October 03, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher: How Hard-Working Are Teachers?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. McClintock
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: How Hard-Working Are Teachers?

Dear Mr. McClintock:

I'm glad you appreciate my newest monthly parent newsletter. I've always thought it's important to keep parents aware of what we're doing. I'm one of those teachers that love to have parents visit my classroom, yet it is an incredibly rare experience. I know that most parents work during the day, but I can still hope. Regarding your other questions, that was indeed my car you saw parked in front of the school on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights, and most of the day on Saturday too. I was there because I was grading papers, making copies, making lesson plans and in general, preparing for the kids. That's pretty much my usual weekly schedule during the school year.

May I suggest you read this short post from one of my favorite bloggers, Bookworm? She writes about how hard teachers work. Her observations were occasioned by a recent comment by Mr. Obama, who was no doubt trying to boost the fortunes of his union allies:

"Teachers are the men and women who might be working harder than just about anyone these days."

As Bookworm observes, I'm not sure that's terribly accurate. In fact, particularly regarding education, I'm pretty sure it's not, at least not as a general, all-inclusive proposition. I'll have to be careful here, as I risk insulting just about everybody one way or another. Let me start by telling you about my principles and schedule.

During the school year, my students and my obligation to them is absolutely my first priority. My wife—also a teacher—feels the same way. I hate missing school for any reason and often attend while sick as long as I'm probably not contagious and am at least reasonably functional. I think I've missed three days due to illness in the last decade, and I've taken only two personal days in the same period.

I also adhere to a principle that I find to be more and more rare: I hand back work, completely graded, the day after I receive it. I do this because I believe that if I expect kids to be interested and involved in their work, it must be fresh in their minds. What good is an essay that I hand back two weeks later? They'll simply file and forget it, learning nothing. By the way, that's why I write their grade at the very end of any essay. They have to look for it and they're far more likely to actually read what I've taken the time to write on their papers. I tell them I expect them to do that anyway. But as I say, I don't know any other teacher in my building that strives to do this, not on a regular basis at least.

Because I'm an English teacher, I expect to do more work than many of my colleagues in other disciplines. My general observation is that I do more actual work—at least as observable by time spent in the classroom after school hours—than most of my colleagues. It's a truism that if you're going to be a truly effective English teacher, your kids are going to have to do a great deal of writing of all kinds. If they write, you're obligated to read their work, and not only to read it, but to edit—to lesser and greater degrees depending on each assignment and its goals—and to comment and make suggestions for improvement. Of course, I try to plan assignments so I don't end up with too many on any given day, but weekends are usually packed with assignments. I often have 360 or more papers to read and grade at a time. Fortunately, I read very quickly.

How much time is involved? Generally, I work an 8.5 hour school day. Considering I get only a half hour for lunch, that makes for a true 40 hour workweek. I come in an hour before the first bell and stay at least a half hour after the last, but to do my job properly, that's my minimum. That makes for a 42.5 hour week. I commonly spend at least 9 hours per week grading and preparing outside school hours--51.5 hours--and at least 7 hours over the weekends for a total of 58.5 hours. Remember that I get no overtime or comp. time. My salary isn't bad, but I have no idea how families live on the salary of one teacher. A great deal of oatmeal and Ramen noodles and very little in the way of new consumer goods, I suspect. To say that I work 60 hour weeks on average during the school year is pretty accurate as some weeks—when research papers are due, for example—require far more time. Very few require less. I often plan to receive really major assignments just before Thanksgiving, Christmas or Spring breaks and spend most of those holidays grading them.

I certainly know many teachers who come in 15 minutes before the first bell and who leave 15 minutes after the last, which is our minimum requirement. I can't absolutely say that they're not working at home, but I suspect they don't come close to the hours I put in for a variety of reasons. Some have been mailing it in for years. We all know the stereotype of the teacher who teaches from the same set of yellowed notes for 30 years. It's more often true than I like to admit.

