News Translation: Self Defeating School Reform

I read an article about how the school reform has affected the Danish state schools which have to implement it. I thought it was too interesting not to translate.

Some background: The government wants to overhaul the state school sector. They want a lot of changes, a lot of improvement. They want inclusion of special needs. They want to save money. They want teachers to do more things. They want students to learn more and do better in international comparisons.

Fair enough, sounds like standard government fare.

What they did was introduce all the changes at once. Longer school days, more time in the classroom for teachers, inclusion, new subjects, new emphasis. In Denmark, employers also need to run structural changes by the unions and come to an agreement together. The government/employers bypassed all this when the unions raised concerns about the potential loss of preparation time if there was no upper limit on time in the classroom by forcing a month long lock out.

When the government ‘stepped in’ to break the deadlock between the employers and the unions, they knew they had to appear impartial and not as if they had orchestrated the whole thing from the beginning, so they gave some concessions.

One concession was that teachers would have longer working days, sure, but they would not have to work outside those hours AT ALL, not without overtime payments.

In other words, teachers come in at 8am, leave at 4pm and THAT IS IT. No writing reports at home, no marking essays at the weekend, no lesson planning while watching Borgen. Everything done at work. Everything.

The following article is about the mess this has made in one school.

Before I let you read it, I want to say that this has not just affected state schools. The working conditions of the state school teacher are the same as the private school teacher and even the teachers of adults, like in language school.

I have met a few people working at other private schools, and many of them are in permanent crisis. Some schools have worked out a system that bypasses the madness, others have entered into an understanding that teachers have a list of things to do and they just do them, no matter how long it takes which can result in no upper limit on workload, which means that some people are working 50-80 hour weeks just to get it all done. In DENMARK, where work-life balance is king. If they complain, they are told it is their time management at fault.

(For reference, if they work in weeks where students are not there, they should be working around 37.5 hours a week. If they don’t work in those weeks, it is more like 42 hours. And some periods in teaching life are busier than others, so it can be more like 45 in certain terms and less in others)

Still others have the 8am-4pm system like the state schools. I read about one school in the union magazine and they seemed the happiest of all. Busiest maybe but much more secure in what they were doing.

This is what you get, by the way, when non-experts get to decide stuff like this without consultation. I’m not saying teachers are the best placed to make all the decisions, we are probably too close to the problem, but they are at least able to say things like “Hey, that’s not going to work, for the following reasons:-” if they are consulted first.

Here is the article:-

KARSTEN BRÄUNER, state school teacher

The introduction of the state school reform on 1st August 2014 created the most comprehensive and abrupt changes of the role of the teacher in the 200 year history of the Danish state school, first and foremost as a consequence of the ‘normalisation’ of teachers’ working time which the administration together with the association of borough councils (KL) implemented by law.

The changes raise the question about whether schools after the reform have the resources and are furnished with a structure which ensures consistently high quality teaching in day to day lessons. If the day to day doesn’t work, the school doesn’t work.

How has everyday school life been in the reform’s first two months? So much as has been said in such divergent terms that it is impossible for outsiders to get a clear answer. Nothing less than concrete examples from the reality in schools can serve as an answer to the question.

The examples shouldn’t be a scattergun, unsystematic reduction of the reality they should describe. Only comprehensive, coherent examples have the gravity to show themselves trustworthy and of documentary quality.

With the following day to day account of my preparation time in the period 1st September to 10th October, I hope to make such an example.

I argue that the example not only exposes one individual teacher’s situation but in its basic substance paints a picture of the situation for all state school teachers, as they have all been affected by the same reform – some harder than others.

Preparation time is the day’s non-teaching time minus the time that goes on ‘other activities’, mainly parent evenings, curriculum plans, school reports, planning of overnight trips to Brussels,along with team, teacher and ad hoc meetings. And also the specific time that is for preparing tomorrow’s lessons.

