November 29, 2008

Death March

Recent research suggests that a trend toward working more hours continues, with men working almost 50 hours a week and women working nearly 44 hours. This causes productivity problems for employees. In a Families and Work Institute survey, 2/3 of the respondents indicated they didn't have enough time with their children, and almost that many felt that they were not able to spend enough time with their spouses. More than half of the respondents felt they needed more time for themselves and were overworked in the last three months. The same employees got less sleep and experienced higher levels of stress. One third of the survey's respondents report they often lack enough energy to do things with their families after work.

The study concludes thusly:

Of particular concern are the negative spillover effects that demanding and hectic jobs can have on the quality of workers' personal lives and well being. This spillover is reflected in high stress, poor coping, bad moods, and insufficient time and energy for people who are personally important, creating problems that, in turn, spill over into work and impair job performance.

It's very common for business professionals to work more than 40 hours per week. Software business experts Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood talk about the implications of this in their Stack Overflow podcast:

The Death March book by Ed Yourdon talks about this idea that yeah, you can make programmers work 80 hour weeks, and they will get twice as much done as they did in their 40 hour weeks, but you're incurring debt. And you're going to pay back that debt in triple in terms of just sort of burnout and that kind of stuff. So, you can definitely, if you want to, spend a week, if there's really a deadline, you want to make everybody work 80 hours and get the thing done, that's fine, but the week after that, you're going to get nothing done.

Teachers, though, have deadlines every day. Every day, we have classrooms full of kids who are expecting us to have a top-notch education prepared for them. Most of us write our lessons and grade assignments on our own time after school. Unlike in business, where deadlines are periodic, we face new deadlines every day.

We end up working overtime to meet this week's deadlines, but we don't get a break the next week like Atwood and Spolsky suggest business professionals should. Next week, we have more papers to grade and more lessons to plan. We do get a ten week break during the summer, but the nine months of constant deadlines can be very stressful.

One thing that leads to burnout among business professionals is the situation where employees are given tasks but not the tools they need (including time) to complete those tasks. This situation seems to be quite common in education. It's not that we don't love our jobs. It's not that we don't like the kids. But we're only human, and we have limitations. Many of us spend our evenings and weekends working, especially first year teachers.

I see a tradeoff here. We need to work hard enough to produce a top quality education for our students, but not too hard to completely burn out. Lazy teachers with poorly prepared lesson plans don't help kids. But, teachers who have meticulous and stellar curricula but who are burnt out don't help kids either. It's a classic design tradeoff.

Source: Galinsky, Kim, & Bond. Feeling overworked: When work becomes too much. Families and Work Institute, 2001.

November 22, 2008

Yay For Mediocrity

It's no wonder that U.S. students are falling behind. It's no wonder that the public is demanding more accountability for public schools. What some teachers are passing off as education is laughable. Career and Technical Education teachers, who many times are not accountable to any state or national standards, might be the guiltiest of them all.

Case 1

Earlier this year, I was using my prep hour to hang posters for one of our student organizations. I pass by the business classroom, where one of my colleagues is teaching a Sports and Entertainment Marketing class. I decide to hang out in the hall for a while and eavesdrop a bit. Here's what's going on inside the classroom.

She is teaching the class about BILLBOARDS. Yes, BILLBOARDS. Now, let me back up. Billboards might be a legitimate subject for a business class. If the teacher synthesizes this particular form of advertising with a larger conceptual framework, such as the four P's, or the product life cycle, or human psychology, or marketing budgets, or whatever, it would probably be an appropriate thing to talk about. If she's teaching in such a way that actually results in students constructing or learning new knowledge about business, it might be a good topic.

However, my colleague is teaching at the absolute most basic cognitive level. She's teaching students WHAT A BILLBOARD IS. She's teaching them that WORDS SHOULD BE BIG ON BILLBOARDS BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE DRIVING FAST. She is speaking very loudly and slowly, almost as if the students were too dumb to understand a normal conversational tone. These people are old enough to vote, old enough to drive, old enough to enlist in the military, and she's talking to them like they've never seen a billboard before.

I sneak a peak at a grading rubric that one of the students must have left behind. Students are graded on things like: colorful, big words, creative, catchy, and effort. Apparently, the students are given a couple of days in the computer lab to design their own billboards with who knows what software, probably Adobe InDesign. I'd like to ask this teacher what exactly she thinks the students are learning from this.

Case 2

I'm taking over a Marketing course from a teacher who left last year. I looked through her old course materials, and this is what I discovered:

  • Half – yes half – of the term is spent playing a video game disguised as a business simulation.

