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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Do Not Join That Unpaid Committee

The start of the school year is closing in fast, which means that in mere weeks (maybe even days) you will be welcomed back, told how important your job is and how appreciated you are, and then, before such words have even dissipated into the ether, asked to give away the most important thing you have, your time.

Your boss will want you to join a committee (or three), be a team leader, or serve on a school improvement council. In some cases, you’ll be asked to do this work for nothing.

Say no.

You’ll be tempted to say yes. It’s the start of the year. Optimism is high. The summer worked its rejuvenating magic and you and your fellow teachers are bursting with energy. You can practically taste the positivity.  Idealism runs rampant. You’ll do whatever is necessary for this school, for these kids! The job ahead of you is hard, but together you can do it!

Say no anyway.

Say No For Yourself

You are going to be overworked. You will be stressed. There isn’t enough time in a week for teachers to do everything they know they should be doing, and that’s if you do nothing other than teach the kids in front of you. By Halloween, you will be exhausted. You will resent whatever extra work you agreed to in that heady fog of feelgood at the start of the year. You’ll dread sitting through an hour-long meeting after school when you should be at your kid’s soccer game. Jumping off a bridge will sound preferable to the prospect of filling out another stupid survey that the state has mandated and the principal has pawned off on your team.

Teachers complain about not having enough time and then they give it away for free. Teachers complain about how much they’re paid and then work for nothing. Do not allow August exuberance, guilt, fear, or the opinion of others to cause you to do something you know you shouldn’t do. And don’t be a martyr. We have enough of those in education already.  The work you do is difficult and tiring. It makes zero sense to voluntarily take on even more of it, and even less sense to do so without pay.

Say No For Your Students

There is only so much time in a day, a week, a school year. The more of it you spend in one area, the less you have in another. If you want to help your students, spend more time on things that will help your students and less time on stuff that won’t make a difference in the classroom. Most committee work does not affect the students under your care.

George Couros says that teachers shouldn’t be classroom teachers, they should be school teachers:

““School teachers’ can do all of those things that classroom teachers do within their own classrooms and subject matter, but when they walk out of their room, every child in the school is their child.” 

Teachers should be careful with this mindset. It’s easy to go from smiling and encouraging every student you encounter to signing up for every committee because you tell yourself that every committee is doing good work that will, in some way, benefit some kids somewhere inside the school eventually.

The best thing you can do for your students is fully commit to them. That means saying no to anything that won’t make you a better classroom teacher. Burning yourself out with extra work won’t help your students. Resentment over being stretched too thin is not an attitude you want to carry into your classroom. Being overwhelmed and stressed out won’t make you more effective.

An hour spent in a meeting is an hour not spent planning better lessons. Or reading your students’ writing and providing feedback. Or communicating with parents. Or reading the latest research on best practices. Or anything else that might make a direct impact on your students. You cannot do it all, even if all of it benefits kids.

Say no for your students.

Say No For Your Profession

In too many schools, teachers who give away their time resent or look down their noses at those who don’t. They see them as selfish or lazy and feel aggrieved that they are working so much more than some of their colleagues. That’s a script that needs to be flipped. Instead of assigning virtue to those who help perpetuate exploitative practices, let's honor those who stand up to such practices. Click To Tweet

You are a professional. Pros get paid. The reason teachers get asked to donate their time is because they’ve always been willing to donate their time.  The asking won’t stop until the answer is consistently no. You can’t blame an employer for trying to get employees to donate labor. Blame the teachers for continuing to give it away because they are undermining the teachers who want to be treated with the respect employers afford their workers in other fields. Put bluntly, they are the problem. When every teacher says no to unpaid extra work, only two things can happen:

The committees disappear because there’s no one on them, or teachers are paid to do the work.

The only way to change the way teachers are treated is to change the way we respond to the treatment. Click To Tweet Saying no to additional, uncompensated work is good for your colleagues, it’s good for teachers you don’t even know, and it’s good for those who won’t step into a classroom for years. Saying no gains respect and it’s good for the profession.

Do yourself, your students, and your profession a favor. Say no to unpaid extra work, and get your colleagues to say it, too.

