Why American Teachers Should Work Less

work less

A Facebook friend of mine (and my former Superintendent) posted an infographic yesterday that compared the number of hours worked by an American teacher to the number of hours worked by other professionals. Here it is:

 

 

 

I took some issue with the 53 hours listed for teachers and said that the difference between those hours and the 40 listed for other professionals is that teachers aren’t required to work 53 hours. In fact, we’re required to work fewer hours than almost every other full-time employee.

Lunch is not typically counted in the 40 hours for other professionals, so we should subtract it for teachers. My teaching day goes from 9:00 to 4:00 with a half-hour lunch, so that means I’m required to work 6.5 hours per day. Multiply that by five for 32.5 hours a week. So the infographic above suggests that teachers work an extra 20.5 hours a week, or about four per day, which seems high. But okay, throw in weekends and maybe.

The response to my suggestion, as I’m sure you can guess because some of you are mentally shouting a similar response at me right now, was that those extra hours may not be required, but teachers have to work them to do the job the “right” way.

And that’s the problem.

If the only way a teacher can effectively do his or her job is to work an extra, unpaid 20 hours every week, then I suggest to you that there is something wrong with the system. 

And I further suggest that the only way to fix such a system is for teachers, lots and  lots of them, to stop working so many extra hours.

Of course, making that suggestion sets one up to be criticized as lazy, cynical, lacking dedication, not being in it for the kids, et cetera et cetera.

Which is a huge problem. 

American teachers spend more time in the classroom than any other nation’s teachers.  So don’t tell me it’s necessary; other countries manage to educate their kids. All that time spent teaching means we have to do the other parts of our job at some other time.

Society’s expectations, including those of fellow teachers, that we should be expected to donate an extra 10-20 hours per week or risk being labeled lazy or ineffective, perpetuates the problem. It puts zero pressure on government to reform things. And it matters because unrealistic work expectations lead to burnout. We have good teachers exiting the profession at alarming rates and we have great students never even considering the job in the first place.

Teaching has the highest burnout rate of any public service job in America.  There are many reasons for it: loss of autonomy, bureaucratic nonsense, student misbehavior, a bad principal. But undoubtedly the stress of the job due to absurd workloads and the expectation that teachers give freely of their time is a huge factor.  Many who quit simply say they were always exhausted.

Now you might be one of those teachers for whom the job is your passion. You bring high energy to your classroom every day. You attend every training you can. You look forward to professional development sessions. You spend your free time designing engaging units and interacting with other teachers on social media to learn about new techniques. You read professional journals. You coach, volunteer, and always go the extra mile for your students and their families.

Good for you. I mean that sincerely. The country is lucky to have teachers like you.

But the data is clear: you are the exception.

And you don’t design a system based on exceptions.

When you do, the thing falls apart, which is what is happening in schools across our country right now.

The belief that teachers have “answered a calling,” as if we were somehow spoken to from some God of Teachers, is damaging. It’s this idea that we’re selfless martyrs who only exist to serve our students that has led to society’s unrealistic expectations for how we should do our jobs.

I attended a retirement luncheon a few years ago where a number of the district’s teachers were honored for their years of service. The entire district’s teaching staff was invited to the event and a principal said a few words for each of the retirees.

One teacher’s principal spoke in laudatory terms about how the teacher’s car was always the first one in the parking lot in the morning and the last one to leave at night. She admired the woman’s dedication.

I thought it was the saddest thing. I vowed then and there that no one would ever say the same thing about me. I have a life to live outside of work. A family. Hobbies. Friends to hang out with. As the famous saying goes, no one on their deathbed ever said they’d wished they’d worked more.

That principal’s message, that old industrial-era American reverence for slavish devotion to one’s job, is a damaging one, especially to young teachers. Here is the ideal, it says. This is what you should strive for. Here is what we want from you: Nothing less than large portions of your best years.

I guess if I owned a business, I’d want 20 free hours every week from my employees too. And it would be even better if I could somehow establish that expectation as part of my company’s culture. And better still if that culture could spread across the entire industry.

Why, if workers felt like the only way they could be any good at their jobs was to donate 20 hours of work every week, and if their colleagues criticized them when they didn’t,  I could ask them to work late, or come in early, or work on special projects, or…hell, I could ask them to do damn near anything and not have to pay them for all that extra work.

