Schools Should Do Less

I recently published an article in which I suggested that schools should not be doing their students’ laundry. My rationale was that schools already do too much and the more they do, the fewer things they will do well. This is hardly a groundbreaking observation.

  • Restaurants that focus make better food than those that try to make everything.
  • Companies that focus make higher quality products.
  • Individuals that focus are more successful.
  • Even teachers that focus are the only ones you’ve heard of. Jaime Escalante taught calculus. Lucy Calkins teaches writing. Rafe Esquith was best known for teaching kids Shakespeare.

To get really good at something, you have to aim your energies in one direction. Schools do the opposite. As a result, most of them rarely excel at anything.

Suggesting that schools not do students’ laundry led to predictable responses. A fair number of readers agreed with me. Those who didn’t argued that schools have to step up and be the communities kids need. Schools should fill the gaps left by neglectful parenting. Kids can’t learn unless their basic needs are met, and if those needs aren’t being met at home, then schools must do everything within their power to meet them. We shouldn’t punish kids for the sins of their parents.

All of those are appealing sentiments, which is likely why they’re hard to resist. But resist schools should. Because it is such thinking that exhausts educators and provides fuel for the failing schools narrative.

What Schools Offer Becomes Expected

Every disappointment results from unmet expectations, which means that schools should be very careful about what they offer. Provide lunch and you can bet that parents will complain about its nutritional content, the time allotted for kids to eat, the noise in the cafeteria, the demeanor of the adults staffing the noisy cafeteria, food waste, a lack of gluten-free options, and 15 other things that aren’t ideal. Offer free transportation to and from school and prepare to field complains about the safety of the buses, the lack of supervision leading to bullying, long bus rides, the professionalism of drivers, and many more.

When schools add offerings they shouldn’t expect gratitude; they should expect disappointment and criticism. Humans are kind of assholes, and one of our more unattractive traits is that we quickly feel entitled, take new things for granted, and find stuff to bitch about. It reminds me of this Louis C.K. bit where he talks about wi-fi on airplanes:

“I’m sitting on the plane and they go, ‘Open up your laptop, you can go on the Internet.’ It’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips. It’s amazing! I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down and they apologize. ‘The Internet’s not working.’ The guy next to me goes, ‘Pssh. This is bullshit!’ Like, how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago.”

Schools like to make people happy, so their leaders hardly ever tell anyone no. The irony is that taking on too much hasn’t led to a greater appreciation for schools; it’s led to scapegoating. Doing so many things means that schools do very few things well. And like wi-fi on airplanes, you’re better off not having it at all than having it perform poorly.

Responsibilities Adopted by Schools Become Responsibilities Forfeited By Parents

When schools continually take on more responsibilities, society starts expecting schools to take on larger and larger roles in the socialization of young people. That means we all start to expect families, churches, and communities to do less.

Once schools take on a role previously reserved for parents, a not insignificant number of parents will be happy to abdicate responsibility for that role. The thinking might go something like this:

If the school is teaching sexual education, there’s a series of uncomfortable conversations that I don’t have to have with my child.

If the school is providing an hour of exercise through recess and gym class, then I don’t need to play with or supervise my child outside. Alternatively, I don’t have to let them roam the neighborhood and risk my neighbors’ judgment over my free-range parenting methods. One less hassle for me.

Since the schools are providing counseling services, I don’t need to get my child the professional help he needs.

Where does it end? Schools have already taken responsibility for their students’ physical health (why have nutritional guidelines for the federal lunch program if they haven’t?). Those with washing machines have taken a step toward accepting responsibility for students’ cleanliness. But if schools are going to launder students’ clothing, shouldn’t they also provide a time and place for morning showers? Shouldn’t schools supply deodorant and toothpaste if parents aren’t providing them?

Why stop there? If schools are concerned with students’ physical health and hygiene, how can they neglect mental health? After all, students with mental health problems can’t properly learn. Shouldn’t schools provide counseling services? Shouldn’t the state provide funding so every school can afford to have a therapist in the building? Shouldn’t there be a nurse on every campus to administer mental health medications?

