Lesson Plans as Bureaucratic Time Wasters

Lesson plans of some form are vital. Fixation on their format is distracting. One of the ways schools frustrate new teachers is by forcing them to submit lesson plans written according to complicated templates. When teachers spend more time fretting over format than determining procedure, there is a problem.

Teachers need a destination and a route. They need to know what content or skills students must learn. They need to know their students’ abilities along with any necessary accommodations. Finally, they need some method of imparting the content or skills. This is a heap of information. The lesson plan should be a reliable way to streamline it.

The least desirable quality of a lesson plan is complexity. Ideally, the written plan should be something a substitute can follow without difficulty. The actual teacher typically shouldn’t need the plan during instruction, although using it as a guide is fine. It should be easy to use. It should read like a recipe. The plan need only be an objective, a list of materials, any accommodations, and a brief step-by-step procedure. Depending on the lesson, some assessment could be included. The key is simplicity. What it looks like shouldn’t matter, as long as it’s usable. It should be part of a sequence, but isolated lessons have a place as well.

Enter accountability. Many parents demand it. Most states demand it. Thus, schools require transparency regarding planning. Policy varies, with some schools insisting teachers post plans where students and parents can access them and others only requiring submission to administration. Perhaps students and parents should have access to daily plans, or at least to a calendar of upcoming lessons and corresponding assignments. Administrators probably should have access to these as well. Accountability measures keep teachers from slacking on planning while providing stakeholders with assurance that systematic instruction is happening.

The trouble begins when schools insist on highly detailed plans for all lessons. This isn’t practical and instead is counterproductive. Yes, any plan should include the components described earlier, but these can be stated succinctly. Confident teachers could keep these in a day planner or even on sticky notes. Making teachers write plans that include “essential questions” and “assessment anchors” often forces the stretching otherwise good ideas to fit artificial and unnecessary constructs. It also wastes teacher’s time and insults them by suggesting a lack of professional faith.

State standards aren’t inherently evil, as many education professionals suggest they are. Curriculum guides aren’t either. New teachers benefit greatly from having a scope and sequence for instruction. Some schools insist teachers take plans directly from these guides, bypassing the controversy over plans. Others require teachers to take everything in the classroom and make it fit an inflexible template. Failure to comply can lead to punitive action. School officials (and the whole of education law) tend to ignore notions of positive reinforcement.

What stings more is inconsistency. Some schools don’t require teachers to submit any kind of plans. Are teachers in these schools more dependable and less in need of supervision than those in other schools? Probably not. Are these school loosely run, chaotic messes without any form of oversight? Most often, no. The best teachers in these schools almost certainly have their own systems for planning, but no one holds a magnifying glass over them. Learning typically isn’t compromised. This is an indictment of the schools that require them.

Inequities develop within schools, too. Special education teachers might be exempt from writing and submitting plans. The rationale? They collaborate with general education teachers on accommodations, but aren’t authoring their own plans (this assumes they’re supporting students with IEPs in the general education classroom and curriculum). Additionally, these teachers are busy enough with developing IEPs, conducting progress monitoring, and other special education-specific responsibilities that exemption from planning makes sense. It doesn’t always sit well with equally busy general education teachers. When special education teachers do have to write plans, the results can be maddening. They frequently must attempt to fit scripted lessons from commercial interventions into convoluted templates meant for totally different kinds of lessons.

Colleges of education train teacher candidates to write detailed plans. This makes sense in college, as it forces these students to consider the reasons behind each decision and action in a lesson. Student teachers find themselves dumbstruck if they learn their cooperating teachers aren’t required to write plans. They might almost be relieved to end up in schools in which they must write them. Upon hire, that relief will last until around the end of the first month.

When schools require overly detailed lesson plan formats, they’re giving strained professionals one more task that mostly serves to complicate their jobs. It also suggests their judgement isn’t completely trusted. Teachers should practice their craft like someone is watching, but with confidence and pride instead of fear of reprimand. Employing sensible accountability is an asset. Making teachers grind out twenty or more multipage plans per week is a burden. Teachers shoulder enough of these.

