“We all know you can’t do this job well without working every night and every weekend.”
“For an English teacher, if you’re doing it right, I don’t see how you could NOT be overwhelmed all the time.”
“Well, anyone leaving the building by 3 every day isn’t doing their job.”
“I don’t go looking for new ideas on education websites late at night. Maybe I just don’t love teaching enough.”
These are beliefs. Not facts.
I’ve heard similar attitudes about teaching since my first year. Even before I was in the classroom, while in my teacher education program in college, I was taught to expect that teaching would never be – could never be – a job that fit into traditional work hours. It was years before I questioned that assumption.
I do not believe that I have to work all the time to be a good teacher anymore.
There are structural reasons teachers have too much work to do, and not enough time to do it. Districts do not prioritize work or collaboration time and continuously pile on more responsibilities. But today I’m not writing about what districts and administrators can and should do to make our jobs manageable, or even strategies for reducing our own workloads.
I want to focus here on the stories and myths we tell ourselves that make us accept working all the time, and how we can change that mentality. This isn’t about policies or strategies; this is about fundamentally changing the way we think about our jobs.
I’m in my 18th year of teaching, and most of the time, setting aside bad pandemic decisions and exhausting political battles, I am satisfied with my workload and work hours.
I work 40-45 hours a week. I can sustain this amount of work for another 15-20 years if I want to stay in this career. I never skip family events or social activities because I have too much work to do. It’s been a multi-year journey to get to this point, but I can pinpoint exactly when it started.
It was in February 2011, when a bill to remove collective bargaining rights from most public employees, known as Act 10, was announced by the governor of Wisconsin. During the ensuing political fight, the anti-public school teacher rhetoric was overwhelming and demoralizing. We were somehow the “haves” while the rest of the population was the “have-nots” — though of course, I knew many colleagues who worked second jobs to make ends meet.
We only worked 9 months a year, were essentially just babysitters and didn’t deserve the pay and benefits we had. I can picture myself in the office of my old apartment, sitting down to grade papers after dinner and experiencing a blinding moment of cognitive dissonance.
Why was I forcing myself to do work, during my personal time, that clearly was neither recognized nor appreciated, to say nothing of compensated? Full of anger and resentment, I packed up my work bag and settled into a personal project of organizing recipes. It felt like an act of rebellion.
About a year later, a new teacher asked me when in my career I’d started to get my work hours under control. I said, “Actually, this year is when I’ve really noticed a change.” She responded, “Okay, so about 5 years…” and I countered, “Or a major political crisis.” We laughed, but it is absolutely true.
I said I’d noticed a change like it was something happening to me, but in fact, I had made a radical change — not in how I worked, but in what I believed. Anger and resentment were not a healthy place to start, but they turned into a determination to set boundaries and stop letting my job dominate my time.
School policies didn’t change; district expectations were not reduced — they’ve only increased since then. I didn’t have brilliant new strategies — those came later. The change started when my beliefs about the job changed. I wanted teaching to be a sustainable career that fit into reasonable hours, and I chose to believe I could make that happen.
Why do we believe we have to work all the time to do our jobs well?
We start teaching in college, when there are no boundaries between work and life, and just continue that way of life as professional teachers.
When I tried to trace the roots of my work-all-the-time mentality, I realized they go right back to the beginning — to student teaching in college. I know not every teacher had this training, but for many of us, our first experience of full-time teaching was as a student.
In a college student’s life, there is no boundary between work and life; going to class, hanging out with friends, studying, and social events are all mixed up together as part of daily life. I carried this way of life into my semesters of full-time student teaching; I came home from school and worked on my lesson plans or assignments for my methods class. And I continued this way of life when I became a professional teacher, coming home from work and just continuing to work.
Part of the reason for how much I worked as a first- and second-year teacher was simply the amount of work there was, and the fact that I was starting from scratch in my planning and preparation. But the root of the long-term problem – the fact that I still worked excessive hours years later — was that I never questioned it.
I expected the work to get easier and more efficient as I got experience, and it certainly did. But I did not plan to create clear boundaries between my work and life, and no one, no mentor or veteran teacher, taught me to do so.
This early training in what it means to be a teacher is an under-appreciated factor in the work-all-the-time mentality. For many of us, our introduction to our profession was in a context with no boundaries between work and life. In fact, some teachers even receive explicit instruction to have no boundaries as student teachers.
One teacher I know was told as a student teacher, by her university supervisor, that if she didn’t arrive at school before her cooperating teacher and leave after, she wasn’t really dedicated to the job. With such early training, it’s not a surprise that the work-all-the-time mentality is one of our core and unquestioned beliefs about teaching.
We buy into the teachers-as-heroes myth, and use our martyrdom during the school year to justify to outsiders our summers off.
When teachers appear in the media — whether in the news or in entertainment like TV and movies — it’s either as heroes or villains. We are either heroes who go above and beyond all reasonable work expectations, feeding, clothing and parenting our students, using our own money to fill in gaps left by home or school, changing lives. Or, we are villains who take advantage of students, parents, and taxpayers, barely working, getting paid to do nothing all summer.
