Can Teachers Care Too Much?


“You care too much about the students,” a colleague was recently warned by his supervisor. The unspoken corollary was “. . . and not enough about school district priorities.” This jaw-dropping statement came at the tail end of a Friday, late afternoon meeting in which the teacher learned that his new assignment would split his time between two instructional sites. Plus, he would have to digitize his curriculum and instruction. He was given the weekend to decide whether to accept it.

This type of scenario isn’t usually happening because the teachers involved are poor instructors. Rather, I believe, there are several factors at play: 1) a desire to eliminate squeaky wheels, 2) pressure to cut costs, and 3) an exaggerated view of the role technology can play in instruction

In my twenty-five years of working in public education, I’ve seen instructors who raise questions about curriculum, instructional strategies, discipline, or top-down management refused tenure, moved to undesirable assignments, or assigned “minders.”
School leaders are motivated to mute critique because they are ultimately only accountable to their boards. So too the cadre of line administrators (assistant superintendents and directors for this and that), have an interest in explaining away bad news as they eye their next career move. Thus, board meetings are closely managed. Reports on successful programs within the district, be they ever so small, are reported at length in nicely-crafted multimedia shows. Students and parents supportive of the superintendent are handed pre-written testimony to read to the board. Time on the agenda for public testimony and questions is curtailed.

Meanwhile, because of declining enrollment and lagging state aid, many districts are cutting costs. As staffing is the most expensive budget item, an obvious strategy is to hire young, less expensive teachers to replace those with advanced degrees and many years in the district, such as the one told he “cared too much.” Not surprisingly, that teacher was one of a declining number willing to point out ineffective policies. Other instructors, more wary, make their critiques sub rosa, leading to the lowest morale many have seen in years in two large MN districts.

However, increasingly, another factor is also at play: the current fascination with computer-based instruction (CBI). Here’s how it works. Teachers are told they must create, or find and modify, instructional units within their discipline that fit into a certain instructional time frame (say three weeks), then use them in their classrooms. They are to develop the units on evenings and weekends. However, when given a trial run in the classroom, there are mixed results. Some work rather well if students are actually motivated to spend the class period on-line, but others tank.

Reasons CBI units tank: a poor match between assignments and student skill levels, poorly written or thought-out assignments, or the students’ inability to manage study time or focus effectively in order to learn on their own. Further, without an instructor’s guidance, student learning tends to halt at the recalling facts and comprehension levels. On their own, few students will arrive at the higher levels of thinking: analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

To compound the difficulties, educational assistants are sometimes assigned to supervise CBI classrooms. Thus, if problems or questions arise about the material, frequently they are unable to assist the students. (Here I elide the concern that EAs are not licensed teachers.)

Interestingly, as older teachers chose to retire rather than continue to battle on and as more EAs are hired, district-level administrative staff continue to multiply. They are often labeled as “consultants” or “teachers on special assignment.” Many come in with a “big idea” that will magically improve student achievement statistics. No wonder classroom teachers are confused and demoralized.

Maybe a combination of those big ideas will work to a certain extent for some students: be it universal pre-school education, CBI, or the Common Core curriculum. From my vantage point, however, two good first steps would be: 1) ensuring that district leaders are actually responsive to parent and teacher concerns, i.e., that they LISTEN and act on what they hear, and 2) looking critically at the rush toward digitized instruction.
One thing is sure: we need more educators whose first care is for students.
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Rosemary Ruffenach is a licensed language arts instructor, holds an M.A. in English from Northwestern University and an Ed.D. in educational administration from the University of Minnesota. She has worked for 25 years in public education and 5 years at the university level teaching leadership and public policy.