American Teachers Should Work Less

A Facebook friend of mine (and 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 there is something seriously wrong with the system. 

And 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, bad bosses. 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. 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.

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Bad teachers need to be fired. You hear it all the time. It’s part of most education reformers’ guiding philosophy. Most people would have a very hard time justifying any opposition to it. Sometimes, in order to appease actual teachers and soften the harsh message, the phrase “after being given an opportunity to improve” is added, but the sentiment is the same:

Our education system would be so much better if only we could fire the crappy teachers.

What strikes me most is what happens after someone says it. Never is the logical follow-up question asked:

Just what exactly is a bad teacher?

Teachers are unique. I’m not just saying that because I am one. Unlike many jobs, there is no one metric that can be used to assess a teacher’s performance. If you’re a salesperson and you don’t sell stuff, you’re a bad salesperson. If you’re a lawyer who can’t get clients, you won’t be a lawyer for long. If you’re a preacher whose sermons cause parishioners to switch churches, you probably went into the wrong line of work. If you make widgets and nobody buys them, you’re going to go out of business. If you’re a chef that makes food nobody wants to eat, you’re not a good chef.

Reformers want to equate teaching to other jobs because it makes their agenda easier to accomplish. So they have to come up with a metric and the one they’ve settled on is:

 If you’re a teacher and your students don’t learn, then you’re a bad teacher.

The need to have a single metric creates some other problems that garner a lot of attention. You have to be able to say how much learning is the right amount. Then you have to have a way to figure out if students learned that much. Right now the US uses standardized tests to provide the numbers that are necessary to justify the labeling of teachers (and schools) as bad. Putting aside for a moment all of the problems inherent in rendering a verdict based on the results of a single test, the method has other obvious flaws, all of which stem from the initial error of viewing teachers the same as other professionals.

Let me know which of the following four teachers is bad. Which one(s) would you fire?

Ms. Jackson is young, smart, and energetic. Just out of college, she wants to make a difference. Although she could probably get a job in the suburban district where she grew up, she wants a greater challenge. She gets hired at a poor district where many of the parents didn’t graduate high school, much less college. A lot of them work two jobs, which means they aren’t home with their kids much. Many of her students read well below grade level. A lot of them don’t want to be there. She sends home books for students to read but they don’t read them. Additionally, she spends much of her day dealing with behavior problems and feels like she can’t teach. When she contacts the parents about these problems, they sympathize; they have the same behavior problems with their kids at home. At the end of the year she gives the state test, and despite her best efforts, many of her students perform poorly.

Mrs. Davis is old and set in her ways. She doesn’t like to try anything new. She’s got her way of doing things and it’s worked pretty well, thank you. She teaches in an affluent district where many of the parents are professionals. They volunteer in the classroom. They send in extra supplies. They follow through with homework and assigned reading. Mrs. Davis doesn’t worry too much about her students. Most of them already read well when they get to her and she figures that as long as she doesn’t screw them up they’re going to be okay. She’s right. Despite ignoring best practices and an over-reliance on worksheets, her students regularly pass the state test. They will again this year.

Mrs. Jones is one tough cookie. She’s the teacher kids don’t want. You can’t get away with anything in her class. There is no fun allowed. It’s work, work, work. And if you don’t work you can forget about recess. Mrs. Jones regularly calls parents when students don’t turn in assignments or if they slip up in class. The parents don’t like her much either. She’s opinionated, blunt, and often confrontational. A lot of parents skip out on parent-teacher conferences. This is fine with Mrs. Jones. She doesn’t need them anyway; her kids are going to learn come hell or high water. And learn they do. Every year, Mrs. Jones’s students outperform the other classes in the school. Her students are too scared to not do well, but they don’t enjoy school much. They’re frequently stressed. Many of them pretend to be sick. Some cry in the morning. Shelby in the back of the room is so worried about getting in trouble she goes through most days with a stomachache.

