Homework: A Grievable Offense

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It’s the beginning of a new school year, and your energy and optimism are high. You’re looking forward to a wonderful year—full of new growth and learning. As you settle in with colleagues for the first staff meeting, you chat excitedly with people nearby. You’re eager to get started.

After some preliminary remarks, your principal begins to share about a new policy being implemented by administration across the district. “We all recognize the importance of professional growth and development,” she begins, “and we know that time is tight at school. You all have many classes to teach. You have prep periods, and those are for getting ready for those classes.”

You nod. This is true. You work hard all day, rarely getting a real break. And, yes, you wish you had more time for professional growth and development. Prep periods are for planning. You’re curious. Why is she saying all of this?

Your principal continues. “Many of you have shared with administration that you wish you had more time to read some of the professional books and materials that the district has purchased for you. We’ve also heard, loud and clear, that as much as you like team-time and PLC time, these feel like too much during your normal busy work week.”

Again, you agree. This is all true. It is frustrating when you’re given books but not the time to read them. You have certainly felt the tension between collaboration with colleagues and feeling ready for daily teaching. You wonder, where is this going?

“So,” she continues, “because we so value the work you do, and because learning and achievement are so important here in our district, all professional staff will be required to engage in professional learning time outside of school time this year.”

Wait a minute. What? Did she just say that we’ll be engaging in professional work outside of school time? That can’t be right. Your mind struggles to keep up and take in what you’re hearing.

“Each night, you will be required to engage in 45 minutes of professional reading. Most of the time, you’ll have choices about what you read. It could be articles, blogs, or books. You’ll simply record what you read (including titles, authors, numbers of pages you read, and the time you spent) in a Google Doc. That will let me check in to make sure everyone is on track. Once a week, you’ll write a short summary of one of these texts. This will be shared with others so they can be inspired by what you’ve read. Sometimes we’ll all read a book together. There will be about five of these books throughout the year. 45 minutes a night should be enough, but some of you may need to put in some extra time to make sure you’re ready for whole group discussions.”

Whoa. 45 minutes a night! When is that going to happen? Don’t administrators understand what teachers’ lives look like after school? Once you get home, you go non-stop. You’ve got a family. Almost every day after school you have several activities scheduled. So much for that goal of getting more exercise this year, you silently groan. Your enthusiasm for the year is fading away.

“We’re also taking on several new district initiatives this year,” your principal states. “Many of these will require some at-home learning and practice. You will all report to several different administrators and department heads who will be leading these various initiatives. I’ve asked these leaders to try and coordinate so work isn’t overwhelming, but that may not always be possible. This means that on any given night, you might not have much to do, or you might have quite a bit. You’ll need to think about time management so you don’t get overwhelmed.”

I’ll have to think about time management!? What does that mean? How am I supposed to manage my time if multiple people may or may not be giving me assignments? What happens if multiple assignments fall during a family crisis or a big personal event? I sing in a choir every Thursday evening. Am I supposed to skip rehearsal if a lot of work piles up? What about my commitment to the choir? And what if I get stuck and need help? How will these different people leading the work possibly support me if I’m home and they’re not around?

“There will also be some big projects this year!” your principal continues with enthusiasm. “These are going to be a lot of work, but they’ll be worth it. They are really important and will help consolidate and showcase important learning that you do. A few of these will require you to work with others, so be ready to collaborate with colleagues!”

OH NO! you scream in your head. You know just how this will go. You’ll end up having to work with your two teammates who are impossible. Mrs. B is overly particular and refuses to compromise. It’s her way or the highway. And Mr. C doesn’t do anything. He just kicks back and lets other people carry the load. Great. You’ll end up doing all of the work, but you won’t even get to have any say in how it’s done.

“Don’t worry,” reassures your principal. “We’ll make sure that these projects are drawn out over many weeks so that you’ll have plenty of weekend and vacation time to work on them.”

What!!! Weekend and vacation time!!?? Isn’t weekend time and vacation time supposed to be work-free? Don’t people need time away from work to recharge and reenergize? How are you ever supposed to engage in great learning during the school day if you’re overwhelmed with work at home every night and can’t even take a break on weekends and vacations? And what about research that shows that productivity actually goes down when people work too much? How will you maintain healthy relationships with friends and family if you’re always working? How will you nurture other aspects of your life such as your need for exercise and your love of the arts if work never ends?

Your principal concludes, “Of course, it is our expectation that everyone puts in their best effort. Still, to make sure that everyone does what they should, your performance on these out-of-school tasks will be directly tied to your annual review. You will be assessed both on your completion of work as well as the quality of products. Though I suppose you could technically still pass your annual review while doing minimal work at home, it will be awfully hard.”

You’re absolutely stunned. You feel as though your fundamental rights are being violated. Who do these administrators think they are? Why do they get to dictate what you do with your personal time? If they were trying to come up with a system for beating the joy out of professional learning, they hardly could have come up with a better method.

You’ve never been a huge union person, but you decide that it’s time to get in touch with your representative. You have a contract that clearly states that you can’t be forced to work outside of contract time, which is from 7:30-3:30. Of course, you know that nearly all good teachers devote plenty of non-working time beyond the typical school day, but it needs to be voluntary and flexible. Forcing you to work beyond the school day is clearly a grievable offense, and you’re relieved that you have this important safety net. Someone is demanding that you spend a significant amount of your personal time doing work that someone else assigned–work that will directly impact your professional evaluation and future career. Just imagine how powerless and demoralized you’d feel right now if you didn’t have any legal recourse or protection!!

