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.

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