I had a college teacher that did that. He was teaching and using tests from the second edition of the required text. He never updated his notes or tests. The bookstore was selling us the tenth edition. I worked out a deal with the division secretary to allow me to sneak into his office to discover the differences between the widely separate editions—he certainly wasn't going to do it--so that my fellow students and I wouldn't unfairly fail. Bless her.

Then there are coaches. You might expect a blanket assertion or two, but I may surprise you. I've generally found that coaches tend to be less effective teachers than non-coaches, but I've often found happy exceptions to that rule. I suspect this is true because people who go into coaching do it not necessarily because they want to teach history or social studies, but because they want to coach. That's their true love and interest and we shouldn't expect otherwise. When our school systems allow them to get away with the kind of neglect of their teaching duties that would result in immediate firing for non-coaches, that's a major problem, and they do bear some responsibility for that too. Let me provide two short stories that illustrate the issues.

When I returned to college to complete my undergraduate degree in my 30s, I was highly motivated. I told the Registrar that I wanted to major in history and minor in English. The conversation went like this:

Registrar: "You can't do that."

Me: "What do you mean I can't do that? I'm paying for this!"

Registrar: "It’s not that. If you teach history, you have to be a coach. No school district will hire you to teach history if you're not a coach."

She meant it, and with a moment's reflection, I realized she was right. I immediately became an English major and a vocal music minor, and the rest is history. I also realized, with horror, why so many of my history teachers had been so mediocre and so often absent.

A few years back, we had one of the most rare coach/teacher combinations: A coach who taught English. Like all coaches, he was gone at least one, and often three days a week, so his students were primarily taught by substitutes for large segments of the year. It was only when he took a job in another district and I received his kids from the previous year that I understood that the 120 or so kids he taught each year were essentially losing that entire year. We were discussing research papers and I found that none of his kids did a research paper as they were required. He totally ignored the subject, probably because it was too much work and possibly because he didn't have a clue himself. I also discovered that most of his curriculum consisted of showing movies utterly unrelated to whatever pathetic curriculum he was teaching. I spent a great deal of time that year making up for what he didn't do, and even so, some of his kids didn't get nearly as far down the path of learning as they might during our time together.

I ended up coaching debate one year, very much against my will. It was a disaster on many levels. I found myself neglecting debate or teaching, and I ended up getting only a few hours of sleep for weeks on end. It's really pretty simple: you can be an effective teacher or an effective coach. Very few can do both. Perhaps we ought to staff our schools with that in mind and hire fewer coaches but require them to be only coaches.

I'm always amazed to still hear people that think teachers have three months off during the summer. Our school year ends the first week of June and begins the second week of August. That's about 10 weeks, usually less. It's a rare year that I don't spend more than a week in various classes and seminars, and I commonly spend about half of my vacation time actively working on updating and improving my curriculum for the next school year. People don't realize that we aren't paid for 12 months of work—I'd love that—but only for the actual school year. No paid vacations for teachers; many of them work during the summer to supplement their school salaries.

As you know, we live in a right-to-work state, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I know that union teachers often have things pretty easy compared to us. For example, we are often short of substitute teachers because we pay so little and during many weeks, particularly Thursdays and Fridays, virtually every coach is gone. On many of those days, we end up filling in for missing teachers and using our precious planning periods, sometimes even lunch—to do it.

One other thing that people don't consider is that teaching, if done properly, is a physically and emotionally exhausting pursuit. I certainly don't burn as many calories as people who do physical labor, and I'm not doing rocket science, but effective teaching demands all of your intellectual and physical energies while allowing far too little time for maintaining physical fitness, at least not if you plan to do anything else with your sparse free time.

I hope I've provided at least a little insight into what we do. And you can expect to find my car at the school regularly, but that's just fine: I knew this bed was on fire when I lay down on it.

Thanks again for your support and interest. Steven is doing just fine. In fact, his writing is really improving this year, and he was very surprised to discover that he likes poetry and is actually pretty good at writing it.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at October 3, 2011 11:08 PM

I am NOT a teacher.

I pay for my own health insurance and enjoy no benefits whatsoever. I am self-employed.

