When You Choose Something, You Are Also Choosing Not

Too many people forget that in choosing a path, another is passed by.  Robert Frost understood this.  One of the most powerful themes of his poem “Road Not Taken” is that the titular path was “just as fair.”  In the end, what made all the difference was not that this or that path was less traveled, but that he made the choice.  That choice made all of the difference.

All of this comes into play when making a schedule.

For every education decision, the path taken is weighed against what is not.  Creating a schedule lays this bare each year.  If you give math more time, it will come from something else. As the parties vie for what they need to honor their subject, two things become clear: What the community as a whole values, and what each stakeholder values about themselves.

I have seen many different ways to craft a schedule. At a K-8 school different grade levels have different needs, so simply creating blocks and doling out portions is not the straightforward affair it tends to be at a straight elementary, middle or high school. Recently, each unit without our school has been sending representatives to a committee and, like the blind men and the elephant, we put something together. A look at the experience of our Unified Arts teachers is instructive for all.

The various parties who came to our scheduling brainstorm all had clear wants and needs.  Our Unified Arts faculty had a simple request–smaller classes.

This was understandable, as some of the rooms only held twenty students comfortably.  Our Family and Consumer Science room had cooktops for eighteen, and more than twenty middle school students in the Art room meant too many bodies.  In addition, Phys. Ed. was managing a combined class, which had over forty students.  Although they had two teachers, that many bodies meant for slow transitions and a lot of chaos.

Of course, if the student body and number of teachers remains the same year after year, creating smaller classes results in more classes overall.  If you have 100 students, for example, classes of twenty students are going to require five sections.  Smaller classes will require six, or more.

What the UA teachers did not realize at the time was that those extra sections would cause them to teach during their extra prep periods.  Our contract calls for a lunch and a prep totaling 70 minutes, but not necessarily a solid block. Typically, it plays out as having two forty minute blocks–one prep, and one lunch. All of the core classroom teachers are already at that threshold, but because the UA takes batches of students throughout the day they have been left with an uneven prep schedule.  On some days, they have four preps, while on others two.

When the beta version of the schedule, with smaller classes, was released they soon realized the trade-off.  Two teachers found they did not have lunch at any time that resembled lunch, and they had six block classes in a row. While long stretches of classes are not unusual for Core, the influx of varying grades–first grade one block, seventh the next–making it mentally and physically challenging. For Art, just managing the materials was near impossible. They had also lost their common planning time, which they often used for lunch and it kept them unified–and sane.

Suddenly, the larger classes were no longer an issue.

Unfortunately for them, a number of other needs had rushed into the vacuum and made a return to the old impossible.  They were given time to remake the schedule, but could never get it to work with all of the new services that had been added as UA covered more blocks. It was a rough year.

Lesson: Make sure all parties understand that choice comes with a price.  Eyes wide open.

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