Handling Teacher Preps

I was initially horrified at my schedule when I first saw it last June. Having since conceded the possibility–just the possibility, mind you–that I might have overreacted, I thought I’d discuss teacher preps.

Preps is a flexible word. A teacher’s “prep period” describes the free period the teacher gets during the day, ostensibly to “prep”are. “I’ll do that during my prep” or “I go get coffee during “prep”. But if a teacher asks “How many preps do you have?”, the query involves the number of separate courses the teacher is responsible for. So a teacher could say “I have no prep, but I’m only teaching one prep–geometry” or “I’ve got three preps and it’s brutal” without explaining which prep is which.

Non-teachers can’t really understand preps properly without realizing something I’ve mentioned frequently: teachers, particularly high school teachers, develop their own curriculum.

Odd that I’m mentioning Grant Wiggins again, but a little over a year ago, he said that too many teachers are “marching page by page through a textbook”. I’m sure that’s true, but said even teachers who march through a textbook using nothing but publisher generated material, make decisions about which problems to work, which test questions to use, and, unless they are literally walking through the textbook as is, which sections to cover. And those are extreme cases. Most teachers that I would describe as “textbook users” still make considerable decisions about their curriculum, including going “off-book”.

So preps are a proxy for workload. A teacher with four preps has a much greater workload than a teacher with one prep.

I’ve taught at 4 high schools (including my student teaching) and observed how many others operate. So this next description is typical of many schools, but variations on the theme occur.

At both the middle and high school level, math teachers are kind of like the swimmers in Olympic sports—we’ve got the most events.

English has many courses, but more of them are electives (journalism, creative writing) and then there’s the “ELL” split that few teachers cross. Most students take a four year sequence by grade, either honors, AP, or regular. Science and history courses add up because unlike math, each course has an AP version. Science has a 3-year sequence that lower ability students take four years to get through; the rest take an AP course in one of the same subjects, or an elective. History has a four-course sequence over three years, and can’t take an AP course again, which is too bad.

High school math has a six-course sequence that students enter at different points–five course if you count algebra 2/trig as one. From geometry on, each course has an honors version. Calculus is generally offered in both general and AP versions AB and BC. Algebra often has a support course. Then there’s statistics and AP Stats, and usually Business Math. Toss in Discovery Geometry. What is that, 17? And unlike ELL vs. regular English, we math teachers cover it all.

English and history high school teachers rarely have more than two preps, often a primary and secondary. I won’t say never. Science teachers are the most likely to have single preps, or general and honors in the same subject, because they have specialized credentials.

Math teachers often have three preps. Larger high schools may have more specialization. Maybe in big schools you’ll hear someone described as a geometry teacher, or a calculus teacher. But that’s just never been the case in any school I’ve seen.

To the degree math teachers do specialize, it’s a range of the 6 year sequence. The most common is the algebra specialist, a gruesome job that others are welcome to. (It’s only been four years since algebra terrors, my all-algebra-all-the-time year, can you tell? I still get flashbacks.) Some algebra specialists have limited credentials and unlimited patience. Others are genuine idealists, determined to create a strong math program from the bottom up. All of them can go with god, so long as I don’t go with them.

Sometimes you find the high-end experts, the ones that teach AP Calc, honors pre-calc, AP Stats, or some combination of. Sometimes these folk are the prima donnas with the math chops. Other times, they just aren’t very good with kids so they get stuck with the most motivated ones—they also teach the honors algebra 2 and geometry courses sometimes, because they just can’t deal with kids who aren’t as prepared or motivated. (No, I’m not bitter. Why would you think that?) And while we don’t have a name for what I do, it’s not uncommon for a math teacher to focus on “the middles”, the courses from geometry to pre-calc.

But not all schools go the category route. Others require all math teachers to cover a low, mid, and high level course in the sequence to be sure that no one gets cocky.

So now, after that explanation of preps, go back to the beginning, when I mention my hyperventilation over easy, familiar preps that I thought would be boring. Many teachers would agree—quite a few colleagues in all subjects commiserated with my dismay. Other teachers consider it rank abuse of power when admins assign them two preps, much less three.