The More Schools Attempt To Do, The Less They Will Do Well

Every teacher knows this. Ask us to teach 100 things and we’ll do it; we just won’t do it particularly well. Tell me to cram 18 different things into my seven-hour teaching day, and I’ll cram them in; they just won’t be done effectively.

Many schools act as if tradeoffs don’t exist. Teachers are expected to teach exceptional reading lessons and exceptional math lessons (and don’t forget great science and social studies lessons, too!). We’re supposed to build a positive community of learners and instill moral character in our pupils, but those test scores better also be high!

You don’t get to have it all. Nobody does, and that includes schools. That’s just not how the world works, and schools, no matter how well-intentioned they are, don’t get to change the fundamental rules of time. They must either choose, which means saying no, or accept mediocrity (at best) in most of what they do.

The More Schools Attempt to Do, The More Resources They Will Need

One Facebook commenter said, “If we do want educators to do all of this, we must provide resources.” There are two problems with such an argument. First, there are large segments of the population that think we already spend too much on education. They are unlikely to support more money for things that aren’t directly related to academics. Second, asking for and receiving more funding opens schools up to even more criticism and makes them more vulnerable to the narrative that our schools are failing. Read any article critical of public schools in this country and you can be sure to hear about how much more money we spend than other countries and how even though we’re spending more on education than we did ten or twenty or fifty years ago, our results haven’t changed much. We’re not getting much bang for our buck, the argument goes, so maybe we should spend fewer bucks.

More spending means higher expectations, especially from those who think we already spend too much on schools. But those expectations are tied to academic performance because in most people’s minds academics is still the primary responsibility of schools. Nevermind that the money is being used for more administrators, counseling, discipline, and safer buses. The critics will pounce if increased funding doesn’t lead to higher test scores, regardless of whether those funds were intended to lead to higher test scores.

Schools are being judged on academics, even though academics make up a progressively smaller part of schools’ focus as they foolishly take on more and more non-academic responsibilities.

The Less Schools Do Well, the More They Will Be Criticized

By accepting responsibility for an ever-expanding role in the development of young people, schools have set themselves up for consistent, blistering attacks. Consequently, they have made it less likely that they will effectively develop young people. Their noble intentions have sabotaged their intended results.

Pulled in 50 directions, schools make it harder to do the one thing almost everyone expects of them — educate their students. In the process, they exhaust the people responsible for producing the desired outcomes. Every person working in a school has too much to do, and it’s no wonder.

When leaders fail to focus and instead attempt to solve every societal problem, it’s those doing the actual work who end up spread thin. Exhausted people aren’t effective. And when schools are blamed, the people working in them take it personally. They feel shit on, and shit on people don’t perform well. Some of them walk right out the door and never return.

Burned out people don’t need more to do. Those trying to solve every problem created by society don’t deserve to be scapegoated. Schools will never get the results they seek if they continue to stretch their employees like rubber bands and set them up to be criticized for failing to solve all of the problems they’ve been asked to solve.

When schools act as if they can do it all, then anything they fail to do well is ammunition for their critics. Enemies of public education can point to countless “failures” of public schools because schools have blindly accepted responsibility for so many things that they can’t help but fail at most of them.

If you take on reproductive health, then you’re going to be blamed when teenage pregnancy rates rise.

If you serve breakfast and lunch, you’ll be culpable for a nation of obese children.

If you’re going to have drug-prevention programs, then kids better use fewer drugs.

If you teach financial literacy, then guess who’s fault it is when millions of people grow up and take out zero-interest loans, creating a real estate bubble which eventually bursts and sends the entire economy into a tailspin?

If you’re going to take responsibility for instilling character in your students, then where will fingers be pointed by those who believe the country is in the midst of a moral crisis?

If you’re going to train teachers on suicide prevention, then who gets the blame when a student takes his or her own life?

