It is an honor to be guest-blogging here along with Rachel Levy and Michael E. Lopez, two of my favorite education bloggers.
There’s much discussion lately (and not so lately) about what can be done to make teaching an elite profession. Some of the suggestions focus on teacher preparation; others, on teaching conditions. I will propose something that I haven’t heard mentioned: to improve conditions substantially, in a way that will encourage good teachers to stay, give each teacher a desk.
By this I mean a desk of one’s own (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf), a desk that no one else uses, where items don’t get taken or shifted around; a desk in a relatively tranquil room, where one can work and think.
Why is this important, and why is it rare?
First, a disclaimer: I am not complaining about any particular school. Everywhere I have taught, there has been shortage of space, and teachers have had to share desks, use tables as desks, or go without a desk entirely. In my first school, one of my colleagues regularly did her work in the auditorium, in an audience seat. (It was possibly the quietest room in the building.)
I don’t think many people would question a teacher’s need for a desk–but I’m not sure they deem it especially important, either. For instance, they may consider it acceptable for teachers to share desks or to work in noisy classrooms. But many private schools have teachers’ desks in department offices, outside of the classrooms. This is both because they have space and because they recognize the importance of a desk.
Sharing a desk has all kinds of complications: your scissors disappear, your Gumby eraser walks away, your Machiavelli goes into exile, etc. Beyond that, a shared desk becomes, in the mind of the school, a shared desk. Anyone may sit at it.
Noisy classrooms can make it difficult to get work done, unless you have noise-cancelling headphones or can block out the sound. You end up doing most of your work at home.
There are also reasons that go beyond the practical. When you have a desk that’s reliable, you are able to do intellectual work–reading, lesson preparation, grading–during the school day. This affects the school’s atmosphere; there’s greater respect for the quiet work that goes on at the desk, since room is made for it. Like urban planning, a school’s allocation of space reflects its priorities.
Also, because this work does take place at school, it can give rise to interesting discussions. How different the conversation is between two teachers who have been thinking about Oedipus Rex, and two teachers who are running past each other in the hallway in search of a room or supplies. (I have had both kinds of conversations, with or without a desk, but there’s more room for the former when I have a place to work.)
Why, then, is it a rarity for each teacher to have a desk?
First, there’s the real shortage of space. Mandated to “utilize” their space fully, schools cram the classrooms, so that in a given room, there may be three or more teachers. There isn’t room for that many desks–so teachers end up sharing. “Traveling” teachers–who teach in multiple rooms–are often expected to use whatever desk is available. Gone is the sense that a classroom belongs to a teacher, and that a desk comes with it.
This often comes with rationalizations. To justify the room-cramming, officials speak of the benefits of sharing a room or desk. Instead of thinking of a classroom as “Mr. So-and-so’s room,” we’re suppose to think of it as everyone’s room. Supposedly this will lead to more collaboration, sharing, and mutual influence.
Room-sharing can lead to all of these things; I often enjoy being in a classroom when someone else is teaching, because I get to see the person’s style and hear about a subject other than my own. But those who promote room-sharing on these grounds may not recognize the losses and drawbacks: that when you share a room, you often share a desk, and you lose a quiet place to work.
Even sitting down has gotten short shrift; where it was once acceptable for a teacher to sit at certain points in a lesson (for instance, in seminar discussion), teachers today are supposed to be on their feet the entire time. Being on the go, circulating from student to student, is associated with “active teaching,” which supposedly promoted “active learning.” This attitude spills over into the teacher’s preparation periods; many assume that teachers are working harder if, instead of sitting at their desks, they are off to meetings, planning sessions, and so on, where they would be sitting in a group at a table, not alone at a desk. Some teachers even see desks as a barrier between themselves and the students.
A barrier it may be, but there’s something to be said for it. Many teachers need to retreat frequently–into books, thoughts, writing, and so on–in order to bring something to their students. There are many reasons why this solitude isn’t honored, but it remains important, no matter what the solitude-non-honorers say.
So the widespread desk shortage comes from real shortage of space, but it turns into a loss of regard for working alone. If schools wish to retain teachers who devote thought to their lessons, they should give them a place for such thought.