Throwing Your Hands Up Will Not Make Things Better

The other day, I shared the first in a series of articles I wrote last winter on preventing teacher burnout. The end of the article included links to the rest of the series. There are articles on saying no, leaving soon after students do at the end of the day, leveraging technology to decrease your workload, getting paperwork done while students are working, and a number of other topics. I recognize that not every one of my suggestions will work for every teacher out there. Some of us have tyrannical principals. Others may be hamstrung by awful contracts. I’m sure there are many teachers whose students do not have one-to-one devices. I get that not everything I suggest teachers do can realistically be done.

But a comment left by a reader illustrated the kind of defeatist thinking I hear from too many teachers. She told me my solutions weren’t practical for most teachers. When I asked for specifics, she wrote:

Many times teachers don’t have the luxury of individuals having their own technology. After-hours activities are often mandatory, and when students are doing independent work the teachers need to monitor for behavior issues, students who need assistance, etc. Coming in early and staying late are often the only opportunities to clean the rooms. One janitor for an entire school doesn’t cut it, and reports, progress notes, lesson plans, IEPs, and state-guided binders all have to be done after hours.

All of that may indeed be true. But the sentiment behind the words strikes me as something along the lines of, “Well, I’ll never be able to get my life back and feel less overwhelmed because all of these obstacles are making it impossible.”

The solutions I offer in articles and books may not work for everyone. They might not even be possible for some teachers. But I know what definitely will not make your teaching life better: resignation. Throwing your hands up in the face of challenges that make it difficult for you to remain enthusiastic about your job, that prevent you from getting home to your family and having needed balance in your life, and that make it more likely you will become discouraged, frustrated, and burned out is not a solution.

The point of my advice is not that you do x,y, and z and everything will be hunky-dory. The point is that you do something to make things better.

If your students do not have one-to-one devices, most of you can still use technology to cut hours off your workweek. Take students to the lab. Check out the Chromebook cart. Rotate students through centers to take advantage of the six laptops you do have. Write a grant for more devices. Get on DonorsChoose.

If your contract requires you to attend after-hours activities, then go. But don’t go to the ones that aren’t required. And stop telling yourself events are mandatory when they aren’t. A principal “expecting” you to be there isn’t a requirement. The fact that the rest of the staff has been guilted into attending does not obligate you to follow suit. If you’re worried about fallout, then talk to some veteran teachers. Ask them how many teachers in the past five years have been fired for not attending after-school events. I’m confident you’ll find the number quite low.

As for getting work done while you students work, yes, you may have to deal with behavior issues. But some of those can be solved proactively. Sit the troublemakers at the table where you’ll be doing your work. Name some high-performing, early-finishing student mentors to help those who need it. Partner those who almost always need help (it’s not like you don’t know who they are) with those who like helping and are always asking you what they can do next. Most importantly, establish early on what independent work looks like and have procedures students can follow when stuck that don’t require your constant availability. And if none of the above works, try something else. You have the right to go home at night and not have a pile of paperwork to complete, but that will only happen if you do something to reduce the piles of paperwork you are taking home. So do it!

If you’ve been teaching more than five years and you’re staying after school for three hours every night, then do something different. That’s not tenable. If the room is filthy and your one janitor can’t get to it, then figure out why it’s filthy and make a change. Papers ending up on the floor? Collect them as soon as students finish. Pencils littering the linoleum? Pass them out at the start of class and collect them at the end. Stuff falling out of kids’ desks? Take everything out of their desks and have them retrieve needed items from a central storage area. Stop ten minutes earlier and have students clean.

If you’re swamped by lesson plans, progress reports, IEPs, and state-mandated paperwork, then start using other people’s lessons, ask yourself if anyone is really going to miss a progress report once in a while (and if they are, can you simplify them?), push your district to schedule IEPs during the day (and if they won’t, talk to your principal about maybe lightening your special education numbers next year since you got hammered this year), work on the stupid state-mandated nonsense while kids take stupid state-mandated tests (and don’t put much effort into them–do you really think anyone is going to spend much time reading it?)

We all have obstacles that make our jobs harder than they need to be. If your goal is to reduce the feeling that you’re overwhelmed and to gain back hours of your day to devote to things you want to do instead of things you feel like you have to do, then do what it takes to make that happen. Go around the obstacles. If that doesn’t work, go through them. But whatever you do, don’t stand there pointing at the thing in your path, telling others how it stubbornly refuses to move out of your way.

