Teachers Unions Have the Cure for What Ails America’s Schools

Clerical work and other chores sap educators’ limited time. Solution: hire more support staff.

By Glenn Sacks
Wall Street Journal, Nov. 14, 2019 6:57 pm ET

The rookie science teacher looks at me with the same “Am I understanding this job correctly or am I crazy?” look I’ve often seen in the eyes of new teachers.

“No, you understand,” I say. “You’ve been thrown into a situation that requires an enormous amount of work and a good amount of ability, and it’s sink or swim. You might naturally expect the system to help you, or at least acknowledge the position you’ve been put in. It won’t.”

Teachers have come under considerable scrutiny in recent decades, and everybody claims to have the silver-bullet reform that will fix education. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, charter schools, raising the qualifications to become a teacher, limiting or abolishing tenure, and countless other measures have been taken up by Congress and state legislatures since I took my first teaching position in 1989.

Yet there is little public discussion about the education system’s central problem: Teachers don’t have enough time to do our jobs properly. Teachers unions understand this and fight to protect our ability to do our jobs.

Here’s one reason for teachers’ “time poverty”: Unlike other white-collar professionals, we face an enormous burden of clerical and low-level work.

In what other industry would four highly educated professionals wait in line for 20 minutes to use the one functional copier? Where else would a highly trained counselor spend 30 minutes making sure teenagers throw their juice cartons in the trash during lunchtime?

Noninstructional work too often squanders teachers’ time: yard duty before and after school, parking-lot duty, lunch duty, chaperoning school functions and athletic events, and substituting for absent teachers. Teachers unions fight to reduce or eliminate these chores.

Because it is far more time-consuming to teach three, four or five different subjects than it is to teach one or two, unions fight to limit teachers’ subject load. Being assigned too many subjects—sometimes dropped on us with little warning at the beginning of the school year—leaves teachers beleaguered, especially new teachers. When we’re thrust into this situation, administrators often tell us: “You only have to be one day ahead of your students.” That’s technically true, and we’ve all done it, but “one day ahead” teaching isn’t going to fire a student’s imagination or spark lifelong interest in a subject. It takes several years for a teacher to master teaching a new curriculum. Mastery requires that many things come together—detailed subject knowledge, lesson plans, effective teaching methods and the selection of optimal exercises or readings for the course.

One of the joys and curses of teaching is that we can always do more to help our students. To serve their unique needs, we have to create individualized programs. This takes time we often don’t have.

To provide one example, I’ve noticed that about a dozen of my students perform much better in answering and asking questions in class than on written exams. One solution would be to give them individual oral assessments.

This isn’t a cop-out—if a student sits with me for 30 minutes taking an oral exam, his or her knowledge will be easy to gauge. The challenge is finding the time to administer such exams.

Here are some ways to make teachers more effective:

  • Reduce class sizes, an issue in both the October teachers’ strike in Chicago and the Los Angeles teachers’ strike in January.
  • Provide teachers with support staff for clerical work.
  • Hire sufficient staff to eliminate extraneous chores.

Limiting class size and hiring sufficient staff would save teachers’ time from being squandered. That in turn would allow us to focus more on creating imaginative lessons and interacting with students. If these changes came about, some of the many worthwhile things we’d have time to do include:

  • Developing individualized programs to help struggling students.
  • Creating unique assignments for students based on their personal interests.
  • Assigning more essay questions, which are time-consuming to read and mark up, on exams.
  • Meeting with students individually to provide feedback on their writing.

Teachers are so accustomed to time poverty that to many of us it seems normal. It isn’t. I’m from a family of attorneys, so teaching’s unnecessary burdens have been obvious to me from the beginning. Teachers aren’t less important than attorneys, but attorneys have staff to help them succeed. I have to be the equivalent of attorney, law clerk and legal secretary combined.

After decades of rancorous and often ill-informed debates, it’s time to implement teachers unions’ solutions. We need to restructure schools so teachers have the time we need to serve our students in the way they deserve.


Mr. Sacks is a teacher and co-chairman of United Teachers of Los Angeles at James Monroe High School.

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