  • Students get to make a collage about themselves by cutting pictures out of magazines! They're graded on creativity.

  • The most difficult part of this class is designing a new label for a fictitious sports drink.

Really, what are they learning here? This class is an absolute insult to their intelligence, and after going through all of the previous teacher's materials, I have no idea what the students actually learn about business by taking her class.


I could go on and on giving examples like this. I could start another whole blog called "ineffective teaching" and I could fill it chock full of stories like this. Teachers who don't know their own subject area or treat students like little kids. Lazy teachers who give out worksheets and show videos and call that an education. Don't get me wrong, there are some stellar teachers in public education, but there are so many duds. In fact, research has shown that on average, college students entering the teaching profession are relatively weak academically (Walker, Kozma, & Green. American education: Foundations and policy).

You won't find students playing video games and making collages and creating sports drink labels in my classes. This is from my syllabus of the Marketing class I'm about to teach, which I've completely re-designed, as I have with almost every other class I've inherited from someone:

These topics are current, rigorous, and relevant. Contrary to what many people believe, I've found that students don't want easy classes. They want classes that challenge them and in which they actually learn something. I've had very positive feedback from students in my classes using this approach.

Honestly, I'd really like to write about some other examples of just terrible teaching that I've seen but this post is already long enough.

The Administrators

My first formal evaluation was a couple of weeks ago. It was during a class I taught in the computer lab. This class has 34 students, and if you've ever taught in a computer lab, you know that invariably, at least a couple of students will be distracted by the computers, either playing games or doing homework or whatever. This was the case during my evaluation, and the administrator docked me for it.

So, now I have this thing in my file saying that I'm below standards in the area of managing behavior, because a couple of students were distracted by the computers for a few minutes. There were some really good things in the evaluation too, but still, there's this black mark.

Rather than seeing how much better these classes really are than what they used to be, and how much work I've done to improve them, and how much the students are actually learning – instead of seeing that – they come in, see a kid playing a game, and conclude that I don't know how to manage behavior.

Wow! I think I'll sit down with this administrator to discuss the situation.

In Conclusion

Students deserve smarter teachers. Administrators should realize that.

November 20, 2008

Are There Any Doctors On Board?

Who influences your teaching style? Today the answer surprised me.

We were talking about tax-sheltered retirement accounts in my Investments class today, and I was demonstrating the benefits of pre-tax accounts on the board.

Me: So, let's say your paycheck is $1000, and the government takes 20% of it in taxes (humor me here). What's 20% of 1000?
(wait a couple of seconds).
Me: Somebody say 200.
Student: 200

My face turned into a smile as I remembered one of my old deadpan math teachers who would do this all the time. Ask the class a question, give us the answer, and then politely ask that someone say the answer. This teacher's humor was even dryer and more deadpan than Leslie Nielson in Airplane!, the best movie ever made:

Stewardess, I think the man next to me is a doctor.

I noticed a dorky smirk on one of the kids in the front row whose sense of humor is apparently as dry as mine.

What's interesting is that I only remembered where I got this idea from AFTER I had already done it! What other habits, good or bad, am I getting from my old teachers? Who influences your teaching style? A lot of what goes into it, I think, isn't even necessarily on a conscious level.

November 18, 2008

I Know, Right?

Each new generation of youth brings with it a collection of annoying catch phrases. "I know, right?" is the most annoying yet. I was quite taken aback the first time I heard it.

Me: I think poly-sci majors should have a better understanding of economics.
Jim: I know, right?
Me: What do you mean "right"? Of course, that's what I just told you. You don't need to ask me "right" about something that I just said, idiot. If you know, why are you asking me if you're right?

Honestly, how is someone supposed to respond to this? Let's try another example.

Me: It's pretty cold outside today.
Ann: I know, right?
Me: __________________________________

What's the correct response?

  1. (laugh) Yeah!! Right!!!

  2. (don't say anything)

  3. No shit.

  4. Yes, that's right. But you didn't need to ask me that because I just said it.

Honestly, this phrase serves no constructive purpose whatsoever. But people think they'll sound cool if they go around saying it. Probably because Joe Freshman remembers how strange the phrase seemed the first time someone used it on him, and he realized that he could make other people just as confused by saying the phrase himself, and everyone else is doing it so it sounds cool. So Joe Freshman goes around saying "I know" and then asking if he's right and pretty soon everyone's doing it.

It doesn't sound cool.

Please stop.



Just stop.