As I finished my work day at about 11:44 p.m. tonight, after working most of the weekend, and battling a chest cold the whole time, and not having had a vacation of ANY kind -- summer, Christmas, spring break -- for over two years.

I guess this post is hitting me at the wrong time.

I'm glad there are hard working teachers inthe world, but at least teachers get the joy of molding lives, and thank you notes, and teacher gifts once in a while. Some professions are not so encouraging.

I guess we all have different blessings and challenges.

My resistance comes only from having to witness pleas for higher teacher pay or for more funding for schools year after year after year.

Getting tired of it.

The rest of us, including taxpayers, could use a break too. It isn't easy for anyone.

Good luck to hard-working teachers anyway. Just lok around you, please, and consider what other working adults are going through!

Posted by: Maria at October 4, 2011 02:10 AM

same here, Maria. Teachers are always complaining about too much work for too little pay and no recognition, when most kids that leave our schools are barely litterate, lack a basic understanding of even simple math and science, etc. etc. while the curiculum is being cut to allow more "self study" (as if that ever works with riotous (pre)teens) in lue of classroom teaching (with overview, if any, being provided by non-teaching staff who're there more to prevent major injuries during fights than anything else).

Sure, there are good teachers and if the writer is as he states he is he's one of them.
But they're a drop in the ocean of mediocrity that's our public education system, a system that (across the western world) is failing in producing kids who can function in society (it pained me to be able to calculate the cost of my shopping in the supermarket faster than the cashier could scan the goods into her cash register, but by now it's got so bad the cash register tells them not just how much change to give but exactly which coins and bills to take out of the labelled trays because otherwise they can't comprehend what to do...).

Posted by: JTW at October 4, 2011 02:27 AM

JTW: Comments on the mediocrity of the educational system should not contain the following errors:

"Same here..."--that's a capital S to start your writing. And you could have actually written a sentence, "I agree with you Maria."

My favorite, "...barely literate..." Literate has two t's, but they aren't neighbors.

Two "etc" are simply not necessary.

"Curriculum" (a word you could have cheated on as it was used in the blog post several times) DOES have two r's and they ARE neighbors.

"In lieu", it's a French word we've appropriated. There's a necessary "i" to ensure it sounds like a French word.

Sentence structure to start your second paragraph indicates you're writing in a flow-of-consciousness form. That really should have been edited before hitting submit.

In fact the entire second paragraph is marked as two sentences. You really should learn about the other punctuation marks (and capitalization) to be able to break those comma-laden run-on sentences into cogent, single-thought-carrying ones.

Have a nice day.

Posted by: Anon at October 4, 2011 07:26 AM

I come from a large family. My father, mother, aunts and uncles, and most of my cousins were/are teachers. They all worked hard. Not a lazy or irresponsible one among them.

But that's not the point.

In other professions (law, medicine, science, finance and accounting, etc.,) practitioners are judged by their competence. Hospital interns who who prescribe the wrong therapies, scientists who do not publish, accountants who make mistakes, are culled from the herd.

If teachers want to be judged (i.e., paid) on their hard work and not their merits, then do not call them professionals. They are laborers, just like farmers, assembly-line workers, field-hands, and waiters.

And there is nothing wrong with good, honest labor. But don't write an essay talking about how hard you work and expect to get kudos. If teachers want to be regarded as professionals, then let's look at the outcome of their teaching.


Posted by: Michael at October 4, 2011 09:32 AM

Sadly, the decline of student test scores and the constant requests for more money for our schools have worn the public down. Teachers have become the 'easy targets' to blame for our public educational system failing to educate our children. Some historic perspective is needed to understand this sad state of our schools.