Lesson Plans as Bureaucratic Time Wasters

A Few Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

I’ve been leery of teacher preparation since college. After a few years in the field, my sense of its potency diminished further. Surveying my career, I find myself struggling to completely support traditional teacher preparation. I’m not convinced it’s the only route that can send effective new teachers into classrooms.

Don’t think I absolutely deny the worth of teacher preparation. I acknowledge the need to equip incoming teachers with requisite skills and knowledge while filtering out candidates not fit for the classroom. Furthermore, I recognize that colleges of education manage this most of the time. My position is that teacher preparation as these colleges do it doesn’t work well enough to be considered the gilded route to the classroom.

I’ll start by speaking to my experiences. As an undergraduate, I got the foundations. The required battery of courses exposed me to the field’s history, a survey of the law, and the basics of child development. I learned some methodology. I learned about assessment. Somehow, this stretched across a few dozen credits and several years of schooling.

Despite this exposure, I was completely out of my depth when I hit the field. I hadn’t realized what I didn’t know until I was required to know it. Some of this was procedural knowledge my courses could have included. Much more of it involved surviving in the school that hired me. I can’t fault my program for not preparing me for the latter.

Having had the chance to examine other undergraduate programs, I think mine did about as well as any. I recently got to return to that program to serve as an adjunct. It’s still as thorough as programs at much more expensive schools. It has a reputation for sending strong candidates into schools. I’m not about to knock it.

The trouble is, nothing truly prepares a person for working in a school. Note how I phrased that. Teaching is but one element of being a school employee. It becomes an afterthought relatively quickly. Dealing with the day-to-day of working in a school is something that must be learned on the job. Something similar is reflected in many fields. Knowing the culture of an organization (or school) and its unspoken codes of protocol and procedure can be as critical as knowing the job (or pedagogy). Consequently, I’ve told undergraduates that most of what I knew in my second year of teaching, I learned in my first.

Further lessening the absolute impact of teacher preparation is what teachers possess from the start. A large part of what makes a teacher effective is internal. Personal organization, intuition, and fortitude are important to succeeding as a teacher. These aren’t taught. Throughout my career, I’ve watched student teachers coming from the same programs exhibit wildly different competencies. This has had to do with them, not their programs.

With on-the-job knowledge and internal prowess being so important, I have to wonder if everything that goes into a traditional teacher preparation program is necessary. I’ll share a counter-example. For years, I’d read rants from the education faithful about the evils of Teach for America. As I read about the program, I formed some doubts of my own about it. Then I met three teachers moving through TFA. None had any substantial pedagogy training. However, two out of three of them were among the most effective teachers I’d met in a decade. Interestingly, none wanted to be teachers. They were passing through on their way to something else, confirming a major criticism of TFA.

Why were those two so good? They were smart. That was all. They were smart enough to quickly figure out what worked and what didn’t without someone holding their hands through it. Though a microscopic sample, their effectiveness nearly drowned my confidence in the worth of four-year programs.

If intuition and problem-solving skills were enough for these TFA candidates to do well, what is the defense for teacher preparation? Could it be a costly scam? Is it a matter of intellectualizing the obvious for the sake of giving states, universities, and testing companies a stranglehold on licensure? I definitely thought all of this as an undergraduate. I still think some of it.

I can’t sweep aside what colleges of education do based on two people. They might have been exceptions. Simultaneously, some potentially great teachers might only bloom via a more traditionally structured program. I’d still contend such a program could be much shorter than what most colleges offer. I’d even support teachers getting a different Bachelor’s first and then getting certified as part of a Master’s program. This delays getting candidates to the field, but it might result in better prepared candidates, especially in specific subject areas.