Nearly every societal problem today can be blamed on schools. That’s because schools have made it easy for critics to blame them. When public schools attempt to solve every societal problem, they do nothing but undermine their own mission. They open the door for their enemies to point and say, “Look at how badly those public schools (fill in the blank).”

One commenter on my last article summarized: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave…”

I might finish the line… “when to others no responsibilities schools leave.”

Half Of Teachers Don’t Like Their Jobs

I wrote an article near the end of last school year titled, “Most Teachers Don’t Love Their Jobs.” I held off publishing it for a number of reasons, one of which is it’s never a good idea to write anything near the end of the school year and allow others to read it. Another reason was I wasn’t sure if I was right. This is true of almost everything I write, but in this instance, the self-doubt was particularly strong. And, also, I knew that such an article would not be received appreciatively. I even tested the waters — focus-grouped it, so to say –by asking the following question on Facebook: If teachers love their jobs, how can they be excited about not doing it for two months?

Responses were as expected, but perhaps that’s because those comments were in a public forum where colleagues, bosses, parents, and students might stumble across them.

I have reason to doubt at least half of those responses because I keep running across data that suggest my original hypothesis was, if not exactly true, then more true than we would like to admit or believe.

There are a lot of teachers who do not like their jobs.

WHAT TEACHERS SAY

Spend some time with teachers and you will likely come away believing that they really love what they do. Many of them will straight up tell you, “I love teaching.” Some come close enough: “I just can’t imagine doing anything else.” Others will acknowledge some frustration, but convey that, on the whole, they’re satisfied with their profession: “The administration (or parents, or paperwork, or lack of trust, or stupid laws, or stress) is awful, but I love the kids.” Some go further than mere love. For them, teaching is a “passion.” A few even elevate teaching to the level of the clergy. For them, it is a “calling.”

I have no doubt that there are some teachers reading this who really do love their jobs (and also no doubt that they will let me know in the comments). I have less doubt that most teachers have felt this way at some point in their careers. I’m also positive that there are moments (maybe even a fair number of them) when teachers love their jobs. And I’m sure that it’s true that many teachers really can’t imagine doing anything else. (I know I can’t. I’m pretty sure I’d fail miserably in literally every other profession.)

But the data suggest that at least half the teachers who claim to love their jobs just don’t.

THE DATA

According to a 2014 Gallup report, just 31% of the more than 7,000 teachers surveyed reported being “engaged” at work. That’s in line with the general American workforce, which self-reports engagement at 30%. So it doesn’t seem as if teaching is any more engaging than any other job, and it’s hard to imagine loving (or even liking) a job you don’t find engaging.

2015 AFT survey of over 30,000 teachers found that 89% of them “strongly agreed” that they were excited about their jobs when they started their careers, but by the time those teachers took the survey, just 15% still felt that way. The same survey found that 73% of teachers found their jobs “often stressful.” So teaching, at least for those who’ve done it for more than a few years, is unexciting and stressful. Not typical characteristics of things people love.

58% of respondents in the 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, a poll administered to almost 5,000 teachers and school staff across the country, reported poor mental health for at least a week out of the previous month.

But the one that really got me was this graph, one of many produced by CEP in a report titled, “Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices.”

About half of the teachers surveyed agreed with the statement, “The stress and disappointments involved in teaching at this school aren’t really worth it,” and they would leave the profession altogether if they could get a higher-paying job.

Think about that.

Assuming this is a representative sample (it claims to be), half of America’s teachers think exactly the opposite of what almost every teacher claims, that in spite of the challenges and frustrations, teaching is worth it. Half our teachers are telling us that, actually, it isn’t.

And while at first blush it shouldn’t be surprising that anyone would leave one job for a higher-paying one, in the case of teachers we’re talking about people who already made the choice to forego higher salaries when they decided to become teachers in the first place. What the graph really says is, “This job is nothing like I thought it would be.”

