Busy Teachers, and Conferences

Last year, I was giving a presentation at the start of a panel on teacher communities, talking about the Greenroom. I came to a section of the slides about knowing your users. “Teachers:” my slide read, with a blank space after the colon. I paused, and said to the audience: “I have one word about to appear on the slide, describing teachers. Can anyone guess what it is?” From the back came the loud yell: “BUSY!”. I advanced the slides to show my answer. “Busy,” I confirmed.

Fast forward a year, and I was on a similar panel about teacher communities. The topic arose of encouraging teachers to share materials. I talked about some of the difficulties on the Greenroom and CAS Online in getting teachers to share materials. We had implemented a wiki model and encouraged the idea that resources didn’t have to be polished — but even though teachers had resources, it still seemed difficult to get them to share. “This may be an unfair characterisation,” I said, hedging, “but on the whole it seems like teachers are quite meek [in this regard]. They are hesitant to share their own resources, and once other people upload resources, seem hesitant to edit another person’s resources for fear of treading on someone’s toes. Maybe this is partly the side effect of having a community with real names and real identities.”

Shortly afterwards, a teacher in the audience responded: “I don’t think it’s that teachers are meek — that’s not why they don’t share the resources. It’s partly that it’s what we do: putting out resources is revealing what we do to everyone. But it’s also that we know how much better the resources could be, if we could just spare an extra few hours to polish them to the best of our capability. It’s just that we don’t have the time for that.”

We all know the tale: teachers are busy. They’re not the only ones in the world, or in education, of course: academics are generally busy, too. But one key difference is that teachers are busy on a fairly fixed timetable, whereas academics are busy on a more flexible timetable. Let me explain: the academics there probably had a queue of work consisting of writing grant proposals, writing/reviewing papers, handling a few hundred emails and handling their doctoral students. That’s not to mention the teaching load, which may include marking or lecture preparation. They may have had to rearrange or cancel giving a lecture or two to be there, but that’s a normal part of university activity, and the universities that employed them were almost certainly happy for them to serve on the panel.

Contrast that with the one active teacher that we did have on this year’s panel, who spoke about the difficulties she had in getting to the panel, which she had managed to squeeze down to a one-day trip, flying across the country one evening and back the next. I’ve heard it before from teachers: unsupportive heads, the use of annual leave to attend such events — and thankfully in this case the host organisation was paying for her travel. Attending this sort of event, that wasn’t directly billed as training (even though it was surely useful to attend) just isn’t seen as valuable by schools, and definitely not when weighed up against the horror of a teacher missing a day of school.

The lack of teachers on education-related panels and at education conferences has been spoken about before, by Laura Dixon here, and similar sentiments by Mike Zamansky here. It seems wrong that teachers, and those who employ them, are unable or unwilling to value and support these activities as a part of teaching. I know there are logistical challenges involved, but that’s because the school system seems to have been built (or whittled down to be) without any proper time/resources for teachers to take part in training, conferences, panels, or similar. Until then, it looks like education conferences will continue to end up with non-teachers talking to non-teachers about how teaching should work.

3 thoughts on “Busy Teachers, and Conferences

  1. I’d like to offer some support for the teacher comment about sharing resources. In my research with high school CS teachers participating in the Disciplinary Commons, we found that teachers were hesitant to share resources or use others’ resources until they have established a trust relationship with them (https://dl.dropbox.com/u/2635522/ICER2012/ICER2012-DCCE-3-years-final.pdf). From the contributor side, it’s opening the door of the classroom and letting someone else see what they do, something HS CS teachers are not accustomed to doing. From the user’s side, it’s knowing how that resource was used, when to use, any tips and tricks, etc. Once the teachers had a relationship with one another and could see how they taught and their teaching philosophy in the classroom, they were much more willing to contribute and use each other’s resources. Establishing a community of practice is the first step toward sharing.

  2. I’d just point out that if the teaching profession were able to adopt the same ethos as the open source world then teachers might feel more willing to release material simply to get other people’s contributions and improvements. With all the pressure on resources, Heaven knows sharing development makes sense.

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