My thoughts on it aside, teacher preparation is taking a hit. Consider online programs, emergency certifications, and charters that hire non-certified teachers. Whether or not these are improvements, I’m not surprised that cracks in the sanctity of traditional models have been exposed. Getting smart, dependable people into schools might be more critical than insisting they be trained a specific way. I can support unorthodox routes, so long as they work. My suspicion is the candidate is the more important variable than the route. Nudging might help, but I think teaching is something a person either can or can’t do. This might be my essential indictment of four-year programs along with the basis of my tentative approval of less traditional routes.

A Few Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

Discussion Starter: Does Anyone Like Cooperative Learning?

I’ve begun to wonder if anyone likes cooperative learning. I certainly don’t. In high school, few activities bothered me more than having to work in groups. I felt the same way in college and eventually graduate school, cringing whenever a professor assigned any kind of group work. Annoyance turned to resentment if this group work represented even a small portion of my grade. Have I been alone in this?

Recently, my curiosity prompted me to ask the undergraduates I was teaching. My polling methods weren’t exactly scientific. I simply asked, by show of hands, how many students enjoyed cooperative learning, either in high school or college. Out of the six sections I asked across two semesters—over 200 students—almost none raised their hands. During the first semester, not a single hand went up.

When I pressed, they offered a long list of grievances. Many disliked having to work with less capable or motivated students. A few added to this, saying they felt absences and aptitudes made group work feel imbalanced. Several complained about having their grades tied to the performance of others. As many as half of them indicated a preference for working independently, which might be surprising considering these students were preparing to be teachers. Some rather candid students mentioned specifically disliking having to interact at all.

This sampling isn’t enough to damn cooperative learning. Remember, I only spoke with around 200 students. Peer pressure might have dissuaded some from raising their hands. Furthermore, students dislike all sorts of otherwise effective methodology and programming. Working in teams has some merit and shouldn’t be tossed out because a few dozen undergraduates take exception with it. Justifications for its use include fostering inclusion (one of the original motivations for it), modeling 21st Century work environments (although this alignment might be shifting), and promoting engagement through active learning (which works so long as all members truly are active; it might backfire for students who struggle with interaction).

What do you think of it? I’m mostly interested in your perspective as a student. If you have thoughts on using cooperative learning as a teacher, share those instead. As a teacher, I used cooperative learning models because such strategies were expected to be present in lesson plans. I’m guessing other teachers use it at least in some part to secure positive ratings from administrators. No, I don’t think this is the only reason teachers use it. Plenty of teachers are skilled at doing so, choosing arrangements that atone for potential inequities while fostering effective learning. Students can benefit when it’s wisely implemented. Some students might even enjoy it. These students must be out there somewhere. Share your thoughts in the comments, whether or not you’re one of them, or ever were one of them.

Discussion Starter: Does Anyone Like Cooperative Learning?

Discussion Starter: Did You Learn More In School Or On Your Own?

You might suspect this is a loaded question, setting up an attempt to challenge the value of your K through 12 education. That isn’t exactly my intention. I realize you learned much through your formal schooling. So did I. For this Discussion Starter, I’m asking you to consider what you learned in school versus what you learned independently. I’m discounting skills or knowledge acquired in post-secondary education specific to your profession or trade. Instead, think about the general education obtained in your youth. How did you acquire most of this?

Determining this isn’t easy. I’ve had difficulty parsing it out. I did learn the foundations of literacy in school. Maybe my parents could have taught me how to read and write, but my elementary school certainly managed this more efficiently. I learned basic mathematics, although my school was up against a barrier here. I don’t think anyone could have taught me how to do math beyond simple algebra. People have limits. I know mine well. Outside skill instruction, I got exposure to the basics of history and the basics of science. Other than that, I only remember a handful of disconnected facts.

My school district wasn’t bad. It was and continues to be about average in all measures for schools in my state. I recall having some okay, even enthusiastic teachers. I remember more about the lackluster ones, like those who fell asleep in class. Some of those who stayed awake were worse. Despite them, this district gave me the foundational skills needed for everything else I’d learn through reading. That is really important. Most schools manage this. Those that don’t tend to be under-resourced schools serving exceptionally needy populations.