But perhaps you don’t believe them. After all, we all know plenty of educators who like to complain and most teachers keep on teaching. It’s actions that matter because people’s words are often self-soothing stories they tell themselves. Actions are tangible and measurable. As Emerson supposedly said, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.” So what do teachers’ actions reveal about how they feel about their jobs?

WHAT TEACHERS DO

Chad Aldeman spends his days (and probably his nights) studying and writing about pension plans. Because the plans involve billions of dollars, states make careful assumptions based on what teachers do, not what they say. According to Aldeman, “States’ own assumptions show that, on average, more than half of teachers do not receive any employer pension benefits because they leave before they are eligible. Just one in five stays on the job long enough to receive full benefits at retirement.” So in spite of a strong financial incentive to stick it out, four out of every five teachers, a fair number of whom undoubtedly claimed to be passionate about teaching while they were doing it, don’t make it to full retirement age.

If teachers love teaching, not many of them love it for long.

The few that do stick around get out at pretty much the first opportunity. Aldeman writes, “Out of 100 teachers who are still teaching at 55 years old, the median state assumes that 65 will retire by their 60th birthday, and only 8 will remain teaching until they reach age 65. That is sooner than U.S. averages for all workers.”

That’s not exactly the behavior of people who see their job as a calling.

Source

WHY IT MATTERS

So why does it matter? Where’s the harm in teachers lying about how much they enjoy their work?

First, the truth, even when it tastes bitter, is more important than a lie.

Second, current teachers owe the truth to aspiring teachers so that young people can make informed career decisions. Half of teachers should not suddenly realize, once they start doing the job, that it’s nothing like they thought it was going to be and they should have gone for the money instead of whatever ideal they thought they were choosing. The gap between the expectations young people have about teaching and the realities of the job probably explain a lot of early career attrition.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, policy and societal expectations are based on a belief that teachers love what they do; that because teachers derive pleasure from their jobs, it’s okay to treat them differently than professionals who don’t.

If you love your job, goes the thinking, then why should we pay you more money?

If teaching is your passion, then surely you wouldn’t mind doing more of it?

If your job is a calling, then what wouldn’t you agree to if it means helping your students and fulfilling your mission in life?

Saying you love your job might easily be interpreted by exploitative people as an invitation to further exploit you. At the very least, it sends the message that nothing needs to change. That everything is okay, and even if it isn’t, we still think it’s “worth it.”

Let’s start being more honest about our work. Teaching is rewarding, but it is also damn hard. It’s draining, frustrating, and stressful, and those lows are occasionally ameliorated by moments of joy, relief, and success. It’s meaningful work, made more meaningful by its challenges.

But it’s exhausting and things could and should be better.

As a nation, we should want more than half of our teachers to love their work and we should start asking why they don’t. The only way change will ever happen is if teachers share the realities of teaching, stop sugar-coating their frustrations with assurances that they love it anyway, and offer suggestions on how to make things better.

Teachers might not deserve to love their jobs any more than anyone else does. But parents deserve to send their children to schools full of teachers who want to be there, and students deserve to learn from someone who doesn’t regret her career choice. Only by being honest about the job will the conditions of it ever change.

Drawing Lines in the Sand

The beginning of the year can be a dangerous time for teachers, especially those starting their careers or starting over in a new building or district. You’re refreshed from summer and raring to go. The positivity among your colleagues is contagious, and everyone wants to put their best foot forward.  You want to be a team player. You want to impress the people you work with and for. You want to do whatever it takes. In such an environment, it’s easy to agree to things that you will later regret.

The choices you make in the first few weeks of the new school year will affect how stressed out and exhausted you will be later in the year. No matter if you’re starting at a new school or just starting a new year in an old one, the beginning of the year is the time to draw lines in the sand that will protect yourself for the remainder of the year. These lines are for you, but they’re also for the people with whom you will interact from September to June.

I recommend drawing four lines, one for each group of people who have the potential to dampen your enthusiasm, stress you out, and drain your energy.