On paper, my maximum prep time for 26 lessons: Monday 70 minutes, Tuesday 90 minutes, Wednesday 55-100 minutes, Thursday 0 minutes, Friday 0 minutes – 215-260 minutes in all. From that, you need to take 45 minutes per cover lesson, which I have about 1.5 of.

Preparation time is absorbed in periods of administrative tasks. Parents’ evenings take up all the preparation time on the days they are scheduled and writing 253 school reports in two weeks leaves little time to prepare in the same period.

The day’s preparation time status refers to the contribution from the previous day’s preparation and d!oes not include any contribution of planning during lessons.

Monday 1.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 0 minutes.
Tuesday 2.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 45 minutes.
Wednesday 3.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 15 minutes.
Thursday 4.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 30 minutes.
Friday 5.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 8.9.: Preparation free day (national reading day). Preparation time for Tuesday: 60 minutes.
Tuesday 9.9.: Well prepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 30 minutes.
Wednesday 10.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 15 minutes.
Thursday 11.9.: Poorly prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 0 minutes.
Friday 12.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 15.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 15 minutes.
Tuesday 16.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 15 minutes.
Wednesday 17.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 10 minutes.
Thursday 18.9.: Poorly prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 15 minutes.
Friday 19.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 22.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 0 minutes.
Tuesday 23.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 30 minutes.
Wednesday 24.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 1 hour and 30 minutes (unexpectedly no meetings).
Thursday 25.9.: Well prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 10 minutes.
Friday 26.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 29.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 10 minutes.
Tuesday 30.9.: Poorly prepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 0 minutes.
Wednesday 1.10.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 2 hours 30 minutes (meeting free as usual).
Thursday 2.10.: Well prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 0 minutes.
Friday 3.10.: Well prepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 6.10.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 60 minutes.
Tuesday: 7.10.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 30 minutes.
Wednesday 8.10.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 60 minutes.
Thursday 9.10.: Preparation free day (guest teacher). Preparation time for after the holiday: 0 minutes.
F!riday 10.10.: Preparation free day (motions day). Preparation time for after the holiday: 0 minutes.

The goal of the reform was to make schools better through more exciting and varied teaching. Teachers’ reduced preparation time makes it impossible for the school to meet up to this aim.

The teacher is required in a high degree to follow the textbook slavishly, and avoid piecing their teaching together from different materials, organising activities, including movies and making their own resources etc as there was time for before.

Because of the reduced preparation time, the work of the teacher consists greatly of starting the students off at the start of the lesson and afterwards sitting at their desk behind their books and computer, to be able to prepare for the next lesson as well as possible. The teacher is still available for the students when they have questions but in a much lesser degree than the previous proactive initiator and supervisor. You can hardly call this teaching.

This is especially hard on weaker students. The reform inhibits the inclusion attempts by worsening the teacher’s opportunities to plan and implement differentiated instruction.

As well as this the reform doesn’t give the teacher more time with students outside of lessons. When the lesson is over, the teacher rushes back to his work room to get as much out of the insufficient preparation time as possible.

For the same reasons, the reform does not improve the extent of collaboration between teachers either. Teachers have always learned from and inspired each other. But with the reform, there is less time for cooperation. The time can only be taken from preparation time but the teacher has nothing left to give away when there is already not enough time to prepare adequately for the ongoing lessons.

Movement class and lesson support, the reform’s two wildcards, are squeezed as a result of the inadequate preparation time out into a position of a marginalised activity. No teacher with respect for herself and her students regards these activities as important as the core teaching in the subjects.

When teachers already have not got enough time to prepare for core teaching, then there’s definitely not enough time in the bank for movement and lesson support, so they fizzle out both professionally and educationally.

Even assuming that movement and support lessons could be a success, the two activities do little to deliver the aims of the school, compared to the loss of preparation time for core teaching.

In summary, it could be could be said that the reform establishes a teacher role which makes it impossible for the teacher to deliver the reform and the reform undermines itself at key points.

