strategies, attendance policies and bell schedule tweaks, was the primary concern of the teaching staff—time to prepare for their classes. In year thirty-five, however, something wonderful happened.
At the March department chair meeting, teacher concerns about the in-service week were placed on the agenda. The principal, Mel Riddile, agreed that it was a topic worthy of further discussion. The next step was a survey of the faculty designed to see how much planning time was actually needed to prepare for the start of school. The resulting data revealed that during the previous August a majority of the staff had felt it was necessary to come to school the week prior to the nominal reporting date in order to properly prepare for the first week of instruction. Even more revealing was the fact that nearly 75% had entered the building during the weekend prior to the opening day in order to finish their work. These numbers demonstrated that there was a lack of adequate planning time during the in-service week. When a group of teachers offered to help restructure the week, Dr. Riddile agreed to let them try.
A difficult task for everyone
Allowing so much teacher input into a process that had previously been virtually the exclusive domain of the administrators represented a tremendous concession. While they retained final approval over the week’s events, all of the planning was initiated within the teaching staff.
The parameters for the week were set by the administrative team. The district required a certain number of hours of what it deemed to be “staff development” activities. There were additional school-based events that were considered to be mandatory. With these items in place the group began to work. The primary goal was to craft a schedule that would provide more actual teaching planning time. At first glance it would appear that if the specific activities of the week were unchanged, there was little that a committee could do. But time management within a school can be viewed very differently from the administrative and teaching wings.
One of the problems with the former schedule was that the various mandatory activities were sporadically stretched throughout the entire week. In the original planners defense this approach was implemented because of a sincere belief that this was the best way to provide free time to the teachers. A typical timetable would have a large group meeting on Monday, cookout on Tuesday, faculty picture Wednesday, staff development on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, various smaller meetings tucked in between, ninth-grade orientation on Thursday and a pot-luck lunch on Friday.
The view from the classroom was very different. A staff photo at 10:30 on Wednesday morning translated into halting whatever was being done in preparation for the opening of the year and marching down to the gymnasium. The next hour would be spent arranging and rearranging 150 individuals on the bleachers. When the final click of the camera was heard it was time for lunch.
More than rearranging the furniture
The committee’s task was to find a way to organize the events to maximize teacher planning. The decision was to front load the administrative activities. Since for many of the staff members Monday was the first opportunity to reconnect with colleagues after a long summer, it was decided to make that day one of non-stop non-classroom work. The morning was the faculty meeting followed by the staff photo. The cookout was at noon and department and administrative meetings completed the afternoon. The a.m. portions of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were reserved for staff development and ninth-grade orientation. These modifications meant that on each of those three days beginning at 11 a.m. the teachers knew that they would have significant uninterrupted planning time. Most gladly ate lunch in the building and stayed an hour or so beyond contract hours in order to utilize five hours of individual time on three consecutive days. The potluck was traded for a full Friday to complete preparation for the next Monday influx of students.
A survey after the in-service week indicated that the faculty overwhelmingly approved of the new approach. While many still had to come in on their own time to complete their preparations the vast majority believed that individual planning time had been increased. In addition, the process gave the faculty a sense of empowerment which not only improved morale during the week but also created a more positive level of participation in the administrative activities. Several assistant principals told me that they could sense an increasingly upbeat attitude as the week progressed. As a result this method of planning was continued and refined for the next several years.