Draw Lines for Administrators

Nothing will frustrate and exhaust you faster than committing to a bunch of extra work that won’t make a difference for your students. How you respond to early requests of your time will set the tone for the rest of the year and beyond. It’s not enough to say no to an early request, although showing that you’re willing to do so will go along way toward earning your supervisor’s respect.

The problem with a single no is that it’s easily defeated. Come up with an excuse to not sign up for the science committee and you invite negotiation. Your principal may offer to send a sub in your place for those two dates you claimed had a conflict. Or he may return with the offer to join a different team, at which point, having already turned him down once, you’ll feel obligated to join.

Claim you can’t make it to math night and your principal will attempt to guilt you into attending a different after-school event, using your colleagues’ willingness to volunteer against you.

Instead of saying no, draw a line in the sand at working for free. Instead of “no,” say “I don’t.” It’s more powerful and leaves you less open to arguments and follow-up requests.

Read more about saying “I don’t.”

If you’re worried how this line in the sand will be received, then you may need to elaborate. Say something like this: “I’m fully committed to being the best teacher I can for the kids in my room and I vigilantly protect against stretching myself too thin because that will harm my teaching. That’s why I don’t do unpaid committee work.”

Read: Do Not Join That Unpaid Committee

Draw Lines for Colleagues

If you want to get home at a reasonable hour (and you should, read this and this) then you are going to have to take full advantage of every minute you spend at school. This means coming in a little early and it means maximizing whatever planning time you have. It also means not squandering that time by chatting with colleagues.

Draw a line in the sand with colleagues by closing and locking your classroom door when you’re inside working. Hang a Do Not Disturb, Planning in Session sign on your door so they’re sure to get the message.

That may seem anti-social, but it beats the alternatives, which are being annoyed that you’re being interrupted and not fully participating in conversations, while hoping to bring them to a quick close, or being perpetually waylaid and consequently having to spend more time on work after school, which will eventually lead to a whole host of other problems.

It’s important to socialize and build relationships with your colleagues. Teachers who make connections with other adults are generally happier at work. Use lunch for that, not your planning time.

Read More: Optimize Planning Time

Draw Lines for Parents

Give some parents an inch and they’ll take a mile. Decide right now when and how you’d like to be contacted. Tell parents up front what they can expect in response. Just as you do with students, set expectations early, explain them clearly, and then do what you say.

If you’re sharing your cell phone number, be clear about how you would prefer parents get in touch. Let them know if you’d rather be texted or called. Tell them if you won’t respond over the weekend. Draw a line at how late you’re willing to reply.

If you’re not sharing your cell number, then be clear about the best way to get a hold of you and how quickly they can expect a response. We live in a world where everyone is immediately available. But teachers can’t just stop teaching to answer a call. Unlike many professionals, most of us spend very little time at our desks. Explain the reality, that you will likely not see their emails for hours, and tell them to call the office is their message is time-sensitive. Don’t assume parents understand how busy teachers are; tell them up front what to expect when it comes to communication.

Draw Lines for Students

While teachers like to say that the things that really frustrate them are factors outside of the classroom walls, the reality is that the kids can ruin your school year. Behavior can drive teachers from the classroom, so you’ll want a good handle on classroom management. But you also don’t want to be the only one in the room doing the work. In his book The First Days of School, Harry Wong describes an all too familiar situation:

“The reason teachers are so tired at the end of the school day is that they have been working.  If I worked as hard as many teachers do, I’d be as tired too.  But have you ever noticed what happens at 3 o‘clock when the students leave? “Yea, yea, yea!’  Why are they so full of energy?  Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher does all the work.  The person who does all the work is the only one doing any learning!”

The kids are there to work, so draw a line in the sand with students early: You will not help them the second they ask for it. Let them struggle a little. That’s when learning happens.

It’s important to send this message early. This past week, a number of my students wanted help on a math assignment and raised their hands. When I went to check on them, they hadn’t even attempted the problem yet. So a rule was instituted: You cannot ask me for help unless you can show me how you tried to solve the problem. Kids are smart. They can figure stuff out if we aren’t there to bail them out the second they encounter a snag.

