Paying Teachers to Play

One of the more indelible characters from my childhood was a bear of a woman we knew only as Mrs. Selby. Mrs. Selby existed in one place only, on the school playground. To my eight-year-old mind, she simply appeared on the blacktop, as if emerging from an underground lair at the sound of happy children. Mrs. Selby was tall and broad-shouldered. Although her spring attire must have differed, I can only recall her wearing a long maroon coat and black boots. I never saw her without sunglasses; they were as much a part of her as her scolding voice and shrill whistle. Large and dark, those glasses totally obscured her eyes and half her face. A turn of her head and half of the playground had the feeling that they were being watched like a bug under a microscope. She seemingly saw every infraction. My brother and his friends nicknamed those sunglasses “Selby Sensors.”

Mrs. Selby never ran. She strolled, wearing out a path of about 50 yards on the blacktop that divided the equipment from the elevated field where the more athletic boys played kickball and football. I played on that field and never was a game commenced without first naming a lookout, invariably a less popular boy whom we had allowed in our presence in return for the thankless but vital task of providing a warning should Mrs. Selby stray from her route and threaten to derail our obscenity-laced game of two-hand touch shove.

Like all villains, Mrs. Selby had minions. They were always girls, usually three or four of them, who, without friends of their own, mistook Mrs. Selby’s tolerance of their presence as something more than it was. They were her Crabbe and Goyle, willing to do anything, including rat out their classmates, to remain in her good favor. This retinue turned Mrs. Selby into an ant, giving her a compound eye that could scan the entire playground at once.

As a child, we feared Mrs. Selby. As a teacher, I’m wondering where the Mrs. Selbys of the world went.

I don’t remember anyone else monitoring the playgrounds of my youth. Certainly, I never saw any of the school’s teachers out there. Maybe they were lucky, but I think it’s more likely that my experience was typical. Teachers didn’t do recess duty back then, but I know of very schools where they don’t do it now. I’m not sure when the transition occurred, but I’ve been teaching for 19 years and I’ve had recess duty every year. Early in my career, it was one day a week. Then it became two. Eventually, we traded days and covered every other Friday. Now, an afternoon recess doesn’t go by when I’m not expected to share the playground with the kids.

It’s not the worst thing in the world. Breaks are important, and this short video by Daniel Pink shows that an outdoor recess might be just what a teacher needs to recharge. Recess can also give teachers a chance to connect with students we might not have had a chance to visit with in class. We have the opportunity to witness our students in a different environment. Many students who struggle in the classroom thrive on the playground. We can learn about their talents and interests. We can also meet students from other classrooms and build relationships with those who might be in our rooms in coming years. We can swing, shoot hoops, or impress nine-year-olds with prodigious punts of soccer balls (not that I would ever do such a thing).

There’s a lot to recommend about recess for teachers, and teachers should take the opportunity for a break when they need it.  But it doesn’t make sense for districts to require teachers to be on the playground. It’s dumb to pay teachers to play. Consider:

  • Teachers are the number one in-school factor for student achievement.
  • The job of a teacher is overwhelming. There is never enough time to do everything we must do, and certainly not enough time to do those things well.
  • Relative to other developed nations, the United States provides little paid planning time to its teachers.
  • It’s generally believed that more planning leads to better execution. For teachers, more planning means better lessons.
  • Teachers are expensive.
  • Watching kids play is unskilled labor that can be done by almost anyone (no offense, Mrs. Selby).

It just doesn’t make sense for school districts to require their teachers to stand around on a playground every day, especially when the solution is simple and cheap. That they do is yet another indication that schools care more about money than they do about achievement. If we agree that better-prepared teachers do a more effective job of teaching, then why are we forcing them to waste 15-30 minutes standing around? That’s time that would be used to plan more engaging lessons,  provide quicker feedback to students, and communicate more promptly with parents. It’s time that would allow teachers to recapture some of their after-school hours, which would help them detach each day and come to school more refreshed the following morning. It might even help lengthen their careers in the classroom.

It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening in other fields. No industry takes its most highly skilled employees and requires them to waste 20 minutes every day.

There is a simple way school districts can provide elementary and middle school teachers (and yes, middle school kids need recess, too) more time to do their jobs — which is something everyone in education recognizes as a need — and that is to find their own Mrs. Selbys.

If teachers want to use recess time as a break, then they should be allowed to do so. But districts ought to stop wasting their teachers’ most precious commodity. They should end mandatory recess duty for teachers.

4 Replies to “Paying Teachers to Play”

  1. Not to mention that recess time is when most teachers get to use the restroom! I am grateful to have a 40-minute duty-free lunch, thanks to my union, but that 15-minute break in the morning would be so restorative.

    Thank you for another enlightening post, Paul. I only wish that my district would take your advice.

  2. In our district, we were told that teachers need to be out for recess duty so that we can count it as “instructional time”. I would rather give up 15 minutes once a week instead of working an extra 15 minutes each day….

  3. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but on the playground with my students! I learn so much when I watch them play. I see a kid that has an uncanny ability with a basketball, or a student that never gives up and tries and tries to make the basket. I see girls inventing new games to play, I see the ones that don’t join in and the ones that want to but don’t know how. I see the bullying and the ones that try to engage the shy ones. I need all this information to know my kids better. It is the same reason I eat breakfast and lunch with them.

  4. We were told it was a legal issue. A teacher paid by the district was required. There had to be a certain number of teachers based on the number of students on the playground.
    (Our district turned the light off in the coke machine to save money.)

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