Stop Saddling New Teachers With Pointless Bureaucracy

Sep 22, 2021

A rather common scene in the life of a first-year humanities teacher involves the receipt of an extensive document—an instruction manual, really—which purports to be a nuanced description of “how to teach this class.”

These instruction manuals include not merely a list of books to teach, but supplemental materials to use, timeframes for teaching each book, questions to ask about every chapter, goals for the class, descriptions of how those goals fit into the scope of high school, descriptions of how these goals relate to the school mission statement, old tests and quizzes, rubrics for grading tests, and many other varieties of bureaucracy. They may be thirty pages long, or thirty hundred. The existence of such manuals is a comfort to administrators and academic deans and an absolute terror to nearly everyone else, especially first-year humanities teachers. 

The reason these manuals are a terror has a lot to do with why most of them are created in the first place, which is to satisfy accreditation requirements. You see, there are several accrediting bodies which like to see extensive documentation of school rules and plans but spend comparatively little time in the classroom determining if the documentation represents reality. Given that classical Christian education is so adamantly opposed to public school methods, it is remarkable how big a role paperwork plays in getting an official stamp of classical Christian approval.

Most teachers already work long hours, which means they are unlikely to—on their own, for their health—spend fifty or sixty hours compiling a detailed description of “what they do.” When an administrator hands a new literature teacher an extensive manual detailing “how to teach this class,” the new teacher ought to ask how much firsthand knowledge the administrator has of the class, and if they can vouch for the fact the manual is a fair representation of how the class has actually been taught. Teachers who are required to produce extensive bureaucratic documentation of their classes have little incentive to describe what they actually do because the document is not meant to be useful and may never be read in full by more than two or three people (and even those numbers are a stretch).

The documents are a terror, then, for the same reason most bureaucracy is a terror: it has little to do with reality, despite the contrary insistence of someone with the power to punish.  

However, let us assume for a moment that a teacher did—for whatever mad reason—create an eighty- page manual detailing “how to teach this class.” And let us assume that the manual truly reflected that teacher’s class, as opposed to being an idealized fantasy. I nonetheless must ask: what good is this manual to someone else?

The way I teach my classes is not only born out of highly particular areas of expertise, but my own skills, talents, tricks, stories, jokes, expressions, experiences, and prejudices. When I teach other teachers how to teach, I do not expect them to do everything exactly the way I do. They have their own skills, talents, tricks, stories, jokes, and so forth. Think of it like this: it is one thing for an older married man to tell a newlywed, “You should bring your wife flowers every so often,” and another thing for him to say, “You should bring your wife six pink anthuriums on Thursday afternoons.” The former advice is wisdom, the latter advice is just fetish.

I teach Medieval literature and history the way I do because I’ve read Life in a Medieval Village, The End of Ancient Christianity, and I’ve seen Tales from the Green Valley. If someone else hasn’t read those books or seen that documentary series, we do not approach the Middle Ages in quite the same way, which means we must teach the class differently. The sort of administrator who expects the new literature teacher to do it just like the old literature teacher does not understand education. He does not know that a good teacher must pass on a double portion of his spirit, not merely cover material. When fully trained, a student becomes like his teacher, not like the curriculum, which means that a competent teacher doesn’t need the manual and an incompetent teacher can’t be helped by it.

What a young teacher needs is not a manual, not a faculty development program, not a ten-minute peer review, not a bunch of books on pedagogy that will be small-group-discussed after school when everyone is entirely spent. What a young teacher needs is a teacher. If a new humanities teacher cannot simply be given a list of books to teach and a quick sketch of how many grades need to be collected every semester, a manual won’t help.

The manual presents the young teacher with a false vision of what he ought to be doing and creates unfounded confidence in the administration that the school is what it claims to be simply because this or that documentation says so. Most teachers eventually figure out that detailed manuals are nearly worthless, but it could take a year or more, and in the meantime, a young teacher lives in constant fear of the administrator’s inquiries—which, as you can imagine, makes for a really great faculty culture.

As opposed to giving young teachers a manual to follow, administrators would do far better to simply spend more time in the classroom with young teachers. They should not outsource this task to other teachers (I have many things to tell you about accreditation-satisfying-faculty-development-program-dictated-peer-reviews, but you cannot bear them now), who will not be forthright with their coworkers about their faults and insufficiencies. The only real way around first-year struggles is slow, small, and time-consuming. The question is whether we have the patience and courage to truly help new teachers, or whether we will throw bureaucracy at them and say, "Be warmed and filled."

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

Subscribe to the CiRCE Institute Podcast Network

Stitcher iTunes RSS