Los Altos’ Work Stop and Shop: How Where We Work Affects How We Work?

April 25, 2018

The Cramping of Classrooms

The frantic scrambling to get from one class to another is not exclusive to Los Altos students. Due to the sheer number of students at Los Altos and limited space, many teachers must share classrooms.

Just as students must find a work schedule that suits them, teachers must also optimize their time and resources. Although it may appear to students that teachers begin and end each day with classes, the amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating lesson plans and grading papers is often overlooked. English teacher and New Media Literacy Adviser Robert Barker says that his day begins three hours before the school day and extends an hour after school. Weekends are also packed with 5 to 12 hours of work.

“Most English teachers will tell you that grading papers is kind of its own special beast and requires a lot more time and mental energy than a lot of other assessments do,” Barker said. “Teachers are trying to prioritize planning versus grading… We have to make a kind of deal-with-the-devil decision, where I know it’s going to be frustrating for [students] to wait to get their papers back, but I’d rather not have a half-assed lesson today, to be fully prepared and have meaningful work get done today. That is a source of constant stress for English teachers.”

This arrangement of necessity does have some advantages. Social studies teacher Sarah Carlson says that there are benefits to sharing a workspace — teachers can see how other teachers introduce lessons, giving them inspiration for their own instruction and lesson plans.

“Last year when [social studies teacher Alex Willse] was teaching in this room, there were some positive impacts, because I got to see him put a different spin on [lessons] than I might of, and I think, ‘Oh, maybe I could try something new, we can learn from each other.’” Carlson said.

Still, social studies teacher Chelsea Doiguchi and other teachers believe that the shared classroom arrangement presents difficulties — the shared workspace affects their concentration and significantly reduces their work time during prep periods.

“It is really important to me to have a classroom to work in and host meetings in,” Doiguchi said. “It is a home base for students to be able to find me if they need to talk to me or make up work. It is somewhat difficult to share with other teachers because I don’t want to make my colleague feel uncomfortable while he is teaching if I need to stay and do a few things.”

Incorporating more teacher workspaces in the Student Union building, which is currently being planned, would offer a viable solution to the shortage of teacher workspace currently available on campus, Assistant Principal Galen Rosenberg said.

“There’s nowhere here on campus that’s designed for teachers to work together,” Rosenberg said. “So they end up going to classrooms, finding spaces, but they’re not designed for that. So when we talk about building the new building, there’s this debate about how we structure that. We should create a kind of space where teachers can work privately without getting distracted, or work with a group of colleagues because that’s what we really need.”

Some teachers, like Chinese teacher Connie Chen, agree that this would ease the situation of sharing a classroom. She is currently in her second year of sharing room 923 with Chinese teacher Xiaojie Li, and she has expressed how challenging it is to find a good workspace at school. However, Chen believes that one new teacher workplace wouldn’t solve all of the problems.

“Currently, I have to stuff everything in my bag and walk all the way to the library from the 900 building, then back to the classroom for lunch, then to the library again,” Chen said. “Perhaps adding another [common workspace] in the back of the campus [would work]. The school should also make sure that teachers are comfortable [having] each other in the room when the other is teaching. We’re short on classrooms so every teacher needs to be more accommodating.” 

I have to stuff everything in my bag and walk all the way to the library from the 900 building, then back to the classroom for lunch, then to the library again.

— Chinese teacher Connie Chen

Both Barker and Carlson expressed the sentiment that having additional workspaces on campus — such as the workspace that is currently provided in the teacher’s lounge — can be helpful. However, it just isn’t practical due to their hectic schedules.

“It’s not convenient because the pace of our workday doesn’t afford us the time and luxury to even move from one place on campus to another and get situated and start to work,” Barker said. “Five minutes in this setting has a lot of value… so I don’t have five minutes to spare. And then when I get to that setting, that’s not my ideal setting to work, I would prefer to stay where I am.”

And while Barker recognizes that adding more teacher workspace on campus could be a possible solution, he believes that we shouldn’t overlook the larger issue of classroom shortages.

“What if I want to put handouts on the table, or get something up on the board ready for people?” Barker said. “I’m in a position now where I have to frantically come plug my stuff in, and unplug the other stuff, and throw my things on the computer, and the bell is ringing, and everyone’s filtered in. That’s stressful. I’m certainly against normalizing the sharing of classrooms.”

Yalda Khodadad: Coffee Shop Scrutiny

I’m writing this from Dana Street Roasting Company, a quaint little coffee shop on the outskirts of downtown Mountain View. While I sit in antique armchairs that look like they were salvaged from your grandma’s attic, or a slim leather-bound stool, there are a few things that stand out as constants — the tart smell of fresh brewing coffee, the sound of grinding beans and the chatter of other patrons. This is where I thrive.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m very appreciative of the house that I live in, and the room that I have, and yes, I do acknowledge the fact that I have a perfectly functioning desk in that room. But day after day, I am drawn to the comforts of a window seat in a local coffee shop. It’s not for the coffee — as much as I enjoy it, my grandma makes it better — it’s for the work ethic it inspires forcefully upon me.

