Teachers’ Extra Hours Are Different

For something that should be relatively easy to calculate, there is a lot of debate about just how many hours teachers work. Read the comments on nearly any online article about teaching and you will be met with vigorous disagreement on the matter. Make the claim that teachers should be paid more and you can be sure that someone will point out our seven-hour days, summer vacations, and breaks for the holidays. Argue that teachers are overpaid, and you will be besieged by outraged educators who will tell you just how many hours they spend on the job each week, how even their breaks are actually just more work, and how, when they’re dead and buried, they’ll still find a way to grade papers.

The data isn’t particularly helpful, either. Like most topics people enjoy arguing about, you can find a study to support damn near any conclusion you want:

The NEA reports that teachers work an average of 50 hours per week.

The NUT teachers’ union, in a survey of 3,000 of its members who were age 35 or younger, found that 74% worked 51 hours or more each week.

A 2012 report from Scholastic and the Gates Foundation put the average at 53 hours per week.

Teachers self-reported working a mean of 43.7 hours on the Census Bureau’s Current Population survey.

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employing time-use surveys, found that the average teacher works about 40 hours per week.

But whether teachers are working five hours beyond their contractual time or fifteen, what’s almost always left out of this debate is the fact that teachers’ extra hours are different.

When a police officer works extra hours, she gets paid extra money. Same for nurses and nearly every hourly employee in the country. You’ll never see headlines like these about teachers:

Detroit police overtime pay up 136% over 5 years

Overtime allowed several East St. Louis police officers to earn more than $100K in 2017

5 Lansing bus drivers made more than $100K in 2016

Outcry over firefighters making up to $400,000

There is no overtime pay in education. Teachers who work even one extra hour per week know they will get nothing in return.

Hard-working teachers also have no hope of being promoted. To what job would they be promoted? There’s no going to the principal, explaining how many hours you dedicate to the job and how your efforts have resulted in greater student achievement, and then asking for a raise. Teachers who work extra hours do so with the full knowledge that it will not lead to a better, higher-paying job.

No matter how great a teacher you are, how much you improve test scores, how loved you are by parents and students, how respected you are by your boss and colleagues, and how much your contributions improve the performance of your school, you will not receive a year-end bonus check. There are no bonuses for hitting targets in education. Teachers who work extra hours to be successful with students will get nothing but satisfaction for their efforts.

Unlike small business owners, who are well-known for their long hours, teachers have no hope that their sacrifices today will lead to a brighter tomorrow. There’s no slaving away for ten years as you build your classroom practice with the hope that, eventually, it will all pay off in the end. Teachers start over every year. No one cares how effective you were if you no longer are. Extra hours early in your career don’t lead to riches later in your career.

This is how teachers’ extra hours are different: In literally every other field, the person who puts in extra work expects to benefit financially. Only in education do we expect people to work more hours solely for the benefit of others. And that’s why whenever I read something that questions how many hours teachers actually work I want to scream.

Even teachers who donate a single hour of their time can claim the moral high ground over every other professional because teachers’ extra hours are, by definition, altruistic.

Merriam-Webster: Altruism refers to a quality possessed by people whose focus is on something other than themselves.

Every time you see a teacher leave work thirty minutes after her paid day has ended, or take work home on the weekend, or check papers at her kid’s soccer game, you are seeing a person who is acting selflessly.

No one will pay her for her time.
No one will promote her.
No one will slip her a bonus check at Christmastime.
Most of the time, no one will even thank her.

Instead, they’ll hop on the Internet and explain how selfish and greedy teachers are for those pensions they’ll earn after working countless hours at no taxpayer expense over their 30-year career.

And if the ignorant carping weren’t bad enough, teachers who go the extra mile are often punished by their employers. In every other field, going above and beyond is rewarded. In education, doing more leads to more work. If you work hard to become an expert classroom manager, you can expect to get the toughest students. If you’re competent and conscientious, you get asked to lead school initiatives (usually with little or no extra pay). If you’re dedicated and hard-working, you’ll be expected to attend after-school events (again, without pay).

With the exception of positions like coaching or department chair (which tend to pay peanuts), every hour — no, every minute — of time that teachers work beyond their contracts is given with absolutely zero expectation of it personally benefiting them.*

Teaching is the only line of work where this is true, and that’s why teachers extra hours are different and it’s also why the argument about how many hours teachers actually work misses the point entirely.

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*Except in that warm fuzzy feeling kind of way we always expect should be enough for teachers, since they’re working with kids and the job is so meaningful and all that hoo-hah. Odd that we don’t feel like that’s enough for pediatricians.