Both portrayals reinforce the work-all-the-time mentality.
If we buy into the heroes myth, believing that our role is to give students everything they need, believing that every student represents a chance to change or save a life, there are literally no limits on how much time, effort, money, and energy we’ll spend on teaching. And when we defend ourselves against the lazy teacher portrayal, one of the first arguments we often use is that we do work in the summer, and we work such crazy hours all school year that it justifies our summers off. We repeat this argument so much, we believe it.
I want to be clear that I do believe we can change lives as teachers. I believe we should put the needs of students first, within the boundaries of work, and I admire teachers who fulfill the needs of their students when those needs aren’t otherwise met. However, I have no interest in being a hero, and I do not need to justify why I am not a villain. What I am is a professional.
I have extensive specialized training and years of experience doing something most people don’t know how to do — and I love doing it! I love teaching, I love the students, I love the moments when I know a student just understood something, or a student asks a question I’ve never considered before. I love teaching, and I do it well. I meet my professional responsibilities, and that is where my obligation ends.
By doing my job well, I still influence my students, and every once in a while, I can say I’ve changed a life. I don’t have to go above and beyond to be a good teacher.
It is kind, and yes, heroic of teachers to help with the unmet needs of students, but the help of individual teachers is only a bandaid on the larger problem. What’s best for all students is for our schools and communities to meet these needs consistently and systemically, rather than leaving it up to the kindness of individuals.
As for justifying our summers off, there is no need. Having summers off is a huge perk of being a teacher. I don’t need to deny that, or put in extra summer work, to explain myself to outsiders who don’t understand our work. (Other jobs have perks too — usually, perks you can deposit in a bank account. Aside from summers off, sometimes I get a coffee gift card or a free scone.)
I work a 10-month contract on a salary basis; there is a first day of work and a last day of work, and there is no reason for me to work the rest of the time because I am not being paid to do so. There is also no reason to work all the time during the school year to somehow make up for the time I am not paid to work in the summer. (The fact that many districts send us paychecks through the summer does not change this; the work we are paid to do happens during 10 months, and the year-round paychecks are just a matter of convenience.)
This is simply the way this job works, and our communities want it this way. Do parents want to change to a year-round school? No, almost never. Do districts want to pay us for full-time curriculum work all summer? Definitely not. So I’m certainly not going to feel guilty for working my established schedule and then enjoying the main perk of the job!
We believe in a correlation between originality and good teaching.
I have often heard teachers praised for having new ideas, and I’ve worked with teachers who create everything they use from scratch. In my early years of teaching, it felt like “textbook” and “worksheet” were curse words, they were regarded with such disdain.
The idea that to be good teachers, we have to create our own materials, that any pre-made materials like those from a textbook or curriculum guide are useless trash, seems pervasive in the schools where I’ve worked. I’ve also seen many teachers who reuse very little of their own material, instead of reinventing each unit each year. All of this creation and reinvention is a lot of work and a huge investment of time.
I was fortunate to have a college methods professor who started my introduction to teaching social studies with this maxim: “There is no connection between originality and good teaching.” Teaching something in a new way is not automatically better, and purchased materials are not necessarily useless.
Separating our concept of good teaching from originality can free us to use materials we find, or that we made last year, as they are, knowing that our effectiveness as teachers is as much about what we do during instruction as the materials we use.
We see teaching as a mission, not a job, and allow the goal of putting students first to mean sacrificing ourselves and our families.
For many teachers, this is not just a job, or even a career — teaching is a calling, a mission, a way to change the world. We are teachers because we love students, we care about them deeply, and we believe education can impact their lives for the better.
We believe in putting the needs of our students first. We also feel this sense of mission on a broader scale – we want education to correct inequities, bring communities together, and create a more just world. We want more out of our jobs than a paycheck — we want to feel fulfilled by doing meaningful work, and teaching gives us that fulfillment. I feel this way about teaching myself.
So it is very difficult to address the fact that this sense of mission contributes to the work-all-the-time mentality. If I really believe education can change my students’ lives for the better – if I really believe I must put my students’ needs first — how could I not stay late to give a student extra help? Spend every evening writing extensive feedback on essays? Devote my weekend to finding and adapting exciting new activities?
The problem is, there is no end to that line of thought. If I’m really going to put my students’ needs first, that means before my need for personal time, before my own family, before my physical and mental health. Though I want to do meaningful work, I do not have to let it consume my entire life.
So how can we change it?
Stop judging and criticizing each other for how, when, and how much we work.
“She gets to school right before the bell every morning.”
“He hasn’t been into school to work all summer.”
“She leaves at 3 every day.”
In what voice did you read these statements? Was it a voice of disdain, judging people for their lack of commitment? Or a voice of praise, acknowledging a colleague’s success in setting boundaries?
