Teacher Says: Hours Worked

Photo by Ocean Ng on Unsplash

Recently, a group of teachers at Mandalay Middle, a school located in the suburbs of Denver, CO, declared that they would only work contract hours. It was a form of protest, meant to highlight the lack of teacher say in decision-making by higher ups on issues like working conditions under COVID-19 and in support of bargaining.

Pictures on Facebook showed a group of 15–20 teachers standing outside of the school entrance, waiting in the cold for the official start of the school day, before heading inside.

But it begs the question: How is working only the hours you are being paid to work a form of protest? Shouldn’t working the hours you’re paid for be the expectation and not a threat?

But there’s this: Is it possible to be an effective teacher and only work contract hours, or are the expectations too much to be dealt with during the hours of a normal work day? Do teachers need to behave as martyrs, sacrificing all aspects of personal time and self for a job?

And then I wondered: just how many hours ARE teachers working this year, compared to the pre-COVID days?

Clearly, the amount of hours worked by teachers has expanded this year like a waistline during a pandemic.

So I asked the experts: the teachers.

I got my sampling of answers from questions posted in teacher groups on Facebook. Some of these teachers are friends or former colleagues, and some I don’t know at all — they hail from all parts of the country, all grade levels, K-12, mostly public, with a few private and charter schools, too. Can this be counted as official data? Probably not. But 200 or so teachers responded to my question, “How many hours do you ACTUALLY work, before and during COVID?” And there were notable trends that emerged. For the sake of their privacy, all names that follow are pseudonyms.

Teachers are spending, on average, 10 hours more per week because of COVID. And it appears that for most, the hours they worked, pre-COVID, were already beyond contract hours of 40 hours per week.

Here’s a snapshot of what I learned:

Tom worked 43 hours a week before COVID as a math teacher. Now he works 55–56 hours per week, from 7am until 4:30 each day, with an additional eight hours on Saturday and five more on Sunday. He has a wife and school-aged children of his own.

Jim works a whopping 83 hours per week teaching science, working from 7am until 3:30 during each school day, and from 6pm until 11pm each night. The rest of the time occurs on the weekend. Pre-COVID, he worked 65 hours a week, he figures.

Francesca works 9–10 hours each day at her high school, teaching English, with another 2–3 hours on the weekend. Her work time has not changed much, and she attributes this to a highly supportive administration, that has allowed teachers as many hours as possible for personal work and planning time.

Jane works from 6:30am until 3pm each school day, also teaching high school English, with another two hours per night at home. On weekends, she tries to limit her work time to eight hours.

One teacher, Mike, after reviewing the comments from one thread, had this to say: “I feel bad for a lot of people on here. Hours of work at home daily? I get that, if it’s your first year or you’ve got new subjects. I get needing to grade too, but don’t you get planning periods? Are these mostly first year teachers?”

None of the four teachers whose hours I just shared with you are first year teachers. In fact, all of them have made it well past the five year fight-or-flight moment, where so many teachers leave the force. Each one has worked as a teacher for more than 10 years. I know these four teachers personally, and all of them are excellent teachers, well-seasoned veterans, who are proud of their craft.

So what’s going on here? How are these crazy hours possible?

In a year where so much was new, so much was still expected. Tamara, a middle school teacher with 25 years of experience, said, “I’ve primarily been teaching on a hybrid model this year. The prep work is crushing.” She said she worked about 42 hours a week last year — this year? 56 hours per week.

So there’s that: this year has been one of total change for many teachers. There are new tech tools and programs to learn, not to mention new modes of teaching, including remote, hybrid, and the juggling act that is teaching online students while simultaneously teaching students in-person. To say it’s a challenge is an understatement. And sometimes a lesson that a veteran teacher has used in the past, with manipulatives or perhaps done through cooperative learning in pairs or groups of four, has to be entirely upended and digitized, which is not a quick process. The saying “When you know better, do better” coined by Maya Angelou can cause great stress for veteran teachers this year, who may know better, but also know that to do it will take a lot of time they just don’t have.

