URBANA – How much of a teacher's work lies outside the classroom?
There are the tests and homework to grade, the meetings with parents and other teachers, the lesson planning, the improvement lectures, committees and workshops, the No Child Left Behind-inspired curriculum and test preparation. And so on.
"We really don't sit here and play," Prairie Elementary School teacher Nan Picchietti said. "We have so much to do now as the bar keeps going higher – and we still have the same amount of time to do it in."
As the Urbana school board prepares to vote Tuesday for a proposal to add three days of elementary teacher development time – and to take that time away from classes – they're looking at what the teachers would do with the time and how much teaching the students would miss.
The proposal calls for time for elementary staff to develop districtwide plans for subjects like math and reading, look at student work collaboratively, study educational standards and "coach each other to excellence."
If passed, the full-day sessions would begin in spring 2007, allowing the state time to approve altered teaching hours.
The sessions could not happen as effectively during weekends, after school or the summer, said deputy superintendent Preston Williams, who stressed the need for all teachers to participate.
"When it's a weekend or a Saturday you don't get all (the teachers to attend)," he said. "Weekends and after school, teachers have lives as well."
The advantage of holding the days during the school year, he said, is that teachers can apply what they learn in their classrooms immediately. And holding the days during the school year demonstrates how important these activities are.
"It's very important that our teachers have the ability to do the research necessary ... to ensure that our students are getting what they need," Williams said. "And that takes time."
Teaching the teachers
Currently, the district has six half-days interspersed throughout the school year for elementary teacher professional days. During that time, teaching and support staff can meet as a school or a district to discuss progress, train in new methods and hear from education experts.
In the proposal, administrators want the board to increase those six half-days in elementaries to full days of teacher development.
At a May 5 early release day for students, Prairie teachers met in a fifth-grade classroom for an afternoon of teacher committee presentations and 2006-07 goal-setting.
"I want consistency from kindergarten on," principal Gayle Jeffries told the staff. "The last thing we need is for kids to keep getting different messages."
Committee topics included language arts, math, parental involvement and special education.
Results of committee discussions included reviews of math and literacy scores on state tests and suggestions on way to improve the students' abilities – like hosting a math fair in which third-graders make probability games.
"A lot of our committee work is: How are we going to get these kids back up here – close the gap?" Picchietti said.
Her colleague Michelle Bailey is a Title I math teacher for 42 students this year. The heavy caseload leaves her little time to confer with other teachers during school on student progress.
That's why she hopes some of the extra time will go to-ward allowing teachers to work with each other on individual students – a topic only tangentially mentioned in the proposal.
Leal Elementary School principal Spencer Landsman said time already is provided in his school for teachers to plan for individual students, but Leal teachers need time to look at how they work with the school's English as a Second Language students.
"Each building is going to have different needs – that's why some of the (teacher development time will be held) in the building," he said.
Landsman said every elementary principal worked on the proposal for more teacher training. "It's difficult when there are a lot of initiatives and new things from the district, from (No Child Left Behind)," he said. "Everyone's willing to address those concerns, but people want to be trained properly."
Teaching the students ... or not
School board members John Dimit and Joyce Hudson said they understand why the district wants more development time – but they don't think children should sacrifice classroom learning for it.
They're leaning toward voting "no" on the proposal as is.
"My concern is for the student perspective and the need for the students to be in the classroom," Dimit said.
He suggested the schools add a few minutes of teaching to the end of each regular school day.
Said Hudson: "If they can work (that extra class time) in, I don't have a problem with it. But that's the glitch."
Board members Cope Cumpston and Mark Netter said they approved of the extra collaboration time but worried about the lost instruction.
Cumpston hadn't decided her position yet. "I've got to do my homework."
Netter said, "I tend to favor it, but I've got some real concerns about the lost time."
At Dimit's request, the district compiled how much time teachers spend instructing students.
Elementary students have 990 minutes of instruction a week, 45 more than at the high school or middle school.
Both upper schools have one early release school day each week for teacher development time, motions that passed, though with concerns from some board members about the lost teaching time.
The district also found that the schools have exceeded state minimums for teaching time by more than 300 hours this year, which the district calls "banked" time. The extra development time would amount to 15 hours.
Teresa Westenhaver, parent of a Prairie Elementary School student, supports the elementary proposal.
"The schools are there to teach the kids, not be the babysitter," she said. "If they've identified that's what the teachers need ... I'm for that."
Angie Roberts, parent of a student at Yankee Ridge Elementary School, also supports the proposal, but felt it would be useful if the school or park district offered a day camp or other activity to help working parents.
"For myself, Megan stays home with me, no big deal," the stay-at-home mom said. "For the other parents ... it's just so difficult.
"It's six more days on top of Memorial Day, you have spring break, you can run into quite a problem. ... (Parents) still have to keep working."
That loss of student in-school time is another reason Dimit said he wants to make a rule so teachers can't take off staff development days as personal days, except for illness or emergencies.
The rule would require a change in the teachers' contract.
Other school board members did not return calls or could not be reached for comment.
According to the district, teachers taking off on professional days hasn't been a problem.
During the half-day teacher development sessions last school year, fewer than 2 percent of teachers requested personal days.
To Bailey, those develop-ment days would be time for staff to teach and work with each other.
"I could really benefit from that time working with other teachers," she said. "I think it would really help the students in the long run.
"It's an inconvenience for the moment."