A Cathartic Discussion, Putting the Bell on the Cat, and Business as Usual

Editor’s note: This is the ninth chapter in a series called “Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math While Looking Over Your Shoulder” by Barry Garelick, a second-career math teacher in California.  He has written articles on math education that have appeared in The AtlanticEducation NextEducation News and AMS Notices.  He is also the author of three books on math education.  Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd.” The previous chapters can be found here:

Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3 , Chapter 4 , Chapter 5  Chapter 6  Chapter 7 and Chapter 8

Ch 9.  A Cathartic Discussion, Putting the Bell on the Cat, and Business as Usual

My meetings with Diane at my previous school were not always confrontational. Sometimes we got into my interactions with other teachers which I found fairly enjoyable. While it’s not quite gossip, it does have cathartic benefits.

Shortly after James and I met with the moderator who wanted us to meet for six two-hour sessions and collaborate on how best to teach math (see Chapter 6) Diane asked “Are you getting along with James any better?”

“Well, he was definitely friendlier towards me after that meeting.”

 “So there’s been a breakthrough.” Diane said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said. “He was friendly for a few days. He’s back in his non-talkative passive-aggressive mode.”

“I’ve met his wife,” Diane disclosed. “She works as a counselor at a high school near here. She’s very nice,” she said and sipped her coffee while looking at me out of the sides of her eyes. “Except when she isn’t,” she added.

“Sounds like a marriage made in heaven,” I said. She almost spit out her coffee.

“I find when I talk to teachers, that one of the biggest complaints about teaching is not always the teaching itself. It’s frequently about getting along with other teachers,” she said.

This made a lot of sense. One event in particular came to mind when she said that. During my first year at the school, the Superintendent was pushing for having seven periods rather than six. This meant that our classes would be forty-five minutes long instead of fifty-five. It would be even shorter on Wednesdays when we were dismissed early because of the weekly staff meeting.

The seven period day, in fact, was the topic of discussion at one such staff meeting, led by the Superintendent. Prior to the meeting, two of the teachers were in the room, and they agreed with me that shorter class times were not a good idea. “You’re right, Barry,” one of the teachers said. “It would really end up forcing us to cram a lot of things in.” She said she would speak out against it.

When our meeting began, the Superintendent talked up the benefits of the new schedule since it would allow students to now have two electives instead of just limiting them to one. And an elective could also be two periods long: sixth and seventh periods. With more electives, this could open up more teaching opportunities—an important consideration, given that the largest class was graduating and enrollment numbers were dwindling.

 “But I want to hear from you now,” he said. “What are your feelings about this schedule?”

The silence that followed reminded me of Aesop’s fable about which mouse was going to put the bell on the cat.

Given the discussion prior to the meeting, I felt I was on safe ground to start the discussion.

“I’m not for it,” I said. 

All eyes were suddenly on me.

“A shorter class period will make it difficult to teach. Right now Wednesdays are my worst day because class length is 45 minutes and I often don’t get done what needs to be done. With seven periods, every day will be like Wednesdays are now—and Wednesdays will be even shorter.”

“So I take it that you would be voting ‘no’ on this?”

I wasn’t aware that this was a vote, but now so informed I replied “That would be safe to say.”

Discussion continued. The Drama and PE teachers concurred with me, and then it was James’ turn.

“I think this would be a good step forward,” he had said. “I would like the opportunity to reinvent myself as a teacher…” and other words to that effect.

After he spoke, others now seemed to approve of the seven period day including the teacher who had previously agreed with me that it was a bad idea.

“I can’t blame her,” I told Diane. “She’s worried about her job and didn’t want to be against the Superintendent. Plus I think James being the union rep kind of makes him the thought leader.”

“Don’t get me started on teachers’ unions,” she said. “I’m starting to get a whole different take on this now.”

The union influence, such as it was, didn’t hold a candle to the history teacher’s final words on the subject.  He had taught at the school for 30 years and was well respected. Although he voted in favor of the seven period day he offered this reflection after the yeas were seen to outweigh the nays: “I think it’s a shame that we’ll be going into the next school year with some people not happy about this change and a cloud hanging over them. So I propose we think about this some more.”

Apparently the Superintendent did. At the next staff meeting he announced that the current six period schedule would remain, though he was disappointed in the reaction. I guess he wanted unanimity. Apparently James was disgruntled about it as well.

“I don’t know if he’s held it against me,” I told Diane.

“He might have,” she said. “It’s hard to say.”

It’s hard to say a lot of things that go on in any school. I recall another time—this one a party—James was talking with the third grade teacher who mentioned the downward trend of state test scores on math at the school.

James gave a reason for that. “It’s because we don’t have students collaborate with each other enough,” he told her. She nodded in agreement at what is accepted as educational wisdom. Perhaps James thought there wasn’t enough collaboration in my classroom. Who knows? Hard to say.

In any event, I decided to not bring up that particular conversation at this session with Diane. Despite her dislike of unions and distrust of people who represent them, she was likely to say “Well he does bring up a good point; what are your thoughts?”

Our conversation turned to the usual business of filling out her online checklist. There were plenty of avenues for her to pursue what I thought of dubious practices, so no need to give her ideas.

3 thoughts on “A Cathartic Discussion, Putting the Bell on the Cat, and Business as Usual

  1. A rather curious timetable. Six classes? With rotation? Many teachers would agree that starting and ending a class can be arduous so 45 minutes can only compound the problem. It’s too bad that research to support the change wasn’t included.


  2. For the middle school grades at the school I mentioned, there were six periods per day. The school was looking at shortening the periods to have seven in one day; no rotation.


  3. I get wanting to give kids more electives, but the downside is that it is another grade they will worry about. And they do worry about those grades.


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