A version of this essay appears in the Summer 2001 issue of educational Horizons

What Can A Teacher Do? Two Myths of Responsibility
©2001 Edward G. Rozycki

See also, Teacher as Expert,
Who is Responsible?
Increasing Teaching Efficiency



Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

 -  Cyril Northcote Parkinson

edited 9/17/16

Parkinson's famous "Law" - a summarization of his observations on how British government employees functioned - might seem to be what underlies the incessant prodding by educational "reformers" to have teachers and schools do more and more.

Parkinson explains:

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend an entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil. (http://www.spreadsheetdetective.com/berglas/Articles/parkinsons_law.pdf)

This "law" does not seem to be appropriate to teachers. Nobody thinks that they have too little to do, and therefore must work at looking busy. Rather it is a similar and clearly false conception that sees our public school classrooms as akin to fast-food marts. The Practical Myth of Infinitely Expandable Teacher Time, coupled with The Practical Myth of the Educator Soloist supports much, indeed, most of the attempts to have public school teachers accept more and more responsibility for a child’s education, and, alone, be held responsible for the outcomes.

By the phrase “practical myth,” I mean to indicate false beliefs underlying practices proposed or undertaken. The nature of these practical myths is that when they are put into so many words they are easily recognizable as false. Let’s consider the first practical myth: Teacher Time is Infinitely Expandable.

The Practical Myth of Infinitely Expandable Time

Let us, for the purposes of discussion, divide a teacher’s daily activities into three (mutually exclusive) categories: Instruction, Organization and Socialization. Instruction covers such things as presenting material, listening to students’ recitations, demonstrating a point; in general, engaging directly with students.

Organization activities include administration and preparation, e.g. collecting book slips, putting in grades, writing up pre-class work on the board, i.e. dealing with information needs of the school organization or “setting the scene” for instructional activities.

Socialization includes not only what people would recognize as “discipline,” e.g. scolding, remonstrating, correcting, but also acculturating students into the norms the school organization requires (purportedly) for mass education to occur, e.g. standing in line, waiting one’s turn, getting permission to go to the bathroom, or bringing in notes for absence.

A pie chart demonstrates how these groups of teacher activities importantly interrelate.

Teacher Activities

Chart 1

An obvious point often overlooked by many a would-be educational reformer: if one segment expands, the one or both of the others must contract. One needs no Ph.D. in physics to see that one cannot expand beyond 100% of total time.

The history of American schooling is a history of packing the curriculum with “more.” A seemingly endless list of “enhancements” has been proposed: e.g. “values education,” “multicultural education,” “abstinence education.” These are meant to address often ephemeral concerns of vocal segments of the public.  But ask any classroom teacher how many minutes a year he or she devotes to the latest fad and how deeply it can be explored.

 Politically popular statewide testing programs, an organizational activity from the teacher’s perspective, must reduce instruction time since socialization needs do not shrink when such standardized testing occurs. Indeed, one might expect greater demands for socialization activities to develop, exerting, consequently, additional pressure for reduction of instructional activities.

Activity Interactions

Another point to be considered is this: experienced teachers know that the activities in one segment can affect those in others. Good organization can enhance both instruction and socialization. However, teacher efficiency is achieved through intelligent action, not by some magic that expands the time allotted. Also, organizational disruption can affect other activity segments negatively. Loudspeaker interruptions, for example, may distract from the lesson at hand. Added testing preparations expand the organizational segment of teacher activities without necessarily enhancing instruction or socialization.

We can expect a pie chart of teacher activities to vary depending upon the grade level, the teacher’s methods, the level of preparation of the students when they begin the semester, and their speed of development as they progress.

The more socially adapted a class is, on the average, to the organizational demands of their school, the less time the teacher must spend on this and may focus instead on instruction. If we reformulate our pie chart into a stacked bar chart and plot it against a factor which I will call here “student socialization level,” we note another obvious fact.

Chart 2

If changes are made to the classroom that affect the average level of student socialization, instructional activity will be affected (In the chart immediately above, organizational activity is held constant.) Adding students who lower the class average level of socialization must be expected to affect the instructional level. For example, to indiscriminately prescribe inclusion for students with disabilities ignoring whether or not this disability affects their level of socialization hardly promotes fairness of educational opportunity.

Another truism: discipline problems impact instruction negatively. It would not be necessary to say the obvious were it not the case that administrators routinely tell teachers that they are the “first line” in dealing with discipline problems. For political, and nowadays, legal, reasons, administrators dare not remove miscreants from the classroom with the frequency their misbehavior might dictate: it is the teachers who must learn “classroom management.” This is an abdication of responsibility. Organizationally, such a “cop-out” may be administratively necessary – even demanded by benighted board members.  However, kids, particularly, recognize that when administrators shrink from enforcing the rules, they undermine their moral legitimacy.