See, when I’m at home and alone in my room, the only person who can coax me into productivity is myself, and I’ve realized that unless I have some sort of exterior motivation, I’d rather spend my time googling, for no particular reason, something random like the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. At a coffee shop I’m not alone in my need to be productive. I’m surrounded by twenty-somethings that are probably working on their startup and are discussing the benefits of investing in what’s-its-name in order to promote what’s-it-called. Being raised in the Bay Area, the hard working college students and college grads surrounding me immediately register as success in my mind, and I want to be them. So I become one of them.

Dana Street Roasting Company is where I’m a young, studious author, an English major at a small liberal arts college on the East Coast that you’ve probably never heard of, who is working on her debut novel so she can pay off the debt on her apartment with an exposed brick wall.

At Red Rock, I become a struggling musician who dropped out of college, with my ripped jeans and a band T-shirt, who’s probably transcribing music on her computer right now and is preparing to perform at the open mic and is very busy, thanks.

Starbucks makes me a tech-whiz — the youngest startup developer ever, who has coded her own app that makes millions of dollars a month, who actually could buy Starbucks and is just waiting for the right time in the stock market.

Or something like that.

How I’m seen at these places is what drives me to succeed. My desire for approval also helps me check my boxes for success, because when I’m working at a coffee shop, I’m convinced that people actually care that I’m working on my biology homework and not just watching paint mixing videos. And so I do actually do my bio homework, for fear that the tall guy sitting behind me will see me scrolling through something stupid and think, wow, she probably doesn’t care about studying — why is she even taking a seat at this shop? And in this fabricated conversation, I’d scream I do! But he won’t. And I can’t. So it really doesn’t matter, but the importance of this idea is that I think it does.

And even more prevalent than my fear of being caught as a 16 year old fraud instead of a 21 year old is the atmosphere of self-assured success that these settings adopt. Its infectivity convinces me that, if these young geniuses (or whatever false identity I have inscribed upon them) are working here, then I, too, have that capability. I too am capable of becoming one of them, and one day coming back, this time actually 21, and sitting back down in one of those antique armchairs or slim, leather-bound stools, having achieved my goals of success.

Being able to sit comfortably, latte in hand, and say that I made it. I did it. Really, this time.

When Student Work Space Isn’t a Guarantee

To some of of us, a $4.50 coffee with our math homework is a guarantee. So is a quiet place to work, with no loud yelling or unavoidable distractions. But for some, that $4.50 or that quiet air is an unaffordable luxury.

“I would say there’s a difference between somebody’s work ethic and somebody’s circumstances,” AVID adviser and English teacher Keren Dawson-Bowman said. “I have many students who have fantastic work ethics but who have such enormous responsibilities at home and challenging situations or have to work after school and those sorts of things.”

For those who can, the solution to distractions is moving somewhere busy — perhaps where there is background noise of soft music and coffee grinding. Yet, whether for financial or logistical reasons, the ability for some students to find a workspace that works for them is impossible.

I do study at my house because I’m not really allowed to go out,” sophomore Jacky Ramirez said. “I try to ask everyone to be quiet and be mindful that I need the quiet or I just blast my earphones and tune that out to concentrate.”

I don’t really have a space at my home where I do homework,” a Los Altos student who requested anonymity for privacy said. “It’s difficult. There’s always things going on cause I live with my brother and sister-in-law, and they have a kid, so she’s running around, doing whatever she’s doing. I share a room with my mom, so I don’t have that personal space, where everyone’s quiet either.”

Even those basics many take for granted are not guaranteed to everyone, making it even more difficult to find a workspace.

“It used to be really hard for me because I didn’t have a desk or anything and everywhere else was too loud,” sophomore Jacky Ramirez said. “But once I got a desk I finally had my own spot to just work.

The flexibility to go to new places to study is not feasible for some students. Whether because they may not have a license, or that they have no time left in their day to travel somewhere effective for them, the luxury of working in coffee shops and even the public library is just that: a luxury.

I do have a long commute to school and back, so that definitely takes a toll, cause we have to wait until traffic is over,” a Los Altos student said. “When you get home, it’s seven already, and I have to do all my homework, and then, I’m just so tired.”

All Los Altos students have to learn how to foster the best place for them to succeed academically, and that learning process is trial & error. Testing new coffee shops or new couches in their homes. For others though, it’s finding ways to adapt to whatever surroundings are guaranteed — no matter how loud and how caffeine-free.

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