There’s also the new load of digital communication, through email, chat, and office hours. Rather than being able to answer a student’s question in five seconds, a teacher now has an inbox chock-full of emails that demand a response — and that can be overwhelming and a total time-suck.

These days, with everything going online, it’s not so easy to turn it off when the work day should be over. Brenda said, “I’m constantly responding to student emails… there’s really no “off” switch. I know I could turn off notifications but then I would never keep up with the constant need to individualize everything I teach… it seems like part of meeting the emotional needs of students is letting them know they’re not alone.”

But it’s not only students who are suffering this year. Teachers are feeling it, too, in a variety of ways.

One teacher of 27 years, Paul, said, “[My wife] decided to be a teacher when she was 7. It is all she has ever wanted to do. Now she wants to get out of this abusive situation as soon as possible.” He explained that she’s been working more than 80 hours per week. Of the hours and efforts this year, he said, “It’s killing her.” In his view, it’s all been a ploy. “It is apparent that we have been playing the social benefit game where we do what is necessary to create the greatest good for society. It is apparent that the district, the state, and the federal powers that be have been playing the capitalist game where they extract as much labor as possible while giving as little as possible.”

Imagine being towards the end of your career and feeling this way about your life’s work. It’s incredibly hard to hear.

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Some people hit the wall. And instead of continually ramming into it, they instead put the car in park.

A trend that was quite apparent was that many teachers, in the face of an impossible task and many asks this year, refused to work beyond contract.

Those teachers also seem much happier.

One middle school English teacher, Sarah, said, “[My hours are] 6:30–3 most days. Contract is 7–3. I rarely grade on the weekends or after work anymore, but I do grade during my lunch. I used to kill myself working 60 hours a week. Last year, I decided my family is more important than getting an essay or project graded super quickly.”

Brittany said her contract hours are from 7:30am-3:30pm. Her former reality of actual hours: “pre-covid — 6:30–5:30 plus about 10 weekend hours.” But now: “pandemic hours — contract hours only. However, I had a baby. I promised myself that once my husband and I had a kid, family would always come first.”

And some other respondents also spoke up, saying that they had changed their workaholic ways a few years prior to the pandemic, citing the desire to “avoid burnout” and life balance (said by Tim, a former workaholic, who routinely put in 60–70 hours per week at his high school English job).

Tanya, a veteran teacher, said, “I had to prioritize my own mental health, raise my own children and be a present wife- a partner. Loving teaching does not mean that you have to divorce yourself from everything and anyone else. It took me a long time to realize that this job is how I make a living and a PART of my life, not my whole life. I am much happier because of this.”

But in a career like teaching where so many go into it as a calling and not for the money (who does?), it can be hard to draw that line in the sand between personal time and work.

But still, those who said they refused to work beyond contract hours were in the minority.

Many community members point to summers off as the reason why teachers should expect, perhaps, to spend a few extra hours at work during the school year.

In March of 2008, a study called “Teachers’ Work Patterns” was published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The findings in this report were based on the American Time Use Survey, and while some of the results align with common thoughts on teacher time, such as teachers working less in June, July, and August, other findings diverge from the norm.

Something that will come as no surprise to most teachers is the finding that “Fifty-one percent of teachers worked on an average Sunday, compared with 30 percent of other full-time professionals” (Krantz-Kent 53), a statistic that aligns with my own inquiry. However, aside from that, the report seemed to suggest that teachers work less than most other professions, on average, and spend more time on “household activities — such as housework, cooking, lawn care, or financial and other household management” (Krantz-Kent 58). Still, the report did acknowledge that teachers tend to hold a second job more often than other professionals, with 17% of all teachers polled responding that they had a second form of income from other work (Krantz-Kent 58).

