Lose Your Prep – Skip Some Steps

Mike Vargas Uncategorized

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This past school year my good friend in southern Arizona at a high school I will not name was asked to help out his department. You see they couldn’t find a physics teacher anywhere, but when the new laws passed that pretty much anyone can teach in Arizona; the floodgates opened and a whopping one candidate stepped forward for this lucrative position as a science teacher. As my friend Mike likes to say, “Vargas, I can size up these rookies after day one” My friend Mike is a former cop and tough as nails, old dog, veteran teacher, who would give anything for his kids. He has been around the block numerous times and then some.  So, when this rookie new teacher showed up straight from corporate America with zero skills working with kids – he knew right away this was not a well-designed game plan.

Just like a non-calculated, desperate plan of convivence; this experiment of gathering fresh meat for the corps, floundered miserably. As Mike would tell me later, this guy lasted all but 9 days in the classroom. I mean can you blame him? This guy got his first paycheck and realized the juice was not worth the squeeze. After being in corporate American where you have things like regular bathroom breaks and moments of Zen in front of a computer terminal, his reality was not living up to the dream he thought he wanted. In fact, he learned in 9 days what we in this profession have always known; and that is education is gritty, tough, hard-work. And you better believe we know it and were proud of it.

However, this is not what my story is about. It is what comes after that is alarming to me and should be to you too. I remember this story last year very well and was amazed that someone would just quit into 2 weeks on the job and just leave those kids hanging. But was even more amazing was that the district had the nerve to ask my old friend to teach all of his kids plus all of this other guys kids, together in the lecture hall – for the rest of the year….! Mind you it’s August!

I don’t know about you, but do you think you could handle 60 kids in a lecture hall for 5 periods straight with no prep? All I can say, is there would need to be some serious compensation behind that offer. But alas, we don’t work in corporate America where bargaining for more money is even possible. Instead we are in a system that offered my friend the standard partial 20% raise for taking the additional class. I had to shake my head a little bit, let me get this straight…. you take on double the number of students. grading, instruction, etc.… and you offer only a 20% one time raise in pay. Who would do such a thing??

The surprising answer is, more people do it than you think.

So, what does that mean to lose your prep period? Well other than the obvious of losing those precious minutes needed to get your lessons prepared and grades entered, I tell folks it’s akin to gambling your sanity away for 4-9 months. Because unless you have perfect angels all the way around, you better believe that your gray hairs will accelerate their growth.

So, what really happens when teachers lose their prep time? For one, your ability to maneuver and adjust. If a lesson goes bad or something happens and you need to make changes, the time to do so doesn’t exist. Like all things in life we can’t always predict the future. And without that prep, the ability to adjust, alter, and amend your instruction go out the window.

I have spoken to numerous colleagues about this situation over the years, and I can tell you that in many cases the level and quality of instruction diminishes. Teachers will inherently do less, and by less, I mean less assignments, less labs, and definitely less one-on-one instructional time.

Right now, I have a colleague doing this exact same thing. In her opinion the hardest part about losing a prep is the grading. Most high school teachers in Arizona have around 160-180 students for the school year. Losing a prep sends that number to 210 and higher. Unless your grading everything with a scantron or phone app, its nearly impossible to get through that many kids work and give any kind of constructive feedback. And even if you are using technology to get the grading done, the odds are you are not spending the time after to go over the work being done.

According to a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD report based in the EU( ), teachers in America have the highest face to face time in the world logging in at 1300 hours a year. Most other countries the numbers are more like 800hrs, with our favorite country Finland logging in at 700 hrs.  The OECD report is quite clear that us Americans are teaching very differently than our counterparts overseas.

While I was in Belgium, we started at 8:00 and were done by 3 every day. We had 45 mins for lunch and a one hour prep period. I can’t even to begin to tell you how much more productive I was in comparison to where I am now. Today, I get 20 mins for lunch and 50 min prep, however at least once a week I have to use it to sub or take care of unexpected events that don’t directly affect my craft.

So, what does this mean, well if we look at the data it basically says that more is not better. The more time teachers spend in front of kids in the classroom does not equate necessarily to more success. In fact, less face to face time is better and has side effect that we want like less teacher burnout and the ability to spend more time with kids one on one, which is a win for everyone. I know I say this all the times, but its true… just look at the data when making decisions.  Giving teachers breathing room to work with kids makes sense. By losing our preps, kids are going to miss some steps.



My name is Mike Vargas. I am a proud recipient of the 2014 ASTA Arizona HS Science Teacher of the Year award and I am a 2016 AEF Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. I earned my undergraduate degree from Northern Arizona University where I was Vice – President of the Associated Students, a recipient of the Gold Axe, and President’s Prize awards. I am an advocate for physics first instruction and I am leading a movement to double the current number of physics teachers in Arizona in the next 5 years. I teach high school physics at Pinnacle High School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Comments 4

  1. Melissa Girmscheid

    Thank you for writing about this, Mike. While the pay of an extra section can be tempting the stress and extra workload doesn’t make it sustainable.

  2. Beth Maloney

    Thank you for sharing this story, Mike. It is truly a hard situation for teachers and a dire situation for our students. It’s great to know that whole “anyone can teach” thing is working out so well…

  3. Sandy Merz

    I know we have some disagreements on certification, but I’m no stranger to losing prep time. This is the third year in a row that I’ve taken on a sixth class. I’ve gotten used to the pace of it and the extra compensation, but I can’t argue that my instruction hasn’t been compromised. I would say, however, that it’s better to know before the year starts that you’ll be doing 6/5s and have a class from the first day than to take of a class that has had a string of substitutes and no structure. Plus, having and planning period and losing it is more stressful than not having it to begin with.

  4. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    When I saw your title, I was thinking that “skipping steps” was on the salary schedule. Because that is why so many teachers are tempted to take on that extra class, simultaneously losing that little extra time they would have to do the behind-the-scenes work necessary. In Southern Arizona, the tendency for teacher raises to not even cover increased costs of living or health care premiums is even worse than in Maricopa county. For a teacher who is a single parent or who has student loan debt, or whose house or car needs repairs, that extra 20% is very significant. It’s odd to think we are dangling a carrot that actually pays more to decrease teacher effectiveness, but that is where we are in this crazy education job market in Arizona. I was asked to “go 6/5″ three years ago in ELD and said no, because each period is a separate course with a separate prep. I thought I would likely lose my mind. Then the next year I said yes because I was voluntold by a new administrator whom I wanted to please/appease. I was almost having anxiety attacks about it as the year approached, and was incredibly relieved when we combined two of the sections due to lack of funding for the extra section. This created its own headaches, but at least I had planning time each day to strategize. Maybe a spring chicken with no kids at home and a strong handle of technology can somewhat make it work, but me? I am no spring chicken. I need sanity. I need that moment of Zen. Can’t say I won’t ever do 6/5, but it would have to be a very special situation in which I could feel good about it.

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