Prior to the formation of Department of Education being elevated and removed from what was called Health, Education & Welfare (HEW), States set their own standards for teachers, etc. Once D of E was formed it began on the journey, as all 'departments' do, to justify their existence in the bureaucracy. Regulations were pumped out at an amazing speed. The most damaging, to education, of those regulations were the ones that began to set 'standards' and 'educational requirements' for teachers. Perhaps they were well meaning, but they had the opposite effect on our educational system.
Federal money poured into colleges and universities so that they, in turn, could develop 'Schools of Education'. These schools eventually began spewing out 'Degrees of Education' that became the only acceptable standard for teachers. Both the D of E in D.C. and the schools of education throughout the country enjoyed large sums of taxpayer money to spend on the most extravagant things. There was no way to stop this mushrooming bureaucracy, either on the Federal or State level. Who among us would deny money to help educate our children?
Sadly, school 'administrators' became the Holy Grail for teachers. Administrators' salaries were far above the average teacher and the work load was far less. Thus, the flood-gates were opened for colleges and universities to produce a whole new class of 'educrats'. With no shortage of Federal and State money for educational grants and loans, degrees for school administrators became the 'hot topic'! There simply was no stopping the bureaucratic ball that was rolling downhill.
Today we have a system that works for few. There is an enormous level of administrators, in all the public school systems, soaking up mountains of taxpayer dollars, that justify their jobs by 'supervising teachers' and clogging everyone's inbox with new rules and requirements for what 'should' and 'should not' be done, said or taught in a classroom. Teachers are left with precious little time to 'teach' as they are constantly trying to keep up with the administrative drivel.
The teacher who received a degree in his/her major; English, Math, Science, etc., no longer exists. Today the degree must be in "Education". Those degrees were produced by the formation of a massive Department of Education which has spent, or directed states to spend, billions of taxpayer dollars. The result is a tragedy to a once good, not perfect, educational system. A system where our children knew the names and locations of countries around the world, knew that a 'verb' was a part of our language and could count to 100 by 10's.

Posted by: carol at October 4, 2011 12:51 PM

No comments about the American education system found here today. But, I do have a comment for Anon.

Anon: There is nothing more irritating to moi then to see pissants focus on grammar and nothing else. It comes across as being arrogant, elitist, and condescending.

I understood what JTW said. JTW appears to be commenting in a more conversational mode. I don't think he/she was worried about "THE ENGLISH TEACHER" grading his/her comments. We are in a free flow of ideas and comments world.

I would bet that JTW has vast knowledge about a subject that you are but a neophyte. I would also bet that he/she would not be as cheeky about it as you were toward him/her.

Enough said. I hope you get the point, but I do have some doubts!

Posted by: mixitup at October 4, 2011 01:33 PM

I think this applies to K-12 teachers in many places. However, when you look at the pay at some of the community colleges and universities you'll be shocked. I know of one comm college in Nor Cal where some of the top teachers make a boatload of money...and even get paid for doing union business!!!
There are some public workers who have all the equipment, vehilces etc they need to work and others who, often because of poor management have to actually buy stuff just to do the job.
I now of many police departments where the cops have to buy their own guns etc.

Posted by: CI Roller at October 4, 2011 02:09 PM


I agree that often a good message can be lost because of poor grammar. This is all the more reason to use good grammar.

And one thing that's more arrogant than commenting on poor grammar, is chastising people who comment on poor grammar.

(I wonder how arrogant it is to criticize someone who chastises people who comment on poor grammar?)

Posted by: Walt at October 4, 2011 07:04 PM


Thanks for your comments! Wonderful stuff! By the way, may I offer a bit of advice that might come in handy some day? The fastest and most effective way to end any conversation is to look sincerely into the eyes of the person from whose presence you wish to flee and say: "You know, what you just said has the most fascinating grammatical possibilities. Let's discuss them!"

Far be it from me to criticize anyone who criticizes anyone who criticizes anyone who criticizes anyone who is critical of anyone who criticizes the grammar of anyone else. you know, what I just wrote has fascinating grammatical possibilities...

Posted by: Mike Mc at October 4, 2011 07:15 PM

I was a public school teacher for five years, and yes most work very hard. But that's not the issue. They could work twice as hard and still not be effective. My beef is not with the classroom teachers, but the system and the way it disables real education.

Posted by: Kdaunt at October 4, 2011 07:17 PM

Teachers work hard -- and parents are still irritated with them. What you realize when you speak to the teachers is that, with some notable exceptions, the problem isn't the teacher at all, it's the system. As you've noted, teachers end up spending (or wasting) a lot of time on stuff that has nothing to do with teaching.