I mean, c’mon. We would never do that to kids, right?

 

Mike Anderson
Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including The Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: www.leadinggreatlearning.com. Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

6 Comments
  1. Thanks, Mike — Spot on! Schools generally require way too much out-of-school time for homework, placing too many burdens on kids and their families, especially when kids are doing so much outside of school. Too many conflicts at home result in addition to kids feeling discouraged about not keeping up and not doing being able to do their best work because of all the time demands now placed on them. Does any adult remember 10 of their favorite homework assignments from school, or even 1!?

    • Good question, Jim. When I think back on homework assignments, I mostly have a vague recollection of cramming them in between activities or feeling guilty as I did a crummy job.

  2. Mike,
    Point made but argument is heavily leaning on a false equivalence.

    • By a false equivalence, do you mean that we can’t really compare the roles of teachers and kids when thinking about working outside of contract time? Perhaps. At the same time, I think it’s worth considering from this perspective. If kids go to school 7 hours a day and have one hour of homework five days a week, that would be a 40-hour work week. That’s a ton! In my experience, sometimes the teachers who most pile on homework for kids (in the name of rigor and high standards of course) are quick to cry foul if administration wants them to do something outside of contract time.

  3. I agree that it seems like a good deal of work, but I’d like to take your comment on the idea of 40 hrs of work, and point out that the 40 hour work week is a disappearing norm. In addition, high schoolers should be preparing for the 30 to 60 hr work week that is becoming normalized in professional environments that shift amounts on a weekly basis. With that in mind, an hour of hw a night, split between an average of eight classes works out to a total of 7.5 minutes on subject matter from a course per night. 7.5 minutes of review would be enough to go over notes and flashcards, not much more than that. Additional study would depend on the type and level of the course.

    As a counter example, a college student has an average of 15 credit hours a week, so that’s 15 hours of class time. In college, there is an expected three to 1 ratio of class time to work amount, so that’s 45 hours additional. This gives a total work week of 60 hours just from class commitments. Lessening the workload on students would then leave them unprepared for that harsh transition.

    For a high school student, there are 35 hours of class time, so obviously we cannot expect a ratio of 3 to 1 to hold. For a better balance, perhaps an amount of 15 hours of homework a night would be appropriate for a high school student. That’s only 15 minutes per class per night on average again, and that’s only assuming work during M-F. If teachers balance within that, that gives a weekly total of 50 hrs per week on average, which is less than the greatest career amount but still significant enough to help them gain experience. The challenge would be finding engaging, meaningful work for review that fits within a 15 minute time frame for each class and getting teachers to stick to it.

    Perhaps the need is to focus on less of the activities outside of school and focus instead on more scholastic achievements? It might not be memorable, but the abilities developed and careers that could grow from skills utilized might be worthwhile.

    • Although many people (especially in the US) routinely work more than a 40 hour work week, it’s not necessarily a good thing. I was just reading the book Scrum (I highly recommend it!) and the author, Jeff Sutherland, was actually sharing research that shows that productivity drops when people work beyond a 40 hour week. As people become increasingly tired, they make more mistakes, which then require fixing and more time later on.

      Regardless of whether or not 40 hours is best practice in the workplace, I contend that it is inappropriate for kids. Students can learn and practice skills of passion, grit, high energy for work, and other key skills that lead to success without having to overdo the amount of time they spend. Even if adults may end up working 60-hour (or more) work-weeks, they are doing so because it’s part of a job they have (presumably) chosen–one which (hopefully) connects with something they want to do and are passionate about. One would also assume/hope that 25 year-olds may be ready for longer hours, but that for adolescents, their need for social connection, down-time, and healthy amounts of sleep are more important than more schoolwork. As a teacher, I’m not interested in training kids to be workaholics, especially in service of work they may not care about in the first place. This is just a recipe for turning kids off to learning and work.

      As for reducing after school activities to focus more intently on academics, although I suppose some students may need to rebalance this ratio, I think for the vast majority, activities like cross country running, robotics club, creative writing club, band, and drama, feed parts of their soul that are just as important as the parts fed by chemistry and calculus. I want to help raise students who are healthy and balanced…who are excited about academics and have healthy hobbies and habits beyond school. Extracurricular activities can help students grow skills and abilities (passion, grit, etc.) that are part of the skills needed in careers as well.

      On another note, the research about homework is relatively clear. In primary grades, there’s a reverse correlation between academic achievement and homework (more homework equals lower achievement). In upper elementary grades, there’s no benefit gained from homework. In middle school, there is a modest/low benefit. In high school, there is a more positive/moderate impact on achievement, especially when homework is short and about reinforcement/practice, not about rigor and big projects. (That kind of work needs guidance and coaching from skilled teachers–guidance they can’t give when they’re not around where the work is happening.) For a great synopsis of the research on homework, I highly recommend Visible Learning, by John Hattie. He’s done incredible meta-analysis work which is quite compelling!

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Leading Great Learning

Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.