Why I won’t be applying to teach in Oconomowoc anytime soon

Image courtesy Oconomowoc School District

Not that I’m unhappy where I am–I am not really thinking about leaving MPS for the burbs. But the recent moves rearranging Oconomowoc High School and its teachers suggests that if the time ever comes I do search for greener pastures, Oconomowoc doesn’t have them.

Here’s what the deal is, courtesy of Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

In a move sure to capture the attention of school districts across the state grappling with how to reallocate resources in a time of reduced funding, the Oconomowoc Area School District administration on Tuesday proposed a profound restructuring of its high school, cutting staff and demanding the remaining educators take on more teaching duties.

The kicker: Those remaining staffers would each get a $14,000 annual stipend.

The plan requires reducing Oconomowoc High School’s core teaching force by about 20%–from about 75 to about 60 people–across the departments of math, science, social studies, language arts, foreign language, physical education and art, Oconomowoc Superintendent Pat Neudecker said Tuesday before a school board meeting where the plan’s details were released.

Oconomowoc’s dramatic step reflects a district responding to reduced resources amid an urgent push to reshape teaching, with newfound leeway to adjust compensation, staffing and school structures without having to bargain with unions.

Richards starts putting this change in the context of last year’s Act 10, the bill that lets Wisconsin school districts have their way with teachers–school districts that want to, anyway. Oconomowoc apparently does.

A $14,000 a year bonus is not something to sneeze at, but the trade-off is why Oconomowoc may have trouble finding and keeping teachers: teaching four out of four blocks a day. OHS is on a 93-minute block schedule; teachers currently teach three of those blocks with one block for planning time, according to Richards, which is the standard for such schedules. For most of my career, in fact, I taught on the block–this year being year 3 out of 15 that I am not teaching on the block.

Which is why I know that teaching four–even with OHS’s oddly long 54-minute lunch hour! (pdf)–blocks without a break or any time to prepare anything would burn me out.

I often say that teaching is like doing one-man show. Or, rather, 180 one-man shows, several times a day. More than that, actually, because these days you have to differentiate–one show for most students, one for students who are behind and need extra help, and one for students who need enrichment. And you’re also required to provide accommodations for special education students. So, really, for every prep–that is, every different class you teach–you’re doing six or eight or ten different things every day.

In Oconomowoc, that’s now all day, with no time to plan.

Or time to call parents. Right now I have to call parents when students hit a certain number of times absent or tardy, I’m supposed to call when students are in danger of failing, and I really should call sometimes with good news, too.

Or meet with my department. Make copies. Go to the bathroom, for that matter.

When I write stuff like this, I feel kind of guilty, or like it’s just a bunch of self-serving nonsense, and usually I give up on the whining. (I began and abandoned a post, for example, complaining about this Alan Borsuk column bemoaning how now even the “top performing schools [are] feeling pinch from MPS budget cuts”–when one of my supervisors regularly suggests I sign up for donorschoose.org to get things like sets of novels to teach, it rankles to hear better-equipped schools complaining.) After all, I’m not digging coal in a mine or crab fishing on the Bering Sea–my job, while tough, is not exactly life-threatening or sending me to the poorhouse.

But this is a practical concern: As Borsuk notes in his column about the plan yesterday, to work smarter (rather than just harder) on this schedule means being creative and inventive in what you do:

Since it’ll be so hard to handle a four-block teaching load using conventional approaches, teachers will be motivated to adopt innovative approaches. One school board member asked at Tuesday’s meeting what teachers will do differently under the new plan. “I hope a lot of things,” Moylan replied.

In many ways, it can be summed up in the jargon of those who want a teacher to be “a guide on the side” rather than “a sage on the stage.” Less lecturing, more coaching. Fewer teacher-directed hours, more time centered on students taking responsibility for their progress.

