“You Get Summers Off” & Other Damaging Myths About Teaching

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“You Get Summers Off” & Other Damaging Myths About Teaching

by Pérsida Himmele

Great teaching takes intentionality, planning, and an incredible amount of hard work. While it is rewarding work, it is time-intensive and can be emotionally exhausting. Oftentimes, non-teaching friends can envy what appears to be an easy schedule, ending at 3:00, and a summer vacation from what appears to be glorified babysitting.

These misinformed peers can often make degrading comments regarding the teaching profession that can go a long way toward devaluing what teachers actually do on a day to day basis, and those comments can take a toll on how we view ourselves as educators. In this post, I’d like to address some of the most common myths about teachers and the teaching profession.

Response to Myth #1: “You don’t work a full day; you get to leave by 3pm!”

Even though the average school day for students is 6.64 hours, for most teachers, the contracted school day approximates that of a typical 40 hour jobs. In other words, an eight hour 9 to 5 schedule is simply moved back by two hours. For example, my local school district’s contracted day for teachers is from 7:15 to 3:15, with many teachers staying later to assist students who need after school help, or who need additional time to make up work.

When teachers aren’t actually teaching, the school day is spent in a harried pace of activity consisting of non-existent bathroom breaks, 20 minute lunch breaks, playground or bus duty, instant-communication-inspired parent contacts, and excessive amounts of data collection and analyses that are required by the state for the purposes of accountability.

Response to Myth #2: “Yes, but you get your summers off!”

Though contracted time may seem to be on par with other professions, most teachers will tell you that completing required work within their contracted time, and doing it well, is close to impossible. This results in teachers coming in earlier, or staying later, and taking work home. A study looking at unpaid overtime in 2014 found that teachers were more likely to work more unpaid overtime than any other professionals. Teaching has become more demanding in recent years. While some teachers might have a scheduled “prep” time, it is highly unlikely that the “prep” time will actually be used for preparing lessons.

Instead, grading and planning are responsibilities that are often reserved for evenings and weekends, so that the amount of overtime is inching upwards– up by 31%, as compared to the unpaid overtime hours that teachers worked in 2010. In fact, it is estimated that, during the school year, teachers work an average of 53 hours per week. While this is not true of all teachers, those for whom this is true are putting in an extra 39 hours every three weeks. For every 40 weeks of a school year, they are putting in an extra 13 forty-hour weeks. For these teachers, that unpaid summer “vacation” isn’t a vacation at all; it’s comp time.

Response to Myth #3: “Yes, but just about anyone can teach!”

Teaching is an incredibly demanding job. It’s fulfilling, but demanding. For example, Ryan Fuller, an aerospace engineer-turned-teacher, described teaching as harder than his job designing a NASA spacecraft. According to Fuller, “No one can fully understand how difficult teaching in America’s highest-need communities is until he or she personally experiences it. When I solved engineering problems, I had to use my brain. When I solve teaching problems, I use my entire being—everything I have.” Bob Shepherd, a former publishing executive, said something similar about his return to teaching: “Everything I did before was a vacation by comparison.”

Additionally, for teachers in high poverty schools, the compassion fatigue that accompanies teaching can be overwhelming. Karla, a first grade teacher, and a 14-year veteran, notices that “children are coming with more trauma than ever before, and the pressure to meet standards has increased.” For Karla, and so many other teachers, the emotional exhaustion that has accompanied teaching in a high-poverty school has taken its toll. “We had a speaker come discuss the effects of trauma on the brain. Everyone I talked to saw the effects in our own lives, not to mention our students. At one point, she said how it takes a special teacher to be able to teach traumatized students, and my immediate thought was, ‘I can’t be that teacher anymore.’”

Anyone who thinks that teaching is an easy job has never taught before.

Truth: Teachers should be paid more.

Though teachers work a significant amount of overtime in positions that can be emotionally exhausting, teaching salaries are notoriously low, and the gap in pay widens when compared to increases offered in other professional fields over time.  For teachers in high cost-of-living, non-unionized schools, teachers often need more than one job in order to make ends meet. Attrition is high. In fact, forty percent of teachers will leave teaching within their first five years.

For all of the time and emotional exhaustion that teaching well takes, most teachers carry on because teaching is highly rewarding work. Still, teachers who remain in the profession ought to be paid competitive salaries that reflect the amount of education required to obtain and keep their positions, and that pay ought to reflect the demands of the job. In short, teachers ought to be paid more, and as demands increase, teacher pay should also increase.

Pérsida Himmele is a former elementary and middle school teacher. She currently serves as an Associate Professor of teacher education at Millersville University. She and her husband have written several books, including Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner and Total Literacy Techniques: Tools to Help Students Analyze Literature and Informational Texts, both published by ASCD. She can be reached via Facebook, Twitter, and via her website, www.TotalParticipationTechniques.com; this article was first posted to Pérsida’s website, Total Participation Techniques.  

“You Get Summers Off” & Other Damaging Myths About Teaching; adapted image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks