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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 08/25/2010

'Impossible' working conditions for teachers

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, believed to be the world’s only English-language quarterly review for history academic papers by high school students.

By Will Fitzhugh
I have just returned from giving a three-day workshop on student history research papers for English and Social Studies teachers, both high school and middle school, in Collier Country, Florida.

They assessed and discussed four high school student research papers using the procedures of the National Writing Board. We went over some of the consequences for a million of our students each year who graduate from high school and are required to take (and pay for) non-credit remedial courses when they get to college.

I talked to them about the advantages students have if they have written a serious paper, like the International Baccalaureate Extended Essay, in high school, and the difficulties with both reading nonfiction books and writing term papers which students (and college graduates) have if they have not been asked to do those tasks in high school.

It was a diligent, pleasant and interesting group of teachers, and I was glad to have had the chance to meet with them for a few days. They seemed genuinely interested in having their students do serious papers and be better prepared for college (and career).

At lunch on the last day, however, I discovered that Florida is a “right to work” state, and that their local union is rather weak, so they each have six classes of 30 or more students (180 students). One teacher is being asked to teach seven classes this year, with 30 or more students in each (210).

After absorbing the fact of this shameful and irresponsible number of assigned students, I realized that if these teachers were to ask for the 20-page history research paper which is typical of the ones I publish in The Concord Review, they would have 3,600 pages to read, correct, and comment on when they were turned in, not to mention the extra hours guiding students through their research and writing efforts. The one teacher with 210 students would have 4,200 pages of papers presented to him at the end of term.

It made me both sad and angry that these willing teachers, who want their students to be prepared for higher education, have been given impossible working conditions which will most certainly prevent them from helping their students get ready for the academic reading and writing tasks which await them in college (and career).


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By Valerie Strauss  | August 25, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  class loads and teachers, class size, florida teachers, history papers, research papers, right to work state, teachers  
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Will Fitzhugh has finally presented some
REALLY important numbers......the reality of day-to-day numbers that teachers have to contend with. Add to those impossible numbers of papers to grade, papers that will require many more hours to supervise due to students who have both reading, comprehension and writing difficulties -

Talk about a reality show!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 25, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

I do agree that teachers are asked to much, much more than the average person realizes. My husband is a high school math teacher, my cousin is a high school history teacher and my Father is an elementary school teacher, so I have some basis for that opinion.
However, I think this article has a logical fallicy.
Non college track students would never be asked to attempt an academic exercise of this magnitude. So unless the teachers are teaching 6 or 7 classes of honors or other upper level English or History, it is unlikely that every student in every class would be required to write a paper of the kind described here. I do not doubt that the job of reading, correcting and commenting is enormous, but I also do not think the task is (or would be) the hypothetical "impossibility" that the article seems to imply.
Having said that, and having graduated from a fairly prestigious state university with a degree in History, writing serious papers in high school really did help me achieve academic success in college. Although it was quite some time ago, my high school teachers did, in fact, assign serious research papers to their upper level classes (not just honors, but any upper level elective) and less onorous writing assignments to their other classes - this seemed to work well at that time.

Posted by: VaLGaL | August 25, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse


I, too, teach in a "right to work" state and in a school district where the teacher "association" is weak. What is described is not uncommon. It affects elementary teachers, too, since those teachers teach 5 or 6 different subjects a day. Class load is smaller, but the planning time is sucked up by endless meetings and duties.

About 5 years ago, the problem had become so severe, because the School Board and Superintendent turned a deaf ear to our pleas, that we invited the School Board and Superintendent to a Town Hall meeting. For 60+ minutes they listened to 3 minute speeches from teachers on the extreme time demands that were reducing the amount of time teachers had to grade papers, work individually with students, prepare and write lesson plans, call and meet with parents, collaborate, and just to think...much less spend time with their own families.

The SB was shocked...not so much the Super because he (and his staff) knew this was occurring, but was hoping to disparage the association and its concerns in order to minimize our impact.

Things improved, somewhat, for a while. But, are now back to what they were.

Teacher working conditions ARE student learning conditions....and there are studies that prove this. More teachers cite working conditions as the reason they leave the profession than they do pay. When teachers are mired in trivial activities such as repetitive, unnecessary meetings, this takes away from students.

This is why these criticism's of teachers are so hurtful and so unfair. Those outside of teaching think a teacher just stands in front of a class, presents this fantastic lesson that just landed on his/her desk, and the students will naturally be enthralled. Not so.

Trashing teachers is not going to get us reform. The more teachers are criticized, the more is being added to our plates. Time is not only money, but in the case of teaching, time means successful learning. Who wants to volunteer their child to slip through the cracks because the demands on the teacher's time meant your child didn't get the help they needed?