So, I wondered, were my results a fluke? Were the people who responded mostly workaholics in the minority? Do teachers work more than other professions or not?

According to the Brookings Report, “During the school year, [West’s] calculations [based on the ATUS] show that teachers work 39.8 hours per week while nonteachers work 41.5 hours. During the summer, teachers do work noticeably fewer hours. West reports that teachers work 21.5 hours per week during the summer” (Startz).

But there’s an issue right there: teachers are not paid to work during the summer. These are in fact, unpaid hours.

One teacher’s solution to not putting in overtime during the school year is to plan it all out during the summer. Anita said, “I have two small kids. I teach with systems and structures so that units are often repeated throughout the year. Lots of student choice so I’m not always writing curriculum. And I work through the summer so that most of my planning is done for the year by the time school starts in September.”

But here’s the rub: over the summer, she is putting in three hours a day, which is unpaid time.

Another teacher, Rebecca, said: “One thing that I also want to point out is that people always complain that teachers ‘get the summers off’. We don’t. We are per diem salaried employees who are only contracted for around 185 days. Most teachers pay is spread out over 12 months, but we aren’t being paid when we are ‘off.’”

That raises another question — should teachers be working for free, then, during their personal time? Or should they hold to contract hours? Or is it possible that teachers are working harder, not smarter?

A synopsis of a report published in Scholastic called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation appears to entirely upend the findings of the ATUS. This report attests that teachers spend, on average, 90 minutes extra per day beyond contract time, plus an additional 95 minutes at home, “grading, preparing classroom activities, and doing other job-related tasks.” 10,000 teachers across all 50 states were polled, which makes these figures appear more salient.

Some of the teachers who responded to my question offered a few tips on what they do to try to make it work. Through experience, they have learned some ways to streamline their use of time, and to cut down on their extracurricular work hours. They reached out and offered ideas and advice to try to help because that’s what teachers do.

Here’s the thing, teacher friends: no one wants to lose you. There are rumors flying around that anywhere from 20% to 30% of existing teachers plan on either quitting or retiring at the end of this year.

That’s terrible news for your students. Think of all of your talents and years of experience gone to waste. No one can do it like you can — and you know it. Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you: you can’t just get any bum off the street and throw them in a classroom and expect them to survive. Trust me, I’ve seen first-year inexperienced teachers locked in their own closet by their students on day one and a former cop crying after school because he was almost done showing a movie and he didn’t know what to do next. Not everyone can do what we do.

While there’s no doubt that this phase, this year of teaching has to been one of the hardest ever, that doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself. Here are a few tips on how to save yourself some time, straight from the experts: teachers.

ONE: Everyone’s heard “work smarter, not harder.” I know it’s an annoying aphorism, especially when you’re knee-deep in papers to grade. But it’s true. Consider an English teacher’s plight of being saddled with essays. Of course you need to assign essays; it’s an important skill. But does an English teacher have to read and score and comment on the entire essay? Absolutely not. Are you working harder scoring the essay than your student did writing it? You shouldn’t be. Instead, a teacher should be thinking, What can I hand back to my students to do? Teacher friends, think goal-setting, modeling how to score a few essays, get meta cognitive and do a think aloud on the questions a writer and grader should ask herself. And then have students do a self-assessment. Or, if you feel you need to get in there and give feedback, do it — but have the student choose one paragraph for you to grade — it’s a win-win; they pick their best paragraph and you score just one instead of seven.

TWO: Keep track of how you spend your time. What are you doing for all of those hours? You are how you spend your time, after all. Are you swimming in email? Are you grading excessively? (You know you don’t have to grade everything, right?). Are you spending too much time on a super-elaborate lesson plan that will only last for 45 minutes yet you just spent three hours? My rule: if a lesson is a one-hit wonder and it takes you longer to plan it than it does for students to do it, figure out another way. Don’t care more than they do — you’ll lose your sense of humor and agility. You have to be able to tell a few jokes and roll with the punches.