I have far more often heard these comments in a voice of disdain, as criticisms of colleagues. The implication is people can’t possibly be doing their jobs if they arrive on time rather than early, leave on time rather than stay late, or opt not to work during the unpaid part of the year.
I actually think this attitude is more rooted in envy, or an effort to justify to ourselves our own excessive work hours, than a true judgment of others’ lack of work. We reassure ourselves that the crushing hours we work – the hours we hate – are worth it because at least we’re better at our jobs.
This type of criticism creates and reinforces a culture of working all the time, and we have to stop saying these things to each other. Even more importantly, we have to stop saying them to ourselves. When I criticize a colleague for leaving work on time, it impacts the person I’m talking to, but I think the internal impact is even more significant. I’m reinforcing my own belief that working contractual hours is not enough to do the job well, and my work-all-the-time habits make me a better teacher.
We can still say these things, but they should be in praise, not criticism. Let’s acknowledge and applaud when our colleagues succeed at setting boundaries and finishing work during reasonable hours.
Look for every opportunity to reinforce and congratulate each other for setting boundaries on work, and teach new teachers that setting such boundaries is the professional thing to do.
Let’s turn the statements above into congratulations:
“She gets to school right before the bell every morning, because she has all her prep done ahead of time.”
“He hasn’t been into school to work all summer, because he’s prioritizing time with his family.”
“She leaves at 3 every day, she’s that organized.”
Aren’t these the choices we would all prefer to be able to make? Being so organized and caught up with work that there is no need to arrive early or stay late? Consciously choosing family over work in the summer? It is not easy to get to that point, but when a colleague does, let’s reinforce them, not tear them down. Let’s create a culture of healthy boundaries, rather than one of working all the time.
We need to both model and explicitly teach new teachers to set boundaries between work and life. We know they’ll work long hours in their first few years – that might be inevitable.
But rather than leaving them to believe that either 1) their hours will magically decrease as they get more experience or 2) working those hours all the time is normal for your whole career, we should tell them, it won’t always be like this. You can make choices and set boundaries. You do not have to work all the time to be a good teacher.
Redefine the goal as excellence, rather than “going above and beyond.”
I’ve always heard teachers praised for going above and beyond, but since the pandemic started, the phrase has been getting a workout like never before. And it is accurate — we have certainly gone above, beyond, beneath, around, and every other direction in the last 2½ years; the work we’ve been asked to do would have been inconceivable in 2019. But pandemic teaching has exposed, more than ever, the inherent manipulativeness of the phrase.
When praise for going above and beyond is accompanied with even more new expectations and a disregard for our physical safety, it’s impossible not to feel the praise is just a way to get us to give even more. When praise for going above and beyond is unaccompanied by the time and resources needed to do our jobs, it is meaningless and insulting.
Have you ever been in a virtual staff meeting, and even though you and your colleagues are physically separated, connected only digitally, probably mute and many with cameras off, you can still feel the collective hum of frustration?
I’m thinking of one specific virtual staff meeting in the spring of 2021, after which I had some very open conversations with my principal. I explained why being praised for everything we’d done that year felt like a slap in the face when we were constantly asked to do more with less, and he responded, “What should I say instead?” And I’ve been thinking about it ever since — what should they say instead?
I don’t want to be praised for going above and beyond expectations. I want to be recognized for meeting expectations. When the expectations are already high, meeting them signifies excellence.
Let’s redefine the goal as being excellent at our jobs, rather than going above and beyond.
Let’s define excellence as being so organized and effective, there is no need to work extra hours, rather than arriving early and staying late.
Let’s define excellence as being fully engaged with our students in every moment of class, rather than spending hours creating new materials. Let’s define excellence as noticing the needs of our students and connecting them to school and community resources, rather than trying to meet all of those needs ourselves. Let’s define excellence as being good teachers, rather than heroes, martyrs, or saviors.
I end with this because it is the linchpin. We have to change together. One teacher can change their own beliefs and practices – I’ve done that. But one teacher cannot change a culture, and that’s what we have — a culture of working all the time.
Many teachers feel they can’t say no when asked to commit to extra work, because saying no just means another teacher will have to do it. As long as I believe that my personal success in creating boundaries means someone else will have more work to do, that belief will be a barrier to change.
As I prepared to write this article, I asked many friends and colleagues for input — what did they think about why we believe we have to work all the time? I was surprised — but I shouldn’t have been — by how many of these conversations turned into a reinforcement, rather than a repudiation, of the work-all-the-time mentality. Two of the quotes at the beginning are from these conversations. “Why do we think we have to work all the time to be good teachers?” quickly became, “The only way to be a good teacher is to work all the time.”
We need to have a lot more conversations.
We need to be open about our desire for change. We need to talk about the hours we are actually paid to work. We need to call the rest of the time working for free. We need to use our unions, our professional organizations, and our online networks to normalize excellence, rather than excess, as the goal.
And, we need to look inside for the beliefs we hold that reinforce working all the time, and talk about those beliefs together. We need to acknowledge they are beliefs, not facts. Then we can change them.