Tuesday, September 29, 2015

40 Hour Work Week?

One of my favorite education bloggers, Angela Watson recently wrote about maintaining a forty hour work week as a teacher. This resonated with me because this is an area where I've been forced to grow as a teacher. I still struggle with the guilt of whether or not I can be a good teacher without putting in those long hours.

When I first started teaching I put in 12 hour days as though someone was going to hand out medals for long hours in the building. I hoped that those extra hours would solve the behavior problems, help me maintain a better pace for the focus lessons, or magically make all of my students better readers. The days slowly moved from 12 to 10 hours in the building with more work to do at home for years. During those years I believed that putting in those extra hours was what was going to make me a great teacher. It was a young, misguided thought, but it was what I believed. Being young, with no family at home, and many of my friends at the school itself, it was easy to spend the majority of my time doing school related work.

Then I decided to start my phd and I spent a year racing out of school as soon as I could so that I could get into downtown DC for my classes. Suddenly I was forced to put up boundaries with my time and prioritize my work. It felt ridiculously difficult and I struggled that year wondering if a phd was really going to be worth it if I didn't feel like I could devote enough time to my job. Those kids deserved more than a teacher who had to leave at 4 to go home to her stats homework, I often thought.  Of course a new development overshadowed the phd- I became pregnant and the following year I wasn't racing off to a stats class- I had a baby at home and a daycare that closed at 4:30. I no longer had a choice about staying late and I couldn't contemplate quitting motherhood for my students like I had with my doctorate program. I had to find a way to balance my work.

It's been a five year journey of trying to maintain a 40 hour work week, or really, let's be honest- a 50 hour work week. What strikes me the most is that I know it is doable, and I know that I can still be an extremely effective teacher without putting in the extra time. It's the guilt that eats me up. So many teachers do stay late and put in those long extra hours that I often feel like somehow I'm not as dedicated or devoted to my profession as I could be. As though I'm missing my membership in the 10 hour+ club, which somehow is also the same as a membership to the great teachers society. It's not.

It was a hard realization to come to because I had so many years of putting in long hours, and being proud of the extra work I devoted each day. Slowly realizing that I can prioritize and work more effectively has been difficult.

One of my former colleagues, who was excellent herself at maintaining a 40 hour work week, talked about those who viewed teaching as a religion and those who understood it was a job with boundaries. This always stuck with me, probably because when she said it I was in the religion camp (at the time the comment stung). Back then I saw teaching was the most important job anyone could do, and every moment I spent on my students as being sacred. It also meant I could be sanctimonious about those who didn't put in the long hours. As the years have changed and I've grown up I have moved from seeing it was a religion to a profession. A very important profession, but not one that needs to demand every moment of my day. A good, effective teacher does not depend on the extra hours the teacher puts in during the day, but how well the students learn.

This is a profession that can eat you alive if you let it. There is always more to do and never enough hours in the day. I don't think a day has gone by in 12 years of teaching when I walked out of the building without feeling like there was more to do. Even after working a 12 hour day. But we are more effective teachers when we are at our best, well rested, and have a healthy big-picture perspective. 

Angela Watson's latest post is about prioritizing tasks during the day when you are trying to keep to a 40 hour work week. She has some excellent tips here. Some of these I wish I had learned sooner in my career.

As a profession we need to help each other maintain our sanity and keep realistic hours. We can't let ourselves get sucked into the trap of feeling like we are only doing our job if we are going above and beyond. Too often we pressure each other into over doing it and create a culture of expecting those long days. We burn each other out, which isn't good for us or our students who need us at our best every day. 


turtlemama said...

I love this post and while your focus is on the teaching profession, I was thinking about how it pertains to so many areas of life in our accomplishment-driven society. What you said in the final paragraph, "We can't let ourselves get sucked into the trap of feeling like we are only doing our job if we are going above and beyond. Too often we pressure each other into over doing it and create a culture of expecting..." is profound. I intentionally stopped where I did which, I realize, takes your words somewhat out of context; but I love that phrase, "culture of expecting." Partially due to social media and partially to other factors, it is like we are forever on that ubiquitous hamster wheel of life and never run quite quickly enough to get the prize regardless of hours or effort. It is so extremely important to set boundaries, and I'm glad that you have been able to do that . Now, you'll have to work on getting rid of the guilt ;) It's always something.

Hope your family is well.

Anonymous said...

I so agree with you and Angela but had to learn the hard way. Several years ago I became very ill with some mysterious virus and was barely able to care for myself let alone my family. I was on a medical leave from school for just over a month, it took seven different substitute teachers to finally find one who would stay and fit the needs of the students, but I learned I am replaceable at work but I am not replaceable in my family.

organized chaos said...

Anonymous- I'm so sorry you went through that. It's such a good reminder about what's important and where our priorities should be, but that's such a horrible way to come to that realization. I hope you are doing well now. If you've found any secrets to living the balanced life let me know!

Turtlemama- I love your thoughts on the "culture of expecting." You explained it perfectly- regardless of profession we are always running toward an invisible prize that we never quite achieve. At some point we have to realize that we've run past the prize- we're missing the important moments by always focusing on how to make things better. Or maybe that's just me. :) It's so good to hear from you!

Linda said...

I saw someone post about this on facebook and then googled the 40 hour work week and found your post! I want badly to lessen my work week. It is ridiculous and I resent it. I am going to work at learning more about this. Thanks for your post!