Protect Yourself

Every year, teachers burn out. Some walk out the door, never to return to education. Others press on, subjecting students to uninspired teaching for years. Teachers must get better at protecting themselves and it starts with being clear about what you will and won’t do.

Draw lines in the sand that you refuse to cross and that send clear messages to others that you are in control of your career, and that you will do what it takes to ensure you remain effective the whole year and for many years to come.

Tie Yourself To a Tree

Every year, I read the Shiloh series to my third graders. It’s the story of a boy and his dog. Marty Preston, an eleven-year-old living in rural West Virginia finds a mistreated beagle, discovers the owner is an abusive lout of a man named Judd Travers, and makes it his mission to make the dog his own. By the third book of the series, Shiloh belongs to Marty and Judd has made some steps toward becoming a better human being.

There’s a scene near the end of that third book that holds a valuable lesson for teachers.

The Preston parents have been called away, and the kids — Marty, his best friend, and his two younger sisters — have been left home. After receiving what turns out to be a prank phone call about a body floating down Middle Island Creek, the kids rush to the bridge to see for themselves. Disappointed by the truth, Marty turns to leave. His sister Dara Lynn has, however, climbed atop the bridge’s railing and is leaning out over the water, watching it rush beneath her, the rapids wild from a recent flood. As Marty yells at her to get down, she falls in.

Panic ensues. Neighbors arrive, alerted by the kids’ shouting. Dara Lynn manages to grab a tree branch and pull herself to the bank, but in all the hubbub Marty hadn’t noticed that Shiloh, the dog he worked so hard to rescue from his abusive owner, has jumped into the water to save his sister. Marty steps into the water to go after his dog but is pulled back by a neighbor. He watches as the current carries Shiloh farther away. The dog is just too small to save himself.

That’s when Judd Travers arrives in his pickup. From the book:

“You want to get yourself killed?” he calls, right angry. And then, “What’s the matter, Marty?” Sees Mr. Ellison comin’ up the road behind me, thinks he’s chasin’ me maybe. He gets out of the truck.

I’m gasping. Point to the creek. “Shiloh! He’s in the water and we can’t reach him!”

“Marty, that dog will have to get himself out!” Mrs. Ellison calls from far behind us. “Don’t you try to go after him now.”

But Judd crashes through the trees and brush, half sliding down the muddy bank, and I point to the head of my beagle back upstream, out there bobbing around in the current. Once, it looks like he goes under. Judd don’t say a word. He’s scramblin’ up the bank again and grabs that rope in his pickup. Hobbles down the road, fast as his two bum legs will carry him, goin’ even farther downstream, me and David at his heels. Then he ties one end of that rope to a tree at the edge of the water, the other end around his waist, taking his time to make a proper square knot, and I’m thinkin’, Don’t worry about knots, Judd — just go!

Judd pulls Shiloh from the water, redeeming himself in the process.

As teachers, we have students in our class who are like Shiloh. They’re in danger, struggling to stay afloat as the rushing waters carry them away. Like Marty, we instinctively want to help. We want to throw ourselves into the current and pull those students to shore.

So we do everything we can. We build relationships with these students, investing extra time and energy on those we know need us most. We keep in close contact with their parents. We encourage and cajole, inspire and counsel. Some of us go so far as to attend their after-school events, even their birthday parties. Recognizing their need, we might buy them snacks, or books we hope they’ll love, or backpacks full of the school supplies their parents can’t afford. We give our all to help those unable to help themselves from getting carried away by the floodwaters of their lives.

And we exhaust ourselves in the process. We put ourselves in danger. We make it more likely that we too will be carried away.

Had Marty rushed into the water to save his dog, it’s likely they would have both drowned.

Shiloh was saved only because Judd took a minute to tie himself to a tree.

That is what teachers should do. Tie yourself to a tree. Protect yourself first. You can’t be any good to your students — and that includes the ones who need you the most — if you’re exhausted and in danger of burning out.