Why? Because some teachers love the additional workload, love building and developing curriculum, mulling over the best way to introduce a new topic. For teachers like me, that’s an essential element of teaching—and repetition, teaching the same content three or four times a day, is so not essential, but rather Groundhog Day tedious. Others see curriculum as something they want handed to them or will do, reluctantly, once. Or, something they’ve honed after umpty-ump years and it’s perfect so they aren’t changing a thing. To these teachers, curriculum is a distraction from their primary job of teaching, the delivery of that curriculum–the job they actually get paid for. Give them the day of the school year, they know what they’re teaching.

If you’ve never really considered teacher preps before, certain questions might come to mind. Does teacher effectiveness (however measured) vary with the number of preps? Does teacher effectiveness vary by subject? (I’ve wondered before if I’m just better at geometry than algebra, for example.) Could we improve academic outcomes by giving weak teachers one prep in a limited subject, and strong teachers multiple preps (assuming we know what that is)? Do teacher contracts negotiate the maximum number of preps that can be assigned? While Ed’s informed assertions are interesting, surely there’s better data that gives a better idea of how many preps high school academic teachers have, on average? Or middle school teachers?

What terrific questions. They all occurred to me, too. And while I’m a pretty good googler, I began to wonder if I wasn’t using the right terms, because I could find no research on teacher preps, no union contracts restricting preps.

Let’s assume that some research has been done, that some contracts exist but escaped my eagle Google. Teacher preps still are clearly not on the horizon. I can’t remember ever hearing or reading a reformer mention them. When I was in ed school, the subject never came up—how to identify the best combination of preps, what number was optimal, and so on. Given how little control teachers have over preps, ed schools may just count it as one more of the nitty-gritty elements of the job we’ll discover later.

Education reformers simply don’t understand the degree to which teachers develop or influence curriculum and the resources it takes. They don’t understand the tremendous range of curriculum development that takes within a school. Moreover, most reformers don’t even understand that preps exist or have any impact on teacher workload. Few of them ever taught at all. So they don’t really know what a “prep” is, and then assume that most teachers rely largely on a textbook. That doesn’t leave them much room to mull.

Researchers don’t discuss preps much, either. I’m not even sure Larry Cuban, who describes teacher practice better than almost anyone, describing here the multi-layered curriculum which explicitly describes teacher-designed curriculum, has never written about preps. Many researchers also tend to confuse textbooks with curriculum.

I wonder if researchers are prone to ignoring high school preps because they would have to acknowledge how questionable their conclusions are without taking preps into consideration. If a researcher compares two high school teachers using a new curriculum, does it matter if one teacher has one prep and is teaching the same topic all day? This may give that teacher more time to adjust, notice patterns, change instruction. Meanwhile, the busy teacher with three preps who is just teaching one class with the new curriculum may just be doing it as an afterthought. Alternatively, teaching one class all day may also bore the teacher to the point of rote delivery, while the teacher with one class jumps in with enthusiasm.

Once I really started thinking about preps from a policy perspective, I became really flummoxed at the lack of play it gets. I may be missing a whole field of research, that’s how odd it is.

Administrators keep preps firmly in mind; whether contracts require it or not, they rarely give high school teachers more than whatever a commonly agreed amount is (usually three). Ideally, they will limit new teacher preps, although my mentee from last year had three preps each semester. Now that I think on it, I had three preps, too. Never mind—they pile it on newbies, too.

If VAM ever gets taken seriously at the high school level (which I find very unlikely), preps are likely to become a contract issue. Teachers being judged on test scores will probably demand a large sample size, which means fewer preps.

Fewer preps for teachers, of course, means far less flexibility for administrators putting together the dreaded master schedule. Ultimately, it means more teachers on the pay roll or fewer courses offered, because fewer preps and less flexibility must be compensated for somehow.

And hey. I just realized that Integrated Math (bleargh) schools have fewer preps. Maybe this is another foul plot of Common Core.

For myself, I do not want limited preps, even if my feet are forced to the fire on the point that hey, I’m really enjoying this easier year. But honesty compels me to point out that preps should be explored for their impact on teacher satisfaction, teacher productivity and–to the extent possible–academic outcomes.

I have no real ideas here. Only thoughts to offer up and see what others have on tap.

However, there’s another issue never far from my mind that perhaps the above mullings cast some light on: that of teacher intellectual property. Stephen Sawchuk just wrote a great piece on various issues in the related arena of teacher-curriculum sharing, and mentioned IP and copyright. I have huge issues with the absurd notion that districts own teacher-developed curriculum, which I’ll save for another post.

