The Tragedy of The Commons — When Teachers Are The Commons

Image from Seuss’ “The Lorax” — machine cutting down the last tree
Image from Seuss’ “The Lorax” — machine cutting down the last tree
Image from “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. Image taken from All rights revert to authors.

The tragedy of the commons” describes situations in which people share a common resource. Often, since it is in each individual’s best interest to use more than their share of the resource, a resource gets over-used and diminished over time, often to the point where it is no longer useful for anyone. This was originally described in 1833, by William Foster Lloyd, who described a common pasture that was shared by several families. As each family optimized their own economic gain by bringing more cows, the pasture became overgrazed. Eventually, the grass got grazed down to the roots and the dirt got so packed that the pasture couldn’t sustain any cows.

This is summarized in the following video: What is the tragedy of the commons? — Nicholas Amendolare

“The tragedy of the commons” has been applied to overpopulation, pollution, roads and traffic, resource extraction, and many other environmental and economic scenarios. But I haven’t seen it applied to situations where a people or workers are the resource.

Nevertheless, let’s consider a typical elementary teacher, where 22 students share one teacher. Or a typical high school, in which one teacher is shared by 5 classes of 30 students each. In such cases, wouldn’t the teacher be a shared resource, and therefore essentially function as a “commons?”

As with other types of “commons,” teachers can be subject to overuse and depletion. It is in each student’s and their parents’ best interests to maximize the teacher’s time and attention for their own benefit. In a society that emphasizes “getting ahead,” that often frames schooling as a competitive endeavor, and which valorizes putting our own individual benefits over benefits to our neighbors or society as a whole, using more of the commons in order to maximize our own gains is seen as rational and intelligent. In such a system, parents and students may think little of asking teachers for extra meetings, re-grading students’ work so they can re-do assignments, expecting teachers to spend Memorial Day Weekend grading classwork that wasn’t turned in over the course of the entire term, extra tutoring, special accommodations, special hand signals for behavioral issues, etc. Just as bringing an extra cow to the commons makes sense for the family that owns the cow, pressuring a teacher into spending extra time and energy on an individual student benefits that student and family. But, if each family brings an extra cow to the commons, it will get grazed down until it can no longer feed any cows. Similarly, a teacher with too many demands pulling her in different directions will lose focus on the primary objectives she is supposed to meet, and will also face exhaustion and burnout — all of which risk making her a less effective teacher for all her students. In extreme cases, it might even remove her from the profession.

It is also in the schools’ (operated by taxpayers) interests to maximize the resource of the teacher. It is easier to add another task to the teacher’s already-full plate than to find another pay someone else to do it or pay for additional resources. One of the constants in public schools seems to be budget cuts, and the other is unfunded mandates. When someone at the national, state, district, or school level decides that all students’ reading levels should be above average, or that quarterly progress reports should be sent out weekly, or that all classrooms should have websites, or that all teachers should do Title IX training, or that teachers should track the amount of time each student spends out of the classroom, or that instead of a letter grade, teachers should write a narrative evaluation of each student, those tasks fall to teachers to implement. New “essential” tasks are constantly added to their plates and existing responsibilities are rarely removed. Teachers are left to figure out how and when to fulfil these noble-sounding wishes that may or may not have proven effectiveness and that rarely come with funding or with allotted time.

This may be part of the reason why so many teachers end up wearing so many different hats: drop-off zone traffic director, recess and/or lunchroom supervisor, hallway monitor, counselor, school play coordinator, club sponsor, fundraiser, school publicist and marketer, assessment analyst. . . Oh, and provider of instruction on multiple topics.

But where does that leave teachers? Are their jobs sustainable? And, if not, what can be done?

Research on “The tragedy of the commons” has found that it can be prevented through privatization, regulation, or community norms. For example, a field that is overgrazed could be subdivided so that portions are given to each cow owner (privatization). Or, only a certain number of cows from each owner could be allowed on the common pasture (regulation). Or only cows with tags could be allowed to graze on the commons, and only a certain number of tags would be sold, but then could be traded on the open market (regulation with privatization). Elior Ostrom researched how different communities around the world manage commons, and found that some cultures successfully share commons — sometimes for centuries — without privatization or outside regulation. Instead, there is constant cooperation and communication among all the users, and also cultural norms around what is, and is not, appropriate use of the commons. But I would argue that community norms tend not to work well in the U.S. culture, where the concept of a “commons” is more foreign and where we generally value individualization and private gain over collective effort.

Perhaps many communities in the U.S. used to have norms around respectful uses and limits on teachers’ time and energy, but those seem to have dissipated, particularly under the “teachers aren’t doing their jobs” media blitz against public schools that has been going on for over 30 years. Privatization also doesn’t seem like an equitable solution for public schools, which serve students with widely differing access to resources. Although I do confess that my colleagues and I at one public high school I worked at used to wish we could do billable hours, like lawyers do, for THOSE parents who thought nothing of taking up a ton of our time with sometimes-frivolous requests. Regulation (which I would call “boundaries”) around how many hours a teacher can work or how much time individual students or parents can ask for would be too unpopular for school administrators to even consider.

In the absence of these options, teachers, like other types of commons, will continue to be overused, and overall usefulness will continue to be compromised. Like a field that has been grazed down to the roots, many teachers who are overwhelmed, exhausted (and often working a second job) will lose effectiveness and provide less benefit.

As people debate reopening schools as COVID-19 rates increase, the expectations put on teachers as “the commons” are increasing yet again. Districts and parents are not only expecting teachers to spend their own time and money on the crucial (but too often unfunded) mandate of sterilizing learning spaces and ensuring that students wear masks and follow social distancing protocols, but this time they are asked to risk their very lives. “The Commons” of teachers’ time and energy has become “The Commons” of teachers’ physical bodies and lives, with some parents and administrators assuming that if they are depleted, there will always be other, greener, pastures to move on to when they hire new teachers.

But just as individual teachers’ resources aren’t infinite, the “pipeline” of new teachers isn’t infinite either. In fact it has been shrinking as young people see so many overburdened teachers that they start to doubt entering the profession. If we want to continue to have quality schools with highly-trained teachers, we need to treat teachers as more than a common resource that individuals and taxpayers each expect to exploit for their personal gain.

Suzie Null is a former middle and high school teacher and current professor of Teacher Education. Follow her on Twitter at WritingontheWall @NullSet16

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