January 05, 2018

Supermarket cupcakes win, kids lose when teachers don't have enough prep time

The current system wears down our educators, but the kids deserve better

Opinion Education
01052018_cupcakes_AW Photo by/Adam Whitlatch

On school days, a lack of planning time leaves teachers physically worn down, mentally fatigued, emotionally exhausted, and entirely susceptible to the lure of red and green frosting, writes Adam Whitlatch, a school counselor at Northwood Academy Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia.

Two weeks ago I couldn’t walk into a classroom or office in my building without someone begging me to eat a candy cane, pretzel-shaped shortbread cookie, or one of those supermarket cupcakes with red and green frosting.

I imagine this being common in schools everywhere the week before winter break – a time of year when it’s pretty standard to see kids running around in pajamas, elves playing on Smart Boards, and teachers’ desks piled with gifts like these.

None./.

Adam Whitlatch

Under normal circumstances, I’m not tempted by supermarket-baked goods. I don’t eat a ton of cookies or cakes; but, when I do, I try to eat ones that aren’t loaded with preservatives, dyes, and words that end in -ate and -ose. This is less because I’m a food asshole and more because I’m a blindly-following-Netflix-food-documentaries asshole.

If it’s a Saturday or Sunday and I’ve had adequate rest, the cupcakes that greet me at the ACME entrance don’t phase me. The bright, artificial coloring and fancy icing swirls are of no allure; they’re almost laughable. Netflix has propelled me above it.

Plus, I know how I feel after eating the sugary poison of supermarket bakeries. Why would I eat a cupcake likely to shorten my life quicker than stage 2 cancer, when cupcake shops that won’t give me a tumor in my pancreas exist on every 3rd block in Philadelphia?

I’ll restate it: Under normal circumstances, when I’m of sound mind and adequate rest, supermarket cupcakes are not a temptation. I’m Cardi B and those cupcakes are whoever she is talking to in that song.

Then there are school days. At school, I’m busy and moving, sometimes trying to cram 12 hours of work into an 8-hour day. I’m with a student/group of students/classroom of students, emailing/texting/calling high schools, collating paperwork, jumping a fence to get a basketball that bounced too high, or anything in between. This list goes on and on into educator eternity as any person who throws a cardigan sweater over their desk chair knows. It leaves us physically worn down, mentally fatigued, emotionally exhausted, and entirely susceptible to the lure of red and green frosting.

In the middle of a school day, one of those red-and-green-frosted cupcakes looks like how I imagine any opportunity to act the role of a guy who needs to get his shit together looks to Vince Vaughn. They’re impossible to resist. And so, I sometimes fall victim to eating them by the handful, just as Vince plays the same character 4 times in a row ("Wedding Crashers," "The Breakup," "Couples Retreat" AND "The Internship"). My decisions aren’t calculated. But, I’m hungry and worn down, and they’re right in front of me ... so it seems like the best answer to the problem. Even though it isn’t, and I know better.

As educators, this is how we decide things. Our choices often seem more like reactions to circumstances than deliberate decisions.

I believe teaching is an art form. My co-blogger Jason thinks it’s jazz. Good teachers are artists, yet we are not allowing them studio time.

Art can’t be manufactured on an assembly line, but that is the position we put teachers in. They have one spare hour a day in which to plan, collaborate with colleagues, meet with students, grade tests, provide feedback, make copies, eat, and pee. It shouldn’t shock us that the rigor of their schedule can cause good people and thoughtful educators to leave student-centered education fall by the wayside.

I’m not exaggerating. At my school, most teachers are in front of classrooms for about 1,300 hours per year which is about equal to the nationwide average. In Finland, where education has been proven to be more effective, teachers are in front of students for half that amount of time (about 700 hours).

When we don’t have time to prepare, we are forced to trust that our educational and life experiences are enough to do some good for the great young folks with whom we get to work. Rarely do we get the opportunity to reflect on practice until summer or winter break. Teachers and the classrooms of students we stand in front of deserve more.

The disproportionate ratio of prep and classroom time resulting in decreased teacher effectiveness makes sense to me. For every Lebron James dunk I see, I swear I watch at least 3 videos of him grimacing in a weight room or shooting turn-around jumpers. Not having enough time is the number one thing I hear teachers complain about.

I was recently at a conference regarding trauma, and in one of the sessions the group leader said that the number one thing a school could do to help teachers become more trauma-informed is to build more planning time into their day. Not having enough prep time can turn a great teacher good, a good teacher average, an average teacher bad, and a bad teacher abusive.

This shouldn’t be. For myself or anyone in education. Conversations about increasing teacher planning time are essential to any conversation on how we can make education better for our young people. And, when we make choices under the pressure of a system set up for teachers to burn out and eventually fail, they are often counterproductive. We throw things on our walls without thought, yell at kids instead of working with them, are short with parents, whine about our administrators, brag about things that don’t matter, overlook things that do, hand out worksheets, and see lonely kids as bad. I’m sure anyone reading this could add at least 20 more things to this list that we become susceptible to when we are worn down.

We can do better, but it’s more work. I don’t have to eat the Christmas cupcakes in the staff lounge that have so many preservatives they will still taste fresh at Easter. Getting a real cupcake is not that difficult. But, to do it, I have to put my coat on and walk a few extra blocks. I should be willing to walk those few extra blocks even if I’m tired. Our kids deserve it.

And, they also deserve lawmakers and school administrators who are willing to take a look at how we can maximize teacher effectiveness and make supermarket cupcakes less tempting.

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Adam Whitlatch, W.Ed., a resident of Philadelphia, is a school counselor at Northwood Academy Charter School in the Frankford section of the city. He blogs on education at The Great Handshake, where this post first appeared.