But surely this post makes it obvious that if teacher preps vary, then one of two things must be true. Either teachers in the same subject are getting paid the same salary for doing dramatically different jobs–and I don’t mean quality here, just work expectations.

Or teachers are paid to teach, in which case the actual delivery is the same no matter how many preps we have. Teachers then have the choice–the choice–to use the book and supplied materials extensively, or develop their own, to do the job as they determine it should be done. This seems to me to be the obviously correct interpretation of teacher expectations and the “work” they are “hired” for.

And in my world view, teachers are not paid to develop the curriculum, and therefore the district can keep its damn paws off my lessons.


About educationrealist

31 responses to “Handling Teacher Preps

  • M T

    I just discovered your blog by way of a link from John Derbeyshire at vdare.com. I liked what I read in your blog. It’s great to hear real thoughts and real questions about teaching from someone who actually does it every day and seems to be observing and questioning everything around him. I think that I will be a regular visitor.

    I’m a high school teacher too. I teach Spanish and ESL. This year I was given four preps. I am teaching Spanish 2, ESL 1, 2, and 3. But to get around negotiated agreement language they put the ESL 1 and 2 in the same class. However, it is still two preps.

    I think that it was helpful for you to clarify for the lay reader the different uses of the term “prep”. I think most people don’t realize what teachers mean when they use the term. Heck, even I didn’t realize the difference until just a few years ago.

    I do agree that it’s the number of preps one has that determines the work load. I can be at maximum student capacity (in my state it’s 168 students per high school teacher) but if I only have one prep it’s easier than four preps as I have now.

    I use the textbook as a framework for instruction and curriculum design. Years ago, when I first started teaching I used to try and create all my own curriculum and then one day I woke up and asked myself why I kept reinventing the wheel. Since then, I use the textbook more, but not exclusively. I rely on textbooks for several other reasons. It makes it easier for parents to understand what students are doing in class and where we are going. I have had parents that want a syllabus with exact dates keyed to the textbook. For people like that it is just easier for me to use the textbook. Several years ago, I also got to thinking that if I didn’t use the textbook, basically, I was wasting taxpayer money. So I decided that since the state saw fit to provide this tool, why not use it. I decide in what order I will cover things and which topics to emphasize and I frequently supplement what’s in the textbook with readings from other books and dialogue activities or grammar practice exercises. Textbooks for learning any language as a foreign or second language never have enough of those activities. The extra activities I use on the Promethean Board or smart board. I scan them and put them up there for the students. They’ll do the exercises and then we go over them as a class with individual students coming up and writing the answers. Students learning a second language need this kind of practice.

    My biggest complaint this year is that the school really doesn’t support or encourage students to learn English. The school I teach at is obsessed with creating a “Dual-Language” Spanish/English school. Most of the money for 2nd language instruction is invested in these Spanish Language Arts classes and in providing core classes that are taught either in Spanish or in both Spanish and English. The ESL classes are kind of like the unwanted stepchildren. I should explain that the Spanish Language Arts classes are really literacy classes for all the Mexican, Cuban, and Central American students that are here–most of whom are probably here in violation of federal immigration laws. The courses exist so that these students won’t lose their Spanish and will be able to acquire the use of academic language in Spanish. The geniuses who thought up this idea didn’t consider that acquiring academic language in Spanish is a useless and unnecessary goal. I regularly teach Spanish and, in fact, that was my major at the university. I think Spanish is a beautiful language and I like to speak it, however, I know very well that nothing important in technology, engineering, math, or science ever occurs in Spanish-speaking countries. (Spain might be the exception here in bioscience and genetics.) However, even in Spain any scientific papers are written in English. So acquiring academic language in Spanish at the high school level is a stupid and pointless goal and a poor investment of resources and time.

    Meanwhile the ESL classes are underfunded and don’t have enough materials. Recently I bought five bilingual dictionaries in Arabic/English with my money because the school doesn’t provide them and my Arabic-speaking students do need these tools. The whole school is focused on everybody speaking Spanish all the time. The ESL students are never encouraged to speak English outside of my class and they are never expected to acculturate to US culture except in my class. So, of course, their progress is slow.

