Can We Settle This Please? What Should We Do About Homework?

Teacher burn out is a real issue. Many teachers do not survive past their third year, and even less make it past their fifth year. The most common advice that veteran teachers give to new teachers is to not bring work home. Set boundaries. Work is work and home is home. I believe there is a lot of merit to that advice. However, if we are going to stick to that, HOW in the world are we still assigning homework to students? We cannot say home is my space and I will not work there if we are expecting students to take work home. You know what? Stop. I don't want to hear about how you are only assigning 20 minutes a night. If students have six classes and all their teachers do that, that is still 2 hours of work per night. Are you working two extra hours per night? Do you expect all of your colleagues to work two extra hours per night? If the answer is no, then you can't give kids your 20 minute assignment. If the answer is yes, then maybe we need to look at that.

Examining Work-Life Balance

Since we are now more connected than we have ever been, it has become a lot easier to become a workaholic. Responding to work emails at 8 pm while watching TV is a normal part of a lot of people's lives. It is a lot easier for us to always be "on." While some can manage that lifestyle while still staying healthy and balanced, others struggle. That is why companies have been making the switch to zmail, an email curfew that requests that employees not send emails outside of work hours. I have known teachers who have stopped linking their work email to their phone altogether. When it's accessible, it becomes hard to disconnect. Often it may not even feel like much of a task. Taking 2 minutes to respond to a student after dinner is no problem. But during those 2 minutes, the brain goes back to work mode. An email can turn into 5 emails. An email can turn into an hour of lesson planning. Maybe it does not lead to more work, but it leads to anxiety which can lead to lower quality sleep.

The Expectations We Set

Okay, now here I go to tell you that I am one of the worst offenders. I respond to emails quickly and late at night because I check my email every 10 minutes. Earlier this year, I offered a live stream homework help after dinner on some nights. I use Remind, which allows me to quickly send out announcements to all of my students but also gives them further access to my help outside of school hours. I have recognized that some of these practices are unhealthy and unsustainable. What may be a bigger issue, though, is the message that my actions send and the expectations that they set. If I respond to a parent quickly at 7 pm, that now becomes an expectation. It also says that my time at home is less valuable than the parent's concern. Next time a concern arises, a lack of quick response can lead to unnecessary conflict. Additionally, it sets unrealistic expectations for students as they enter the professional world. They may be confused and ill-prepared When they enter a world where their colleagues and superiors are suddenly not always at their disposal.

Are Long Hours Necessary, Though?

Bill Gates could not have invented Microsoft on a normal 9 to 5 work schedule. There is no way Elon Musk comes close to what he has accomplished if he was not a work horse with his ridiculous habits. The most overworked students I know are all of my friends in medical school. Well, it turns out that being a doctor is actually really hard and there is a lot of crap you have to know. So the question becomes: If we do not have our students work outside of school, are we sending them into the professional world unprepared? Some companies only succeed because their employees are always "on." Some people only "make it" because they are willing to put in more hours than everyone else. That type of work ethic can come at a huge cost for professionals and students today. With the recent attention on mental health, this is something we have to consider. At what point is professional success no longer worth it because of the toll it takes on other aspects of our lives?

Equity Issues

I have heard the same damn story over and over again. "I was giving 30 minutes of homework a night. One day I worked late, and as I was leaving, I saw little Johnny at the bus stop. I offered to give him a ride home. On the way, he told me about how his mom works three jobs, so he has to cook, clean the house, and take care of his 7 siblings. That was the day I found a way to make sure little Johnny didn't have to take home 30 minutes of homework every night." I think we all know that if we have had this experience and if we have taught hundreds or thousands of students, little Johnny's scenario is not all that uncommon. In certain schools, it could even be closer to the norm. So rather than making adjustments for individuals, maybe we should just consider adjusting our classroom structure entirely. Even students who do not have a ton of responsibility at home can have major obstacles. Some kids go home and sleep all afternoon because it is the only way they know how to cope with their depression or anxiety. Just like you may enjoy rock climbing or playing music or photography outside of school, students have other passions they want to explore. That is what time outside of work should be for. Instead, kids feel beaten down because they go home to more work, get low quality sleep, then come back to more work. Our students come back to school each day tired, sometimes miserable, and less motivated to work on what we have for them that day.

Counterexamples

Jaime Escalante, made famous by the book and movie Stand and Deliver, was known for his crazy work ethic and the expectations he set for his students. Escalante was a math teacher at Garfield High School, a school in East LA that had a history of enormous struggles with behavior and academic achievement. Escalante came in teaching basic math and built up an extremely successful AP Calculus program. In the first year, all 18 of students passed the AP Calc exam. At the height of the program's success, 73 students passed the exam. The movie and book highlighted his unorthodox expectations. Students came to school early and stayed late. They came to school on Saturdays and during the summer. They were used to large homework loads and weekly quizzes. He wanted with every ounce of his being for these under resourced students to succeed, and he believed that goal required a large amount of work. Maybe the issue is not how much work we assign but rather the lack of work towards building a culture before setting high expectations. If Escalante can do it in one of the most challenging schools in America, maybe the answer is not to work less hard.

Productivity

Finally, we need to talk about smart phones. Since we are not by our students' sides at all times, we do not know what their work habits look like. It is very possible that 20 minutes of homework turns into an hour of homework because there are several 5 minute Instagram breaks built in. Have you ever seen a teenager use snapchat? They have become obsessed with their "streaks" which keeps track of how many days in a row they have snapchatted with each individual. It's not uncommon for them to have double digit people with triple digit streaks. Responding to all their friends now becomes a task that takes up way more time than you would expect. Response time is important, too. They are trying to respond to all of these people. Right Away. All day. And that is just one of their many social media platforms. By eliminating homework, we are essentially submitting to these distractions. Rather than reducing work, maybe we should be taking it upon ourselves to help students be more productive during their work time. It will not be long before these kids are the ones running and working at the companies that we depend on. If they are constantly distracted, that could be bad news for the progression of the professional world in the future.

Let's Meet in the Middle: Action Steps

Alright, so that was a lot of back and forth. Though all of my thinking, these are the action steps I have come up with:

1. Have a 10 minute conversation with your colleagues about how much homework they are assigning. You should be able to get a good idea of how much homework each of your students is getting each night.

2. Consider ways to build the necessary practice students need into the school day. Again, if work is supposed to be work and home is supposed to be home, try to find ways to help your students find that balance.

3. Consider ways to teach work habits as part of your curriculum. Have students intentionally reflect on how they are using their work time. They may be legitimately strapped for time or they may be wasting more time than they realize.

4. Do your best to model healthy work habits.

5. We want students who are willing to work hard who also can develop a healthy work-life balance. Reconsider the culture you are building in your class and really examine whether or not it is helping students develop those traits.

6. Talk to professionals in other fields and see what work-life balance looks like for them. If we are preparing students for the professional world, we need to know what companies are doing right now and what direction they are going so we can ensure they are prepared.

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