As the start of the year approaches (or has already started), put yourself in the best position possible to help others. Do these five things:

Undercommit

The beginning of any year is a heady time and the enthusiasm can be intoxicating. It’s easy to rush in without thinking. Signing up for five committees might not seem like a terrible idea now, but you can be sure you’ll regret it in November. Start by not signing up for any and only join once you can gauge how demanding your teaching job is going to be. Most committee work doesn’t make much of an impact on your students, and your main job is to impact your students.

Read more: Do Not Join That Unpaid Committee

Make a Plan

Decide now when you will commit extra hours to the job and stick to it right out of the gate. If you’re coming in an hour early, don’t also stay an hour late. Draw some lines in the sand for yourself and don’t cross them. Build in time now to detach. Pick at least one weekend day when you will nothing related to your job.

Read More: Make a Plan

Say No Early

Saying yes is habit-forming. The more you agree to take on extra work, the more likely you’ll be asked again in the future and the harder it will be for you to say no. Humans are remarkably consistent and salespeople regularly take advantage of it. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of the “yes ladder” sales technique, then you know how hard it can be to say no after you’ve said yes to five other questions. At the earliest opportunity, say no to your boss. Your future self will thank you.

Related: Why Teachers Should Object

Focus On What Matters

Your job is to teach the kids in front of you to the best of your ability. There are 100 things you can do as a teacher that have very little to do with student learning. The hour you spent on that pretty bulletin board just so parents would be impressed (maybe) for six seconds at open house could have been spent in better ways. Same goes for a number of tasks that could be done by students. Don’t peel the cellophane off 25 workbooks, neatly write student numbers on the covers with a Sharpie, and place the books into student desks when students of any age can do those things themselves. Think hard about how you use your time and save it for the things that matter the most.

Read more: Slash Your To-Do List

Learn

I write about all the above and much more in my books Exhausted (which will explain why you’re so tired after teaching and will offer the solutions you want) and Leave School At School (which could also be called “Optimizing Your Teaching”). I’d also recommend Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which will help you understand why you keep doing things that you later regret, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, which will get you thinking hard about what you’re focusing on and how you’re using your time, and Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which will help you decide what to care about (and it’s funny).

 

Wanting to help others is noble. No one can question Marty’s intent to rush into the water to save his dog. But good intentions can lead to horrible outcomes if we don’t think through the likely consequences. You aren’t much use to someone who’s drowning if you are drowning right next to them. Protect yourself first. Time yourself to a tree.

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When Teachers Should Work For Free

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe professionals should be paid for their work. I believe it even more strongly for teachers because unlike their counterparts in business, teachers will never earn a promotion or a pay raise based on their willingness to donate their labor. While others may put in 60 hours of work each week, many of them do so with the belief that they will personally benefit from such a sacrifice at a later date. That’s why I bristle when people who aren’t teachers make the argument that everybody puts in extra hours, so teachers should quit whining. Teachers’ extra hours are different because those hours are almost always given selflessly, which is why asking teachers to donate them is exploitative.

That said, there are times when teachers should be willing to work for free.  Here are four.

To Set Up Their Classrooms

Let me be clear. Teachers should be paid to set up their classrooms. They aren’t doing it for fun, they’re doing it because their work, which is done on behalf of the school district, requires that it be done. The logistics are tricky for the district, though. Should teachers who spend 20 hours Pinterizing their rooms be paid more than minimalists who only spend 3? Might not some teachers, those without kids or who dislike their spouses, perhaps,  just spend eight hours a day for an entire week, tinkering around in their rooms, so they can pile up the dough? It’s easy to see why districts don’t offer an hourly rate to teachers for this work.