Related Articles:

How Teachers Can Give Themselves a Raise

American Teachers Should Work Less

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

What Non-Teachers Can’t Get Through Their Thick Heads

Squeezed among the hundreds of comments on my article, Why Teachers Are So Tired, you will find the following gem, which is representative of the views of many non-teachers:

“For the most part teachers only have to work 6-7 hours a day 8 months out of the year, off all holidays and presidents days Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks paid normally 2 wks each advent and whenever they decide to shut down due to weather etc. Everybody makes decisions in their jobs in life and have to work all year with maybe a couple days off for thanksgiving and Christmas and thats about it! Geez we all should be teachers! The other 3 months you can have another career while getting paid as a teacher too! What a deal then you bitch about not getting paid enough! Where the hell do you pinheads get off!”

The typical teacher rebuttals include rants about working well beyond our contractual hours and pointing out that those three months off aren’t actually paid (or three months). They’ll also take a few potshots at the commenter’s grammar. You are undoubtedly familiar with the give and take.

But what strikes me every time I read something like the above is the faulty logic. Because if the commenter is right and teaching is a cake job that requires relatively few hours of annual work with comparatively favorable pay, then his revelation that, “Geez, we all should be teachers,” ought to be enough to make him (and like-minded others) wonder:

Well, just why in the hell aren’t more people teachers?

Why don’t colleges of education have to beat away candidates with sticks?

Why can’t they be super selective since the demand is so high?

And perhaps most obviously, Why didn’t I myself become a teacher? What was I thinking!

It’s not as if there’s a high barrier to entry. Damn near anyone who gets accepted into a university will be accepted into its college’s teacher education program. The commenter himself (and yes, it’s a guy. Seems like it almost always is) almost certainly could have become a teacher had he wanted to.

But he didn’t, and he’s hardly alone. Fewer college freshmen today want to be teachers than at any point in the last 45 years. [1]

Which, if the commenter is even a little bit correct, is a little odd, isn’t it?

Why wouldn’t college kids want a job that gave them more free time to text emojis, eat avocado toast, and pretend to be offended on social media (or whatever it is kids do these days)?

The lack of logic doesn’t stop there. Because if teaching is such a fantastic deal, then why would any teacher, having landed such a cushy job and having virtually no chance of ever losing it (another one of the teacher-hater’s favorite talking points), ever want to give it up? They of all people ought to recognize the gravy train when they’re the ones riding it!

But 8% leave every year, and most of them make less money when they do.

Which is weird behavior for pinheads who have awesome jobs.

The commenter forgot to mention the lavish pension plans teachers receive (he must have been having an off day). Not only do these ungrateful teachers work seven-hour days, eight months a year and get paid pretty well, they retire to the life of Riley thanks to those taxpayer-funded pensions that private sector employees would kill for.

But even that enticement doesn’t do much to keep teachers from fleeing. On average, more than half of teachers do not receive any pension benefits because they don’t teach enough years to become eligible. Just one in five stays on the job long enough to receive full benefits at retirement. [2]

It almost seems like teachers — 80% of them, anyway — know something about the job that critics don’t.

There is only one argument left, and it’s not a very good one. To believe as the commenter does, you would have to stare reality in the face and come to this conclusion:

Teachers must be different than other people. They must be a particularly whiny bunch. They have it better than everybody else, and not only do they not realize it, they think they have it worse!  They’re so delusional, they quit their wonderful jobs to work longer hours for lower pay and they give up their state-funded retirement plans in the process!

That’s not a very compelling argument.

Commenters like the one quoted above prove three things with their ignorance and illogical arguments:

  1. They never taught. You will literally never hear a former teacher talk about how easy it was and how lavishly they were paid.
  2. They’re not interested in listening to what teachers are telling them, despite the fact that no one can understand what it’s like to teach unless they’ve done it.
  3. They’re not interested in logical thought and would rather vent their frustration at professionals who have the audacity to fight for more respect, better working conditions, and fairer pay.

Here is what non-teachers cannot seem to get through their thick heads:

If college kids don’t want to be teachers, and 8% of teachers leave every year, and only half stick around long enough to take advantage of those so-called extravagant pensions, then maybe, just maybe, they should actually believe teachers when they tell them that the job is challenging and they aren’t being paid enough to do it.

And if those who think teachers have it easy can’t do that and continue to insist that it’s the teachers who don’t understand how rough it is out there in “real world,” then they should go back to school and become a teacher.

They can practice by substitute teaching for a while. I hear there’s a shortage.

That’s where the hell this pinhead gets off. Geez.

[1] Survey: Number of Future Teachers Reaches All-Time Low 

[2] Why Most Teachers Get a Bad Deal on Pensions