The Expectation of Free Work

free work


I have a neighbor who’s a math teacher. He’s also the owner of a landscaping business. I figured the guy must really love taking care of people’s lawns to do it after teaching all day and on the weekends. Lawn care must be his passion to sacrifice like that. His calling in life, even. So I phoned him and asked if he could mow my grass once a week. He said sure. Then he quoted me a price. “Oh, you misunderstand, I’m not going to pay you,” I explained. “I figured, since you obviously love it so much, you’d just do it for free.”

My daughter’s pediatrician’s office left a message on my voicemail the other day. She was due for a checkup. I scanned my calendar to find a convenient time to take her in. I had to work all week, so after five or over the weekend looked good. I told them that when I called. They said they closed at five and weren’t open on weekends. I waited. “We can get you in at 11:00 am on Thursday,” the lady said. “I’ll be at work then”, I told her. “Listen, I can get there by quarter after five. We’ll just meet with the doctor then.” She didn’t seem to understand. I think I’m going to change doctors. This one’s obviously not very dedicated. Doesn’t she know she’s supposed to be there for the kids?

My mom had to stay overnight at the hospital a couple months back following a surgery and she had this great nurse. Rachel was kind, patient, funny, and explained everything she was doing to everyone in the room. She was very attentive. Mom loved her. But then, around 8 o’clock, a new nurse popped in. “What happened to Rachel?” mom asked. “Oh, her shift ended at eight.” We couldn’t understand. Rachel seemed so dedicated. She obviously loved her patients. How come she wasn’t doing everything she could for them?

I was in a golf tournament last summer to raise money for the local school’s athletic program. After our round, we were served an excellent dinner catered by a local restaurant. They had a number of staff there. There were a few waitresses going around refilling drinks, a couple of others tending to the buffet line, and one of those meat carving guys. I was really impressed. As he was slicing off a slab of prime rib for me, I told him, “Wow, this is really great of all you guys to give up your Saturday to do this. Thanks for helping out the kids of our community.” He smiled and said thank you. But I learned later that he was paid to be there. Here I thought he was carving that meat out of the goodness of his heart.

When we expect people to work for free, to bend over backwards to meet our needs, or even to donate their time in the interest of a worthy cause, it makes us, not them, look bad. It’s insulting to suggest others work for free. It shows exactly how much we value their time, their work, and their lives outside of work.

If teachers choose to donate their labor that’s their business, but they should never be asked or expected to.

Lawyers charge, doctors keep office hours, cops get paid overtime. Taking advantage of a teacher’s passion, dedication, generosity, or sense of obligation is wrong.

If a committee is important enough to create, then it’s important enough to pay teachers to be on it. If meeting with parents is a necessary part of the job, then those meetings should take place during paid hours. If teacher attendance at an after-school event is critical for the success of the night, then pay teachers to attend. The fact that teachers are “there for the kids” doesn’t excuse mistreatment, it makes it worse. If the work teachers do is so important, they should be paid to perform it.

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39 Replies to “The Expectation of Free Work”

  1. Thank you for writing this post! I agree completely and have thought the same for a long time. Your views on our profession are a breath of fresh air.

  2. Although the district where I work rarely pays, when required to do so (i.e. pulling the contracted planning period of the teacher), the district does not even pay the teacher’s hourly rate based on salary. They use the extra duty rate, which is far less than what any of the teaching staff earns. You’re better off saying NO as it sets a precedent that you are willing to do it AND you are willing to accept what you are actually worth.

  3. Bravo, Murph! When I was a teacher in my home state of NSW (New South Wales – Captain Cook’s perspective, btw) in Australia we stayed behind for staff meetings, served on committees, were there for our parent-teacher nights, were on duty (as it were) during school excursions which were over and above and beyond regular working hours – but there was a kind of catch. We were paid a salary. Not a fortnightly (i.e. two weeks – from fourteen-nights) wage or a monthly pay cheque (check). A salary – which included – so it was explained – “allowances” for working over and above during particular times – as mentioned above. Some in-school responsibilities attracted extra payment – but not all. And within the system there was room for feeling that all was not fair. But that’s how it was. Nevertheless your essay pointing out expectations and equivalences with other professions is priceless. I understood it immediately. I taught for many years, too, in Japan. Permanent part-time contracts – automatically renewed with minor variations each year. There one received a travel allowance – depending on distance from the school/college. the “salary” was annual – divided up into 12 equal monthly pay cheques (checks) and two bonuses (which were parts from the monthly amounts held back and paid around the time of mid-summer and just prior to the New Year break – coming in handy – a compulsory saving as it were – for holiday festivities/expenses. Extra responsibilities for me, certainly, as P/T, were paid for – and all staff required in attendance in out-of-hours times (school festivals for example) would receive boxed meals – of excellent standard. The Japanese know how to treat with respect their teachers – no matter primary, secondary or tertiary!

