Busywork: Bad for Students. Good for Support Staff?

"Don't give students busywork!"


In education, "busywork" is a word one must not mention. Whereas 50 years ago it may have been acceptable to give packets of work to keep students occupied, in today's schools giving busywork is a cardinal sin.


So why are support staff being given busywork to justify getting paid during school closure?

I recently shared an article explaining our approach to compensating support staff in the coming weeks:

  • All support staff will be paid during school district closure

  • All support staff will not be required to work during school district closure

I have been happy to see many Iowa school districts are using the same approach with their support staff. However, as I research districts outside of Iowa it has been disappointing to see how many support staff are expected to report to work during this time, even with students nowhere to be found.


Before going further I must explain in Iowa there are no requirements for students to participate in remote or online education during school closure. Given this guidance, our district decided there would be no required learning for students. Not only are we unable to create equitable educational opportunities for all students, we also believe our staff's primary focus should be their own health and well-being.


Upon determining our students would not be required to learn from home, our attention shifted to support staff. We discussed the needs they could fill for our district: Cover offices, answer phones, clean buildings, make copies, create resources, and communicate with families were all options that were discussed.


However, we soon realized these options contradicted one of our District Core Values, which is to "Create an atmosphere where staff feel valued, trusted, and respected." How could our support staff feel valued and respected if we force them to complete meaningless tasks to justify giving them a paycheck?


We believe paying support staff to stay home will pay off in the long run. While we might experience short term losses that could have otherwise been gained with support staff working, I believe our district will be better in the long run because support staff are treated like professionals.


My plea to school leaders is to consider the following: If it is not acceptable for staff to give busywork, then why is it acceptable to give busywork to staff?

Note: This article has proven to be sensitive.  I shared it on social media and quickly took it down as I realized colleagues across the state do not share my same opinion for how support staff should be used.  I want to be clear that I believe some districts are doing a great job of using support staff.  However, those districts are the exception, not the rule.

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