In California, where my students attend public school, the amount of PC stuff on the curriculum is ridiculous. There are "green days" (which I think is hooey) and (social outreach days" (which I think is something more properly reserved for the parents and their values) and bonding days (which I think are for recess and after school).

By the time the teachers have finished with all the required un-learning activities, and have done all the federally and state required tests, there is relatively little time left for teaching. So parents are frustrated and feel the teachers aren't doing their job. At the end of day, it's a no-win for students, teachers and parents, which makes you wonder who's really benefiting from all this insanity.

By the way, thank you so much for your really nice reference to me. I hope you and your readers appreciate that I wasn't trying to denigrate teachers in my post. In today's American, everyone works really hard, so I was simply irritated by Obama's fatuous pandering -- and teachers happened to be the ones he was pandering to on that day.

Posted by: Bookworm at October 4, 2011 09:19 PM

Mike, you make some very good points. And I think your commentary should give us all some food for thought on what teachers actually do vs what administrators and/or the gov't think is more important. *Hint - I don't think the actual learning is as important to the gov't as it should be . . .

Interestingly, a couple of days ago an article was published in the Wall Street Journal.

Here's the link to the entire article - from his blog. I think you and all the CY readers might be interested in his commentary. He too makes some excellent points regarding education.

And his follow-up blog post:

Posted by: Nina at October 5, 2011 10:15 AM

Thomas Sowell has pointed out in a couple of his books that over 80% of teachers come from the BOTTOM QUINTILE of their undergrad graduating classes.

Posted by: Sharpshooter at October 5, 2011 12:01 PM

Dear Nina:

Thanks for your kind comments. I read the Tarkenton articles as well. I have no difficulty with holding anyone accountable for the quality of their work. There are, however, huge problems in education in this regard. Doing it effectively in unionized districts is impossible. Elsewhere, teachers are increasingly judged by their fealty to the latest, utterly useless educational fad rather than their effectiveness as a teacher. We must be careful indeed about that for which we ask. We might get it and end up with classroom full of bottom-kissing mediocrities while truly capable people not inclined to suffer fools gladly are run off.

Thanks for commenting!

Dear Sharpshooter:

You know, I've often seen that statistic, and many like it. All I can say is that my observations of the intellect and work of actual teachers do not well agree. I've worked in three states and never seen a school where that stat is remotely correct.

I've also noticed that in the real world, competent principals don't give a boatload of dead rats for a high GPA. They're more concerned with tangible and observable factors such as practical knowledge and day to day reliability and performance. And of course, I know a great many people with very high GPAs I wouldn't trust to walk my dog while a great many folks with average academic records are very high performers.

Interesting stat, but I've not seen it reflected in the real world. Can it actually be possible that 80% of all teachers are truly below average, even far below average? Perhaps in Detroit or similar bastions of liberalism, but again, I doubt that in the real world.

Thanks for your comment!

Posted by: Mike Mc at October 5, 2011 07:18 PM

Mike, you're welcome. And I agree - there are most certainly concerns to be had. The unionized environment, following the latest and greatest, and more. Yes, we must be careful about what we ask for.

However, what I believe we SHOULD ask for is for each school district, each administrator, each principal, and each teacher to aim higher for the students. There are great teachers out there. My daughter is blessed to have had those great teachers. I was blessed (or cursed) to have some outstanding teachers who started in one-room school houses (4 of whom taught my dad and his brothers - see the curse? LOL)

The thing is - many have forgotten that education is not just getting by. Education should be a part and parcel of aiming high and setting high standards and a high bar of accountability. High standards for the students, for themselves, and then high accountability.

What I find sad is that somehow our education, and now I see it in the business world seems to be one that is more interested in a token effort rather than reaching as high and as far as possible.

Education and success should never be easy. Yet somehow it seems we've come to that. And I don't like it.


Posted by: Nina at October 5, 2011 10:00 PM