Miss Violet isn’t too bright. She doesn’t know the curriculum very well and isn’t very effective at teaching what she does know. She doesn’t have great control of her classroom. What Miss Violet really likes–no, loves–is the kids. She spent her high school years babysitting every chance she could and there’s really no better way she can spend a day than with a group of students. She loves talking to them about their lives. She asks about their weekends. She tears up when she finds out about the challenges some of them face at home. She greets them all with a smile every morning and is always nice. Her students adore her and they can’t wait to come to school. In fact, if you ask them their favorite place in the whole world, a lot of them would tell you Miss Violet’s classroom. At the end of the year, Miss Violet’s students don’t do very well on the state test, but they love school and the idea of coming back next year is exciting to them.

Which teachers are bad?

Which teacher would you want for your kid?

Would your friends agree, or do their kids have different needs that would be better met by one of the other teachers?

Which teacher would a school district value the most? What about the state?

Should students get a say? After all, aren’t they the “clients?”

If the answer isn’t the same for every one of those questions, then can we truly identify any of the above teachers as bad?

The problem is that the single metric of student achievement doesn’t come close to measuring all of the things we want in good teachers. Yes, we want effective educators. But we also want professionalism and kindness and energy and creativity.  We want collegiality and good communication skills. Some want teachers to lead, others want them to follow. Ultimately, each of us wants what’s best for our kid and what’s best for my kid isn’t necessarily what’s best for yours. We have different values and those values are often not the same as the state’s.

So here’s a crazy idea: Before we start labeling teachers as “good” or “bad” maybe someone should actually watch them work. Maybe we should measure the impacts they have on things other than test scores. Maybe we should stop trying to measure things that are immeasurable. And maybe we should recognize that teachers are unique, which is a good thing because so are our parents and students.

How to Handle Principal Observations

I know a lot of teachers who get nervous about being observed by their principal. With only a couple of observations each year, teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform. They worry how a poor observation will impact their overall evaluation. Some are simply uncomfortable being observed and judged. The irony, of course–and it’s one recognized by even those teachers who feel this way–is that worrying about an observation is likely to lead to a worse performance.

So how do you not stress over a principal’s observation? 

Any time you worry, it means you’re nervous. Nervousness comes from fear.   So what exactly are you afraid of? If you wrote out a list, I think you’d find that every single item on it comes back to this: You’re afraid of your principal’s opinion of your abilities. If you didn’t care about that, you would no longer be worried. So how do you convince yourself to not care, or at least care a lot less?

Try telling yourself these four things:

My Opinion Matters Most

You have reasons for everything you do in the classroom and no one knows all of them except you. Anyone judging you lacks the necessary facts to make an informed assessment. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but you have the right, and usually the duty, to ignore it. As Eleanor Roosevelt said:

So don’t give your consent. Set your own standards for professional success and judge yourself against them. Simply care less what your principal thinks about you. It’s nothing personal, you just shouldn’t give anyone that kind of power over you.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Observations are subjective. The truth is, nearly all of your evaluation is based on the opinions of a single person who watches you do your job for a total of maybe three hours out of the more than one-thousand you will spend on it. While you might be able to watch a single Nicolas Cage scene and feel pretty safe concluding that he’s a terrible actor,  I’d want a little larger sample size for most professionals.

Consider whether your school district would ever do the following:

To prove to teachers how valid their administrators’ observations are, they put all of their principals in a room. On a screen, they show a forty-five-minute video of a lesson. Each principal uses the evaluation tool to rate the teacher across the zillion or so items they’re required to assess. And then, after they’re done, they all compare scores.

How similar do you think those scores would be?

How many principals would feel comfortable sharing their numbers?

How many districts would dare reveal the results of such an experiment to its teachers?

I have a guess and it’s very, very small.

You Own the Moral High Ground

How many meetings have you attended where you were reminded that you, the classroom teacher, has the greatest in-school impact on student achievement? Eric Hanushek has even attempted to tie teacher effectiveness to future earnings for students. (Which I guess is what really matters???)

Every time I hear this fact, I internally roll my eyes. What other in-school factor would impact students more? The quality of the food in the cafeteria? The size of the rooms? The cleanliness of the hallways? Of course the person with whom kids spend six hours a day has the most impact.

But you can also use this finding to feel superior to your principal whenever you worry about her opinion of you.