Just think, a salesman works for weeks on a presentation to sell something to a client. Teachers are selling education to a roomfull of kids who may or may not want to be there. And we have no time to create these all-encompassing lessons and activities that will knock their socks off.

I once had a conversation with an experienced elementary teacher who one day found herself with a smaller class. She taught the same lessons she had taught for years, but found she had 30 minutes extra at the end of the day. Say again...30 extra minutes. There were fewer students whose demands needed to be met...fewer students to hand out papers, fewer students to line up for the bathroom or lunch, or P.E., or art/music.

I wish more people would actually sit down with teachers...maybe their eyes would be opened to the real world of public education, too.

Posted by: ilcn | August 25, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Brilliant piece--thanks for tossing this graphic chunk of reality into the discourse.

A couple of fallacies in the comments, however:

#1) Working in a strong-union state does not mean that class size/student load numbers will be reasonable, or better than weak-union states. In fact, teachers in states with collective bargaining often have larger class sizes and fewer support staff in their buildings, because available monies have gone into negotiated salaries and benefits.

#2) Nor is it true that writing a comprehensive research paper is appropriate only for college-bound or honors students. All students should write research papers, simply for the experience of organizing multiple perspectives on a given topic in a coherent argument. They should begin writing papers with a thesis, supporting arguments and a conclusion as soon as their writing skills develop sufficiently. Or even when their writing skills aren't particularly good.

We often mistake "good writing" for meaningful, informative writing, probably because it's easier to teach conventions than organized content and convincing, supported argument. All students, even those who struggle with mechanics, should have the experience of persuasive and narrative writing, throughout their K-12 careers.

Posted by: nflanagan2 | August 25, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, Maryland is not a right to work state, and you have described a typical schedule at my school.

Posted by: someguy100 | August 25, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

I teach in central Florida and our planning period was taken away from us last year, this year they added a study hall, so we now have 4 88 minute periods a day alternating A day and B day. The core academic teachers are typically seeing over 200 students per semester and they are frazzled. Even in the ESE world my numbers are up due to the loss of teaching units.

Posted by: murphinfla | August 25, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Right, nflanagan2. All students should learn to make and support an argument or summarize differing points of view on an issue. The topic doesn't have to be historical or literary; it can be drawn from any area that interests the student. I have a nephew who could have written a masterful research report on the relative merits of Harleys vs. Yamahas in high school. It would have included source citations (not the ones we're necessarily used to in the academic world). Getting him to write a research paper on a 300 page nvel would have been another issue entirely.

Posted by: jane100000 | August 25, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: HappyTeacher | August 25, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

My middle school day schedule is six - 50 minute periods with 25 minutes for "duty free" lunch and no bathroom breaks and no planning period during the day. we have 50 minutes before school unless there are meetings. I am a Florida teacher so we are going through class size amendment battle so our ESE co-teach classes are bulging with needy students because there are 2 teachers while the advanced classes are small, leaving out students who would benefit out, just the opposite of what would work best and mandated from Tallahassee. I am always amazed when a friend not in education tells me they had time to make a phone call, go out for lunch or go to the bathroom during their work day.

Posted by: kmlisle | August 25, 2010 11:55 PM | Report abuse

Great article. I hope the public reads it.

Posted by: jlp19 | August 26, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Great article. Most subjects face something similar. The students lose out because even if a teacher did do that one year, he/she won't be able to do that year after year.

Not mentioned in the article is the standardized test pressure that the teachers have to "not waste time" on difficult projects/papers so that they can do more test prep.

Posted by: celestun100 | August 28, 2010 5:48 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps the Los Angeles Times should reprint this article beside their release of student test scores with teacher names attached. I feel like I've been told to build a house, but given only seven nails and no hammer, then penalized and humiliated in public because I didn't build the house the client wanted--and it's MY fault. Policy makers and the public need to quit blaming us for not building the house they want, and either give us the tools and supplies we need, or change the house plans.

Posted by: pattipeg1 | August 28, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

Re: "I discovered that Florida is a “right to work” state, and that their local union is rather weak, so they each have six classes of 30 or more students (180 students). "

Come on, Mr. Fitzhugh. This is a misleading statement. I teach in Illinois, which is NOT a right to work state, and teachers here face the same class size challenges as do teachers in Florida.

It is misleading to suggest that the large class sizes are the result of a lack of union influence.

To me, then, it begs the question of why I'm forced to pay $600 a year to the National Education Association and the Illinois Education Association when they are incapable of achieving reforms that would actually make a difference.

The problem, I would argue, is far from being rooted in a lack of union strength. If anything, the influence of unions has been a part of the problem.

I wish it wasn't a condition of my employment to give the teachers unions my money.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | August 31, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

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