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Oconomowoc High School teachers say transformation plan causing burnout, low morale

Nov. 20, 2012

Oconomowoc Area School District - If they agree on little else at this point, both sides say it is too early to tell whether the new transformation plan at Oconomowoc High School is working.

The plan, which was rolled out last spring for implementation with the start of the 2012-13 school year, called for a new approach to student learning, increased teacher workload and pay. It also reduced staff by 15 positions and created a huge savings for the School District.

While the plan looks like a win-win on paper, teachers at OHS - who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity - claim it is an unpopular initiative, has led to poor morale and will cause staff burnout. The Focus contacted numerous teachers for comment for this story, but just two were willing to speak.

Under the new initiative, prep times were eliminated for teachers in seven academic areas, and an extra class was added in its place. In exchange for the additional workload, teachers receive an additional $14,000 in pay. The plan saves the district an estimated $500,000 annually and comes in lieu of cutting programming, activities or increasing class size.

The plan bumped the beginning salary of a teacher at OHS from $36,000 to $50,000 per year.

OHS operates on a four-block system of 90-minute classes. Teachers previously taught three of those blocks, using the fourth period as prep time.

The restructuring plan also focuses on personalized learning plans for students through increased use of technology, which administrators think will help teachers shoulder the burden of the extra assigned class.

Teacher reaction

"There is not a lot of support for it in the building (among teachers), but it's also early," said one veteran educator.

"The $14,000 stipend, which sounds impressive, is not the answer. It's not worth it," the longtime teacher said.

"Somehow, within the world of education, we have said prep time isn't work. This is just shocking to me. It's shocking that we would promote the concept that teachers are now being compensated for 'working a full day,' " the teacher added.

This year a survey done by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that, nationally, teachers average a 53-hour workweek. It's uncertain what the average workweek is at OHS.

"We have teachers who are working until 10, 11 p.m.; some are here until 7:30 p.m. I'm not kidding you, and I don't mean occasionally. Often," the OHS staffer said.

The initial stages of the transformation plan have been marked by fatigue, anger and fear, the educator said.

"Part of the pain in the transformation is we're teaching with less technology because the Wi-Fi is not ready.

"The infrastructure is not ready. It's difficult to swallow, but we're going to get there," the teacher said.

OHS Principal Joseph Moylan agreed.

"It's hard to account for factors in drilling pipe across Oconomowoc" for the technology upgrade, he said, but it's confirmed it is slated to be ready by January.

The lack of a prep time during the course of the school day is exhausting, some teachers report.

"This means being in front of kids for 90 minutes, four times a day, with five minutes between classes and no duty-free lunch. It's wearing people out. There is a limit to the human capacity to be 'on' all the time," the staffer said.

"The math of all of it isn't just adding one class of 29 to 30 students. There is a multiplication, then you subtract the prep time. I know it sounds like whining, but it takes a human toll," the teacher added.

Moylan understands that the plan will require significant adjustment by the teachers.

"All change is hard, and it takes time to work out and for people to get comfortable with it," he said.

The teacher said, "people are making the best of it and doing the best they can."

However, the educator laughed when adding, "Ask me again in the stretch between Christmas break and spring break where there are no nonwork days. I get the rest of the world does that, but the job is very draining."

Another teacher with more than a decade of experience at OHS agreed.

"When you have 30 15-year-olds in front of you, in a big way, teachers have to be entertaining to them. You have to keep their attention. Being relevant to them and keeping their interest and keeping them on task - by the end of the day, you are drained," the colleague concurred.

"Technology is an element. It will help give me options on how we teach, but the workload is still there. The school is taking the wrong direction with this approach. I just don't understand how it helps kids by burning people out," said the teacher.

Also at issue from staff perspective is that their input was not sought before making the changes.

"No one on the inside knew this was coming except the central office," the veteran teacher said.

Administrators addressed that concern when the plan was initially announced, noting they could not ask staff to help develop a plan that would cost 15 colleagues their jobs.

Evaluation plan

"We're 10, 11, 12 weeks into the school year. To draw any conclusions on how it's working at this point would be poor information gathering," Moylan said.

The principal said he expects to present a plan to the School Board in January that would outline how the plan would be evaluated.

"Watching grades would be an indicator, but to say if scores went up or down in one year is attributable to one factor is hard to do. If we're going to tie student achievement, teacher perception and parent perception, we don't have that data yet," he explained.

Moylan said schools are slow-moving institutions and that three years of data might be needed to determine if the new method is successful.

"Change takes time. We don't have the data at this point to report," Moylan said.

"We have a lot of things to consider, among them, are we being responsible with the dollars we are given? What things were we able to affect districtwide by cutting costs in one area?" he asked.

But some teachers question the cost associated with those savings.

"I get the need to save money, I understand the financials of the whole thing but just don't understand how this helps kids, to ask us to teach differently but give up the time to plan to do it. I think teachers need that time to follow up with kids, with parents, to grade, meet with counselors, write letters of recommendation - I could keep going on and on," the colleague said.

"I'm much more stressed throughout the day as things pile up; there's not enough time to get to it anymore," the teacher added.

It may be stressful enough to consider leaving the field.

"For the first time I'm thinking about a second career, and I never thought it would come to that. There's no greater profession in the world. I love teaching kids," the educator said.

Lunch period

In 2009, OHS moved to a "one lunch" program that combined the school's three 30-minute lunch periods to one, one-hour period to allow students 30 minutes to meet with teachers or advisers.

"One lunch is filled with kids who have no other time to see their teachers. It is supposed to be 30 minutes for lunch, and then teachers are supposed to be available the other half of the time for students," a teacher explained.

"But the reality is the vast majority are in their classroom; they're eating lunch, but that's not the same as a lunch break."

A colleague agreed.

"I used to sit in my room and have lunch with the kids, and I still do that. But it used to be to build rapport with them; now I find myself with kids by my desk, and I really need that half-hour," the staff member explained.

Moylan said that remains a teacher's choice.

"They are certainly allowed to take a half-hour for lunch," he said.


The teachers say staff members fear speaking out against the initiative.

"People are afraid. Nine people were fired last year," the educator said, referring to the teachers laid off who did not qualify for retirement.

"There is a fear here to speak out. People who agitated for the union are gone. Fired. Out. Having a level of fear for your job is not a bad thing, but it shouldn't be a prime motivator," the teacher said, adding that they do not believe it is deliberate on the part of administrators.

"I don't think the district means to do that; I don't think it is part of their philosophy. I don't think it's intentional, but it's real," the teacher said.

Moylan strongly denies that the layoffs were motivated by such factors.

"That is not an accurate perception at all. That was not the case," he said.

The layoffs were "based on their contributions to the teaching load and to maintain the quality and level of the programs that existed," the principal explained.

This is not the first major operational change teachers have faced at OHS.

About a decade ago, the school moved to block scheduling, reducing the number of classes taught, but increasing the length of those classes.

"When block schedule was introduced under a previous high school principal, teacher morale was at the lowest level I had ever seen. This is much worse," said the educator. "But the sky didn't fall when we went to block schedule, and it's too early to tell if it will now. I still, personally, believe it is a bad idea. It's too early to condemn it as it's never going to work, or to say it is working. I think this will either end up working and make us better, or destroy us.

"I have great respect for the people who made the decision, but I just don't agree with them," the teacher said.

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