Whenever there is some disaster at a school, such as the February shooting at a South Florida high school that left 17 people dead, we hear stories about heroic teachers who sometimes give up their own lives to save the lives of their students.
But aside from these moments of catastrophe, teachers have made clear in poll after poll in recent years that they feel beleaguered, blamed unfairly by their bosses for student problems that stem from their lives outside school.
Many teachers are underpaid, forced to take second jobs to pay their bills. In fact, teachers across West Virginia just staged a strike that lasted more than a week to get better pay, and Oklahoma teachers may go on strike, too.
Teachers also fight the perception that their jobs are easy, 9-to-5 workdays with summers and a lot of holidays off. Ask any teacher, and you would probably hear a far different story.
Here’s one from Melissa Wicker, who was a teacher in Norman, Okla., and says she was “chronically fatigued” when she was working in schools. She left the classroom last year and earned a master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma and certification as a reading specialist. Now she is pursuing a doctorate in education and, she wrote, “exploring ways to advocate for change.”
By Melissa Wicker
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average public school teacher spends 27.4 hours each week delivering instruction (about 5.5 hours each day) and an average of 26 hours on school-related activities. That makes for a workweek of about 53.3 hours.
My workweek as a teacher was usually more on the order of 60 to 80 hours, depending on the number of extracurricular activities and extra duties for the week.
Here is a glance at my typical day.
I would arrive at school at least an hour before the start of the school day to make copies. Our copier was affectionately named Bob Marley because it liked “jamming,” and it was broken at least as often as it was working.
Copies in hand, I rushed back to my classroom and sorted through the 23 new emails in my inbox before the first meeting of the day, which conveniently ended three minutes after the morning bell welcoming students. So, as students flooded the hallways, I thought about the assignments I needed to write on the board in the few minutes remaining before the start of first period.
I successfully navigated the halls and greeted students outside my door as the teaching portion of my day officially commenced. It was a balancing act always, akin to herding cats and juggling flamethrowers while walking on a tightrope blindfolded.
I had already devoted several hours of planning and researching for the new unit, but nothing went as planned. Between classes, I answered students’ questions, rushed to reset everything for the next class and attempted to monitor the quality of the conversations and activities in the hallway. Just when I thought I might be able to get a drink or go to the bathroom, the bell rang.
I had cafeteria duty for the second half of the 40-minute lunch period, which meant that I should have had 20 minutes to eat my lunch. However, students took a leisurely five minutes to pack up and head outside to recess. And I would talk to students, such as when I spent five minutes trying to convince three young ladies to go outside because fresh air is good for them. So, really, lunch was usually only 10 minutes, though sometimes I had to run paperwork to the office before heading across campus to the cafeteria. In those cases, I could use a bathroom break to swallow down lunch.
When the final bell rang, I would hurry to the front of the building for duty, where I spent 30 minutes begging students to not climb on the benches, fences and trees — and persuading them to go home. Exhausted, I would return to my classroom.
My contract day had ended, but my work had not.
My students, all 132 of them, had submitted papers that I needed to review. It took approximately three minutes to simply scan each one, so I would face at least three hours of grading, plus another hour to adjust and coordinate tomorrow’s lessons. And every time I sat down at my computer, my inbox was overflowing.
I would spend the next two hours working through emails, completing required documentation, cleaning my classroom, and getting materials and supplies ready for the next day. I would gather up my papers and head to my car — and then realize that I hadn’t eaten anything, used the restroom or visited with an adult since before school started.
But my contract said I worked 6.5 hours a day and had summers off, so I had nothing to complain about. Or at least that’s what the critics would tell me.
Reports from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Learning Policy Institute, NPR and The Washington Post have addressed the alarming number of teachers who are leaving the profession because of exhaustion and poor working conditions.
These conditions, including a lack of control and social support as well as a work-life imbalance, can lead to job burnout. The Mayo Clinic describes that as “a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”
Reforms designed to improve student achievement often neglect the impact on teachers. Teachers are often required to learn and implement new curriculums as often as every other year and are often prevented from making decisions within their classrooms. Rather than reducing stress and exhaustion and eliminating unneeded paperwork, many of the reforms of recent years have simply added to them.
Instead of listening to outsiders, perhaps it’s time for teachers’ voices to be heard. We know what works and what doesn’t, where to find the best resources, and what will benefit our students the most. We learn best when we learn from each other. Instead of requiring us to herd cats and juggle flamethrowers while walking on a tightrope blindfolded, trust us to do what we’ve been educated and trained to do.
After I would arrive home and tackle family needs and household chores, I would tuck my kids into bed and then settle on the couch with my husband and my stack of papers. Four hours later, an hour after my husband went to bed, I would finally finish grading and planning.
Putting the papers back into my bag, my mind would wander to summer and the possibility of a vacation. With 10 weeks off, surely I could take one! But I was enrolled in summer classes, had a two-week curriculum training and a one-week school planning session to attend, and I had to prepare my room for the next year, which would take at least a week. That left less than two weeks.
Still, that’s enough time to vacation, I would tell myself. I would crawl into bed with a familiar, overwhelming and unabating exhaustion. Perhaps a beach vacation would offer some rest and respite. Tahiti? Fiji? Miami? Destin? All out of budget. My vacations always looked more like “staycations.”
Of course, that would leave me with more time to plan new lessons for the next year. But never quite enough to shake the fatigue.