The problem with preparation isn’t only that the resources are reduced but also that the structure is atomised which results in wasted time from incessant stopping and starting, coming and going and endless unexpected interruptions. This can be quantified.

Previously, teachers had effectively 10-12 hours preparation a week, but could prepare more in some periods and less in others, depending on need. Today, the teacher has in reality 2-4 hours to prepare for up to a quarter more lessons than before the reform and with monstrously poor flexibility. This makes the teacher’s opportunities to prepare, reflect on and assess work competently virtually non-existent.

Before, teachers could collect in a class set of essays on Friday, grade them on Sunday and give them back on Monday. Now, teachers have to do the task – that takes about all of 1-2 weeks’ preparation time – over the course of three to four or more weeks, when it is possible. Fifteen minutes here, half an hour there, so the students can hardly even remember what they wrote when they get the essay back.

Preparation isn’t just getting ready for a specific upcoming lesson. Preparation also includes participation in courses and independent professional development to establish and expand your academic foundation, keep abreast of new materials for the subjects they teach and much more.

This ‘back catalogue’ of knowledge, insight and competences, that teachers previously accumulated year after year – and as such is the 90% of the professional iceberg hidden under water – will not be given priority in the newly reformed teacher role. This will create a significant professional downturn over time.

Education Minister Bertel Haarde wanted to define the nature and extent of the teacher’s work at the end of the 80s. A teacher said at the time to me “If my employer doesn’t trust that I’m doing what I should, he’ll get only what he’s paying for.”

That development has reached its inevitable nadir with the new law. But the government and KL have chiselled their definition of working time as ‘8-16’ in the teachers’ consciousness. Teachers are only at work when they are at school.

So, the employers have introduced the role of the teacher, which defines as a starting point for the operation of the school, that teachers are free after school ends. Even if it means the teacher comes entirely or partially unprepared the next day. A massive political own goal, where the negative consequences for development of state schools cannot be overestimated.

I teach history, but thought a couple of years ago that I didn’t know enough about the second Slesvig War. So, I bought and read – as is obviously a part of my job – Tom Buk-Swientys book “Butcher’s Block Dybbøl” and went to an evening event with him.

Today, I would have to ask my leader about using my working time to read a book and pay me a supplement for working after 17.00. It would take about 10-15 hours to read it, which corresponds to two to three weeks full preparation time. Would my leader assign me that time? And would he pay me the supplement. Hardly.

With the reform, the government and KL have shut down the completely crucial source of professionalism in Danish state schools: teachers’ commitment and self improvement.

The reform has redefined the teacher from a knowledgeable person with an open, ‘hungry’ and pro-active approach to reality, always on the way with new insights and competences, to a feeder that should stuff the national curriculum down the throats of students like corn into a foie gras- goose.

None of above statements come as a surprise to people with insight into Danish state schools. They warned but no one wanted to listen. From the ministry and government, over the association of borough councils to the school leader’s union, have all persistently persistently swept criticism aside with cheers of congratulation.

Even today, denouncing their reform’s standard bearing critics and keep blindly hold of their fantasy project, which they think can be driven to success with smart campaigns, slogans and starry eyed optimism.

But you need more than that. You can’t just solve structural and material problems with propaganda or turning a blind eye.

With their rhetoric, they are helping to raise parents’ expectations for a reform that is itself s!mashing the conditions needed for teachers to deliver.

Elegy

This is hard to write. Trigger warnings all over the place.

An old student of mine took her life this time last year. I think about her often. This is to her.

My first, temporary response to the news of your death was relief. Because I was sure the bad news was going to be the Worst News and then I thought I was being told you were only going to be late to the writing meeting. Relief is what I felt. Then your friend went on with the news and it hit me that it was indeed the Worst News and I felt confusion. Confusion before grief.

I looked up how you had died and it took some time because the news were being responsible. Even though your death was news worthy, they kept it out of the headlines. Suicide can spread you see. If the news report a suicide in a certain way, young people can ‘catch’ the compulsion. So, you were a person under a train where ‘all signs pointed to suicide’. Not a fifteen year old girl. Not a K-pop fan. Not a funny, shy and fiercely intelligent young lady. A person. Who died and stopped the trains for a few hours.