There is a lower level of misbehavior it is reasonable to expect teachers to deal with, and much of this can be dealt with preemptively through appropriate organization and socialization activity. Experienced teachers learn how to deal with such behavior. But in many schools quite disruptive behavior is not addressed because administrators fear confrontation, either with the students, their parents, and the community; or with their own superiors who themselves lack the spine or the interest to intervene for the mere sake of learning.

The Courts exacerbate the problem. Many judges act as if merely being in a school conferred a benefit upon a child, the common cattle dip that at least kills the ticks! So it is that the courts assign children to schools irrespective of whether their being there would interfere with appropriate instructional activities taking place.

Educators become co-conspirators in this stupidity by holding their tongues lest they bring uncomfortable scrutiny upon themselves. The guilty secret of teachers everywhere – and that of every highly specialized professional -- is that they confuse their own need for employment, or the pursuit of their own personal intellectual interests to be sufficient reason why students should forbear with their  -- the teacher’s -- expatiations. (Read “well-educated,” “job skills,” “citizenship education,” “character building,” “ being well-rounded” or “preparation for life” as hyperbole  -- i. e. curriculum theory -- camouflaging this basic fact.)

At this point politicians are provoked into imposing the Standard Test Panacea – measuring “bang for the buck” – more likely, “pop for the penny.”  The perceived discrepancies in test results raise cries of Discrimination which stimulate further Court Action and the Cycle of Idiocy continues.

The Educator Soloist

The critics of the Great Drama of American Education see themselves as audience, rather than as participants in the play. Theirs is the right to criticize. This is an audience that has spent many more hours in front of a TV than sitting in a classroom – often their only qualification. It is an audience that would not imagine it has the know-how to produce a TV show, yet shows no reluctance in telling educators how to run the schools.

Students – like parents and Public Opiniators – generally only see what is “on stage” -- in the classroom, halls, playground and auditorium -- rarely counting themselves among the actors. They know or care about little of the necessities of “backstage” direction, or “offstage” production. But how dimwitted must a student be not to notice a mixed message in

a.     classes being shortened for state testing although untaught items are on the tests;

b.     instructional activities being interrupted to sell school play, prom or basketball tickets; or

c.     curriculum on good diet preached  in a school where waxen “chocolate bars” are sold to promote “spirit;”

d.      sports coaches who are demanding and insistent contrasted with academic teachers who cajole, inveigle and plead, yet reward non-performance anyway?

Student perceptions ---  and their consequent effect on motivation — are normally given little consideration by the “movers and shakers” whose investment in the schooling enterprise is obliquely related, if at all, to student learning. Parent perceptions are likewise discounted. But it doesn’t matter, since the only serious expectations are directed at teachers.

School as Theatrical Production

The metaphor of a theatrical production is a good one to demonstrate the interlocking responsibilities of the many constituencies that influence student learning outcomes. Our first dimension, Location, divides into three parts:

1. “onstage” – in an around classroom, or student involved activities, e.g. playing field, lunchroom, auditorium as well as classroom;

2. “backstage” – anywhere classroom support activities take place, e.g. teacher’s room, principal’s or counselor’s office, main office, school custodian’s office, etc.

3. “offstage” – anywhere general school support activities take place, e.g. board meetings, central administration, parent organizations, etc.

We then ask of the actors – not just teachers -- what we can reasonably expect them to contribute in each of these locations.  We might get a chart that looks like this:







Act fairly, Model good deportment, skill, Engage, Instruct, Direct, Review, …

Prepare for Class, Organize materials, …

Engage in professional activities that support student achievement…


Pay attention, ask questions, be considerate of others, …

Use library, study hall, get to class on time, …

Do homework, get enough sleep, eat well, …


Minimize classroom interruptions, remove disruptive students, …

Keep regular schedules, minimize “surprises”, obtain supplies, …

Engage in professional activities that support student achievement…

Other Staff

Support other teachers, …

Avoid giving special privileges to students

Engage in professional activities that support student achievement…


Avoid asking for special privileges, avoid public confrontation with other adults …

Avoid asking for special privileges, encourage student participation, …

Participate in home and school activities, vote against “meddlers”…

Board Member

Don’t interrupt classes, ….

Don’t interrupt classes, ….

Engage in professional activities that support student achievement…

Political Group

Don’t interrupt classes, ….

Don’t interrupt classes, ….

Engage in professional activities that support student achievement…


Don’t interrupt classes, ….

Don’t interrupt classes, ….

Engage in professional activities that support student achievement…


Don’t interrupt classes, ….

Don’t interrupt classes, ….

Engage in professional activities that support student achievement…

Chart 3

The chart illustrates what Rebecca Barr and Robert Dreeben presented years ago in How Schools Work (U. of Chicago Press, 1983): although teachers may be among the very few who can positively influence student achievement, there are a lot of others who can interfere with it.

Onstage teachers are not soloists, with students they form a duet or more. And there are “hidden members” of the group who perform their roles best by securing non-interference, providing a buffer against pointless disruptions to the learning process.