Unpaid overtime and the social expectation for teachers

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In 2013, an infographic titled “Teachers Don’t Work Hard Enough? Think Again!” created by BusyTeacher.org made waves when it suggested the “real teaching day” encompasses more than class time. In total, the infographic estimates the teaching day to be 12 to 16 hours in length.

In 2013, an infographic titled “Teachers Don’t Work Hard Enough? Think Again!” created by BusyTeacher.org made waves when it suggested the “real teaching day” encompasses more than class time. In total, the infographic estimates the teaching day to be 12 to 16 hours in length. Photo Credit: BusyTeacher.org

In 2013, an infographic titled “Teachers Don’t Work Hard Enough? Think Again!” created by BusyTeacher.org made waves when it suggested the “real teaching day” encompasses more than class time. In total, the infographic estimates the teaching day to be 12 to 16 hours in length.

The graphic attributes eight hours per day to standard teaching time, one hour to helping students outside of school, and three to five hours to planning, grading, answering emails and attending regular meetings.

According to Katie Huber-Welty, an elementary school teacher at Three Fires Elementary in the Howell Public School District, and Merlinda Emerson, a retired principal with 26 years of teaching experience in the East Lansing Public School District, these numbers are accurate.

“I spend time outside the school day getting fabrics for costumes, writing scripts, assembling props,” said Huber-Welty, a music teacher. “We have some time built into our day for prep, but there are certain things you can’t do during that time. There’s maintaining the classroom Facebook page, emailing parents, emailing teachers.”

Emerson, a former elementary school teacher, agreed.

“In elementary, you’re prepping for all of the courses,” she said. “Every subject, every day. In my early years of teaching, I worked Saturday and Sunday. You’re paid for the contact time in the classroom, but I was also working on my master’s degree on nights and weekends. It was not uncommon for me to put in 60 hours every week of the school year.”

Students are teachers’ motivation for working those long hours, both women said.

“I think some teachers have come to a point in their career where they’re just done,” Huber-Welty said. “They feel the system has betrayed them. But their students don’t get as many extras. For example, I don’t get paid for concerts, so my students wouldn’t have performances if I wasn’t willing to work outside school hours. That translates into the regular classroom, like fun science things or math games or wax museums. You can’t finish those projects in normal prep time.”

Teaching is a passion, Emerson said.

“It’s what I dedicated myself to do,” she said. “I took all parts of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I did it for the sake of the children. You had to be ready for the next day. They were coming.”

For many students and parents, the role of a teacher seems strictly academic. But for teachers like Huber-Welty and Emerson, the job is all-encompassing. Huber-Welty, for example, hires a babysitter to watch her children after school, giving her more time to prepare for her students.

“I write down what I want to get done each day,” she said. “If I have spare time, I try to get as many extra things done as I can.”

Abigail Harrington, an education and social relations policy major at MSU, believes the role may become less daunting with experience.

“I’ve talked to some teachers who have been in the field for a very long time,” she said. “They say the amount of time you spend outside of class preparing gets smaller the longer you’ve been teaching. It makes sense, because teachers recycle things from year to year. If you’re teaching history, you’re not going to change your curriculum much.”

Emerson’s experience has proven this point.

“As I became a more experienced teacher, I found more efficient ways to do things,” she said. “But for a new, beginning teacher, you live at school. The children think you do, and you do.”

Huber-Welty uses a technique of her own to gradually lighten the load.

“I try to use new material, so the job doesn’t get too stale,” she said. “But you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew, so recycling songs or props can save time. If you continue to throw in new ones here and there, you’ll have more to choose from later.”

When asked for the reason why teachers are expected to work so many unpaid hours, all three women shared ideas. Huber-Welty said it comes down to politics.

“There’s this overarching opinion from the population that anyone can teach,” she said. “The media coverage is often unfavorable, saying we’re lazy, and we get summers off. I think, with that schema, the government can’t say they’re going to give more. Then they aren’t listening to their constituents. I think it would be different if teaching was privatized, and parents were paying schools directly.”

Harrington said the problem rests in ideological issues.

“Education is such a political thing,” she said. “I would like to think it shouldn’t be, but people have opinions on it. They have opinions on whether or not they want to pay for schools if they don’t have children. They don’t want to pay for schools their children don’t attend. And that can be especially messy with those who oppose public schools.”

Read our complete Q&A profile on Abigail Harrington here.

Emerson said the answer can be found in education history.

“In the early 1980s, we saw a renewal of government programs. The role of the teacher changed,” she said. “We were no longer expected to teach curricular areas. “We were expected to feed and clothe and make sure our students had lunch. The academic aspect of teaching had nowhere else to go. Now, everybody is up in arms because some students can’t read or write. Who’s the easy target? Teachers.”

Whatever the overarching reason, teachers continue to carry the burden.

“Teachers are generally very giving people,” Huber-Welty said. “It’s rare to find a teacher that has truly checked out and only works during the hours of the school day. We care about the kids.”

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