School reformers in recent years have talked a lot about ensuring that all students have “high-quality” teachers — though they have both fudged the definition of what “quality” actually means and, in many cases, taken steps that many teachers feel are assaults on their profession.

Those actions include scapegoating teachers for problems that are beyond their control, implementing evaluation systems that are unreliable and unfair and emphasizing the importance of standardized tests to the point that classroom time is dominated by teaching to the test.

There have also been repeated attempts to undermine due-process protections for teachers as well as tenure and reduce the power of organized labor. Right now, the Supreme Court is considering a case that may deliver the biggest blow to organized labor in decades. The case asks the court to make it impossible for unions to charge fees to nonunion members who are still covered by the contract benefits that unions win through bargaining.

Now, in North Carolina and some other states, there is something new that teachers believe is further undermining their profession: requiring them to use a time clock that would, among other things, suggest that they work only a set number of hours a day. What teacher really does that?

Here’s a look at this and what it means to the profession. This was written by Chris Gilbert, who was a teacher of English at a high school and community college before entering a doctoral program in education. His work has appeared on this blog and in the National Council of Teachers of English’s publication, English Journal. He is a 2013 recipient of NCTE’s Paul and Kate Farmer Writing Award.

By Chris Gilbert

Public educators in North Carolina have certainly faced their share of challenges in recent years. These challenges have included a multiyear salary freeze, the loss of due process rights and advanced degree pay for some teachers, and wages that remain distressingly low. Unsurprisingly, North Carolina is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s worst states for teachers.

As a former North Carolina teacher, I readily empathize with educators in my state, and I strive to stay aware of new challenges confronting them. Relatedly, I recently learned that teachers in multiple North Carolina school districts are now required to clock in and out of school each day through a virtual time clock in “TimeKeeper,” a payroll software system.

After learning of this requirement, I wondered: How does punching a time clock impact the way these teachers perceive themselves? How do these salaried professionals feel about this mandated practice?

To explore these questions, I initiated a qualitative study and interviewed four experienced public educators who work in a school district that requires teachers to clock in and out with TimeKeeper. I also contacted a number of other districts in North Carolina to learn about teacher time clock requirements throughout the state. I discuss my findings below.

The deprofessionalization of teachers

Regarding the mandate to punch a time clock, several teachers I interviewed characterized it as deprofessionalizing. One stated, “When I first heard about it … I felt disempowered and felt like I was not viewed as a professional. Now I just accept it and move on, but feel resentful.” Similarly, another noted that time clock use seems at odds with teachers’ professional status.

Educators in North Carolina have experienced a series of attacks on their professional status in recent years, and teachers’ interview responses suggest that time clock use continues this assault. In light of this, one must consider the consequences of shifting the status of teachers from that of “professional” to “nonprofessional.”

These consequences include lower wages, diminished health insurance plans and other benefits, and the erosion of educators’ social prestige and political power. Additionally, lowering the status of teachers is an ideal way to incentivize current and prospective educators to take their talents to the private sector. Much of this has already occurred in North Carolina, but policies and practices that explicitly frame teachers as nonprofessionals threaten to worsen these outcomes.

A climate of distrust

The teachers I interviewed repeatedly associated time clock use with feelings of distrust. Here are some of their comments:

* “There have been multiple conversations [among colleagues] with themes of teachers constantly feeling a lack of trust by administration and state rules/laws. This just reinforces that theme … I feel less trusted.”

“[Time clock use] seems to, on some level, suggest that we need to be more closely monitored … [that] we aren’t doing what we should be doing.”

* “It’s just that many of us no longer feel trusted to ‘earn our keep’ without the watchful eye of TimeKeeper on us.”

Overall, these statements suggest that the use of a time clock creates the perception that some “higher-ups” (administrators, politicians, etc.) view teachers as deficient, untrustworthy workers who require close supervision. Conversely, interview responses also suggest that this practice encourages teachers to cast a wary eye toward administrative and political figures. In this context, distrust appears to be reciprocal.

Data, uncertainty and the misrepresentation of teachers

I was especially struck by this comment from one of the teachers: “[Time clock use] is meant to provide on-site administration with a snapshot of relative entry/exit times for each faculty member. I assume these entry/exit times are stored at Central Office for HR [Human Resources] purposes as well. It is actually unclear how the data is interpreted, used, stored, and if it could be used by HR in a negative (or positive) way.”

While I did not investigate how or where time clock data is stored, it is logical to assume that this data is maintained in some capacity. This raises questions concerning how long it is stored, who has access to it and if it could be used to penalize teachers.

While the possibility certainly exists for this data to be used in positive ways (some teachers, for example, hoped that time clock use would highlight the many hours they routinely work beyond the required 40-hour workweek), it is easy to envision how anti-public education entities could weaponize this information.

For instance, teachers clock in and out when they enter and exit the school building. This only records the time they work while at school; importantly, the additional work that teachers typically complete at home is not reflected in the aggregated data. Consequently, the potential exists for this data to be used by policymakers to misrepresent teachers’ total work hours and justify lower wages and other harmful initiatives.

A form of privatization

One teacher said, “I do feel this [the time clock] is yet another attempt to normalize the privatization of the public education system, which now includes TimeKeeper as well as taxpayer-funded private ‘voucher schools’ and being urged to treat our students like ‘customers.’ … For those of us who’ve been in the profession awhile, it’s yet another example of the corporatization of our once noble profession.”

Virtual time clock applications (TimeKeeper’s is one of many) are typically developed and marketed by private companies. As one teacher suggested, the distribution of this software to public districts indicates yet another form of privatization as private entities extend their reach into the public domain to secure new profit sources.

Framing schools as businesses, and educators as suspect employees who require supervision, creates a need for accountability software that is used to monitor workers while also establishing a continuous income stream for private companies.

Stopping the clock

Overall, my interviews with educators suggest that teacher time clock use is a consequential, demoralizing practice. Through additional research, I learned that teachers are using time clocks in at least 15 North Carolina school districts. While not all of these districts require teachers to clock in and out (some districts require both actions, while others only require teachers to clock in), the existence of this requirement in any form is troubling. Unfortunately, I also learned that teachers in other states are grappling with this practice.

In closing, when viewed in isolation, teacher time clock use is undoubtedly problematic. However, when viewed in relation to the many demoralizing practices and policies that North Carolina educators have endured in recent years, this practice takes on a heightened significance. In a state where teachers’ salaries persistently lag the national average, and where more than half of all public educators work an additional job to make ends meet, mandates must be issued with care.

If we believe that attracting and retaining talented educators is truly important, we must ensure that educational policies and practices promote trust, respect and professionalism. Requiring salaried, professional educators to punch a time clock ultimately undermines this goal.