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First-Order vs. Meta-Work: It’s Time To Scale Back To Keep Teachers From Quitting

Wow, I was surprised at the number of teachers who messaged with crazy stories. We have to do better. And if you have an amazing admin who protects your time, tell them you appreciate them.…cause there are some ERMAZIN ones out there.

Posted by Gerry Brooks on Thursday, December 2, 2021

Gerry Brooks has some straight talk for school leaders—watch the video above if you haven't already seen it.

Over the holidays, teachers will quit. Maybe not many in your school, but enough to cause a serious crisis, because we're already short on subs.

Fun activities and Christmas presents will NOT keep these people from quitting.

They are overwhelmed with the work itself, because it's gotten so much harder.

Actually, it's not just the work itself—it's the meta-work we've added onto it.

Let's make a distinction…

First-order work: teaching students (including planning, grading…all the “traditional” stuff teachers have done since time immemorial).

Right now, we need to let teachers focus on first-order work. Everything else can wait. Such as…

Second-order work: meta-work that produces secondary artifacts for audiences other than students, such as:

  • Lesson plans turned in to administrators (not “planning,” which is first-order, but actually having to turn in plans)
  • Administering assessments or collecting data (beyond that involved in teaching the curriculum itself)
  • Meetings of any kind
  • Paperwork of any kind

Here's an easy litmus test: subs do only first-order work. 

Subs teach students (ideally following the curriculum). They don't attend planning meetings or do any of the second-order stuff teachers are currently overwhelmed with.

And this is a handy test, because guess who'll be replacing teachers who quit?

Subs! So the meta-work isn't going to get done anyway—and that's the best-case scenario, if you can even find subs.

Be honest: if you have to cover classes on January 3, are you going to do all the meta-work your teachers are expected to do right now? You can't possibly. 

A central office administrator challenged me on the idea that second-order work is optional:
Anything with data, plans, paperwork, documentation...it can all wait

Another telling feature of second-order work: it's mostly been made up by the managerial class in the last decade or two.

Teachers didn't do any of this stuff when we were kids—and in most cases, it has never been explicitly added to the job description.

We've continually raised expectations, putting more and more on teachers' plates, for decades.

Without more planning time. Without lighter teaching loads. And we've expected them to just handle it.

Well, now they're starting to break, like an overloaded styrofoam plate at Thanksgiving.

And it's not just the difficulty of the first-order work, and the added burden of second-order work.

There's also third-order work! This is work done with second-order artifacts to create artifacts even further removed from teaching students.

Second-order work: administer progress-monitoring assessment (not part of curriculum)

Third-order work: meet with team to analyze data

But wait…like on the infomercial, there's more!

Fourth-order work: send administration your meeting notes & post data on the data wall.

It literally never ends…and all of this is justified in the name of improvement, or catching students up, or whatever goal that will be totally undermined if teachers quit.

And look, I get it—these may all be good things to do. But right now, we have to prioritize.

An analogy:

You should go to the dentist every six months AND buy groceries. But when you're down to your last $100, put off the checkup for a few more days and buy the dang groceries.

“But how will we ensure our long-term dental health if we skip checkups?”

I don't know, but going hungry is sure bad for your teeth—and everything else.

Improvement meta-work is important, but having teachers is much more important.

Now, I am not saying any of this to put more stress on YOU or make your job harder.

In fact, here's the good news: backing off on meta-work expectations will greatly reduce your stress level.

  • Stop collecting lesson plans. 
  • Stop making teachers meet and turn in notes.
  • Stop doing stuff with data. 
  • Stop all paperwork.
  • Stop badgering teachers to turn things in.

If it wasn't being done in 1991, I promise: it can wait. 

When teachers say “Just let me teach!” this is what they mean: stop with the meta-work.

We need people to show up, take attendance, maybe do lunch count (is that still a thing?), and teach kids.

Everything else—all meta-work—can wait.

But what if you're getting pressure from the central office, or the state, or whomever? 

Here's some sample language you can use if your higher-ups are demanding meta-work:

  • “We didn't get to that—we're dealing with some really extreme student behaviors right now.”
  • “We're not going to get to that this month—we're severely understaffed. Can you come and help cover classes?”
  • “I've been having to cover classes myself, so that's not something I've had the luxury of worrying about this month. We're in crisis mode.”
  • “Right now we're really just focused on survival. If teachers are showing up, and kids are safe and learning, I'm happy.”

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