My first teaching position was a 60-hour-a-week job. My contract said 40, of course, but the expectation was 60. I didn’t have any time to plan during the day as I was busy hall monitoring, supervising buses and meeting with colleagues. Nor did I have time to call parents, hold conferences, grade or fill out forms for students with special needs. I arrived early and stayed late and still sometimes brought work home. I was miserable. My colleagues were miserable. And we all repeated the mantra that we were doing it for the kids.
One day after work, I was browsing Craigslist and saw a posting for a job washing windows and sincerely thought, “Wow, that sounds really nice.” Shortly after, my doctor told me my blood pressure was high and asked whether I had been sleeping well; I hadn’t. I handed my resignation to my principal and vowed not to fall into the same trap of being expected to work well beyond contract hours at my next teaching position.
I kept that vow. In the following year, I prioritized my own health and happiness. That 5:30 p.m. meeting? Sorry, not available. And that Friday night event to bond and collaborate with staff? Not going. That Saturday fundraiser sure sounds great, but I have other plans.
I’ve been accused of not taking my job seriously and not caring about my students. One colleague warned me that I would be fired if I didn’t spend more time working. Others told me I was being selfish. Good.
I was a better teacher because I was healthier and happier. It’s hard to give students your best effort when you’re only awake because of coffee, or when you need to step outside of the room to cry in the hallway a bit before returning to class with your best “everything is fine” expression. Self-care is important, and it is often neglected to free up time for extra work.
With the expectation of long hours and self-sacrifice for a profession generally considered low paying and low status, it’s not surprising that many states are experiencing teacher shortages and that schools, particularly those in low socioeconomic districts, struggle with retention. And part of the problem is that teachers are propagating the idea that martyrdom is a prerequisite to caring about students. They say that if you care, you will sacrifice pay, status, time, health and a social life. And why? Because students are worth it. Kids are the future.
Once a role is defined for a person, it’s difficult to escape. Society has expectations for how a teacher should act. And that is why it is imperative that we think carefully about how we present ourselves. If we want to be expected to self-sacrifice, then continue with the narrative that the kids come first. But don’t be surprised when we are accused of being selfish when requesting higher pay or declining to stay late for an extracurricular activity.
Those are the terms we are setting. When teachers say they aren’t in it for the money, they are justifying low pay. When some teachers say they stay until 8 p.m. because they care about their students, they are also insinuating that the teacher who leaves at 4 p.m. doesn’t care.
As long as teachers promote the narrative that they are only in the profession because of inherent rewards, there is no reason for status or pay to improve. When we say we are only in it for the kids, then, yes, it is a contradiction to go on strike for higher wages. Why would anyone take instructional time away from students if they believe the kids always come first? If being selfish means advocating for respectable pay and reasonable hours, then maybe it’s time for teachers to be selfish.