Teachers’ Work Conditions

Today I was feeling chatty on twitter, so I wished everybody a good morning. It’s nice to hear about what is going on with folks, so it’s a pleasant way to start a day. I got several responses from people I was happy to hear from.

One exchange in particular got me thinking. At an early hour, where I still had one last child to bring to school, Tina Cardone had already attended an intense IEP meeting and faced off with complaining students.

In just a few tweets, Tina reminded me of some challenges of teaching, ones that are beyond the reach of teacher preparation or most education reforms: teachers’ work conditions. Most of the public debate about the profession skips the work conditions part (although there certainly are many discussions of teacher compensation).

An IEP meeting is usually an add-on to a teachers’ day. Teachers need to attend, both because they are legally beholden to IEPs but also to provide a team feedback on student. However, this time is not typically compensated. The teacher comes early, gives up a preparation period, or stays after school to attend an IEP meeitng.

Aggrieved students can be an emotional drain, as a teacher can find herself defending her professional judgement about something  — a grade, an assignment, a grouping arrangement — to a group of young people who may not see the big picture of her work.

Finally, Tina threw in the bit about her “lunch” time being scheduled for 10:30 AM. It brought me back to my last teaching job, when I was pregnant and hungry at odd times throughout the day. I have talked to other pregnant teachers who commiserate about that physical struggle. The half hour teachers typically get for lunch is seldom enough to eat properly in the best of circumstances. Throw in an early time slot or a physical condition that requires extra nourishment, it becomes difficult to keep the energy and mood up.

I am not singling Tina out here. To be sure, Tina knows how to hit the re-set button better than most folks. She is a frequent tweeter on the #onegoodthing hashtag (some of her #MTBoS pals even have a blog dedicated to this). Even in telling me about what was going on, she took these conditions as a part of the deal, focusing on what she could do: take her preparation time to get her emotions together (“re-centering”) so she can be in a good space for the rest of her classes.

When I think about conversations about teacher turnover, I notice how little we attend to these very basic conditions. Even when talk about making schools welcoming and comfortable places for students, we too often skip the part about making schools welcoming and comfortable places for teachers. We pay attention to school climate for kids so they can do their best work. What would happen if we did the same for teachers?

Here is one idea that could alleviate some of the time intensity of teachers’ work: What if schools staffed one or two adults as permanent in-house substitutes, whose primary job it is to know the students, teachers, and classrooms, so they can step in seamlessly when somebody needs a moment for re-centering after a difficult meeting, to compensate teachers’ time taken for additional meetings, or to allow a pregnant teacher to step out and use the bathroom during class?

In the years since NCLB, I have seen schools find funding for “data managers” so they can generate the tables and spreadsheets needed for evidence-based practice. Why not support teachers in bringing their best selves to each class by giving them an additional resource through by funding the floating support person?

What other ideas do you have for improving teachers’ work conditions?

4 thoughts on “Teachers’ Work Conditions

  1. While we are dreaming: I’ve always thought schools should have 1 or 2 teacher assistants (not student TA’s) to make copies, laminate, cut out, file student work and extra copies, enter grades, call parents when students are absent or missing work, etc. This would free up time for me to plan better tasks, provide quality feedback on student work, call the few parents who I need to discuss issues with in detail, and focus on quality instruction.


  2. Last year I worked at two schools in North Oakland that had the sub situation you’re describing! I think there was one at the middle school, and two at the elementary (PTA at the elementary raised mondo-funds each year, which is likely part of the reason they were able to have this). The subs were there to cover IEP meetings (which were only held during the school day unless a parent was really unable to attend at that time), as well as tons of other times when a teacher had something urgent that required them to step out of the classroom, and they were also available to run Tier 2 small-group reading and math interventions! It was great, but even with all that support there was still a drastic change when teachers started “working to rule” in lieu of a strike during contract negotiations. Parents were called in to volunteer for copying shifts, homework assignments dropped drastically, and turnaround on returned work was lengthened. I’m all on board with reducing homework and finding extra copying support regardless, but it just showed how drastically we undervalue the work of teaching, and just expect it to happen whether or not it fits within the constraints of a 24-hr day (much less the employment contract).

    I’m now in another state working in charter schools. Charter schools that are hailing “increased instructional minutes” and “longer school year” but without apparently considering what that does to the teachers’ days. At one school, kids arrive at 8am and leave just after 4pm (except on early release Wednesdays, with those hours filled with PD and team meetings). This makes me go cross-eyed! Not only is it difficult for the students, but in my opinion the de-professionalizing message it sends to teachers is: “Your work is simple. It requires you to show up while the kids are here, and work hard, but not much else. Time spent in daily collaboration with colleagues, individual reflection on practice, and consultation with the special ed team is not necessary in order for you to instruct your students all day.” Most of the schools have been adjusting their schedules during these first few months (adding recess or movement breaks, reconfiguring SpEd schedules to be more available for push-in, and in one case even shortening the school day), but I’m really hoping to see a lot more changes that take into account teachers’ needs as well.


    • One of my students taught at a charter with the full day schedule you describe. She had a medical issue arise and was almost unable to take care of herself because of the long hours and the inability to book a substitute. I think some charters are built for teacher turnover: get them while they are young, childless and enthusiastic; make them work long hours until they burn out; then replace them with a new batch. It’s not sustainable, and it does not allow teachers to develop the kinds of expertise that we know comes over time in supportive, professionalizing environments.

      Thanks for your comment, Anna.


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