I’ve been involved in an email conversation over the last few days with some colleagues, started by a district administrator who wanted to find out from us how the most effective teachers in the district are managing all the change (new standards, new assessment system coming soon from the state, etc.) and still remaining effective.
I thought, well, she’s asking. So I’ll tell her.
I wrote a long email. I told her about the nearly 40 hours I spent grading the 88 research papers I had last semester from my seniors. I told her about the times when I literally have to decide to take time from sleeping, exercising, or being with my family to get the work done. I told her that I yearn for a significant change in my work day to make the time and space for me to accomplish my job well without it taking over my personal life. I explained that the shifts the state and district are asking of us are not trivial and will take time to implement, yet no time is being built into my job in order to account for making those changes. I told her that I dream about a hybrid teaching/research position where I would teach 2 or 3 classes and spend the rest of my time on research and writing, cultivating a voice from my school to enter the dialogue that is lacking the perspective of professional, practicing teachers. I imagine a research collaborative based out of a high school to help my colleagues write about the great things going on in our building, to tell a story that is not all gloom and doom about public education in this country.
But I just can’t figure out how to do all of this because I have too many students, too many classes, and not enough time. The parameters of my work week allow little more than simply managing it. And my work week is not any more intense than any full time teacher across the country. I have always contended that the most powerful reform for schools would be to give teachers more time and fewer students. Of course this reform idea is unbearably expensive since the system is so firmly structured on our current ideas about what a full time teaching position looks like.
There are teachers in my department (Mr. S is one of them) who elect to teach part time in order to manage the job without it taking over their lives. Realistically, they still work full time hours but only receive part time pay. But this is the only recourse we have. Either teachers elect to take less pay to make the job manageable or they simply endure the job of a full time teacher–a job where change and reform are deployed on the backs of teachers. The system doesn’t change to give teachers more time to institute meaningful reform. And schooling may not improve because that meaningful reform just doesn’t happen like it should.
In this piece published earlier this week, Sara Robinson discusses all the research around the 40 hour work week. I learned that the 40 hour work week is something that several generations of business leaders in our country used to value because mounds of research had made it abundantly clear that workers’ productivity took a nose dive after those 40 hours. Check this out:
By 1914, emboldened by a dozen years of in-house research, Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. The National Association of Manufacturers criticized him bitterly for this — though many of his competitors climbed on board in the next few years when they saw how Ford’s business boomed as a result. In 1937, the 40-hour week was enshrined nationwide as part of the New Deal. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe, and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.
The research at the time made it clear that
industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits. Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday. It’s better for everybody.
You may be thinking something about how what applies to industrial workers in car factories doesn’t transfer to teachers who perhaps are more of “knowledge workers.” Students are not widgets after all (a point that I’m not sure our current measure-and-punish perspective on education reform understands, by the way). But Robinson explains that the research shows that knowledge workers actually have only about six good hours in them a day. After that they become unproductive and sleep loss severely depletes knowledge worker productivity.
I very rarely work an eight-hour day. I may spend only eight hours at school, but most evenings I have work I need to do in the evenings at home–mostly responding to student writing (“grading“) in the hours I can steal between when my daughter goes to bed and when I do. That means that I am tackling this high-concentration work once I’m already spent from my work day. That means that I am working incredibly inefficiently in the evenings and the work is perhaps taking me more time than it could if I were to do it during a time where my mind will work more productively. That means that my students are not getting feedback on their writing from a teacher who is working at her best. That means my students are not getting the best possible writing instruction.
Okay, so maybe I need to just stop working in the evenings and on weekends since the research shows that I will not work efficiently at those times. I guess I just need to do the work during the eight or so hours I’m at school every day. No problem! Here’s how I’ll do it!
I get to school at about 8:00am after dropping my daughter off at her elementary school. First hour starts at 8:05 and I have first hour off. I could certainly get some grading done then, right? Well wait–do I have all my materials ready for the day? Are my lesson plans updated on my web pages? Did any late work trickle in overnight that I need to mark as no longer missing in the grade book so parents can see the work is done and so that students know that I got it? Do I have any emails I need to respond to–feedback on students’ upcoming IEP meetings, parent questions, student questions, questions from the literacy crew at the district since we’re all getting the new curriculum documents wrapped up to present to the board…? Look at that–my first class starts in five minutes; I better run to the ladies’ room since I teach four classes in a row. Didn’t get any grading done, did I?
9:30-12:35: Teaching four classes in a row.
