Sunday, March 27, 2011

If Teachers Worked Like Doctors

To follow up on yesterday's post, I went to search the Internet to see how much of a doctor's time was actually spent in patient contact. I am not intending here to be a thorough researcher, so I stopped after finding one study here: The authors estimated that doctors spent 25.5% of their time in direct contact with patients. Just to make things easier, let's round that off to 25% of their time - 1/4 of their time was spent with patients. Now, no one assumes that what the doctors do with the rest of their time is trivial or unnecessary or that it should not be figured as part of the heavy work load of being a doctor. Yet, they certainly do this with teachers.

Take the example I wrote about yesterday. 8:00 to 3:30 required work day; 15 minutes before kids allowed in; 15 minutes after last bell to get them all out. 30 minutes "duty free" lunch; 30 minutes planning time. 1.5 hours supposedly without kids out of 7.5 hours. That means teachers are in contact with their clients 80% of the day.

Just for curiosity, let's do some math. Year 52 weeks. Doctor gets 4 weeks vacation (a bit conservative, but let it go for now); works 48 weeks. 1/4 of time spent with patients. 12 weeks. Teacher contract: 36 weeks. 80% of time spent with students. 28.8 weeks. Teachers are on direct duty more than twice as much as doctors.

This completely ignores the fact that, not only are teachers in direct contact with their clients more than twice as much as doctors, but they have MANY MORE CLIENTS at the same time - typically 25 times as many. And, I can hear people object: oh, but they are just young children, they are easier to deal with than adults. The only problem is, young children are immature - what a surprise. They do not know how to behave in all normal situations, they are easily distracted, they have all sorts of needs that cannot be ignored, and all of this WHILE the teacher is trying to get them to actually learn something. The only people that think this is easy are people who haven't done it for a significant amount of time.


  1. If teachers worked like resident physicians, it is likely they too would have an 80 hour work week limit. Many, just like residents, would not be pleased being limited to such. (The hour limitation thing is a complex deal, its not what it appears on the surface).

    My next door neighbor worked physicians hours, some weeks I think he put in upwards of a hundred hours a week. To him, a WWII vet, teaching was not just a job but a calling.. I remember him talking about a 1:1 ratio between contact and non-contact time is the key to be at the top of your game... but that few are willing and/or able to make that sacrifice. Perhaps the saddest part of this, is he had second jobs on the weekends as well as during the summer to provide for his family... and this was many years ago.
    Thus, another neighbor down the street was also teacher, but to him it was a job rather than a calling. While students came out of his classes with more knowledge than they went in, students saw teaching to him was just a job... I don't think I ever noticed him burning the midnight oil like my next door neighbor.

    I've read of some charters developing systems which would fit my next door neighbors style to a T, ie only hiring teachers with a calling, supporting them to no end, but also requiring huge personal sacrifice. I think such schools will do very well for their students over the long haul... but such a practice is unlikely to scale, and it likely has unintended consequences as concerns teachers long term health.

    The greatest generation didn't have the work/life balance of the later generations, often to their peril. The fellow with the calling to be a teacher ran into significant health issues shortly after his retirement... decades of physicians hours likely caught up with him. The guy who viewed teaching as a job was still doing pretty well at age 80.

    Like a lot of things, there are no easy answers.

  2. My German friends would say that Americans have too much of an obsession with working hard. There are other things in life that are important, too. And, mind you, Germans are not known for slacking off.

    There are some teachers who do treat teaching more as a job than a calling. But there are doctors who do so, too. The point is that teachers need less direct contact time, in order to be their best professional selves. They need it for planning and preparing lessons, grading student products, professional development, record keeping, and contact with parents. We can't keep blaming teachers for the faults in the educational system, when the system fails to address the needs of the teachers and continues to put completely unrealistic demands on them.

  3. I don't publish Anonymous comments directly, but I do think one comment I got recently is relevant, so I will reply to it.

    "A doctor who owns a practice has many responsibilities that a teacher doesnt have. One of them is financial. Insurance in various forms is one, staffing is another, equipment and setting up of a practice is certainly to be considered. there is no way we would expect a teacher to pay for their own insurance, pay for the set up in their own classroom (I know they pay plenty out of pocket now, but...) etc.
    So, I wonder if it is actually fair to compare? all things considered. (I am neither a teacher nor a doctor, but have plenty of both in my extended family)"

    No, actually, it isn't "fair" to compare. Each job has many different responsibilities and obligations. It is not my intention to put down doctors or other professionals and their work. My main point is that teachers have a huge array of duties, in addition to direct supervision and teaching of their students. The time needed to accomplished these tasks is virtually always discounted when talking about teachers' work.

    But, even though I am trying to be fair, I can't resist remarking that most doctors make substantially more money than most teachers, in spite of all of their business costs. And most certainly much more than lowly substitute teachers like me.