Whenever I mention a 40-hour workweek for teachers, people tend to have one of two objections. Either they think it’s not possible, or they think it’s not aspirational—that you can’t do a good job in 40 hours a week, so you shouldn’t even try to attempt that as a teacher.
I believe that a 40-hour work week IS possible for many teachers, and that you can trim 10+ hours off an extreme work and still do an excellent job as an educator.
I believe that, because I lived it during my 11 years in the classroom. Even as a new teacher, I worked a 40-hour week about 80-90% of the time. And I maintained that schedule no matter what or where I taught: in seven different schools, three different grade levels, in two different states, in three different districts. And I managed to keep my work hours to a reasonable level that fit my life in all of those teaching contexts.
My friends and colleagues and anyone who was paying attention can attest that I left the building within an hour of when the kids did every afternoon, and took very little work home. But I never really talked about it until I left the classroom and became an instructional coach, because telling people about how few hours you work is not a really smart idea. So many people equate hours worked with results, as if staying at school until dinner time every night means my students are going to learn more.
This is a pervasive myth that I’m going to debunk below. Hours worked does not equate with results.
I want you to think about the teachers in your building and colleagues. The vast majority of them are going to fall into one of 4 categories when it comes to hours worked and results:
1) Ineffective and average teachers who work reasonable hours
These are the teachers who are not really invested in the job. Some of them just want a paycheck, and that’s certainly the stereotype. But most of them really do care deep down, and are simply burned out and disillusioned from all the crap they face in their jobs. Many of them are also going through intense personal issues that make it impossible to give 100% to their work: they’re caring for an elderly parent, have a sick spouse, have multiple young children at home, and so on.
These teachers put in the least amount of hours at work as possible, and while I am empathetic, they are the ones who inadvertently perpetuate the myth that teachers need to work 70 hour weeks to be effective. We look at these teachers and think, I don’t want to be seen as one of them. I care about my job. I’m working hard every day. I have to PROVE that by being the last one out of the parking lot and dragging home a rolling tote full of paperwork.
But let’s dig deeper.
2) Ineffective and average teachers who work long hours
We all know this type of teacher, too. They work long hours because they want to do a good job, but they don’t manage their time well. They work incessantly, but not on the right things, and not on things that produce results in the classroom. They care about their students and want them to do well, but have gotten bogged down by everything from mandated paperwork to Pinterest pressure and wanting to make their classrooms look perfect.
They’re putting in tremendous effort but aren’t seeing tremendous learning gains in their classrooms. In fact, their students really aren’t learning much more than the teachers who leave right at 3 p.m. each day. These teachers’ hearts are in the right place, but they’re wasting time and don’t even realize how.
So we have ineffective and average teachers who work short hours, and those who work long hours. As you can see, the difference in their workload does not equate to results. None of them are really excelling or doing great things for kids. They’re treading water. They’re keeping up with what’s expected, but just barely. This is not a life we want to aspire to.
So now let’s look at the outstanding teachers–the ones we all want to be like–and examine their workloads.
3) Outstanding teachers who work long hours
Every school has at least a few of these superstars. They’re the type where you wish your own kid could be in their class, but you’d never actually want to BE that teacher. They do all the committee work and pick up the slack for everyone else. These teachers are great at what they do, but they’re exhausted, missing their families, and not taking care of themselves because work comes first.
Despite the fact that this amount of dedication to work is generally not sustainable, these are the teachers that we compare ourselves to, and make ourselves feel guilty for not being like them. You have to be really honest with yourself about how they live, though–not just become enamored with how well they teach, but examine their quality of life overall. I’m not willing to sacrifice my health for my job. I want to have a life apart from school.
Some of these teachers truly enjoy being 100% dedicated to their work–often they’re young and single, or older empty nesters who enjoy being busy with their greatest passion, teaching. Most of us have had a season like that in our lives…but it’s not something that most of us can (or should want to) maintain for decades. We can’t compare ourselves to other teachers who are in that season, and feel like we need to work more hours to be like them.
Teaching does NOT have to consume your entire life–don’t settle for stress!
These are just a few examples. There are a lot of different ways to approach teaching and assessment, and if what you’re doing is not working well for you from a time management perceptive, don’t assume that this is just the way things have to be and there’s no alternative. Start actively looking for and experimenting with ways to teach and assess more effectively.
There are other teachers who spend very little time grading—why shouldn’t you be one of them? Why should you lug a stack of essays home every single night? Why should you spend every weekend grading and feeling guilty for ignoring your family?
That does NOT have to be your reality, but if something’s going to change, it has to be intentionally. That workload is not going to disappear magically overnight. It’s going to require you to acknowledge that this is a real problem that is affecting your health, your personal life, your family life. And it’s going to require you to make a decision to figure out how to change.
Pursue work-life balance with intention, even if you never get to a 40-hour week
A 40 hour workweek might not be possible with your teaching context, personality, or work speed and habits. But you CAN shave multiple hours of your work week. I believe that is possible for every teacher.
We are ALL wasting time without realizing it, and completing certain routine tasks in really ineffective, inefficient ways. We ALL have processes we can streamline. And if you can identify even a few areas and improve them, you’re looking at saving a couple hours a week. That’s 3 or 5 or 10 extra hours to enjoy your family and take care of yourself and pursue things you enjoy.