It is the teacher, not the principal, who has the greatest impact on student learning.

That means that the person who is sitting in the back of your room evaluating your performance opted to take a job that has less impact on the only people who really matter in a school than the one you have chosen. Their reasons don’t matter.

Maybe they wanted to make more money. Perhaps they were frustrated by administrators when they were teaching and felt they could do better. Their talents could simply be better suited to leading adults than children. Or maybe they decided they didn’t want to teach anymore and there weren’t too many other jobs they were qualified to do.

Who cares. Choose whichever reason you like for them. It doesn’t matter if it’s accurate. Remember, you’re doing this to relieve your stress. So if it helps to imagine your principal as a completely ineffectual former teacher who got fed up, quit, and then decided to take out her frustrations on other teachers, go ahead and do it. Feeling superior does wonders for one’s self-confidence.

If All Else Fails

Remind yourself of this reality: the only thing that really matters about your evaluation is that it’s good enough for your employer to invite you back next year. Don’t get caught up worrying about your final score or whether you’re “effective” or “developing.” Who cares? Because guess what? Next year, you get to be evaluated all over again.

How to Act

Once you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t really care what your principal thinks of you,  you can relax and perform. Make it a goal to appear even calmer than you normally are in front of your students. The biggest thing you want to convey during an observed lesson is self-confidence. Here’s why:

Confidence inspires confidence. During the 2017 Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons were trouncing the New England Patriots. Atlanta had a 28-3 lead in the third quarter, but the Patriots had the most confident player on the field. Even though it looked hopeless for the Pats, there wasn’t a fan who watched that game that didn’t believe Tom Brady could bring them back. Tom Brady exudes confidence, and his self-belief rubs off on those observing him.

When the principal walks into your room, project confidence. Keep your voice calm and even. Don’t gesture much. Resist the urge to put on a show. It will come off as inauthentic and overcompensatory. Respond calmly to students, including any misbehavior. The message you want to send is: I do this every day. It’s no big deal. I can handle whatever comes my way. Smile, tell a joke, move leisurely throughout the room.

And don’t look at your principal.

If you keep looking back at the principal, you are signaling a lack of confidence. It shows that you care what the principal thinks. Every time you look, it’s like asking, “So what did you think of that? Was that okay?”

When a principal sees you looking at him, he thinks two things:

  1. You lack confidence.
  2. Your focus isn’t on the students, which is where it should be.

If a principal starts to think you lack confidence, his next logical thought is why? Followed quickly by: If the teacher isn’t confident in her abilities, then why should I be confident in them?

The principal won’t fear marking you down because you’ve already signaled self-doubt. You’re almost asking for it. It would be inconsistent of you to later stand up for yourself when you meet with him to discuss the lesson. People rarely act inconsistently.

Most people avoid conflict. Confident people send an unspoken message that if you jerk them around, they’re not going to accept it. That conversation will not be pleasant. Principals are far less likely to ding a confident teacher than a nervous, insecure one because they don’t want to deal with a possible future conflict. So even if you don’t feel confident, pretend that you do!

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What do you tell yourself before an observation? What mental tricks do you use to stay calm and confident? Tell us in the comments!

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Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm

Like most Americans, I associate success with passion and intensity. The Detroit Pistons of my youth would have never won back-to-back championships without the intensity of Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. Indiana basketball would have never been Indiana basketball without the passion of coach Bobby Knight. Fiery speeches never cease to motivate me, whether delivered in person or on the silver screen. I admire outward displays of passion.

This belief shaped my early years of teaching. I enthusiastically presented a lesson one moment, snapped angrily at misbehaving students the next, and passionately motivated my students to do their best on even mundane tasks. To be any good, I reasoned, I had to be intense. I had to bring it every day! Every lesson! I needed to be, as Anton Chekhov said, “an actor, an artist, passionately in love” with my work.

I have since come to believe that I was wrong. I now believe it is far better to spend nearly all of my teaching day in a consistent state of CALM. In fact, I try to be calm 90% of the time.

Here’s why:

In my article Why Teachers Are So Tired, I talked about four things that exhaust us: making too many decisions, using willpower, experiencing high-intensity emotions, and worrying.