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My books, Exhausted and Leave School at School both offer suggestions for how to make your teacher life my manageable. Some of those suggestions will speak to you, some will not. If you find that my ideas aren’t cutting it and are in need of different ones, then give Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club a look. It’s comprehensive. Angela will talk you through every aspect of your teaching life as well as changes you can make at home. Sign up now, and you’ll start receiving the July materials, “The Self-Running Classroom,” including topics on designing your classroom for maximum productivity, planning procedures for a smooth first week, automating classroom routines, and establishing productive daily habits for you and your students.

 

The Total Time Transformation for Teachers

I started worrying about money when my daughter was born twelve years ago. Before that, I didn’t keep careful track of it. I usually had enough for what I wanted, so I didn’t bother to make a budget or record my expenses.  I never bounced a check and I didn’t abuse my credit cards, but I wasn’t getting ahead. I wasn’t saving anything.

My parents were able to pay for my college education. My wife was not as fortunate. Every month, I watched her pay off a little more of her student loans, but it seemed as if they would always be there. I didn’t want that for my daughter, so I opened a 529 account on the day she was born. Then I had to figure out how much to put into it so she could avoid borrowing money at what at the time seemed a very distant future.

It seemed less distant when I started playing with cost-of-college calculators.

I also wanted to save for retirement. I wanted to travel during the summer. I liked cruises and wanted to go on more. None of those things were going to happen if I kept doing what I was doing. I needed to change, but I didn’t know what changes to make. I had to learn.

I started with Dave Ramsey. His radio show was on every day when I drove home from school. I listened. Then I found his book, The Total Money Makeover, in a bargain bin. I bought and read it. That led to other books and resources. I learned how to make a budget, how to assign every dollar, how to track my expenses, what to spend on and where to scrimp, that I should never buy a new car, I should cut up my credit cards, and how I could save money on food by planning meals each week. I learned what to do differently, and now, 12 years later, I have a decent chunk of money set aside for my daughter’s college, a nice start to a nest egg that will supplement my pension in 12 years, and I’ve even gone on a few more cruises. 

What does this have to do with teachers transforming how they use their time?

I have no doubt that many teachers have done what I’ve done where it concerns their money.  They have monthly budgets. They watch their money closely with apps on their phones. They have automatic alerts set up to let them know of odd activity on their accounts. They check their credit scores. They sign up for services like Honey or Swagbucks so that they don’t squander a single cent. They cut coupons and follow their favorite brands on Twitter to learn about deals. They’ve bookmarked deal sites, receive emails from Groupon, and compare credit cards to find the best cashback offers. Like me, as they aged they underwent a total money makeover.

What many teachers haven’t done is a total time transformation, even though time is far more valuable than money. The same teachers who watch every penny waste countless minutes, not realizing that when time runs out it won’t matter how much money they’ve accumulated. Who among us won’t be willing to pay whatever it takes for just one more good hour with the ones we love?

Many teachers don’t like how they use their time. They know that if they don’t make changes, they will continue to spend too much of it on things that don’t the matter most to them. Each school year follows a predictable, undesirable pattern. They start out excited. They overcommit. They spend time on things they either don’t care much about or that have little impact on their students. They become frustrated, overwhelmed, and exhausted. They can’t wait for summer. When it finally hits, they take a deep breath. But then, instead of fixing the problem like they did with their wayward spending, they repeat the same mistakes. They never get the things they want.

Teachers who want more control over how they spend their time should follow the same process they did when they wanted more control over their money. 

Start with what you want. Do you want more time to spend with family? More time to exercise or devote to non-education interests? Do you want to feel less tired and more in control of your life? List those wants out.

Now, how will you get those things? What changes will you have to make to make them a reality? Will you need to leave work earlier? Stop staying yes so much? Find ways to reduce paperwork? Let go of teacher guilt? Stop comparing yourself to other teachers? Will you have to get more organized, prioritize differently, or decide to stop doing something you enjoy doing?

Whatever you need to do to get what you want, chances are you don’t really know how to do those things. If you did, you’d already be doing them. You need resources that will show you how to do the things you want to do, preferably produced by people who have done those very things you aspire to.