However, I wanted to be somewhere else each day of high school. I’ll admit having a bad attitude. Perhaps no school would have motivated me. Mine definitely didn’t. I’ve heard similar tales from friends my age regardless of where they went to school. Is it just the types of friends I’ve chosen? No, because I’ve also heard it from recent undergraduates who really want to become teachers and are much more optimistic than I’ve ever been.

I’ve thought about the specifics of what I didn’t like. Just being in the building all day grated me. Reviewing for the first few months of each year was another problem. In the mid-1990s, I endured the emerging trend of cooperative learning. Little turned me off as much as working in groups. One thing school taught me: I really dislike having to work with other people. Recently, I got some feedback that hinted at such sentiment being more common than I’d thought. I’ll write about this in the coming weeks.

In my last post, I asked for thoughts about potentially changing roles for teachers. Personalized learning came up. I’m not convinced personalized learning will work, partly because I’ve watched how schools muddle implementation of other programs. Additional factors weigh against it, enough for another article. It might work for skill instruction for some students, maybe even for content. The push behind it does seem to be part of an agenda, but regardless, what if it improbably ends up working? Research might never tell us convincingly one way or another. Even if research points to effectiveness, teachers aren’t likely to accept it.

I’ll tell you this: I wish something loosely akin to personalized learning or some other system of highly individualized modules would have have been available for me from elementary school onward. I can’t emphasize enough how much I would have preferred being able to move on when I was ready, being able to take more time as needed, not falling behind after absences, not having to talk with other students, and not having to sit and listen to a teacher. I’ve always preferred reading about how to do something to having someone tell me or show me. This might not work for some students (and the commercial versions of it on the horizon might not work at all), but I’ll say with confidence it would have worked for me.

As I’ve thought about it, I feel the bulk of what I’ve retained and been able to use has come from studying on my own. I can thank my school for some of the skills needed for this (and for having a functional library), but I really think the preponderance of my general education happened outside a classroom. And I didn’t even have internet access back then. Maybe my sense of this is wildly distorted and I’m wrong about the balance. I think otherwise.

But what about you? Do you feel content with what you learned in K through 12? What about your thoughts on how you learned, such as the methodology used? Would you have preferred working at your own pace (if you didn’t)? Do you feel you learned better in classrooms than through your own efforts? Did you learn more through your parents, or even through incidental learning across settings? Share in the comments.

 

Discussion Starter: Did You Learn More In School Or On Your Own?

Discussion Starter: Teachers or Technicians?

In a series of recent posts, I discussed possible future scenarios for special education teachers (Part 1 here). One of the scenarios I described involved teachers morphing from instructors to facilitators as innovations such as personalized learning software encroach. Similar changes are happening now. Special education teachers in many districts have relinquished roles closely associated with teaching: lesson planning, assessment design, and content instruction. Instead, they’re implementing scripted lessons as part of commercial direct instruction programs. General education teachers could experience a shift of their own. Some would claim they have already in an age of test preparation.

My question for readers is this: should classrooms be in the hands of teachers or technicians? I’m not asking who readers want in charge of classrooms. I’m asking who should be in charge. Do we want teachers to maintain their roles as designers and implementers of instruction, or do we want them to facilitate highly individualized learning modules that students navigate on their own? Do we want teachers creating original lessons in response to performance data, or do we want them remediating through research-based programs?

I anticipate responses being solidly on the side of teachers continuing to be teachers. What I press readers to consider is whether they would continue to want this if research would begin to indicate methodology that alters the role of the teacher is more effective than what we’ve done in the past. My position in education always will be that we should do whatever yields the best results. Research already shows the effectiveness of direct instruction remediation for students with learning disabilities, which is why schools use it. More evidence is needed regarding personalized learning, but if it works, should we not be using this, even if it reduces the role of teachers? Would opposing it be akin to preventing progress?

