After taking a hiatus from teaching public school following retirement, I orbited the educational sphere for seven years, first working with the Golden Apple Foundation as an evaluator helping choose the top teachers in New Mexico, and then for the College of Education at New Mexico State University teaching math methods to seniors and graduate students. However, I discovered that I missed the classroom and jumped at an opportunity to return to teaching. When the associate superintendent called and asked if I would work part-time, I gladly accepted and taught geometry to eighth graders for two years. I currently teach physics to high school students for one period a day. I must say that I was not prepared for the sultry, oppressive, and crushing atmosphere that has attached itself, leech-like, to my profession. It is like walking out of a climate-controlled building and being slammed by 95 degree air laced with 85% humidity. It takes a moment for you to catch your breath and suffocates you like a dry-cleaning bag over your head.
Sometime during the past decade or so, the educational establishment has reasoned to the startling conclusion that meetings create better teachers. As a result, the number of meetings at schools has grown like a weed fertilized by Miracle-Grow. There are the ubiquitous faculty meetings, but there have always been those. Unfortunately, the list of administrative-caused interruptions does not stop there. One can also enjoy PLC (Professional Learning Community) meetings at least every other week. This takes the place of teachers conversing with each other in an unstructured but collegial capacity. There are “goals” meetings, usually in the morning and directed toward establishing, well, lots and lots of “goals.” These goals will look impressive on printed reports to higher-ups who review the lists of goals in, what else, more meetings. There are department meetings, usually at lunch, in which groups of teachers teaching similar subjects rehash what was covered in faculty, PLC, and goals meetings. If you happen to be a department head, there are department head meetings before school in which you hear reports from administrators about the meetings they attended at central office. There are meetings to explain, or try to explain, the latest conflicting mandates from the state department. There are meetings to explain and re-explain the exacting testing procedures for the multitudinous and unending standardized exams (multiple Discovery Tests, SBA Tests, and the EOC end-of-course state exams, etc.). Then there are personal meetings for IEPs (individualized educational plan) for special ed and gifted students. Of course, there are parent conferences for students having difficulty in class or called by a “helicopter mom.” We must not forget the pre and post conferences for one’s state-mandated teacher evaluation procedure. At least once a month and sometimes more, there are advisory meetings during the school day for an additional set of students not assigned to your regular classes in which you shovel wheelbarrows of career and testing materials and gamely try to explain shifting state rules for graduation. And, best yet, there are crucial meetings to plan the next avalanche of meetings.
So what’s the problem? Meetings—schmeetings! Some will say teachers should just suck it up and do what the higher-echelon administrators tell them to do. It’s their job, right?
Well, yes, it is their job, but there are two other small problems. One glaring omission from the litany of meeting agendas is that virtually no time is spent on improving actual teaching. None of the afore-mentioned structure of meetings deals with teacher interaction with children. It is all about data acquisition, data analysis, inferences drawn from the data, and strict adherence to rules promulgated by persons who do not interact directly with children. The second problem is that there is only a finite amount of time in the school day. Time swallowed by meetings means less time for grading, planning, setting-up projects, and collecting one’s thoughts. In short, there is considerably less time to prepare to teach children. Keep in mind that, at the secondary level, teacher planning time has been halved and that elementary teachers have no planning time at all. The minutes before school, during lunch, and after school are precious to teachers, and meetings consume time like ravenous pack animals snacking on a corpse.
Much of this constantly metastasizing “culture of meetings” can be traced to two sources. One is the aftermath of the train wreck of legislation known as No Child Left Behind. As more and more schools could not meet the constantly upgraded goals of every child in America being proficient in reading and math by 2014, schools were mandated, by law, to be assigned outside agencies to “assist” them to meet the unreachable standards. Since the outside agencies could not change family structure, student poverty, the quality of teachers entering the profession from college, or even the thousands of teachers leaving the profession out of disillusionment, they instead concentrated on something that could be quantified and regulated and, yes, SCHEDULED. And that “something” was the dreaded meeting. Lots of them. As districts contracted with outside agencies, which tragically diverted money from the classroom, series of meetings were scheduled to explain their “solutions.” As proposed solutions were presented and morphed into new approaches, the meetings gradually became entrenched into the school day. This infrastructure for delivery of in-service became a permanent part of the budget and school schedules.
Secondly, many of the higher echelon officials who make the final decisions as to how schools run derive much of their livelihood from attending meetings. The phalanx of administrators at the national, state, and even district levels often fill their busy days with endless meetings. That is what they know and that is what they do best. After all, in the big business of public education, the CEOs usually map-out their next five-year plan in climate-controlled gatherings in board rooms. (I could substitute the homophone “bored” for “board”, but I won’t.)
What is worse, for an alarming percentage of the time, many of these contrived usages of precious time in meetings do not even serve a useful purpose to teachers. They are too often meetings for a meeting’s sake.
That is a damning statement. Just where is the research that shows that? Well, my answer is rather simplistic, but, I think, accurate. It comes from me being a practicing teacher, experiencing the butt-numbing endless sets of meetings, and living with a teacher (my spouse) who, despite those meetings, continues to teach as effectively as she is allowed to, given the incredible drain on her energy, time, and patience. My conclusion is experience-borne, not research-based. Of course, that process is not currently in vogue. After all, data is everything.
Every generation of teachers can point to several defining moments in a career. One would hope some of those moments would involve making a difference in a kid’s life. One would hope it was figuring out a way to connect with students in the classroom. After all, for real teachers, teaching is all about the classroom. However, for those who believe a “culture of meetings” and analysis of data make the difference, one more meeting can’t hurt and just may make American education paramount among the nations of the world. Not.