The Expectation of Free Work

free work

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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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56 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.

    2. Ok, well teachers in my district in the US get paid a daily rate and our official hours are 7:30am-4:00pm. However, sometimes one of my school’s has weekend festivals I’m required to be at. My choir, which can’t meet during school hours, meets twice a week at 7am. The PTA performances my kiddos do requires time from 4:00pm to 7:30pm, meet the teacher night and all the other science night, fall festival, math night, reading night, etc., have similar evening hours. No extra money in there for that. Just my daily rate for official hours of 7:30-4:00, times my days on duty, divided by 12 monthly payments.
      This isn’t even complaining about the actual work for our actual classes done out of work hours, just the extra time were required to be somewhere doing something other than teach our classes or plan.

    3. I think one of the things that separates the educational system in the U.S. from others, especially Japan and South Korea, is the value that is placed on educators. There may be other countries than the two I have mentioned, those are just the two that I am most familiar.

      As long as US teachers are seen as overeducated babysitters, we will struggle to overcome the prejudices of the parents whose children we want to teach.

  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. Yes you did choose it but we teachers almost have to do it that way. We are not given enough days to work in our classrooms to prepare our rooms and materials. The districts are too worried about us being in staff development workshops (which BTW in my opinion are almost always not helpful or useful), I either have to use my free time or have a nervous breakdown.

    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…

        1. Really because every other teacher I know has reports , projects and test that take extra time too. Special Ed teachers have to teach and do IEPs on their own time. Music teachers have recitals on their own time. Art teachers are expected to beautify the whole school. You must be really popular with your peers thinking you are the only one who is expected to do free work.

    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.

  13. My concern is the knowing that teachers are using their nights and weekends in order to get things done…when planning time and time when not with our “kids” during the school day is used for meetings and PDs, all to assign things to be done. Obviously we are getting it done, and not during the contracted day. AND the toll it takes on us physically, emotionally and away from our families.

    And yes, “required” to do after school things and after school detention, with no compensation (or any real appreciation given).

    How long can you do it “for the love of teaching” or “for the love of the kids”??

  14. Oh, we’re “paid” alright. It comes in the form of comp time which can only be used when students are dismissed. This means we can leave one hour before our contracted time. Great deal, right?! Well, consider that we will be performing that work we did not complete during contracted time at home. And, as y’all know, it’s never one hour at home. And how in the world did I accumulate 80 hours anyway? Never to see it paid out and never able to take it all.

    Wait, why am I doing any work at home even when I have not taken comp time? I must be unorganized and unprepared, a horrible teacher. I must love work over family activities and my friends. My ratings speak otherwise.

    But teachers have off during the summer (unpaid) and off during the year with the kids! That’s the life! Minus taxes, I figured out that I was making the equivalent of about $9/hour. And being in ESE you “pay” physically and emotionally for that time off just due to behaviors. Some of you will understand that statement more than others.

    Thank you for writing this article. You had me at the first paragraph.

    1. And it is not just the emotional payment for behavior. My guess would be most teachers have cried for students who go home to abusive parents, knowing they will not have dinner that night, not know where they are sleeping, come to school without appropriate clothing, no supplies, and on and on it goes. I doubt very seriously very many “professional” cooperate employees cry over a report that they know will lead to children being removed from a family and placed in foster care without their siblings. Teaching is a most rewarding job, but also heart breaking.

  15. Excellent article. Thanks for taking the time to write. It’s frustrating that teachers are constantly being asked to do more without increased compensation and then people question their commitment to kids if teachers balk at the additional workload!

  16. When teachers talk about these issues, we are often told, “Well, you knew what you were getting into. It’s part of the job.” The most important discussion should be whether it should be part of the job. Do we try to do too much as educators and school systems because we need to make up for other deficiencies in our communities? Or do those deficiencies exist because of what big-hearted teachers have voluntarily taken on? Maybe being a little selfish, i.e. reasonable, is the best thing for both students and educators.

    I teach a world language and have been contacted on multiple occasions by complete strangers who expect me to translate letters, etc. for them because, well, I speak the language! I have often thought of the doctor analogy in those circumstances.

  17. I agree with most of the comments, while we love our jobs, we should be paid for the work that we do. No other profession expects work for no pay and makes us feel bad about it.

  18. Not long ago, my co-teachers realized if we worked at Wendy’s for the $10/hour, putting in as many hours as we did at school (after taxes, etc. deductions,), we’d come out ahead. So, a few quit after finding less stressful, demanding jobs. Teacher crisis-yes.

  19. When I read the article and the comments I thought about all of the English teachers in high school who have to read hundreds of essays by their students and then evaluate them with gradebook grades . There is no possible way to do this in a 40 hour work week. Teachers unions are part of the answer. Join and be active in your union and fight for what is fair.

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