Teacher resents being told to assign antiquated work

Q: I’ve been teaching math for four years but will be new at my school this year. I’m also about 35 years younger than the head of my department. He assigned his incoming students pages and pages of summer math problems. They’re pretty brainless, rote stuff. It’s the kind of antiquated homework I did as a kid, and I still remember how much I hated it. The department chair, who I only met while interviewing, contacted me mid-summer. He wanted to make sure I had assigned the same mindless stuff to my own incoming students. I initially held off because I think we can do better by the kids. In the end, I followed through because I figured I didn’t have much of a choice. Still, it’s been bothering me and my irritation is turning into resentment. I’m aware that he’s senior to me, but would it be wrong to point out that views on homework have changed with the times? Do you think I could have asked for a pass?  

A: There are three issues here. First, it’s not unusual for new and old staff to have different perspectives on a range of issues. New teachers may bring fresh ideas and energy, but long-standing staff members have experience and an appreciation of school traditions. Differences of opinion can crop up, whether they’re related to meeting structure, leave policies, composition of leadership teams, employee happy hours or homework.

The second issue is seniority and your place in the hierarchy. You not only report to this man, you’re decades younger and a relatively new teacher. The third issue is the homework itself. So what now?

Although you’re clear about your youth and fresh perspective, you don’t acknowledge your supervisor’s years of experience and wisdom. If you don’t start from a place of mutual respect, I think you’re bound to clash. You seem to have concluded he’s a dinosaur and his homework is irrelevant, but you’ve never even spoken to him about his teaching philosophy. In fact, it sounds like you haven’t spoken to him at all beyond your interview. Start from a place of curiosity. Get to know him as a human being and colleague before tackling this particular issue. The kids already have their marching orders, so there’s no big rush. There’s also no reason to assume this has to be an antagonistic conversation. You may be surprised to find that he’s open to your ideas. If I were you, I’d want to know his as well. You can learn from each other.

That doesn’t mean I’m dismissing your concerns about the homework. I recently spoke to education consultant (and longtime teacher) Rick Wormeli, who feels that when it comes to homework, there should be a connection between practice and subsequent understanding. It may not make sense for a child to complete five pages of math problems if he understands the concept after two pages. Homework should be relevant and give students a sense of responsibility, accountability and self-confidence. Kids are more likely to engage if they can make ties to real-world scenarios or subjects that interest them. Worksheets are a tough sell.

But who knows, this one assignment may end up being an outlier. You’ll find out soon enough. Try not to make generalizations. I don’t know how the department is structured, but perhaps you’ll be able to have conversations about best practices at weekly meetings. Hopefully, you’ll also have opportunities to observe your supervisor teaching.

Demonstrate that you hope to learn from him. If he feels respected, he’ll be much more likely to give you the green light to try it your way. As for the last part of your question, yes, you could have asked for permission to assign different work. That said, I think you made the right decision. If you pushed the issue, you might have won the battle only to lose the war. It was prudent to take the long view. Over time, you can exchange ideas, tweak your style, and influence each other.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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