High-intensity emotions wear you out because they activate your body’s fight-or-flight response system. Your heart rate rises, your sweat glands activate, you startle easier. This happens regardless of whether your high-intensity emotions are positive or negative. So getting angry at Billy for sticking a straw up his nose for the third time is just as draining as passionately introducing a lesson on fractions.

There are many teachers (and non-teachers like Chekhov) who believe that the only way to be a good teacher is to be intensely passionate, to put on a show! If I suggested to Dave Burgess that it’s better to be calm than intense, he’d likely throw his book, Teach Like a Pirate, at me.  Certainly, there are some teachers who can maintain a high amount of energy class after class, day after day. The rest of us are tired just thinking about it.

A calm teacher benefits herself and her students in many ways. First, students tend to reflect their teachers. Calm teachers lead to calm classes, and calm classes allow for more focused work. When was the last time you tried to concentrate while feeling intense emotion? It’s not easy. In fact, brain-imaging research shows that when we are feeling intense emotions, our amygdalas activate. We need to then use other parts of our brain to calm ourselves enough to get our work done.  Think of the last time you learned something new. Did you pump yourself up with some AC/DC? Did you do fifty jumping jacks to elevate your heart rate first? I doubt it. Those kinds of activities might be good before a football game, but they’re not very helpful if you’re trying to learn Portuguese.

Second, staying calm will allow you better self control. People who are calm have the ability to choose their actions instead of reacting emotionally. If you think of the worst decisions of your life, I bet they were made when you were experiencing high-intensity emotions–both good and bad. By staying calm, we can react to anything that happens in our classroom in a way we won’t regret later. So when Billy shoves that straw up his nostril, you’ll be calm enough to smile at Billy and say, “Throw the straw away,” and not “For shit’s sake, Billy, how many times do I have to tell you to stop sticking straws up your nose!?”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that we’re role models. When we seesaw back and forth between high-intensity emotions and when we react emotionally to events around us, we are modeling to students that it is acceptable to do the same. How many times have you told a student to think before they acted? Take your own advice.

Third, your emotional moments will have more impact. I’m not suggesting that teachers never show emotion. I am suggesting that we deploy emotions strategically for maximum effect. There are times when we need to be intense to get students’ attention or to get them excited about an upcoming lesson or unit. Go for it! That’s one of the joys of teaching! But there are other times–most times–when calm is the better choice. When you intentionally use emotion you’re still in control, and because you’re not always emotional, you’ll have more impact when you are.

The biggest reason to stay calm is your own energy. Remember, high-intensity emotions drain our bodies. When teachers get tired they do stupid things. They say things they regret. They damage relationships with students and colleagues. They fire off curt emails that they later wish they could retrieve from cyberspace. One study even demonstrated that, as the day goes on, people are more likely to engage in unethical behavior. They also burn out, and burned out teachers are far, far worse than calm ones.

So how do you stay calm? I use three strategies:

1-–Self-Awareness–I regularly check my own emotions at work. How am I feeling right now? How’s my heart rate? Am I calm? Do I feel edgy? I make it a challenge and see how calm I can be. When a student misbehaves, that’s when I really force myself to remain calm. A lot of the time, my seeming lack of interest has the effect of de-escalating the situation.

2—Deep Breaths and Perspective–When I feel myself feeling anything other than calm, I take some deep breaths and engage in self-talk. I like to use perspective, so I might say something like, “Is this really worth getting upset about?” or “In the grand scheme of things, does this matter all that much?” or “Just three more hours and I’ll be home with a beer in my hand.”

3—Classroom Management Plan–The best thing I can do for my own emotions is have a classroom management plan that I consistently follow. When students misbehave, my plan tells me what to do. I don’t need to make decisions, and there’s no reason to be emotional. I just deliver the predetermined consequence and move on.

I also remind myself that while Bob Knight had 902 career wins, John Wooden, a much calmer person, won 10 championships. He also lived to the ripe old age of 99.

What tricks do you have for staying calm in the classroom? Share in the comments so we can steal your ideas!

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