What a deal.

Hope they don’t figure it out

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7 Replies to “Why American Teachers Should Work Less”

  1. Thanks for an interesting blog. For over 40 years I have maintained that there is a difference between having a job and having a profession. In this context a worker in a job is paid by the hour, typically clocking in and out with the time clock. Whereas a professional is paid a salary to complete a job and is not constrained by a 40-hour work week. Early in my career in education, I worked with several professional teachers – who worked the hours needed to do what they felt was a good job. But the number of professional teachers I encounter has become fewer and fewer. I see more teachers who view their work as a job and in my experience these teachers do not perform as well. In my opinion, our collective view of teaching, as a job or a profession, need serious change. Teachers are not as respected as they previously were and few bright young people want to become teachers. Change is needed in several areas so that we as a nation support our teachers and improve outcomes for all students.

  2. For the past 15 years, I have taught mathematics 6th-7th grade. For 25 years prior, I held management positions in Real Estate and Oil & Gas, and enjoyed raising 2 children AND working part time as a group fitness instructor after work and weekends. For the first 5 to 6 years my students were primarily high achievers, and I was able to enjoy my personal time with family and friends. Teacher friends would gather on Fridays to “unwind”, and share fun outings. HOWEVER, education changed around 20O8, and the past 5 years have literally almost killed me. I’ll admit, my personality is one that will cause me to push past obstacles to reach success, and I bring this element into the clasroom. I teach my students that failure is only a learning tool meant to be used for growth. I also believe EVERY child can learn beyond what society expects, so my students experience growth measures beyond the one year expectation. This success only happens because I call parents to tell them how they can participate in their child’s development of success-building habits. Here in lies the problem… I now have become the teacher who gets the students who need more growth in order for district to meet annual requirements connected to funding. My principal, who I love working for, has needed me to take on other duties… English Language learners (I live in South Texas), Special Ed students with learning disorders, and health impaired (ADHD). My coworkers who leave at 4:00 now have the higher-level students. Now… you would think I would be able to function with this many years of professional experience, but I realize I’m literally working myself to death. Not only have I given up time with friends and family, and teaching my fitness classes during my “free time”, in order to keep from drowning in the required reporting system, observation documentation, review meetings, ect., my health has now become the main issue, as the stress has done me in. I’ve had pneumonia several times, and have a compromised immune system, which means constant joint pain and frequent alergic reactions of inflamatory responses. All of this, and most of the parents I speak believe the answer to their child’s success is for me to tutor after school hours, implying they do not have time, or they don’t know math. Most parents are not holding their children accountable.
    I have 6 more years to retirement, and now I have to give up the social security I paid when working in other professions just to receive my teacher pension. I am contemplating my options.

    1. I understand you completely. I too entered the profession later in life. I too put in extra effort, often being told, you were given troublesome or needy stidents because you are so good with them… I too suffered physically. I finally retired this school year and continue to struggle with health issues. I truly regret working all those hours, limiting time with my family and friends, and not taking care of myself. On a good note, your Social Security can only be cut by $400.00/month.

  3. The only way to achieve the things required of the classroom teacher and avoid being “written up” is to work the extra hours. Something that needs to be brought up is that when we are given what the public thinks is a raise, nearly always it is attached to more paperwork, more days added to the school year, more training or being assigned to before or after school programs. This is not a pay raise. The money is always appreciated, but we can only work so much.

  4. Thank You for speaking up about how broken the system is. I am one of those exceptions you describe- -I used to almost live at my school–but even I was exhausted. The anxiety and stress of my job sent me to the Emergency room. I was on the verge of quitting the job I’m addicted do. My identity was tied to my job.
    I’ve since gotten some balance in my life, (and moved from Kinder up to 4th- 8th grade) and it’s made a big difference.
    I love my job, but the system is so broken it’s laughable; driving good teachers out in droves. Arizona’s solution to this is to hire teachers from the Philippines. Utah’s solution is ARL–throwing anyone with a bachelor’s degree in without any classroom management training.
    Teaching is hard enough with teacher training.

    1. Yes, it’s easier to hire less-skilled people than it is to make the job more attractive. Of course, those with alternative certifications will also leave in droves. Maybe then we can hire day laborers.

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