Implications will range from changes in teacher preparation to consideration for how much educational technicians should get paid. I invite readers to think about all this and respond with what roles teachers should have in the coming decade. This need not be an either-or. Many versions of each role and combinations of the two are probable, especially with technology still emerging and school structures varying so much. Roles for licensed professionals might change, but that doesn’t mean they’ll disappear. Share your thoughts about however you think roles should be reconciled.

Discussion Starter: Teachers or Technicians?

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 4)

This final piece focuses on the more immediate future. All three previous pieces (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) describe future scenarios in which special education teachers might become marginalized by policy or technology. These changes could be coming, but not just yet. Special education teachers will continue to have a vital and familiar role in schools for many years.

The Horizon Remains Distant

Those seeking to teach students with disabilities will find opportunities.

1. Jobs still are available.

Schools continue to hire special education teachers—plenty of them. Special education is a high-needs area and by most accounts will remain that way long enough for several cohorts of college graduates to find jobs. What about all those factors set to affect the role of special education teachers? They’re coming, but something else is happening and isn’t likely to stop: turnover.

Special education is a demanding career. People quit. Certain schools with large proportions of students receiving services are difficult places to work. More people quit in these schools. Certainly, new positions are created per population growth and a corresponding growth in students needing services, but turnover allows for positions to be available even after being filled just a year or two earlier. Add to this the apparently shrinking pool of undergraduates seeking to become teachers and you have a market in which jobs continue to be out there.

Safeguards exist, too. Thanks to teacher-student ratio mandates on caseloads, many special education positions are protected from budget cuts. In some states, special education teachers are hired from a different budget than general education teachers, which additionally helps to protect these positions. Unless these ratios change through legislation, many positions will be protected out of legal necessity.

Finally, don’t forget about the Baby Boomers who are retiring. That wave started a few years ago. Members of Generation X are still a long way off from retirement, but many have left the field by now out of frustration, leaving positions available for younger candidates and second-career types.

2. Schools will be slow to make changes.

Little happens quickly in schools. They aren’t known for being crucibles of change. Education law has a way of reacting to issues rather than anticipating them, and schools have a way of dragging themselves to comply with laws. If something is a recommendation rather than a mandate, don’t count on schools subscribing to it with any haste. For example, RtI models have existed for decades at this point and some schools are just now beginning to explore how to use these. Thus, some of the changing services I described in Part 1 aren’t going to materialize anytime soon in a way that drastically will cut into hiring. Delivery models will remain as they’ve been in many districts well into the next decade.

3. Students continue being identified.

Specific disability categories under IDEA have been growing, especially autism and other health impairments (ADHD falls under OHI). Questions remain as to whether these increases are due to actual increases in proportionate incidence, better evaluation tools, or overreactions by evaluating teams. Meanwhile, for every parent who opposes an evaluation because of a concern for the stigma identification might bring, another demands an evaluation and wants every possible service. Often the parent is right and the child needs something the school has been reluctant to provide. Other times, schools concede and placate the parents to avoid further legal entanglement. 

The reasons don’t matter for special education teachers looking for positions. They just need to know that growth (or at least stability) in identification means more potential teaching positions, even if these are with highly specific populations. 

4. And charters remain an option.

Those who want to teach students with disabilities do need to consider all the places where those students receive services. Urban districts have larger than average special needs populations, thus more special education jobs. Charter schools are most common in urban areas. Over the next decade, a larger percentage of the total population will attend charters. Prospective special education teachers willing to keep all options open must remember this.

I make no claim that this series of possibilities is exhaustive or certain. Some of it seems quite likely, but how any of it plays out could be much different than expected. Feel free to comment with any other ideas about what special education teachers might face in the near or not-so-near future.

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 4)

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 3)

In Part 3, I cover broader societal changes, some wrought by technology, that could alter the field and the role of special education teachers. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Long-Term Dynamics

Each of these starts somewhat small before ballooning.