12:35-1:30: Sixth hour–I’m off. I have nearly an hour to get some grading done! First though–run to the ladies’ room. Time to eat lunch. Collect myself. Organize the things I may have received from my students in the last four classes. Principal stops by to discuss something or other since I’m co-department chair this year. Colleague stops by to check in on a student we both share. Student stops by for help on a draft of a paper. I have to check in the books students returned to me in the last class period and store them in the cabinets where we keep the department novels. Look at the clock and it’s time for seventh hour… off to class. Didn’t get any grading done, did I?
2:25-3:20: Eighth hour–I’m off once again. I have yet again another hour–surely I’ll be able to get some grading done now. But first, I need to update my class websites for tomorrow and make sure all my lesson plans are ready to go. This includes reviewing texts we may be reading for the next day’s lesson or creating a rubric for an assignment that may be on the schedule. Getting ready for the next day can take any where from a few minutes to all of eighth hour. And also I might need to run to the counseling center to check in with a counselor about a student or go visit the case manager for one of my special education students or go to the library to meet with the librarian about something upcoming he’ll be doing with my students or stop by administration to follow up on a disciplinary issue or return a parent phone call. Maybe I have a letter of recommendation I need to write for a student. Maybe I have a meeting I need to attend. Whatever the case, usually eighth hour is gone and the grading has not been touched and now whatever I do technically is coming out of my own time and not the time provided by the boundaries of my work week.
Three days a week run on this schedule for us (Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays). The other two days of the week are block days. My Wednesday block day is crazy–I start at 9:45 and go straight through to 3:20 with only a 40 minute lunch break. I can usually get some good things done from 8am to 9:45 on Wednesdays but that’s when I often catch up with the email correspondence and letters of recommendation that I need to do that I haven’t been able to accomplish in the previous two days. My Thursdays are my gift–I am done teaching at 11:20. Thursday afternoons are my curriculum planning days. This is when I look long-term with my curriculum and make sure my day to day plans are doing the scaffolding necessary to get my students to the long-term goals for my courses. This is high-focus work and it takes time.
Do you see what I mean when I say the parameters of my job do not provide adequate time for me to accomplish it within my work week? To do my job well, I must work into my personal life. And I get no compensation for this, no overtime.
Robinson weighs in on this:
For employees, the fundamental realization is that an employer who asks for more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week is stealing something vital and precious from you. Every extra hour at work is going to cost you, big time, in some other critical area of your life. How will you make up the lost time? Will you ditch dinner and grab some fast food? Skip the workout? Miss the kids’ game this week? Sleep less? And how many consecutive days can you keep making that trade-off before you are weakened in some permanent and substantial way? (Probably not as many as you think.) Changing this situation starts with the knowledge that an hour of overtime is a very real, material taking from our long-term well-being — and salaried workers aren’t even compensated for it.
My employer is not asking me directly to put in the overtime. I do not blame my employer (meaning the school district or my principal) for the situation of my work life. The problem is far bigger than that. It’s literally impossible for me to ask for fewer students and fewer classes so that I have more time in my day to do the work that spills over into my personal life. Impossible that is without wide systemic change to how we think about school funding and what a full time teaching position means.
For school district budgets, the largest slice of the pie by far represents the money that goes out to compensating the people who make the system work–the teachers, administrators, para-professionals, and other staff who keep the schools running. Teachers take up the biggest share of that group, so the whole funding system hinges on a number that we refer to as FTE (“Full Time Educator”). Our school gets our amount of FTE based on our student enrollment and our official student to teacher ratio. The more students we get, the more FTE we get. So say that our student-to-teacher ratio is 1 teacher to every 25 students and we have 100 students in our school, then we get 4 FTE. If our enrollment jumps to 150 students then we get another 2 FTE and we get to hire two more teachers.
But at our school we are over 2000 students and our current teacher-to-student ratio is significantly higher than 1 to 25. We are currently waiting to find out if our ratio will hold steady for next year. If it increases, then our allocated FTE drops. We could have less FTE next year than we’ve had this year even though we are expecting around 100 more total students for next year. The higher the teacher-to-student ratio, the fewer teachers we have in the building and the bigger our class sizes are.
The district doesn’t adjust the student-to-teacher ratio each year just to torment us–it’s all based on the funding they get from the state. And right now in our state, we’re looking at bad budget days–it’s doom and gloom. Our student-to-teacher ratio will likely go up because we will be pressed once again with funding. There’s really little more that my district can do.