    1. Mr. Kabel,
      I understand your sentiment. It is something I was sharing with some of my colleagues earlier this month who said we should not be asked to stay late. As salaried employees, we can be asked to do things beyond what we believe is in our job descriptions. I have them the example of my husband who works as a district manager for a company. If his boss calls on Sunday and says he is to report to corporate office in a different state on Monday, he can’t say no. He packs a bag and go as expected. It is the same ideation with teachers: we mentally “pack” our bags and do as we are told.

      1. Just a question, Starlette, how does your husband’s salary compare to that of most teachers? Does he have opportunities to increase his salary and advance based on the quality of his work? I don’t have a problem with the idea of salaried employees having different expectations for job performance compared to hourly employees. However, the salary for teachers most places doesn’t really meet expectations for professional work.

      2. I am willing to bet that your “salaried” husband is allowed to take “comp” time for extended hours or come in late if needed without having to take “sick leave”. Try that as an educator.

  4. I read this after putting in 4 hours of my own time setting up my classroom for the new school year. I chose to do it so that the school year goes more smoothly. It IS another story, though, when teachers are expected or are even tacitly required to do so, which happens far too much at my school.T his is awesome, thank you! I plan to share it with everyone at my school.

    1. You need to have a conversation with you teacher association. If you don’t belong to one, I suggest joining to preserve your rights.

  5. What a tremendous article! Spot on! I’m very concerened when these types of situations present themselves time and again. It is a matter of respect and treating us like the professionals that we are!

  6. Thank you for this! Our school doesn’t pay extra for most of the club sponsor positions, and the ones that they do pay equal out to less than minimum wage. This is on top of the fact that most of us put in so much unpaid overtime each year our salaries amount to minimum wage as well. I sponsored a club for two years with no pay and am considering doing it again this year (what is wrong with me?). Also, I’ve gotten a raise each year but it is less than the increase in insurance costs so I essentially make less money each year I teach. At some point you have to ask, how can I keep doing this?

    1. Our school district tells us there is no money for raises but they will pay a little more for health insurance. Problem is, many of us use our spouse’s insurance so we get absolutely nothing!

  7. Interesting read. Comparing teachers to hourly type jobs that are paid overtime. I came form a corporate environment where I was paid a salary to get the job done in whatever time it took. Sometimes that was 40 hours and at times it was 80 hours a week. If you think about other exempt from overtime jobs “professional salaried jobs”, marketing, human resources, accountants and others who work a tone of overtime at month end, and at year end in a corporate position. People are just expected to get the job done and at times it means working a little extra. And everyone complains about the extra work. It is not unique to teachers. Every profession seems to think it is unique that they work for free at times and that they are taken advantage of.

    1. I agree with you, Jessica. Getting the job done is what it’s all about. Most schools have prep times or times when teachers have no classes to teach. If you can get most correcting, lesson plans done in advance during these times, great. If not, you have to do it on your own time. Thirty five years of teaching and I miss it all now that I’m retired.

      1. That’s fine if the teaching load is comparable, but when you teach a science class and the labs take up a great deal of your prep time, you don’t have that to do your planning, grading and special education paperwork. That has to be done EVERY week. It is not the same as some other disciplines, no matter how much they want it to be…

    2. I partially agree with your analogy to the corporate world. However, many corporations provide a “bonus” for their employees. The salaried positions are often provided the highest “bonuses”. As a teacher, my Christmas bonus is the occasional bag of candy from a student, a card or if I’m very lucky… a $5 gift card to Starbucks.