    It’s getting late and I have to sleep for tomorrow’s 168 student adventure. Thank you for letting me vent a bit and again I liked your blog and I appreciate that you are writing it.

    • educationrealist

      Parents don’t get to force me to use the textbook or demand what day goes to what syllabus. Thank goodness. I understand what y ou mean about the Spanish Literacy classes; we have those too.

      On the textbook, I would argue that the taxpayer dollars are wasted on textbooks that aren’t useful, being forced to use them just adds to the waste. But I use them when they are relevant. Good comments, and thanks for the kind words.

  • EB

    It took me a long time to realize that educators (including teachers, principals, and districts) can mean many things when they say that they create their own curriculum. It can mean, and ideally does mean, that the teacher has internalized the scope and sequence of learning that’s inherent in the topics to be covered, to the point where s/he can build instruction for each class with a great deal of coherence. Or it can mean that s/he is winging it to present stuff that s/he likes or is good at, with no sense of what the structure of the discipline calls for. Even with the first, I prefer to see a textbook for the reasons that your first commenter noted.

    • educationrealist

      It can also mean he or she is winging it because the students are completely incapable of grasping the book material, which is too difficult for them. I don’t even bother with a book in algebra 2 anymore.

      • EB

        I don’t call that winging it. You’re still (I’m sure) presenting a body of material that has structure and fills in gaps that the students may have. Just without a physical textbook.

      • educationrealist

        Sure, but you just said that going without a textbook is winging it, I thought.

      • EB

        What I meant was that some, even many teachers who don’t use a textbook are winging it. But that’s not necessarily so. The way you describe the thought processes you use to plan and deliver instruction makes it pretty clear that you are not one of those who could be described as winging it (even if at certain moments you’re not sure what you’re going to do next; that would describe pretty much all of us).

  • M T

    I can relate regarding the use of textbooks that are too difficult for the students. My ESL 3 students just can’t grasp most of the pre-reading activities in the book. I have to water them down significantly in order for them to even be capable of grasping a smidgeon of what’s intended. I’ve also heard the math teachers at my school say what you’ve said about the algebra 2 textbooks.

    One idea about textbooks that I wanted to get across is that the whole topic is often viewed in a very black/white fashion: i.e. textbook — bad, no textbook — good. This simplistic viewpoint is often seen both in and out of education circles. I think the reality is nuanced. Some textbooks can be good with a few supplements and some are good on their own. Some textbooks really are bad. For example, my Spanish textbooks are generally good. The authors made a good effort at including the basic topics and usually they cover them well. I still have to supplement the grammar topics with more practice exercises and I have to provide more readings in Spanish, however overall they are decent. There is a discernible structure that is logical and makes sense–for the most part. Here and there are a few quirks, but nothing I can’t work around or overcome.

    Now, my ESL textbooks on the other hand…well, those are just one big multicultural mess. The thematic structure seems random, as if the authors had pulled topics out of a hat and said, “Yeah, this seems neat. Let’s go with this one!” Grammar topics are scattered randomly without any sense of continuity to what was presented previously nor how they might relate to the readings. And hardly any practice is provided for the grammar topics–even in the Level One books. No formal vocabulary is presented nor are there any practice activities to use the vocabulary. That’s just not good at all. About the only constant throughout the whole series is the repetitive theme of multiculturalism and diversity repeated again and again in the readings and the pictures and the artwork. That comes through loud and clear, over and over and over again.

    But I use the textbook anyway for several reasons. Some of my students are so unacculturated to US behavioral norms for school that learning to bring the textbook to class everyday is a big new skill for them. They need lots of structure and the experience of continuity and bringing the textbook and working with it a little bit every day helps provide some of that structure. For many of them, the textbook is the only book they are going to see on a regular basis. It might be the only text they even try reading. So I use the ESL textbooks but I do lots of picking and choosing. It’s a mixed bag. But it is a resource and it does provide lots of stories for us to use in class, so I’m not going to refuse to use it out of any sense of professional outrage because I think the book isn’t good enough. It isn’t. But the probability I will get anything better is low and even if I did it won’t be here in time for this school year. My district did not adopt new textbooks for English or Modern Classical Languages last year as we normally would have because according to the state there was no money. (I’m guessing the funds went to Pearson Inc. for the PARCC test administration.) So this is what I’ve got to work with and I’ve chosen to try and make the best of the situation. One final reason I use textbooks is time. I just don’t have the time to create a new curriculum for every prep. It’s just physically impossible for me.

