Saturday, March 26, 2011

Teacher's Time

In the frequent debates about education, the long summer break that teachers have is often cited as evidence that they don't work as hard as other professionals. Teachers are, in general contracted for 180 days. Given 5 days a week, this amounts to 36 weeks. For the sake of generality, I will assume that other professionals typically get a total of 4 weeks of vacation. This leaves 12 weeks in excess of what most other professionals would expect. This extra 12 weeks is the reason that is often cited for paying teachers less. They can get a second job over the summer to augment their incomes. And, in fact, many teachers do.

When I lived in Alaska, I was surprised to find that there were many men teaching, even in the lower grades. Perhaps it is because they can find construction or tourism jobs in the summer fairly readily. Other summer jobs might include summer school or summer camp. With those latter two, the increase in income is not actually very large, and with jobs being scarce, the competition for summer positions is pretty high. So, while there may be potential for extra income, I wonder how many teachers are actually able to supplement their incomes with second jobs.

But the major concern I have about teacher time is how their time is allocated DURING the school day, when they are actually teaching. A typical school day might look like this: teacher is required to arrive 30 minutes before school starts (e.g., 8:00) Kids are allowed in the building 15 minutes before school begins, so teachers' jobs actually start then, as they are required to supervise. At 8:30, school officially starts. Teachers are on duty constantly unless their students have a "special" - music, PE, library, or counselor. Then comes lunch, which in the schools I was in was supervised by the teacher in the classroom, followed by recess - the supposedly "duty free" part of the day. Then come the afternoon classes, with dismissal at 3:00. Teachers are required to stay at least 30 minutes after the end of the school day. So, the official day is 7 1/2 hours, with 1/2 hour for lunch - very comparable to the official day when I worked for a brokerage: 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch.

There are a couple of problems with this time schedule, though. The actual supervision of children extends beyond the official times in MANY cases. Due to bus schedules, detentions and makeup work can often only be done during the teacher's "duty free" lunch time. And, the 30 minutes of planning time afforded by the "special" class is grossly inadequate for its purported task. If, in just ONE of the subjects/classes each day, the teacher gives an assignment that requires 1 minute to grade per student, a teacher with 25 students uses up virtually the entire planning time grading that one assignment. Given 5 or 6 subjects or classes and the teacher has to do the work "off the clock".

This completely ignores the actual purpose of planning time. It is true that with scripted lessons, ones where the teacher is told what to say and do for the whole lesson, there is less need for planning lessons. This is fine, until you decide you want teachers who actually use creativity and effort to plan interesting lessons. Or, say, you have 6 or 7 kids in the class who have IEPs and need individual plans. Or, maybe there are 3 or 4 gifted kids in the class who already know all of the material in the lessons. When is the teacher supposed to plan for them?

The problem is, there simply isn't enough time for the teacher to behave like a professional. Does your doctor spend all but 1 1/2 hours of the work day talking directly to patients? Does your lawyer spend that percentage of the work day talking directly to clients? In most cases, there is a lot of background work that goes into a professional's day - work, that does not include direct contact with their clients. We trust that the doctor has record-keeping, research, and administrative tasks to do, tasks which are in the service of their patients, but not done in their presence. The problem is, teachers need this, too.

You want to know why the teacher can't individualize the classes for the outlier kids - the ones who struggle and the ones who need harder work so that they can learn to struggle successfully - the teacher has no time.

A long time ago, I read a book about a school that was serious about supporting excellent teachers. The teachers taught kids for 1/2 of the school day and used the other half of the day for planning and grading. Teachers worked together in teams to develop creative lessons and often critiqued each other giving the same lesson to different classes, working to improve the questions asked, the procedures followed, the products developed. Personally, I would gladly give up the extra 12 weeks of summer to work in a school where teachers had adequate time to plan, develop and grade lessons.

And I haven't even begun discussing the use of technology. That for another time.


  1. Well, here's what my job looks like as a software professional:

    After 10 years with the company, I get 17 days vacation (that's fewer than the 4 weeks/20 days you suggest). People start with 2 weeks. We get a total of 10 holidays a year (7 fixed days and 3 floaters). When counting the discrepancies, don't forget the 2 weeks at Christmas that teachers get -- if I want that off, I have to use vacation time.

    "Normal" hours around here in flyover country are 8 to 5, not the 9 to 5 in your example.

    Except when they're not 8 to 5. I'm on call 24x7. The plants I support work 24 hours a day at least 5 days a week (6 days much of the year). If there's a problem, then they need some one to help resolve it. I got a phone call today, as a matter of fact.

    Plus, I'm working on a major upgrade project right now which is eating time like crazy. In 5 days this week, I worked at least 53.5 hours. That could last through June.

    Plus, I need to be in Indianapolis for a meeting beginning at 7:45 AM on Monday, so I have to fly out Sunday night. And I'll fly back after work on Tuesday night.

    My parents were both teachers and my husband is a math professor. I've always worked a LOT more hours than they have and gotten fewer days off.

  2. In my calculations, I already took into account the time off for winter vacation. And, your 10 days of holidays amount to 2 more work weeks, so that is effectively 4 weeks of vacation.

    Look, I don't want to argue that you don't work hard. I was a computer programmer and software support person for several years. I worked very hard with deadlines and emergencies that required on the spot problem-solving. I just am just making the point that all the negative talk about teachers not working hard is unfair.

    In my experience, teaching is MUCH more difficult. There is far less control over working conditions and far more intense and continual demands on your attention. In my long working life, I have been a computer support person, a programmer, a secretary at a brokerage, a teacher, a science researcher, and a mom. Teaching was BY FAR the hardest of all those for me.

    My husband is a professor, too, and he works very hard, but he has a lot more control over his work than I did as a teacher and that lack of control meant a lot more stress for me.

    Again, I don't want to argue who works harder. In fact, I sometimes wish I could take my German friend's attitude that Americans in general work TOO hard and that leads to a very unbalanced life.