November 15, 2008

The New Face of Computer Applications

Computer Applications classes at middle and high schools are usually focused on teaching office productivity tools. They usually use the Microsoft Office suite of Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint. But desktop applications are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The World Wide Web has basically turned the software industry upside down. In the olden days, people would go to a physical retail store, buy a box which contained a floppy disc or CD, bring it home, install the software on their computer, and then use it. Technologically savvy users would download the software from the web instead of going to a store.

But the days of buying software and installing it on your computer are almost over. These days, most software is run in a web browser. You go to a website and can access the software from anywhere with a browser and an internet connection. Instead of buying software, the new model is to deliver software as a service. Think of your own computer use. I'll bet that the vast majority of it is spent looking at a web browser.

Things that in the past required you to buy software for can now be done on the web:

The future is clearly not in traditional desktop applications, but in cloud computing. Almost any software that a business needs can now be found on the web. There are several advantages to this:

  1. Web applications are platform independent. They can be used on any operating system and hardware.

  2. Updates are automatic. You don't need to re-install any software when updates are released. Instead, the software company simply updates the code on the server. Anyone who uses that website is always using the latest version of the software.

  3. No more software to install. You don't need to install the software on every computer that needs to use it. A browser and internet connection is all you need.

  4. SAAS is cheaper. Many companies set up their fees on a per-user basis. Software is leased, not sold. You only pay for the time you actually use the software.

  5. Web applications eliminate IT overhead. Since the software is hosted elsewhere, your business does not need to worry about supporting and administering the software.

  6. Web applications are easier to learn. Users do not need to learn a new UI, since they are already familiar with the web.

Businesses are realizing the power of web-delivered software. Schools are too. The districts I've worked at use Infinite Campus and SchoolCenter for student management. Both of these are great examples of web applications.

So, here's the question: with more and more software moving to the web, what are we doing still teaching desktop applications to high school students? Should we really keep teaching them Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, when the future of software is clearly in the web browser?

I say no. I'm gradually changing my Computer Applications class from the desktop world to the web world. There are plenty of Web 2.0 tools that are great resources for students:

Blogs. Blogging is a great way to get students interested in computers. They love creating their own web pages. Some free blogging services are and

Wikipedia. Wikipedia lets students contribute knowledge to the world. They can edit articles and even write their own articles. Businesses use wikis internally for communication about more specific topics.

Google Docs. Students can create documents and spreadsheets online and access them from anywhere.

Google Maps. There are endless possibilities for research here.

Social Networking. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr allow students to connect with others who have similar interests.

Let's not underestimate the power of these web-based tools. After all, they were a central part of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Look what they did for him! I've found that student get really excited about using these tools. In ten years, they'll say, "I remember when we used crusty-old desktop apps in school!"

I'm not saying we should stop teaching office productivity software. Certainly, there is still a place for this. But let's not forget about all of the other computer applications that students will be using in the future.

November 8, 2008

Don't Worry. Be Happy.

I assert that high school seniors have too much stress in their lives. One of my classes this term is composed of some very high achieving and intelligent business students. Their ACT scores are all in the 30s, and their GPAs are equally high. They're very involved with extra-curricular activities. On weekdays, they attend school during the day and go to their part-time jobs at night, leaving very little free time.

But the biggest cause of their stress is the enormous decisions that they need to make about their futures. The students in this class are applying to several colleges and trying to decide where to go and what to do once they get there. This is a constant topic of conversation for these students. They know that this one decision can have a major effect on the rest of their lives. This decision is consuming them.

Most of the blame for this stress can be placed on parents and teachers. For their entire lives, we have been harping on them about how important college is and how big this decision is. We're always telling them to achieve more, to do better. We're telling them that they need to be in organizations and take leadership roles in order to have a leg up on the competition. We're telling them that they need the highest grades, the best test scores, the most friends, and the longest resumes, and that if they don't, their futures are ruined. They've been over-scheduled since the time they could walk. We have been watching and criticizing their every move. No wonder they're stressed.

Please, let's take some pressure off of these kids. Let's stop telling them from the time they're in diapers that they have to be the best at everything. Let's tell them the truth about college. The truth is that controlling for other variables, life satisfaction has absolutely no correlation to where you go to college (pdf). It does not matter how prestigious your school is. The truth is that many people end up getting jobs outside of their major areas of study. The truth is that these students will not just have one career in their lifetimes (pdf), but that they're free to change careers when their interests change.

The truth is that human beings are generally not very good at predicting what will make us happy. We greatly overestimate how happy we'll be about good decisions and how disappointed we'll be about bad decisions. In reality, people are very resilient and will be about as happy regardless of which choice they make.

Seniors: Relax. Smile. Take a deep breath. You'll be fine!