With this caveat, that hardly anyone is a “sage on the stage” anymore. That transition has long since happened, something Borsuk and those running the Oconomowoc School District should know by now. And this is not easy work; a “sage on the stage” needs to write a set of lecture notes, once. I haven’t written a lecture in … ever, maybe? If I talk for more than five minutes at a time I feel pretty sure I’m doing something wrong. Teaching well these days takes a ton of front-loading, planning lessons that are both engaging and, you know, teach stuff, with all the necessary variations. It is not unusual (though, thankfully, not constant) for me to do two or three hours of prep work for one hour of teaching.

Oconomowoc teachers know this; one of them, Mark Miner, lays it out in yesterday’s paper. “It really is quite simple: Adequate preparation time is essential to quality education,” he says.

Oconomowoc teachers are losing that. With the hammer having fallen on 20% of their colleagues–15 teachers let go in an opaque process that, Borsuk says, is a “sure bet” to have included somebody’s definition of “quality”–teachers will work like the dickens outside of school to make sure they’re prepared. They’ll never have time to spend that extra $14,000.

So I’ll stay where I am, thank you. It may not pay as well, but at least I have the time (if not always the resources) to do my job right.


  • William Jackson says:

    A couple of things. A lot of the prep time could be mitigated by choosing a curriculum and sticking with it. My kids had for different math curriculums in 12 years. That is beyond dumb. Have the same teacher teach the same subject for those 4 periods. That’s how it used to be in my high school. Then you’re prepping for one class not four. The last thing is two words: Kahn Academy. Students view lessons at home (you remember home work right?) then they go over them the next day. There are some preliminary studies out there that say this works very well. Yes there are issues with kids without computers or the internet, but there has to be away to get that addressed.

    • Jay Bullock says:

      I don’t know what OHS’s situation is, but in many schools, it’s not practical or possible to teach the same thing all day (I teach three preps, for example, one of which is AP). It’s even less likely for elective teachers–foreign language, music, art, tech, etc. And Khan Academy seems to work well for subjects like math, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to other subjects.

  • William Jackson says:

    Oops. That would be “four” curriculums.

  • John says:

    That’s 1,116 hours in the classroom. 6.2 hours per day. Let’s assume you need 2.8 hours per school day to prep and do whatever else you need to do. That is a 9-hour work day. That is pretty normal for a salaried employee. That puts you at 1,620 hours per year. Standard full-time employees work 2,080 hours per year, and that is based on a 40-hour work week. Most salaried employees work significantly more than that. My point is that you need to quit your whining. You have plenty of time to get stuff done. You’re just so used to being coddled that you’d rather complain about it.

    Let’s break this down a little more. One more 93-minute block per day for 180 days is an extra 279 hours per year. A stipend of $14,000 correlates to an hourly pay rate of over $50. To put that in context, a standard full-time employee in the private sector who made $50/hour would be bringing in about $104,000 per year. That’s just straight pay. We’re leaving the benefits out of it. Again, there’s nothing to complain about here.

    We have an issue with the level of competency and motivation of our educators. You’re post here is a perfect example. You simply don’t want to do any more work even when there are clear financial benefits for you. You may have to work 9 or 10 hours per day for 180 days. Cry me a river.

    Welcome to the real world.

    • Jay Bullock says:

      “You simply don’t want to do any more work even when there are clear financial benefits for you.”

      There are, I imagine, lots of people whose concern when planning their careers is how much money they can make. Those people don’t become teachers. The point isn’t that an OHS teacher isn’t better compensated (or that teachers in general–for the moment!–don’t get fair compensation), but rather than an OHS teacher won’t have the necessary time to do the job well. Whether I get more pay or not, my work is going to suffer if I have to do 33% more of it with 100% less time to prepare for it.

      And by “my work” I mean “my students.”

    • Robin says:

      That breakdown works lovely in the business world, but not in the school setting, they are two different worlds I know I have worked both…have you? Until you have walked in a teachers shoes you should not assume you know how their day works, because from your post you clearly do not.

    • David says:

      “Welcome to the real world” indeed, John!