THREE: Seek help. Go find your colleagues and figure out ways to divide up the work. Plan together — but plan smart. Don’t say, “Oh, let’s meet on Zoom at 1pm and see where it goes…” No. Instead say, “Let’s have a goal of writing that quiz together; I’ll write the multiple choice questions and you write the short answer and essay questions and then we’ll look it over together.” Set a time on meetings — don’t go over an hour. It just winds up getting in the weeds if you stay longer than you should. When collegues divide and conquer, as one of my teacher friends does this year, you wind up with something that is more thought through (different perspectives help a lot) and it takes you half the time. Don’t have a partner at your school (or don’t like the people at your school? I’m sorry…)? Find a teacher who teaches the same subject you do at a different school and meet online with them. Zoom has expanded our reach in so many ways. Use it. And join groups on Facebook — there are so many of them out there — just do a search. When I was teaching U.S. History, I joined the Facebook group for it, and now I have peers around the country who are willing to help out, lend a lesson, or answer my questions.

FOUR: Some teachers like to give a couple of students a role in the classroom each day. One teacher responded that she gives each student a turn being the attendance clerk, where they look through the Zoom boxes and mark down who’s absent. Think about how you can put students in charge of those little annoying tasks that take a long time.

FIVE: Email — it’s a time-sucker. Consider phone calls for your serious cases. It oftentimes takes a lot less time to call and use your best sympathetic-yet-firm teacher tone than it does to channel that in an email.

SIX: Broadcast the news via email or a quick screencast video to your families and students — in predictable, preemptive strikes. If you know what is coming up in the next week or the next month, and you want parents to be on the lookout for their student to be working on a project or reading a particular book, tell them. And give parents a couple of ideas for open-ended questions to ask their student so that they can engage them in conversation. Make them a partner in this. Give them a little job to do that makes them feel good. And then when they email you and ask you a question about something you’ve already discussed, kindly refer them to your email or video from two weeks prior.

SEVEN: Remind families with a blast email a day or two before a huge assignment is due. A little parental nagging can save you from a whole lot of Fs and phone calls or emails later. It’s worth it, and it can be as short as 2–3 sentences.

EIGHT: When it comes to technology, you don’t have to do it all well. You just have to be able to use a few things well. Focus on just those few things. Once you get bored, try out something else — one thing at a time.

NINE: And here’s the biggest one: drop the perfectionism. No one is giving you a raise for working this hard. No one is going to give you a medal. If you’re lucky, you might get one of those mini candy bars or a Jolly Rancher in your mailbox. Stop killing yourself over the details that no one but you cares about. Take it from me, a recovering perfectionist.

TEN: Don’t beat yourself up for turning off your monitor and putting away your phone. It’s not healthy or normal to be available 24–7. I once sent out three group texts on Remind to students during a snowstorm that went on for three days. A mom who was on there replied to my third message: “You realize they are eighth graders, right?” She was right. I put the phone down and stopped using Remind as a way to say “just one more thing.” You are a student’s teacher, yes, but you are also likely a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child of someone else, a friend. Don’t let this consume you and invade that space that should belong to those you care about.

Clearly, the amount of hours worked by teachers has expanded this year like a waistline during a pandemic. And no, these ideas above won’t make it so your work hours fit neatly into a 7–3 box, tied up with a ribbon. But it’s a start. And we all know that ultimately, you’re no good to your students if you burn out or if you leave the profession because you can’t strike a balance between work and life. As Tanya said, teaching is a part of her life, not her whole life.

Don’t let your teaching job consume you. Instead of holding to “When you know better, do better,” think to yourself: “I am how I spend my time” and try to make some changes. Draw the line where you can between work and your personal life so that you will be happier — as a teacher, and as a human being.

Cindy Shapiro is long-time teacher living in Colorado. As founder of Teacher Says, a podcast and website (TeacherSays.org) she aims to elevate teachers’ voices.

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