I want to smash everything at the thought that your impact on the world was a few hours delay on the trains. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

If I could have told you this somehow:- That genuinely and honestly this adolescence shit does get better even though it is pretty grim for a long time. Would that have made any difference? Could it have done?

Your mother opened a Facebook memorial for you and posted all your gawkiest childhood pics. Just like when my friend died of leukaemia and her mum played Bon Jovi at the wake. She kept calling you a ‘princess’ and ‘beautiful’. You were beautiful. Oh my god, the hearts you were about to break, girl. But that wasn’t the best of you. It wasn’t the most remarkable thing about you. It wasn’t YOU.

Maybe you were a princess inside but that is not what I associate with you at all. You weren’t some fucking girl in a big dress and a tower waiting for some boy to make you a woman. You were a bad ass. You were quietly subversive. You were hilarious. You were a little bit nuts in a good way. You were bookish and shy. You were fierce and brave.

And the way you took care of your friends and the fun you had.

So. I do not know what happened to you and why you felt the way you did. I wish I could have helped you. I wish you had accepted help from anyone at all. I don’t understand what happened. I did all the research I could. Exhaustively searching the internet for clues. Some meaning in it all. Eventually, I just talked to your friends and they told me that you were on an upswing. That you waited for a time when you were feeling the best, so you could never get so low again. We visited your grave. A day of three people not believing what just happened and not knowing what to say to each other.

A teacher at my new school put up a sign in the staffroom “Teaching is the ultimate act of optimism”. I don’t think I agreed with it until now. I taught you and I tried to make your life better. I hoped against hope that you would go on to have a great life. And you won’t. You died as a child. You didn’t get to see that all these thoughts are an illusion. That they pop up and try to pull your strings. But they are nothing. They are brain acid burps. Depression lies.

Nanowrimo

This is the story of Nanowrimo for me.

One day, in London, a friend told me about a writing competition where you write your novel against the clock. I signed up and then in the first week, a bunch of shit happened and I was too busy and blah blah blah.

Then I moved country and I had no friends and nothing to do so I wrote my first 50 000 word manuscript. Chuffed with my success, I came back from a holiday inspired by a concert and wrote my first 100 000 word manuscript over the course of 6 months or so. It was wild.

The next year, I decided to share the nanowrimo love with my students. My book nerd kids showed up after school and we had 5 minute dance parties, raisins and hot chocolate. I made a printed book of their best bits. I still have it. The next year: some new kids, some kids who had left school showed up. Same raisins, same hot chocolate, added popcorn into the mix. And I just kept doing it.

A librarian got in contact and we tried to run a library project together in my geography lessons. It wasn’t a rousing success but it wasn’t a bust. I mentioned Nanowrimo and he let us have our wrap party in the library. It was super sweet.

The next year, I was pretty sure I would be leaving the school (if not the town, if not the country) but I wanted to make sure my nanos had somewhere to go. So, I tried to make Nanowrimo more of a town thing. It didn’t really work for a lot of reasons but my students had somewhere to go. So, we would write in the town library and it was all good times.

I left that school and felt awful about it but I had to go. The next year, the library was hosting Nanowrimo again and so I got involved again but this time without having to organise a thing.

My twitter from when I was trying to get all the town interested was still up and so I had the twitter handles of my old students. And they were getting excited about Nanowrimo! Whether they were in our town or not. They were going to write-ins in their new city. Or thinking about their plots.

And I felt so warm and fuzzy, I cannot even describe. Like, it was just a way to share a love of books with my book-nerd kids. That is all it was. Just a bit of fun. And it turned out to be life changing. It turned out to be something good in their lives. And I went to our write-ins and they are growing and changing and I just feel so proud of them.

I haven’t won since that first time but, in a way, I have won every single year since I started the club.