On Teacher Bashing

Some years ago I wrote a letter to the editor of the Edmonton Journal suggesting more coverage of public education. Say, perhaps, something more informative than the acrimony of labour action, which is usually reported with scant attention to teaching and learning conditions like class sizes, special education needs, and teacher workloads. Unfortunately, strikes and labour negotiations seem to make “good press,” whereas the things that make our schools work (or not work) on a day to day basis are perceived as more mundane, and hence not worthy of much public attention.

The thing is, it’s the lack of understanding or awareness about the more “mundane” aspects of education that lead to the perpetuation of wildly inaccurate notions of what teachers and schools do. And every time I read another Joe/Jane Public comment about teachers “whining even though they only work 10 months a year” I bang my head against a wall [1]. First, the ten months a year thing is completely misleading. It encapsulates just how poorly some members of “the public” understand what happens in schools. Second, it’s damaging. Instead of the public dialogue we ought to be having about education, energy is expended on taking tiresome, cheap shots at teachers, who get the blame for all that ails the school system.

So first, let’s dispel the all too often cited myth that teachers don’t work very hard:

While it is certainly true that teachers have summers off, I’d be willing to bet my dwindling PhD funding that those same commentators who harp about summer holidays also think teachers only work 35-40 hours a week. Two months of holidays and a 35 hour work week would be a pretty sweet gig, wouldn’t it? But any teacher who calls herself a teacher with pride knows that the profession entails something more like a 50 hour work week [2]  New teachers work more like 80 hours a week, because in addition to class hours and grading, they are also learning a curriculum and building lesson plans from scratch [3].

Some basic math to this point:

A Standard Work Week:

40 hours a week (let’s be generous here) X 49 weeks a year (that’s 3 weeks of holidays):

40 X 49 = 1,960 a year of work.

Work Week of a Beginning Teacher:

70 hours a week (let’s be conservative here; see [2] above) X 42 weeks a year (that’s covering summer holidays, Christmas and Spring Break):

70 X 42 = 2,940 hours of work a year.

Hmmm… still want a slack job like those “lazy” teachers? (By the way, these young teachers are starting at 43K-ish a year, and many are servicing $20-30K in student loans.)

Work Week of a Veteran Teacher:

Now let’s say the insanity of learning a whole curriculum and developing a new lesson plan for every class you teach has settled down – that’s about four years into the profession. So down to a more civilized work week of about 50 hours:

50 hours a week X 42 weeks a year = 2,100 hours of work a year.

Oh! Wait a minute. It seems that even once you factor in summer holidays, teachers are still working more hours than those in many other jobs!

So let’s be clear: teachers work as hard, and in many cases harder, than everyone else; the “two months off in the summer” thing distorts this fact. But my point here isn’t only to defend teachers. It’s just that the focus on salaries and summer holidays is such a damn waste of time and energy. Not only is it often based on inaccuracies; it also takes our attention away from where it most needs to be: on the state of our schools. In her recent interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Diane Ravitch discussed the plague of blaming and shaming teachers when kids don’t learn. Surely people notice that kids are coming to school poor and hungry, that the sheer amount of curriculum packed into a school year sucks away any joy in teaching or learning, that schools (particularly in the US) are under-resourced, and that many parents take no interest in their kids’ education?

The thing is, people don’t notice and talk about these issues. We’re too busy bashing or defending teachers. It seems to be easier to make a political football of labour negotiations and teachers’ salaries and holidays than it is to educate oneself about our public school system in its full complexity. I’m not saying that public sector salaries and pensions aren’t a concern; they are. A nice piece in the National Post following from Wisconsin’s widely publicized teacher demonstrations fleshes out this issue very well.

But it would be great if we could separate out questions of labour relations from more substantive debates about our education system as a whole. There is so much to learn and so much to do. Yet public debate always seems to digress to teacher’s salaries and working conditions. When are we going to get some breadth and creativity into our thinking here? And how can we create some constructive public forums to do this? Free-for-alls in the newspapers sure don’t seem to be doing the trick.

References and Notes

[1] Figuratively, not literally. Just to be clear.

[2] Studies of teacher workloads consistently place teachers’ average work week at approximately 50 hours/week. It’s easy to add on to that if you want to: factor in additional extra-curricular activities (like weekend sports tournaments), professional development, learning new curriculum, and professional association volunteer work. For a good overview of teacher workload issues and resources: http://www.bctf.ca/IssuesInEducation.aspx?id=21453&libID=21443

[3] A “rule of thumb” for lesson planning is a 1:1 ratio; that is, one hour of preparation for one hour of class time. For “newbies” this ratio is higher on the planning side. As teachers become more experienced and develop libraries of resources and lesson plans, planning time becomes less demanding. However, good teachers – that is the ones who love learning and don’t want to get “stale” – continue to refine and change up their lessons. Most teachers receive only in the neighbourhood of about 2 paid hours per week for lesson planning; the rest is done on the teacher’s own time. Some teachers get no preparation time during the school day at all.

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