    One principal for whom I once worked advised me to pick my battles. And it’s been good advice. I could try to raise the issue of not purchasing textbooks or of trying to get different ones however, that decision is much larger than me and requires input from publishers who are at least willing to put in a bid. And sometimes they aren’t willing to do so. In my state there are just so many problems with our schools that textbooks as a problem seem small in comparison to the other issues.

  • pithom

    I’ve wondered before if I’m just better at geometry than algebra, for example.

    -I certainly am.

    can’t take an AP course again, which is too bad.

    -Don’t see why. Do you want more Korean crammers having more opportunities to memorize answer choices? Then again, I only got 5s on my AP tests, so I never had a problem with the one-chance rule.

  • pithom

    And how does this “prep” thing work? I’ve heard of it, but never sought to inquire into it further. Does “four preps” mean “four hours of preparation per week” or “four a day”? I think the latter’s implausible. I always thought High School teachers had one hour of prep per school day, but apparently, I’m missing something.

  • Roger Sweeny

    I misread the title as, “Handling Teacher Perps.” The article was not nearly as exciting as I had expected.

  • CriticalNumeracy

    Ha! There aren’t usually middle schools in Australia so “secondary school” goes from Year 7 to 12. My friend started his first year of teaching with a class each in Year 7,8,9,10 and 12 science (12 was Chemistry, the rest were general courses with tasters of each topic in every year). An incredible amount of curriculum to stay on top of as a veteran let alone a first-year.

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  • A very tired lady

    Last year was my first year as a math teacher and I worked at a small school where I was the only math teacher. I had 10 preps (yes, more classes than periods in a day with kids thrown in each period in 4 or more different subjects). I worked 90 hours a week. I switched schools this year. Now I teach math and science. I have a different prep every period. We have a PLC meeting every week and no prep every other Friday and sometimes other meetings so I am lucky if I get 2 or 3 48 minute prep periods a week. I work most nights and weekends and every vacation to keep up. Is this normal? I find it very, very discouraging.

    • educationrealist

      No, it’s not normal. I would find a new job. And until then, I wouldn’t work nights and weekends and vacation to keep up. Do what you can, and update your resume.

    • Roger Sweeny

      It’s not normal here (eastern MA). I put in a lot of extra hours my first year but that was because I was new and ignorant and full of energy (and had to teach Honors Physics, College Physics, and Physical Science). Later I taught two of the three and had a reasonable life, though I did a lot of work at home, simply because I was more comfortable there.

  • surfer

    My HS experience was that the teachers semi-specialized. The best chem, bio, math teachers all had the AP class and honors classes. For English, there is just way more teaches and classes but the teachers were grade specialized. And then the best one within the grade would do honors 9, honors 10, APUSH, and AP English. Of course they had their regular kids too. For math and history, it was basically the same: grade specialization and the best one within the grade had the honors kids. By best one, I mean best command of the subject. So most of the teachers had 2 preps and they were somewhat similar.

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  • Keith Buhler

    “preps should be explored for their impact on teacher satisfaction, teacher productivity and–to the extent possible–academic outcomes.”

    That’s a good point.

    In my 12th year teaching (and 3rd year at this particular school) I was given 4 preps and five classes plus an elective (which thankfully I don’t have to prepare since I am the secondary teacher) and it’s just about killing me. At the same time, dropping down to one prep would eventually bore me.

    So for satisfaction and effectiveness, my hypothesis would be that two preps or (over time) three is maximal. But where’s the research, I wonder?

    • educationrealist

      There isn’t any. Middle school math has even more preps than high school, from my conversations. I love a lot of preps but as I think I mentioned, every so often it’s nice to have just one or two to really nail down the curriculum. But it’s kind of amazing how little research there is, which is why I wrote the piece!

  • John Heckathorne

    As an English teacher in a small Pennsylvania school district, I have six preps, including two college-level Dual Enrollment courses. Granted, the grades overlap; however, the planning is unique to each course. Needless to say, I’m working just to stay afloat. I commiserate with your course load.

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