Not Every Lesson is a Lexus

It’s the holiday season, which means you’ve no doubt been reminded about Lexus’s “December to Remember” sales event. The commercials have become as much of a holiday tradition as decorating trees, lighting menorahs, and racking up consumer debt.

I am sure it’s nice to own a Lexus. They seem like very fine automobiles. You can get one with steering assist, intelligent high-beam headlamps, a center-console app suite that allows you to check Facebook or local fuel prices, parking assist systems, ambient interior lighting, and genuine wood accents, among many other options.

Sounds nice.

But nobody really needs a Lexus.

I have a car. It is not a Lexus. It’s old, paid for, and gets decent gas mileage. Most importantly, it reliably gets me where I need to go. Sure, the other stuff would be nice, but if the car doesn’t run, none of those options are going to matter.

It reminds me of lesson planning. Teachers sometimes get the message that every lesson has to be a Lexus. Teacher preparation programs are guilty. So are professional books on the topic. If you search online for lesson plan templates, you’ll get things like this (obviously created by someone who either never taught or who dropped dead from exhaustion):

Lots of features. But none of them matter if kids don’t learn what they’re supposed to learn.

Not every lesson has to be a Lexus. Most of the time, a reliable old beast is just fine. Here’s an example:

For the past couple of years, I’ve taught force and motion. One of the standards is for students to be able to understand the concept of balanced and unbalanced forces.

I thought tug-of-war would be perfect. So the first year I taught it, I planned out everything. I thought of the contests students would have and tried to push them into thinking of the same ones (shoes vs. socks, boys vs. girls, left hand vs. right hand, etc.). I decided on the teams ahead of time. I booked the gym and secured the rope. I typed up a list of expectations for behavior and we went over them before going to the gym. I noted what vocabulary I wanted to use with students. I created a worksheet for students to record the results, write down observations and explanations, and note any questions they still had.  I created a rubric so I could grade them on their understanding of the concept. That lesson was a Lexus, baby!

And it went fine. But man, I spent a lot of time creating it. Which, if you’ve ever read this blog before, you know how I feel about that.

Teachers sometimes forget there are trade-offs to every decision. Sure, you can spend an hour designing and preparing for a single lesson. But is that the best use of your time? Are there ways you can cut your prep time so you have more time for other things, including your personal life? Will spending an extra 30 minutes designing a lesson actually lead to more learning? How much more? Is that much worth it?

Does every lesson need to be a Lexus?

We still do the tug-of-war lesson, but these days it takes about ten minutes of planning. The lesson is more like my actual car now. Not as impressive to outsiders but it gets the job done. After all, students just needed to understand the concept of balanced and unbalanced forces. Not exactly rocket science.

Instead of thinking of the experiments and trying to guide students to them, I just let the kids think of them to start with. This past year, they came up with one-arm vs two-arms and facing forward vs. facing backward, two ideas I wouldn’t have thought of.

Instead of creating a worksheet, they just take a notebook to the gym and write down the answers to my prompts and questions after each experiment.

Instead of a list of expectations, I basically have one: Stop on the whistle and then follow directions. If you can’t do that, I won’t pick you to participate in the rope tugging.

Instead of choosing teams ahead of time, I just pick them right there in the gym.

The fancy options aren’t important. The learning is what matters. And asking students to do more while I do less is a good way to increase learning while saving my own time and energy for other things.

Lexus’s slogan is “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.” Sounds good. But it’s exhausting. Your lessons can always be better. You can always do more. There are always more features you can add. But sometimes, you just need the thing to get you where you’re going.

New Teachers Are Getting Screwed

The most recent data show that 10% of new teachers quit rather than return for a second year of teaching. Over their first five years, 17% of new teachers leave. It’s a miracle that number is so low. It’s a testament to young teachers’ idealism, optimism, and dedication. America is extremely fortunate that most of them stick it out. It’s often said that teachers don’t go into education for the money. That teaching is about the outcome, not the income. It’s a damn good thing. Because our new teachers are getting screwed.

I started teaching in the fall of 2000. I couldn’t locate any pay stubs from that year, but I did find my 2001 W-2, which was the first fiscal year that I earned a full salary. As you can see, my gross pay was $30,358.

