A look at teachers' thoughts on hours, pay, being undervalued

Published11/2/2007 12:17 AM

Teachers work very hard, as dozens of them reminded me in sometimes thoughtful, sometimes venomous e-mails this week.

They were responding to an article that cited federal statistics on hourly wages of teachers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, teachers work an average of 36.5 hours a week, nine or 10 months a year.


And according to those statistics, teachers earn about $34 an hour, which places them ahead of many white-collar professionals, including economists, architects, psychologists, mechanical engineers (and, yes, journalists).

My article also quoted average teacher salaries listed on district report cards.

Teachers -- mostly those at the beginning of their careers who earned less than the average -- took exception to those numbers, too.

The fury unleashed by these cold statistics proves two points: Teachers almost certainly work more than 36.5 hours a week; and some teachers seriously need a lesson in perspective.

Many of the e-mails from teachers fell into the "you-try-to-do-my-job" category.

Here's a sampling:

• "I'd like to see anyone in business spend a whole week planning, teaching, grading student papers, making parent contacts, and see if anyone wants to trade their job in business for a job in teaching."

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Really? Because I know some people in business who would rather grade papers than spend four days of the week traveling; or wining and dining clients who end up choosing another firm; or wondering whether technology will soon render their skill set completely useless; or … well, you get the picture. All jobs have unique challenges, which is why you get paid to do them.

Back to my mailbox:

• "This might be what a contract says, but there's no way this is what is happening in reality. I can't tell you how I despise your perpetuating this myth without even one sentence of explanation for what really happens."

Now there are certain myths that, when perpetuated, are worth despising: for example, the myth that suicide bombers will receive a reward in heaven. But U.S Labor Department stats are not a myth. They very well might low-ball the number of hours teachers work, but they weren't pulled out of the ether.

• "You presented our job as the stereotypical 'get out at 3:00, long vacations, summers off, must be nice' job that it definitely isn't. People who have entered teaching from another profession have stated that it is the hardest job they have ever done."


Somehow, teachers inferred from the article that I thought they were sipping pina coladas all day. Teaching is challenging, there's no doubt. But the hardest job? Ever done? I don't know how anyone objectively measures degree of job difficulty, but coal miners might have some thoughts.

Then there were the more measured, objective arguments about the true number of hours teachers work:

• "I realize this is the statistic given to you by the Department of Labor. Although that number may reflect the number of hours spent in the school, it is not an accurate calculation of the actual time spent in order to teach each day. … I arrive to work by 7 a.m. and leave about 4 p.m. I also spend a average of three hours each night planning or grading. Additionally, I spend six to eight each weekend preparing."

I don't know if the day described by this teacher is typical, but the e-mails I received this week suggest that it is. On the other hand, I don't know many professionals who don't work nine-hour days. Cell phones, lap tops, e-mail, PDAs -- all of them contribute to a culture in which few people are ever really "off work."

Labor Department statistics don't seem to account for many of the "off" hours people spend working -- but I don't know why the U.S. government would disproportionately under-report teacher hours.

Some teachers, too, took exception to any mention of summer break:

• "During our 'off' time in the summer, we are planning our year, taking college classes to further our careers, or just trying to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for the next school year."

Now this argument, espoused in four separate e-mails, borders on the ridiculous. Who wouldn't like a couple of months a year to prepare mentally and physically for the year ahead? The point is that teachers do have a summer break -- and no one cares whether teachers use that time to tend to kittens or travel to Vegas. What's more, who wouldn't like a break to take college courses? And most workers would especially appreciate this deal: most teachers get an automatic raise for passing advanced courses.

The argument I found most perplexing was that my article hurt the teaching profession.

• "Teachers have been struggling to get a fair wage for decades. Finally, it seems like more communities are realizing that, like in any business environment, you get what you pay for. They are finally coming up with salaries that attract and motivate people to work in their districts. Why is the article slanted as to find fault with this idea?"

I agree you get what you pay for. And I agree teachers deserve a fair wage. Pointing out that teachers make more, on an hourly basis, than some other professionals, is not an attack on the profession. Quite the opposite.

But by discounting the very real perks of being a teacher -- a decent wage, summers off, more flexible hours once the school day ends, better health and retirement benefits than private-sector workers -- teachers themselves do more to harm their profession than any newspaper article could.

What young person would want to sign up for a profession like the one teachers described in their e-mails to me?

• "As a first-year teacher I make around $40k, which is nowhere close to the average of $55k to $65k you reported in your article. Teachers who make that much money have been teaching for many years ... and they definitely deserve to make that much money."

This final e-mail really touches on the crux of the matter. It's not so much that state statistics, or the federal statistics, or my article for that matter, insinuated teachers make more than they deserve.

It's that issues of pay inherently raise questions about worthiness.

And many teachers, for whatever reason, seem to believe they're undervalued.

That might say a lot about our society. Or maybe it just says a lot about teachers.

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