7. As special education becomes more rote, teachers might decreasingly fit the scheme.

Visit a few special education classrooms and be prepared to see something potentially surprising. Students are likely to be using very dry, mechanical direct instruction reading interventions. Programs such as Corrective Reading and DISTAR are common phonics-based interventions for students with IEPs. This isn’t a matter of policy, but might lead to a different kind of change than those in Part 1.

Schools like to use direct instruction programs because they’re research-based and relatively cost effective. Many current special education teachers spend all day, every day “teaching” these explicitly scripted lessons. Does a person need a Bachelor’s degree to run a Corrective Reading lesson? Probably not. The programs require some skill to administer, but many paraeducators could do this for less. Some schools have gone that way already. Certified teachers still need to be in the room—for now.

Meanwhile, electronic programs such as IXL and Fast ForWord provide repeated practice and immediate feedback that benefit students with disabilities. Crucially, they require scant facilitation. In districts across the country, students with IEPs spend hours per week drilling on such programs. They don’t completely replace special education teachers—for now.

Why “for now?” These rote programs might continue to be the standard in special education indefinitely. Sooner or later, some elected officials and DOE bean counters will realize certified teachers aren’t needed for implementation. If paraeducators can run these programs with similar results and computer-based programs can do the same with an adult in the room to maintain order, will such considerations influence federal and state decisions about teacher-student ratios and the need for highly qualified special education teachers? Could not there be one or two technicians hired to write all the IEPs (implemented by general education teachers anyway) while the interventions are handled with large groups as described above? Wouldn’t this have great appeal in big-box schools? I guess we’ll see.

8. Special education becomes more remote.

Parents seeking to have their children with disabilities attend the safest, most controlled school environment can elect home as that environment. Various software, applications, and even cyber charter schools have enhanced homeschooling options. Cyber charters in particular have become popular among parents of children with disabilities. Special education teachers continue to be sought for distance education, but as software like that described in 7. becomes more intuitive and responsive, teacher-student ratios could grow. Uncertified tutors eventually might replace teachers in these scenarios.

9. Automation greatly alters the job market for students with disabilities.

Automation will benefit people with severe disabilities by making some services more accessible. It has the potential to increase autonomy, at least for people with physical and sensory disabilities. Technology in general has helped make the workforce more accessible to individuals with disabilities, but the next wave of automation could be different. Although the actual outcome is pending, it might create some new jobs in the wake of those it eliminates. The problem lies with the latter. Automated systems are poised to wipe out thousands of entry-level jobs currently available to students with mild learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and autism. Adults with such disabilities already face limited job prospects. The concept of a universal wage might not be that much of a shift for them.

What does this have to do with teachers? There could be an acknowledgement as students with mild disabilities fail to find traditional entry-level employment that vocational education must change. Special education teachers will need to teach skills they haven’t traditionally taught, such as coding. While this is happening in some schools and is part of a history of shifts in response to markets, it presents another case of special education teachers being somewhat behind the content they’re expected to teach.

The changes described in 7. and 8. also relate to automation. Special education teachers might feel nervous as they see how effective and efficient advances in learning software are and will continue to be.

10. Advances in genetics change the incidence of disabilities.

Whether or not anyone wants this to happen, it will: genetic conditions that cause disabilities will be amendable. Parents will be able to deselect certain genetic anomalies, possibly leading to their elimination. If parents could nix the possibility of a child having a disability, wouldn’t they make that choice? Would it be unethical not to? The ethics of this are in dispute, including what message such desires send to people who have conditions targeted for deletion.

In a generation, special education teachers—especially those working with low-incidence populations—could see far fewer students per such advancements. Ironically, medical science had been allowing students with the most severe disabilities to attend school. The future could see a reversal as conditions are deselected. This might not stop at severe disabilities. Imagine if parents had the option of deselecting some trait found to increase the likelihood of ADHD or dyslexia. There is little reason to believe they wouldn’t. One might wonder who would be left to receive special education, or if definitions of disabilities would shift.

I have one more installment. It will detail some points that might actually help special education teachers, at least in the short term.

 

 

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 3)