I work harder than ever and yet the appearance is that I am hardly working much of the time. Student-centered and inquiry-based curriculum can be viewed skeptically as a way for teachers to do less work. I have heard the concerns. I would argue that when those approaches to learning are done well, teachers do more work. I am still the resident expert in my discipline in the room, but my expertise manifests itself differently than in a more traditional stand and deliver model. There have always been students who have known more about certain topics than I do; now I defer to them and learn from them. Technology has made more things possible, but it has never been the time saver I remember it being billed as. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
Yesterday I paid careful attention to what I was doing throughout the day. Before school I had two conversations with students about their projects, one discussing the thesis and the other talking about shifting from an essay to a presentation. The official school day began with a team meeting where all teachers of Modern World history discussed the curriculum and planned out the next phases of the course, balancing our desire to provide a common experience for the students in the different sections with the specific needs of each section. Then, my first class of the day was a US history class where students had their final in-class work day on a long-term project about US foreign policy. This is where my work might not be obvious to an observer. I checked in with the students to see how they were doing, but it was my knowledge of each student and how he or she works that helped me decide when and whether to interrupt their work for a conversation. The challenge of the job here is differentiation – providing the level of support needed for each student to succeed, but not overstepping to the point of inserting myself into the project. My second class of the day involved learning the historical context for Arab Spring in Egypt, and it began with students reading articles about Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarek. I had prepared for class by finding and selecting the articles, but reread them as the students read them as a refresher. I anticipated the key points I thought students should pick up on and prepared to add them to the student discussion if necessary. Once we began discussing, I acted as scribe taking notes with my LiveScribe pen to document the conversation and archive it for future student use. I wrote questions on the board that students still had about the rulers, and they chose questions to investigate for next class. My third class of the day involved students doing a short reading about the moderate phase of the French Revolution. Given the complexity of the events, I led the students in the creation of a chronology on the board and provided more background as needed to explain the events. After that I assigned students to social classes and asked them to tweet the events of the revolution from their assigned role. I let them get started and then checked in with each group pushing them to include substance and perspective in their tweets. In each of my three classes, I had to make a series of decisions balancing when to step in and provide guidance or explanation.
Preparation for class used to mean planning for a discrete lesson. I did the reading I assigned (usually from a textbook) plus some more background reading. I devised an activity. That was it. When I gave students feedback it was on work they submitted for a grade, more often than not a test or a quiz but sometimes an essay. Make no mistake. This was a lot of work to do on a daily basis. Yet, it was a workload that promised to diminish as my knowledge base and lesson plan collection grew.
Now, I find that preparation for an individual class is less important than my overall professional work. There are still classes that I plan individually. But, increasingly the time I spend learning is what translates into the curriculum. Whereas I used to read magazines and journals monthly or quarterly, each day I spend time browsing Zite and Twitter for relevant articles and blog posts about both teaching methods and content. I have a much richer set of resources, but it takes time to cull them. The effort I have invested to develop a presence on Twitter and a PLN have enabled me to set up Skyping sessions with authors and with other classes, including a class in Beirut for my Modern Middle East class. As I have let students choose to learn about topics of interest to them, I have spent more of my time learning about things I might not have chosen on my own. With the creation of electronic document sharing, drafting and revising are now the norm, not the exception. So, I am spending more time consulting with students on process. I used to write the homework on the board. Now, I have a syllabus on a Google Doc that allows me to keep a living syllabus – updating it daily with a class summary, class notes, and relevant links. Often these links include pictures of the board or pencasts of notes that I need to download then upload to the document. This provides an amazing record of the class, but what I call “workflow” now takes me about an hour each day.
None of this is to complain. I love my work. It is more meaningful than ever. I just wanted to clarify my thoughts about the changing work of a teacher. As I finish this, I realize that my PLN is mainly who reads my blog, and so this will likely reach the people who already know this. Still, it felt good to process and others may have insights in how we can help parents, administrators, even students understand what we actually do. I realize that I have only addressed the academic part of the job here. There is another whole extracurricular, co-curricular side as well.