Empowering The Powerless in Education: We Want More

Teachers: We want more instructional time.

Students: We want more summer time.

This is the inner dialogue you would expect to hear in teachers’ and students’ heads, but for students in California this is not the case. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article, students from seven low-performing schools in California are fighting for more instructional time; nearly a month ago they filed a lawsuit against the state and education officials in an attempt to right the wrongs of lost learning time during their time in the school system. The Los Angeles Times also covered the story, contending that the lawsuit was filed due to “the lack of quality learning time for these students” and that this is in direct “violation of the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.”

What exactly does the Constitution give these students a right to? An “adequate education.”

Not equal education. Not best attainable education, or good, or thorough education. Adequate.

It is a sad state in society when students must stand up for themselves because they know they have received a poor, inadequate education. These students have experienced teachers leaving due to various reasons, only to be replaced by substitute teachers who do no more than pass out worksheets and packets. Unless these were some magically interactive, engaging, thought-provoking packets, my guess is not much learning occurred during these “instructional” periods. Students must be actively learning material; as a short article from Columbia University points out: “When students brains are passive, their brain doesn’t do an especially effective job of processing or retaining…information.” Even if a teacher is there all year round, if he or she is doling out poor instruction, or teacher-centered instruction, that teacher is not providing students with a good education.

We Want More: Instructional Time

It’s not just students that are trying to get more instructional time. When heavy winter storms struck the northeast this year, some schools took action, requiring students to attend school on Saturdays to make up for lost time. Other schools resorted to adding on multiple days to the end of year schedule; Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia, first due to let out June 20 will now see the end of the year on June 25. Whether Saturdays or summer days, schools are pressured to add instructional time by the federally mandated 180 days policy.

Whereas years ago, administrators and parents alike might be happy to know that their Johnny and June are learning addition and the middle of the alphabet on Monday, many schools today have adopted daily objectives, or learning targets. These targets help to give a feasible focus for students during a lesson. Indeed, focus on daily objectives has proven successful for many school’s standardized achievement. As standardized tests continue to grind on schools though, school districts like Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia, are pumping out unit pacing guides with standard after standard to teach to students. Even with 180 days, it feels overwhelming to try to get all students to master each and every standard at grade level, all the while differentiating assessments for every student.

We Want More: Professional, Purposeful Instructional Time

“The truth is that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that is required of me,”says Rachel Fairbank, of her first year teaching experience in the Houston Independent School District.She is not alone in this feeling, and it’s not just first year teachers. Teachers are caught in a balancing act between giving students the best education possible and proving their worth with data that can neatly be entered into evaluation matrices. Teacher’s daily checklists are piled high, and toppling over. “Teacher burnout” is indeed lurking in the dark corners of most teachers’ minds, but luckily for many, it will never become a reality. What is teacher burnout, and how do we avoid it while still maintaining a highly engaged, highly performing student body?

teacher, bending over backward

Teachers often bend over backward, leading to teacher “burnout.”

Dale Knepper thinks of teacher burnout as “a diminished sense of accomplishment, exhaustion, and a sense of depersonalization,” all of which can be the result of pushing too hard, the prevalent isolation of those in the field, insufficient professional development opportunities, and/or inadequate administrative support. Teacher burnout isn’t teachers quitting and switching careers. Not always. No, it can also mean teachers who have burned out, but remain in the field, completely ineffective, and providing severely inadequate instruction.

Studies have indicated many different areas, which can stave off feelings of burnout. Knepper suggests it all comes back to classroom management strategies and building positive relationships with students. Barbara Laravee, in her book “Cultivating Teacher Renewal: Guarding Against Stress and Burnout,” suggests that teachers learn intervention strategies and communication strategies that result in student responses they desire, or what some schools are calling Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies. In Recognizing Rigorous and Engaging Teaching and Learning, educators and administrators are advised to use RRETL’s framework to:

·       Establish a clear shared vision of rigorous, engaging instructional practices

·       Provide focus for walkthroughs and learning walks

·       Assess the quality and extent of current practices

·       Provide focus for team collaboration

·       Prioritize areas of need for professional development

·      Confirm strengths and areas of improvement

Students, educators, administrators, and legislators all need to be on the same page, working toward a collective, community goal. Students need activities and assessments, which will engage them in powerful, purposeful learning. Educators need sufficient strategies for success and administrative support. Administrators need to support both students and educators as they work toward maximized student learning time. Legislators need to implement policies and laws which directly support students, educators, and administrators in the classroom for their needs and their purposes.

We Want More…Than Just An Adequate Education

As part of almost any teacher’s education preparation courses at university, Maslow’s hierarchy of needsis bound to be found in at least one course. We must first fulfill students’ most basic needs in order to reach higher needs, like respect of and by others, and problem solving and creativity. How then, is it that students in poorer areas with poor instruction are going to attain these high levels of thinking?

Somehow, against all odds, students like those in California are realizing the gaping divide they now face, looking back at the whole of their educational careers. They realize they have not received the adequate education promised to them to prepare them for the world ahead. They may have had teachers leave to due teacher burnout, or maternity leave, or sickness.


Teachers spend money out of pocket to make sure students have what they need to succeed…and to survive.

Then again, they could have had one of the many teachers who routinely pick their own pockets to buy necessity items, like food and toothbrushes, for their students. Or they could have had teachers who,when they see bright decorations, or an intriguing book, or organizing containers, buy them for their classroom without hope of reimbursement. Or they could have had teachers who embrace Bring Your Own Device policies, embrace and integrate technology into the classroom, and differentiate assignments and assessments to students to make lessons more relevant and memorable to each student. Or they could have had teachers who were excited and supported in their professional development endeavors, as they try to better themselves, their classrooms, and their students in the process.

The sad truth is the students who need these could-haves most are the ones who aren’t receiving them. The achievement gap is still glaring. The digital divide is multiplying. The students cry for an “adequate” education is unsettling.

Our students are not “adequate.” Our students are amazing, inspiring, creative, diverse. Our students have the potential to build new things, utilize technology in ways we never thought possible, find cures for diseases, diplomatically discuss issues, and change the world. Our students are not adequate. Our students do not deserve adequate. Our students deserve top-notch, the most engaging, the most memorable, the most creative, the most differentiated. Our students deserve the best education, educators, and educative tools and resources possible.

Nearly a month ago, students stood up for their rights as learners in this world, filing a lawsuit against California state and education officials. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the results of the case, and looking forward to the shape that the field of education will take because of it.


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