Fortunately, those resources exist. I recommend starting with the following:

Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club 

My last two books, Exhausted and Leave School At School

The Well-Balanced Teacher

These courses from Learners Edge

The New Brunswick School-Based Wellness Program’s website

 

Start there. Learn. Think differently. Try something new. Then, each June or July, once school is out and you’ve recuperated and can start thinking a little further into the future than what you’re going to teach next week, sit down, just like people do with their finances, review your goals, see if your plan is working, recalculate as necessary, and update to be sure you’re still on track to get you where you want to be.

Time is not money. You can earn more money. So devote more effort to tracking and protecting your time than you do to monitoring and saving your money and you will end up using it more wisely.

 

 

 

3 Tips for Staying Positive As a Substitute Teacher

Portrait of teacher in classroom with elementary school kids

Life surely has its ups and downs, and some mornings, the last thing you want to do as a substitute teacher is walk into a classroom you’ve never entered before and put your game face on.

When you’re dealing with life’s stresses, they’re hard to shelve. But the job demands that you push your personal concerns aside and focus on your students’ needs. It’s never easy to paste on a smile when your heart is heavy or your distracted thoughts are racing through your head like cars in the Indy 500.

You may not be feeling upbeat, but there are some simple ways to grasp a positive attitude in the midst of your mental and emotional turmoil.

 

Gratitude Is the Best Attitude

When you are facing difficulties or hard challenges, thinking about your blessings can counteract negative thinking. The more you dwell on good things in your life, the more present they will be in your brain and short-term memory.

Maybe something awful is wreaking havoc on your heart, but there are always things you can be grateful for.

Consider little things as well as big things. When your car is running without a hitch, the traffic is actually manageable, and you find a parking spot without having to circle the lot three times, that’s something to be grateful for.

Sometimes we have to “fake it till we make it.” Have you ever noticed how smiling is contagious? When we paste that smile on, even if we’re not “feeling it,” that can help shift our negativity. And it will attract smiles in response. Which will help us cheer up, and make us smile more. Without realizing it, we’ve pulled out of our funk.

 

Repeat Positive Affirmations

Affirmations are another way to help us “fake it till we make it.” We sometimes have to psyche ourselves into our positive attitude.

Choose a few affirmations that will help you as you go through your teaching day. How about: “I can handle anything that comes my way.” Or “Nothing will push me over today; I’m a rock.” Or “I can keep it together at least until the final bell.”Recite them until they become mantras that play in your head throughout the day.

 

Challenge Those Negative Thoughts

Every time your brain derails onto that negative track, separate yourself from it and picture it as something “over there” that you can manipulate. Don’t ride that train; pull the track switch and move it onto another set of rails.

If today you feel like a failure at everything you’re doing, tell yourself, “I haven’t failed. I’m facing a challenge, and I will conquer it. I’m going to try again.” Thomas Edison said of his attempts to successfully invent the lightbulb: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Because he had that positive attitude, he kept trying. If he hadn’t, we might all be teaching classes by candlelight.

Negativity is like a vise grip that squeezes and constricts our creativity. Negative emotions such as fear, anger, blame, and resentment narrow our focus in a way that obscures options. Worry, especially, paralyzes us.

So the sooner we bounce back, the better we’ll be able to serve the needs of our students.

 

Bouncing Back

Positive attitudes have been called “the undo effect.” They help us to quickly recover from negative emotions. When we generate a positive perspective, it helps us bounce back. And that “bouncing back” brings motivation or impetus.

Sometimes we feel we must change our situation before we can be positive and plow ahead. But there are times when we can’t change a thing. In that case, we can either accept the things we cannot change, and adopt a positive attitude of gratitude, or we can wallow in the mire of negativity.

The next time you get a sub request and you’re in that negative place, reach for the gratitude and a handful of positive affirmations. Challenge your negative thoughts and bounce back to a positive attitude. Focus on these tricks before you get to the classroom to make sure you make a great first impression. You and your students will be glad you did.

 

Author Bio:

Alex Murillo is the Director of Talent and Operations at Swing Education where he helps match substitute teachers to opportunities at local schools and districts. Prior to Swing, he was Associate Director of Operations at Rocketship Education.