Thursday, March 3, 2011

Teachers' Hours

Every Wednesday around noon Brian and I get out of bed and go to our favorite nearby diner for breakfast. The woman who owns and runs the diner always looks at us askance. She wants to know why we're not at work. She always asks, "what is this, spring break?" "Are you guys off for the holiday?" "No school today?" And so on. It doesn't matter what we answer: her look always says something suspicious and disapproving.

Because I'm there to enjoy a breakfast I'm too tired to cook for myself, I don't grand-stand. I don't explain. And now that teachers are under rhetorical and fiscal attack nationally, I regret that, not just with her but with everyone I've ever encountered. Because there is a lot of misunderstanding out there, and the biggest misunderstanding is the idea that teachers work *less* than other people.

It's our own fault: teachers refer to being in class teaching as being "at work," and being at home as being "home from work." But teachers are always at work. I'm at work on Sunday and Saturday and even Wednesday, the day in the middle of the week I don't teach. I may be physically at home but I'm hard at work doing something that most people cannot do, something that's difficult even with years of practice. I'm working late into the night, sometimes embarrassingly so: more than once have I resisted sending a reply to a student email at 3am, because I want them to think I have normalish hours. But in truth I'm often working in the middle of the night.

I do more than stand in front of a classroom and talk for 12 hours a week. Every lecture I give is an essay I've spent hours researching and composing, one that I'm ready to field all sorts of tangental questions about, and spin off on extemporaneously depending on my students' interests. I also spend hours every week developing materials (visual aids, discussion questions, essay prompts, and so on). And then there's the grading. A well-written 1000-word essay takes about 10-15 minutes to grade. An average essay takes about 20-25 minutes. An essay that has problems takes between 30-45 minutes (sometimes more). At my current job, in a regular semester I'll have about 100 students, and those essay types are more or less equally distributed in thirds. That means I grade from 33 to 47 hours at home roughly every two weeks, on top of all the other work I do. And that's just the essays: there are also quizzes and group work sheets and so on. I spend hours every week meeting one-on-one with students and an unquantifiable amount of time answering their emails -- sometimes just short questions, but very often they send me a section of an essay with questions about how to improve it: that takes thought and time too, 10 minutes or more per email.

There are also other things: for example, at least once every week or so a past student will ask me to write him or her a letter of recommendation. Because I care about them and their futures, I take these recommendations very seriously. I look back up the work they did for me, review my class notes, and make sure that I write something accurate and effective. That takes time too.

Also, I am my own secretary: I have to deal with phones and printing and copying and faxing and mailing and all sorts of mundane details -- including the seemingly endless bureaucratic responsibilities that come with working in any large institution. Any given week there might be a new form or report to fill out in my mailbox (from the department, from the admissions office, from financial aid, from athletics, etc.). And of course once a year I must compile a report on my own teaching, which takes many hours of work, and which I must squeeze in on top of my already full work schedule.

None of that even touches on the reading and research that I have to do to prepare for future classes and to continue my own creative work -- if I did not do the creative work, incidentally, I would not be qualified for my job. 

So you see, just because I'm not standing in front of a classroom doesn't mean I'm not at work. In fact, one of the reasons I LOVE the actual teaching part of my job is because for those few hours I'm completely focused on my students, and the Bottomless To Do list fades from the forefront of my mind for a while. It's peaceful. It's nice. It's rare.

But there's more: teachers also themselves refer to having "summer off." That's also misleading: first of all, teachers don't have "summer off" -- teachers only get paid for 9 months out of the year. So teachers are "unemployed" for three months every year. Most teachers I know also teach over the summer because if they did not they would lose their homes and starve. The weeks that they do get off around the fringes (between semesters, etc.) are completely filled by all the catching up they have to do from the previous semester. If a teacher gets 2-3 weeks scattered throughout the year when s/he is truly "off' as in "free" as in "no work to do at all" (and I don't think that happens very often), then that teacher spends that time collapsed in a heap, catching up on sleep, trying to get back to a good mental state for the intense work that will start back up soon.

And that's another thing: mental state. The work that teachers do is 90% mental. We have to be creative. We have to have insight. We have to be on our toes, mentally speaking, and ready to react to millions of possible classroom situations, millions of possible student misunderstandings that we need to correct or come up with a powerful new metaphor to explain. Frankly, this is not stuff that most people can do. A lot of people start teaching and then quit almost right away. People often attribute that to the low pay, but I think it's more than that: people don't anticipate how taxing teaching is mentally, how it possesses you every minute of every day, how everything you see and read and hear is being checked for its ability to help you communicate complex topics to your students. You're never off the clock, in your head.

I'm also always analyzing my classes for successes and failures. Every class is an experiment in what works and doesn't, and I have to keep track. So on top of everything else I do, I'm also my own evaluator, an experimenter keeping stats on myself. 

Now all of that said, I LOVE MY JOB. I LOVE TEACHING. I really do. It's a really hard job, but like many difficult things it is rewarding in proportion to its difficulty. I believe in teaching: helping curious people grow their minds is how we make the world a better place. I want to be a part of that. I love being around young people: they are very often really smart and interesting and kind-hearted people who are negotiating the world in fresh original ways. 

And I think because I love my job so much, when I speak to other people I put an exclusively positive spin on the work I do. I talk about the good parts. And I don't restrain myself from saying that I've got "summer off" or that I'm "home from work" on Wednesdays -- both of which are really false statements that are badly skewing the public's perception of teaching.

I don't think it will help much if teachers start getting grousier, but I do think that we might make an effort to change our language a little, or just be a little more honest about things: I am unemployed every summer, and that is stressful. I am never not at work, and that is stressful too. I am paid very little considering my education, talents, and the number of hours I work in a week, not to mention the value I add to the economy and how the work I do helps a free democratic society to function. 

I work my butt off, even if I am having breakfast at a diner at noon on a Wednesday. Teachers do not keep bankers' hours.

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