When I began my second year of teaching at the school where I spent most of my career, my new principal instructed me to “take care of myself” if I wanted to survive a 30 year career. She insisted that I take a lunch every day, which included closing the Media Center, and leave as close to my release time every afternoon.
For most of my career I have taken that advice. I’ve stopped closing my library for lunch; it was already closed enough for testing. And, opening the space to kids for Lunch Bunch has created new relationships with students I never dreamed possible which is always a plus. I do, however, work pretty much to my contracted hours.
As a media specialist, so much of what I do can be taken home in some way. Book orders, inventory, reports, program development, and school social media updates are online and highly mobile. And while I did leave every day at the end of my contracted time, there have been many nights and weekends I’ve spent time doing what my husband called “volunteer work” for my job. For the most part, I’ve put a stop to that practice. I spend my family time with my family and I believe I’m a better teacher because of it. I’m certainly much happier.
What I figured out was that teachers don’t need to work to contract, they need to work to competence. With a limited amount of time and energy, we should be prioritizing and focusing on the things that need to be done to be effective for our students. Consider the return on your time investment. How many of the things that we are asked to do actually benefit students? How many of those things actually improve your practice?
Good teachers are constantly trying to do better for their kids. When I choose to work on my own time, I usually spend that time connecting with my personal learning networks, increasing my skill base. This is “work” I choose to do, it’s not assigned to me. I also reflect on my practice and eliminate tasks that are either outdated or didn’t produce the returns on student learning I had expected. I don’t apply the sunk cost fallacy to my programs.
I’ve seen so many tasks thrown at teachers, especially in elementary, that are accountability for accountability’s sake. The same checklist and professional learning community notes that some administrators expect to be turned in could easily be verified with a walk through the classroom. And my door is always open. (Bring your lunch. We’ll hang out.)
What’s best for students should be at the center of every decision. Teaching professionals can and should push back and say no to those things that don’t support student learning. Or if you prefer, respectfully ask your administrator to prioritize your tasks so you can be in a position to do what’s best for kids. What’s the worst that could happen? You’d lose a point on an evaluation? I argue it would still consume far less time and be less stressful for most teachers to have an extra formal observation each year than to perform some of the menial and demoralizing things they are asked to do.
Last week’s Work to Contract (protest? rally?) in my district should be a wake up cry for so many teachers. The “costs” to teachers, financially and in lost time with family and friends, are well documented. In social media posts that I have read during and after Work to Contract, many teachers reported experiencing less stress and more job satisfaction. They reported more frequent and positive interactions with students, parents, colleagues, and their family. Stronger relationships work in the best interest of students. Always.
I’m entering my 16th year as a teacher in Hillsborough County Public Schools. I am one of the one-third of teachers that completed three years of highly effective work and should have received a raise this year. I won’t. But I can raise my overall satisfaction with my life and I’ll be doing just that, every day, by working to competence.