Middle school teachers think planning time cuts are hurting students

Math teacher Piper Jones listens to her students before distributing a quiz.
Math teacher Piper Jones listens to her students before distributing a quiz.

Middle School teachers in Anchorage fall into two groups — elective teachers and core class teachers. Before this year all of the teachers were given extra time to work together and try to ease the transition of students from being kids in elementary schools to young adults in high school. But this year it’s different — elective teachers don’t get time to collaborate. And some say it’s students who are losing out.

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About 120 students crowd into the Wendler Middle School gym practicing skills for the Native Youth Olympics. Some grasp short sticks while others attempts yoga-like handstands. PE Teacher Nadine Price and two others jump from group to group giving directions on the stick pull and the high kick. It’s precisely controlled chaos.

“As long as their moving and active and not getting hurt — safety — like see these guys are doing it backward,” Price says looking at two seventh grade boys. Before she can react, “They figured it out. A lot of times if you give them a minute they will figure it out, and you let them try it. It’s trial and error and then keep them moving.”

Soon the period ends and Price books it down the hallway to get to her health classroom where students are already waiting. She enters and heads to her desk.

“This is my stack of papers I’ve been trying to grade for a week because I just haven’t had time. And I tried to grade it Friday after school but that didn’t work…”

She trails off as she starts chatting with students then launches into a class on bullying. Soon, the class is over and her planning period starts. But instead of working on grading, more students file in to eat lunch in Price’s classroom.

“Why are you guys eating lunch in here instead of the lunch room?” I ask a couple of 8th graders.

“Cause it’s peaceful in here,” says Mohasen Sharife.

“Yeah, it’s peaceful,” concurs John Quinones between mouthfuls of cheese balls.

“And Ms. Price is in here and we love her,” Mohasen interjects.

“And there’s a lot of drama going on in the lunchroom all the time,” says John.

“Like what kind of drama?” I ask, not quite remembering what it was like to be in middle school.

“Rumor spreading and lies and stuff,” Mohasen explains.

They say the drama makes middle school tough. And then you add in the homework.

“I mean, this is just middle school, and it’s already a bit complicated for me,” says Mohasen. “So imagine high school where it’s like, you have to be responsible for yourself and all that. It’s a scary thing.”

So they seek out the support of their teachers, which is why core teachers have an extra team planning period to make sure their students are thriving. But now elective teachers don’t get that period, so teachers like Price often give up their personal planning time.

PE teacher Christine Sager says the lack of team time is hurting her relationship with her students.

“I don’t know what’s happening with anything else in this building. I have no idea what any other teacher is doing. Which means I can’t relate to the kids,” she says. “You know, I don’t know my kids. I don’t know them the same way at all [as I did in other years]. Which means I can’t help them, which is what the middle school model was.”

Middle school elective teachers started teaching six periods per day instead of five this year because of budget cuts. Math, Science, Language Arts, and Social Studies teachers still only teach five per day. Elective teachers think it’s unfair. Most core teachers at Wendler, like Piper Jones, agree.

Jones says team planning time is invaluable for discussing how to coordinate classes and how to help kids.

“If we want to pull in a student and have a one on one time with them without the pressures of having the other classmates nearby, or all of us pull them in together and say ‘Hey, we noticed you’re kind of on the downhill slide. What’s up?’ And usually if you do that, they break down and they tell you what’s up.”

Team planning periods are also used to develop interdisciplinary units, analyze testing data, and plan motivational events like ice cream socials to reward attendance.

Jones says it’s harder to communicate with elective teachers now, and she feels sympathetic for their extra class load. She understands why there is tension because elective teachers are being treated differently.

But it’s important to note that not all core teachers feel the same. Andy Holleman with the teachers union says some don’t think elective teachers need the extra time. Holleman says the middle school model is implemented differently in each school and elective teachers play different roles.

“The principal is in a position to make sure that teachers are delivering on the expectations. And there have been times that hasn’t happened. So to some degree some core teachers are looking at it and going ‘I see some people who just have additional planning time.'”

But Holleman says the situation is fracturing the schools and needs a long-term solution. But that could depend on the budget, which is yet to be determined.