    3. I am a teacher of nearly 20 years, and I agree with you wholeheartedly, Jessica. My husband works in the corporate world, and despite what some would think here, he works longer hours and is often asked to do so “overtime.” Is his salary much better? Absolutely. I chose to be a teacher, and I don’t think teachers should be martyrs for their students, but I also don’t think the constant “we have it worse than other professions” hurts our cause for better pay. It only alienates and comes across as whining. There are better ways to advocate.

    4. This is more than work at month or year’s end. Working well beyond contract hours is necessary every day to get the job done. My example: I have 5 planning periods per week that are 42 minutes in length. = 210 min per week of planning. I am expected to give 2 grades per week to my 150 students = 300 grades per week. I do not have enough time to grade my student’s work, let alone plan engaging lessons, meet with parents, call parents if there are problems in the classroom (a requirement 3x before referral to the dean ), complete requests for make up work (often because the family is going on vacation !)….I’m sure any teacher can add to this list. This year in our county in Florida our middle school students were assigned 1-1 Chromebooks, and my curricum is all computer based. Even as a teacher close to retirement I am fairly computer savvy, but find I am spending enormous amounts of time teaching the students technology as well as Social Studies. No additional technology support person was provided, it is just expected that the teachers will continue to pick up these responsibilities. I have worked in business and government, never have I experienced expectations as extreme and unreasonable as exist in education today.

      1. Add to that all of the documentation for special education and your evaluation… consultation with guidance about troubled students… and at some point you actually might have to go to the bathroom since you absolutely cannot leave your students unattended to do so during class!

    5. But generally in the situations you described, employees receive pay raises, promotions, and/or bonuses for their efforts and overtime. Or comp time. This doesn’t happen in education.

    6. I bet that your compensation trumps most teachers hands down. I have a Masters, and I work at least twelve hours a week unpaid and I make well under $50,000 a year. Do you think that is comparable?

  8. The expectation of going above and beyond our regular paid duties is actually a part of our teacher evaluation and figures into our pay for the next school year. Isn’ t required volunteerism quite an oxymoron?

  9. Love this article. The problem is that teachers cannot do even the minimum that is required for their job without working overtime every single day and bringing work home as well. The amount of time it takes to do the bare minimum is overwhelming even. That too is a problem.

    1. My thoughts exactly.So how can educators be expected to be able to do all they are expected to do if it takes more than the hours we are paid? Assistants.

  10. During recent travels I listened as the airlines and cruise ship asked people to thank the first responders and military people (active or retired) who were traveling with us. We are always told to thank them for our freedom. We see them get discounts on cars. We see a lot of focus on them, particularly soldiers, but, without teachers we have few soldiers who can read or write, we have nothing in this nation that we take for granted without education yet we vote for people who promise to attack teachers and applaud the soldiers as if they are the only ones who we owe our thanks. When did that happen?

  11. I believe many people have a problem with teachers expecting pay for extra work because they feel that is just part of being a salaried employee. I would agree if we were talking about an occasional event. That is not the case for most of us. We are being paid for the equivalent of a 40-hour week with 60-80 hours of work time – EVERY week – Not just during special projects or deadlines.

    1. yesyesyes…exactly what I was thinking. And there there is all the work after school is out in June (cleaning one’s room for the summer), during July (pd and planning), and August (prepping the classroom, lesson plans) that is all unpaid work, too. So 60-80 hours/week during the school year, barely paid for 40/week and then relaxing over the summer doing 30-40/week for nothing.

  12. I am a middle school counselor and the expectation that we work for free is even greater. Accommodating the schedule of parents who can’t or don’t want to miss work to meet with me is considered my professional obligation as are reading and responding to work email during the evening, on weekends and during the summer; calling parents in the evening, attending multiple open houses and parent nights; sitting on numerous committees that “need a counselor’s perspective”, etc. We are given no prep time during the day which means going in early and staying late are the only way to get some of these tasks completed when you have a caseload that can be anywhere between 350-450 students. I think even worse than not being compensated is having your dedication questioned. My family and friends who are not in the field of education often have a hard time understanding how professionals can be treated this way. It’s my love of the work and the kids that has kept me in the profession for 26 years.

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