      I’m one of those salaried employees working > 40 hrs a week, so maybe I’m supposed to be in John’s corner here. The only complication is, during & after grad school, I also was a lecturer teaching a couple courses with 90 minute periods. So though I am not an academic animal, I’ve lived on that side of the fence so to speak.

      John, you’ve no idea how draining these sessions can be as an instructor. You can’t take a single “mental health moment,” you have to be on nearly every second, it is exhausting. Much more so than a comparable time at a desk, or even in a meeting of a small group.

      John, maybe you do presentations as part of your job? I do. If you do too, then here’s the real analogy: think about what it would be like to do six straight hours of presentations every day, furthermore to a group that isn’t professional & already “selected” to be capable of processing what you are saying. Furthermore, your job security is directly hooked up to them reproducing enough of what you said on a test. Yikes!?

      Even I, a fellow salaried employee in the “real world,” think you have no idea what you are talking about, John.

  • Art Hackett says:

    I think what they’re envisioning is lots of computer assisted instruction where students do work on their own and the teacher, rather than lecturing, works one-on-one answering questions, explaining fine points etc. Virgina Tech is doing this for undergraduate math classes. How that works for English I’m not sure.
    Maybe this works. Maybe today’s kids are different than I was when I was in high school. But none of this has been tested. It may be a disaster. Do we really want to find out after we’ve switched an entire school district and run kids through it for four years, only to discover it’s a flop? Have any other districts tried this?

  • John says:

    That last “you’re” should be a “your”. My bad.

  • MadisonMan says:

    Mr Bullock, you seriously sound like a horrible teacher anyway.

    Thanks to voices like yours, its proof, Act 10 is working even better than expected. Weeding out lazy teachers (you) and rewarding the good ones. Real world lesson to teachers…if you dont like your job, quit. If you do, you’ll be replaced immediatly and noone will remember your name the day after you leave. Real World.

    Whining that teachers wont “have time to spend that extra $14,000” is sheer arrogance.

  • Anthony says:

    John or MadisonMan as you sometimes call yourself, see things haven’t changed since we first met. I feel like I have talked to you, or someone just like you. Just reading your comments here, you sound so much like the guy I met at the New Berlin School Board meeting last August who was chanting “Teachers Suck” at the top of his lungs.

    Regarding your ignorant commments on teacher jobs in Wisconsin, the word is out throughout Wisconsin and the entire nation that the anger and acrimony in the state of Wisconsin makes Wisconsin the absolute WORST place in the nation to become a teacher.

    Old farts like Jay Bullock are stuck here, but the next generation of teachers in America are running from Wisconsin like this state has a plague or something. What talented young person would want to teach in a state where you are villified as being overpaid by half of the people AND make $25,000 per year to start (in most districts)? Even with the teacher layoffs caused by Walker cutting nearly 2 billion dollars from public educations, there are hundred of teaching job vacancies for next year listed for science, mathematics, technical education, special education teachers in Wisconsin. Across America, talented young teachers are being advised to stay as far as possible from Wisconsin.

    In the short run, John, MadisonMan, and others of your ilk should continue to enjoy the rampant teaching bashing that has poisoned this state. In the long run however, driving the young talent away from Wisconsin will definitely have an effect on the future success of our state.

  • Nikki says:

    John… Im a teacher. I am in my classroom by 615 most mornings. Last night I stayed until 645 pm. I put in 9 hours on a good day. I work 8-10 hours each weekend. Most weeks I put in over 55 hours so please stop telling me that we are lazy. I also get to act as a parent all day too. Before you criticize I invite you to shadow a teacher for a day or two… You are more than welcome to spend time in my special education classroom and try your hand at teaching.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I’m so sick and tired of jealous PRIVATE SECTOR WORKERS WHINING that they don’t have union workers rights! Too bad! You chose to work at a job that did not have them. TWO WRONGS DO NOT MAKE A RIGHT!

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