Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Teachers, social work and workload

Teachers are often derided for their (allegedly) short working days and long vacations. These accusations have been repeatedly refuted. For example, a 2013 study found teachers in Alberta spent on average 41.3 hour per week working in school and an additional 13.9 hours per week working at home (that is, on average, 55.2 hours per week). Suddenly, two months of summer vacation seems a lot more reasonable.

This past weekend, the Guardian ran a piece about the working conditions of teachers. This teacher (in the UK) discussed the social issues she must cope with in her classroom (e.g., children under significant emotional strain, children who have been sexually abused) and how these affect her ability to meet national performance standards. In effect she spends much of her class room time on social work.

As I was pushing through the pre-holiday marking pile, I was thinking back to some of my own teachers and what they (unintentionally) taught me about teaching. Mr. Constable (who taught me English, Literature and History over the years) was a bit unconventional. For example, in grade-12 Literature, he returned a paper I submitted in grade-11 English. I recall my mother (herself a teacher) saying he must be a very patient marker… . But he also put up with a bad reading of Shakespeare (including me in drag as Lady MacBeth and a lot of fake blood) and history term papers that veered into speculative fiction.

Yet, when I face a paper that misses the mark or completely ignores the instructions, I often find myself thinking back to his very engaging style of teaching and lenient marking. “It’s often the first time through the material for the students,” he explained, “so you have to give them some latitude. The good ones refine their ideas that way.” I keep trying to remember that.

-- Bob Barnetson

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