This little review of school funding is just to show how it has become literally impossible to ask for fewer students or fewer classes or a re-envisioning of what a full time teaching position means. The system hinges on the current definition of FTE. High school FTE means five classes and about 150 students in my district. If high school FTE meant three classes and about 90 students, that means we would have to hire a lot more teachers to for all the classes it takes to teach over 2000 students in a high school. Making any changes there would be prohibitively expensive, no matter how important people may think it is. So as I’ve indicated above, teachers may see their only recourse for having a more manageable working life is to choose to go part time, thereby creating that space in their week that they should already have in a full time position, working actual full time hours instead of 60 or 80 hours a week–and getting only part time pay.
So maybe Henry Ford was able to pay his workers more and decrease their hours and see tremendous benefits in their productivity which translated into increased profits for his business. But in public schooling we don’t work toward profits. Profit is not our end goal. A well-educated citizenry is our end goal, which will lead to better workers in all fields and a strong economy for all of us, right? My students will be better prepared for their future world if I am a well-rested, unstressed-out teacher who doesn’t need to constantly strip time from my personal life in order to deliver to them the best possible classroom experience.
The research that Robinson cites in her piece says that overtime hours are only effective in very short bits–one to two weeks at a time to tackle a specific project or deadline. But after that, workers need rest to recuperate. If overtime hours are sustained for more than a couple of weeks, productivity declines significantly and workers face burnout. Robinson explains that “Without adequate rest, recreation, nutrition, and time off to just be, people get dull and stupid. They can’t focus. They spend more time answering e-mail and goofing off than they do working. They make mistakes that they’d never make if they were rested; and fixing those mistakes takes longer because they’re fried.” Yet many public school teachers face overtime hours every day, every week, every month of the school year. Is this really what we want for our nation’s children?
Robinson does offer a solution:
We will not turn this situation around until we do what our 19th-century ancestors did: confront our bosses, present them with the data, and make them understand that what they are doing amounts to employee abuse — and that abuse is based on assumptions that are directly costing them untold potential profits. We may have to appeal to the shareholders, whose investments are at serious risk when employees are overworked. (At least one shareholder suit has already been filed against a computer game company that was notorious for working its people 80 hours a week for years on end. It was settled out of court on terms favorable to the plaintiffs.) We may have to get harder-nosed in negotiating with our bosses when we first take the jobs, and get our hours in writing up front — and then demanding that they stick with the contract down the line. And we also need to lean on our legislators to start enforcing the labor laws on the books.
What might this look like in the realm of public schooling? The “shareholders” are literally everyone, everyone who banks on a well-educated citizenry to keep our nation strong. The “bosses” who need to be confronted with the data are those people in the positions of power who are making the decisions that drive school funding. Don’t even get me started on how much education money is being spent on the mandated testing required by federal and state law ($50 per student in our state–money that could be used to focus reform efforts on giving teachers the time to do their best work). My “hours” are in writing already. The negotiated contract between my school district and my teachers’ union specifies how many hours I can be required to be at school each day. And this agreement about my hours is strong enough that all parties respect it and abide by it. But this contract says nothing about the hours it takes beyond those contract hours to actually get the job done.
The problem feels so big that I’m paralyzed with how to approach it. Instead, I often just keep my head down and keep working, muddling through, weekend after weekend and evening after evening working (or feeling guilty that I’m NOT working when I do give myself a break from it). I have a colleague who gets up every day (including weekends) at 2 or 3am to get the work done. He muscles through 80 hour work weeks with coffee. He’s one of the best teachers I know. I have another colleague who implores us to stay positive because negativity takes up too much energy (energy I could be spending on the grading I need to do, right?). I hesitate to speak up about this time issue for fear of being branded as negative when most of the time I work to remain as positive as possible so I can welcome my students into my classroom each day with a smile. Despite what this job asks of my personal life, I work hard to maintain focus on what is most important–quality education for the students I am lucky and honored to work with.
I only wish that the system also kept quality education for ALL children as its focus. If it did, it wouldn’t stand for stretching teachers to the limits and then blaming them for the perceived failures of the system.
One more tidbit from Robinson:
But the bottom line is: For the good of our bodies, our families, our communities, the profitability of American companies, and the future of the country, this insanity has to stop. Working long days and weeks has been incontrovertibly proven to be the stupidest, most expensive way there is to get work done. Our bosses are depleting resources from of the human capital pool without replenishing them. They are taking time, energy, and resources that rightfully belong to us, and are part of our national common wealth.
Yes. And as long as we teachers simply endure it, no change will ever come. And as long as the shareholders (parents, students, the community) permit it, no change will ever come. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I know I can’t fix it alone.