Districts could, however, and should, offer a flat-rate. Respectful employers should negotiate a dollar amount to give every teacher, knowing that every teacher will be spending some time setting up their classrooms. They never will because they don’t have to and they know it. They know that no self-respecting teacher is going to show up at the school open house or the first day of class without having most things in place. District leaders also know that they will not be blamed if teachers do exactly that and say, “Well, the district won’t pay me to come in, so I don’t.” That makes the teacher look bad, not the district. If it makes you look bad in front of kids and parents, you will work for free, and so you will continue to do so. It isn’t ideal, but it’s understandable, and there’s probably no fixing this particular practice.

To Make Your Job Easier

As much as I wish it were not true, there is no way to do this job without putting in some time outside of your contractual hours. Having done this for 18 years now, 15 of them at the same grade level and with the same district, I have a ton of advantages that many teachers don’t enjoy. I’m familiar with the curriculum. I have a library of lessons that can be counted on. I’ve found efficiencies through trial and error. I am able to leave school at school almost every night by focusing on what’s most important, constantly asking myself why I am doing what I am doing, utilizing technology, and taking practical steps like getting rid of homework and focusing on written feedback instead of grades in writing (I write about these strategies and others in my book, Leave School At School).

Even so, I still come in 45 minutes to an hour before school every day. There are just too many things to do. Not coming in early would add considerable stress and make the job all but impossible, which is why one of the dumbest things unions do when they are in the middle of contentious contract negotiations is tell their teachers to work to the contract. Teachers hate doing this because it makes their job even harder than it already is. Being unprepared makes everything more stressful.

Work for free when doing so makes your job easier.

To Have a Say

I have served on three interview teams and I wasn’t paid for any of them. These were full days, requiring me to drive 30 minutes each way without any reimbursement and listen to new teacher candidates earnestly share why they would be the best hire. This was time given to my district to help them select the best people to educate the kids in their community.

I have also served on a district committee to evaluate a new reading program, and I know a number of teachers who joined a team of fellow teachers, district leaders, and community members when the district went through restructuring. While all of this work was performed on behalf of their employer, it was all consequential to teachers. I want to have a say in who my colleagues will be, which reading program I’ll be forced to use, and how a transition to a new building will be handled.

Teachers should be willing to work for free to have a say in their work conditions.

To Personally Benefit

Money is not the only form of compensation. Teachers might choose to work for free if they personally benefit in other ways. If you are passionate about something, then working for free won’t bother you because you’re doing something you love and your “pay” is the joy you feel while doing it. I work with a teacher who is passionate about Make a Difference Day. Most years, she spends hours coming up with and implementing ideas to make this day special for the whole school.  She derives immense pleasure from it, more satisfaction than any amount of money would give her (well, maybe not any amount).

I am an unpaid member of the district’s technology team, but that doesn’t mean I’m working for free. First, I like technology and use it a lot in class. It’s made my teaching more efficient, relevant, and fun. So I benefit in those ways. Second, I like knowing and having some influence on what direction the district is heading in with respect to technology and I enjoy bringing staff concerns to the district. Third, I benefit because members of the tech team receive piloted devices and programs. I had one of the first Chromebooks in the district and I have one of a handful of SMART boards in my classroom. I’m being “paid” in other ways, so I’m willing to work for something other than money.

Be Careful

The danger comes when teachers see their entire job this way. When you claim that teaching is your passion, you’ll be willing to take on countless extra duties without pay. If teaching truly is your calling, you’ll feel no resentment over serving on every committee and attending every after-school event. Rather than exhaust and demoralize you, you’ll get a charge out of it.

The problem is this: While you may enjoy donating your time, many of your colleagues do not. And when enough teachers are willing to work for free, working for free becomes an expectation and those who don’t do it suffer unfair reputational harm.  No teacher should feel like they have to work for free. Years of selfless teachers giving away their time has led to a culture of exploitation. Districts don’t even think twice about asking teachers to work for nothing.

So be careful. Although your motives may be pure and you really want to do whatever it takes to help kids, the consequences of working for free can hurt your colleagues and it already has hurt the profession as a whole.

 

Related Articles:

Teachers’ Extra Hours Are Different

American Teachers Should Work Less

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

 

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