Below you will find the current salary schedule for the district where I started my career. This year, a first-year teacher is earning $32,981.

That’s an eight percent increase over 18 years.

Eight percent.

In 18 years.

Let’s put that in context.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation rose at a rate of 2.09% per year from 2000 to 2017. Prices this year are 42.2% higher than they were in 2000.  If new teacher pay in my old district had kept up with inflation, a first-year teacher would, in 2017, be making $43,108. They’d have 10,000 extra dollars in their pockets. But to make that much, a teacher in that district would need a master’s degree and five years of experience.

While new teacher pay has gone up a paltry eight percent,

Milk has risen 30% in the same span.

College costs are 148% more now than in 2000, which means that our new teachers are having to pay off college loans that are much larger than those teachers who started 18 years ago, but they have just 8% more dollars to do so.

Admission to sporting events is 87% higher.

Airfare is 16% more.

And if reading this makes you want to drown your sorrows, alcohol will cost you 40% more today than it did in 2000.

When young teachers say they have to work a second job, they’re not exaggerating or being dramatic. They aren’t looking for pity. They’re telling the truth. New teachers have been given a raw deal.

But It’s Worse Than That

If we can’t or won’t pay new teachers a reasonable income, we could at least make their sacrifice worth it. We could tell them, “Look, we know this sucks right now, but it’s going to get a lot better. If you stick it out for three years, you’ll see a significant bump in pay.” But if my former district is at all representative of other districts — and I have no reason to think it isn’t — then that’s not the case. After three years in that district, a teacher who has not earned a master’s degree will earn just $36,496.

We could offer them more security. We could tell them, “Hey, prove you can do the job for five years, and after that, we’ll mostly leave you alone. We’ll check in every once in a while to make sure you haven’t thrown in the towel, but if you have enough dedication to struggle through five extremely challenging and poorly compensated years, we’re going to trust that your heart is in the right place and that you know what you’re doing. No formal evaluation, no stupid effectiveness ratings. More trust and autonomy. That’s the prize at the end of the tunnel.”

But we don’t do that, either.

Instead, we subject new teachers to unfair evaluations that only exist because of the presumption of suckiness that pervades all of education. Never mind that these evaluations are based on cruddy data and subjective observations with no evidence of validity. Even if we had wonderful tools with which to measure teachers, we’d still be screwing our newest ones. Almost no teacher is adequately prepared to step into the classroom. You learn how to do this job on the job. But teacher evaluation systems don’t recognize this. They expect new teachers to be just as effective as ten-year veterans. They’re judged on the exact same criteria with the exact same scales. And if they’re not as good as someone who’s had ten or twenty years to hone their craft, well, too bad, so sad, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

And Then We Make It Worse

The job is extremely hard, and it’s harder for new teachers. Nearly everything is foreign. In addition to the challenges of leading their own classroom, they’re deluged with district policies, laws they never studied in college but with which they must comply, new technology they’re expected to use with little or no training, a curriculum they’ve never seen, abstruse health insurance plans, and the unwritten norms that are part of every organization.

On top of that, new teachers often feel or are made to feel like they have to prove themselves. In spite of the fact that they knowingly took an extremely demanding job for little pay, some administrators have the audacity to question their commitment. New teachers are encouraged to start before or after school clubs, to join committees, and to attend extra-curricular events, in order to demonstrate their dedication to a job that fewer and fewer college graduates even want.

We ought to be taking every step possible to keep these teachers in the classroom. Instead, we’re doing very little to prevent them from bolting. We take bright, enthusiastic young people who chose a career that pays them peanuts compared to what their college roommates will earn and we frustrate them, exhaust them, and exploit them.

If we don’t want to inject the public school system with more money so new teachers can earn a respectable salary that, at a minimum, keeps up with inflation, we can at least show some gratitude to the people who go into teaching and stick around long enough to make an impact, and eventually, a living. If you work with a young teacher, thank them for hanging in there.

And maybe buy them a drink. Lord knows they can’t afford to buy their own.

Other articles:

What’s Wrong With “Doing What’s Best for Kids”

Every Student An Athlete (ESAA)

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation