Overworked Teachers

Three Humble Proposals for Overworked Teachers

A recent edition of Planet Money addressed a topic near and dear to the hearts of all teachers: the question of long working hours. In lots of fields, but maybe especially in teaching, we equate long working hours with “doing a good job.” But there are lots of reasons to question this idea. Steve Henn, a reporter on the show, explains with a story:

One of my favorite economists, Dan Ariely, tells this story about a locksmith. When the locksmith was new at his job, when he was an apprentice, he took a really long time to open a lock. And people saw him working away, struggling, really having a hard time. And often they'd end up giving him a tip. But then when locksmith got better at his job, when he got so good at his job he could open pretty much any lock in just a minute or two, then his customers started complaining. They were like, you want $200 for that? This took you, like, 30 seconds...

Maybe hard work is irrelevant. Maybe what should matter is what we create. Maybe companies should be measuring our output and not keeping track of our input. What would happen if you ran a company based on that idea? What would that look like?

The Scope of the Problem

Ask most teachers, and they will tell you: teaching requires long hours.

The BBC reports that in Britain, teachers work between 55.2-63.3 hours per week, a number that includes teaching time, in-school non-teaching work, and work that gets taken home. The Guardian more or less echoes this view, with teachers responding that they frequently work 8-10 hours a day, plus time during evenings and weekends. And the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work, Life and ­Caregiving in Canada: The Situation for Alberta Teachers makes the case that teachers in that province work an average of 60.8 hours per week, 10 hours more than the general population of professional workers.

Any teacher has probably heard many a humble-brag along these lines. The comment, “I spent my entire weekend marking…!” serves at once as a complaint, a brag, and a reinforcement of the narrative: good teachers work long hours.

I can recall, early in my career, a senior leader of mine telling me that the only way to teach well is to “skip watching the late show”; if you had an evening to yourself, you couldn’t be a very effective teacher.

What’s to Be Done?

Planet Money offers an interesting, if cautionary, tale. They profile practices in the tech world where output can be measured, and tentatively conclude that the results of your work matter more than the time spent doing it. Sounds reasonable, but as I’ve argued before, in many fields - schooling one of them - it is hard to develop an easy measurable metric for the value of a teacher’s work.

That need not mean we abandon the notion of valuing teachers by their results entirely; there are lots of ways we can reward effectiveness and discourage merely “spending time.”

How? Three Humble Proposals:

  1. Let’s change the conversation in schools. Let’s reduce the number of times we praise faculty for merely being there, and find more and more interesting ways to reward the fruits of their labour.

  2. Speaking of which, let’s more towards a more evidence-based practice. We’re not going to be able to measure lots and lots of important aspects of a teacher’s day, but we can start looking for some. The challenge of measuring our effectiveness is central to any improvement regime we want to make. And data can come in lots of forms. Let’s think broadly about this important aspect of perpetual betterment.

  3. Let’s focus on what really matters. I’ve written before about the need for priorities in schooling. We too often think changing the carpet can achieve results. The problem: these less-than-effective-efforts all take time. Imagine we could simply stop doing some of the things that don’t matter much - how much time could we free up?

Teaching will always be a difficult job - what’s required is infinitely complex. But surely we can stop thinking that effective teachers are merely the ones who work longest, or who take home the biggest bags of marking.

Image credit: Kevin Dooley via Flickr.