The Myth of the Overworked Teacher

DISCLAIMER: Onlooker Slowdown has taught English, in grades 7-12, for the past 16 years, and has coached at least three sports during 12 of those years. Currently, he teaches five sections of 7th grade English and, this year, coaches volleyball, basketball and track and field.

With that out of the way, I would like to take a brickbat to Kristie Smith’s February 24 editorial in the Dallas Morning News. Entitled “Teachers are overworked, underpaid and moonlighting,” her mercifully short piece trots out the usual suspects when it comes to complaints about the teacher lifestyle: having to get a second job to make ends meet, serving dozens and dozens of students a day, working more than the eight hours a day that, in some sort of fantasyland, is all that someone on salary is supposed to work.

First, I’d like to take on the “underpaid” claim. Now, it is true that if you want to be the only source of income in your family, and you want to have children, then teaching is probably not the career path for you. Unless you make it up the ladder into administration, you just won’t be able to do it. Much is made of the fact that teachers often start well into the $40,000+ range fresh out of school, but raises don’t take many teachers in Texas much over the $60,000 – $65,000 range, during their career.

So, if you want to be a teacher, as a career, you should plan on having your spouse working as well, or on living a fairly basic lifestyle. That’s what I’ve told my own children, because it’s the truth.

But does that mean that you are underpaid? How much should a teacher be paid? As much as a lawyer?

We don’t work 100-hour weeks right out of school, or ever. Ever talked to a first-year associate in a big-name law firm? Yes, it’s difficult to deal with 25 (or 35, or 40) ninth-graders that first year out of college. Very difficult. But what about putting together pages and pages of research for litigation, pulling all-nighters to do it?

Oh, and that lawyer is an at-will client, right? Which means that he can get let go at any time. He probably won’t, at least not until the first cullings, because the firm recruited him and has an investment in him. For teachers, once we make it through our probationary period, it is difficult to fire us. It’s not as difficult in Texas as it is, say, in L.A. or New York City, where teachers who are on paid leave awaiting their terminations sit in rooms all day (courtesy L.A. Times), often for years at a time, because of the lengthy appeals process. So we have some protections not afforded other professions.

Which brings me to the claim of “overworked.” I know people, particularly in the elementary grades, who average 50- and 60-hour workweeks during the school year. Maybe even 65. Most of what people think of as teaching involves the classroom process. However, it really does take a lot of time to turn an elementary classroom into a jungle. Or into a Dr. Seuss wonderland. And that decoration really does make a difference for the kids who come in there, because learning becomes a joy for them in classrooms like that.

It also takes a lot of time outside of school to grade papers, and plan lessons.

But guess what? Accountants, consultants, doctors, lawyers, business managers, and members of all of these other professions also work a lot outside the 9-to-5 day. And while they might get a week at Christmas, they don’t get two. They don’t get a week in March. And they don’t get June, July, and August. Even if you figure in a couple of weeks for training, curriculum writing, and other activities, it’s just not the same.

But there is one question, in particular, that I would like to answer for her. She asks, “Why do teachers stay in school under poor conditions and less pay?” Then she goes into the social work aspect of teaching. Has she seen what a social worker makes?

And since when do social workers get three months off in the summer?

Do social workers have enough time to get a second job? What’s wrong with taking on some additional work when you have that much time off?

So, here are the trade-offs: relative job security (unless Governor Perry is re-elected), protections not afforded to at-will employees, and a lavish amount of vacation. You also get to make a difference in the lives of thousands of children, if you stick it out as a career.

In exchange, you get less money. A lot less money. But in our society, you are paid for what you can bring in. Dirk Nowitzki wouldn’t make millions if he couldn’t bring Mark Cuban even more millions. A surgeon doesn’t make a lavish income if he can’t perform, and if new clients don’t come calling. An attorney doesn’t rake in hundreds per billable hour if she can’t find clients who are willing to pay for her services.

As long as teachers are viewed as part of an entitlement system, we will be paid accordingly. And that’s how our culture views education. It’s guaranteed, it’s free to everyone. It’s true that it’s not doing a very good job for those who just rely on the public system. But educating children is not a 40-hour-a-week job. No job that is worth doing well is, in fact. But until teachers and their unions stop complaining about how much work they already do and bleating loudly about reforms, and school districts consider actual academic need instead of chasing down trends in writing budgets, and state budget writers consider the long-term effects of their work, things will not change. All three groups need to think about what education should really look like, and what the purpose of a teacher really is.

There are other parts of the world where education is considered more of a priority. In South Korea, for example, the government has to hire inspectors to go around and make sure that parents aren’t having their kids tutored past the nationwide tutoring curfew of 10 P.M. (courtesy New York Times). Do you think those tutors might do pretty well on the hourly wage end? They’re working well past 4:00, of course.

It’s time for us to begin thinking about whether education should be the same seven-hour journey for 178 days for each student, all year long. It’s easier for us to do it this way, and it’s easier for parents for us to do it this way, but it doesn’t appear to be the best way.

The last thing we as teachers needed, though, was another column by another teacher making the rest of us look like lazy, incompetent fools. Before anyone else in our profession does that, could you please type it out, sit down, and think about how ridiculous we will all look when you send it in?

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