Over the weekend, I was sent a podcast clip of a group of educators discussing tips they had for new teachers. I appreciated the nuanced approach to the tired argument that new teachers need to learn to work in their “contracted hours”. This is all too familiar. When I entered the classroom in 2015, veteran teachers whispered this unhelpful piece of advice to me as I was drowning in papers to grade, unit and lesson plan deadlines, and endless emails from administrators making sure I was doing my job. The podcasters, a some of whom are former teachers, shared that learning how to work in your contracted hours is a skill that is learned over time. This advice sits hand-in-hand with guidance the Dean of Curriculum and Instruction shared with me as I worked to create gradual release custom curriculum packets for my 28-second graders. As we witness a national teacher shortage crisis and the collapse of new teacher pipelines, I want to address this concern.
Dear New Teacher,
If you have to work outside of your contract hours, please don’t feel shame in this. Please know that we all have done it. First, for my excited and passionate teachers. It’s common for new employees who are a part of creative, urgent community work to feel ardent about in the beginning days or weeks or years. (It’s not unique to teaching either) You jump into a role you’re excited about, one you’ve waited on your entire life or one you felt called to later in life, it’s normal to want to extend the amount of time you work to prepare your students for dynamic learning experiences. You are driven and you want to be successful. You should be applauded for that. Do not allow other adults to shame you for how you choose to manage your own time as an professional adult.
If we want to cast blame and shame on working outside of contract hours then we should side eye school leaders and districts. First, let’s offer trainers some grace in the event that they may have been forced to train you on mandated templates or implementing new curriculums at a moment’s notice. They are human, too. We can still hold them accountable on ridiculous expectations and the scaffolding of the mandates. I’ve had experiences where I’ve been handed all the expectations in one sitting and felt overwhelmed; I’ve experienced being trained and mandated to complete 5-7 page lesson and unit plan templates over the course of the week and felt completely overwhelmed,; I’ve experienced not being given any direction whatsoever and still be held accountable for plans and felt completely overwhelmed. We cannot talk about you working outside of you contract hours without talking about the people who uphold a capitalistic system, often with little to no relevant adult learning training. You should not be critiqued for working outside of your contract hours, districts and school leaders should be critiqued for giving you more work than what is able to be completed in a day’s work. Let’s be clear about that.
Further, my colleague. I want you to know that it is nearly impossible to not work outside of your contractual hours. Teaching is not the type of work where you get to clock out from. All master teachers know the power of reflection and generating innovative ideas to reach their students. This is all thinking. I’m getting better. But, I can’t read a book or watch a Netflix show or even listen to the newest Beyoncé album without making some connection about how this may be used in my own classroom. When I pass weird objects in Target or visit a new museum, I think about how I’m going to share this information with my students. It’s just a part of being a human being who works with human beings. Don’t feel shame in that.
Because you are a salaried employee, you will work more hours than you will be paid for. If a teacher tells you they don’t work outside of their contract hours, they’re lying. It happens. Partially, That’s the work culture we live in this country. The difficult part is that when we are expected to work outside of our hours. Reject any school or school leader who tells you this That’s just f-cking capitalism.
What I want you to focus on are passion and balance. Teaching is a taxing career path. It requires your humanity to be on full display. You will have your hands full, as an imperfect human, caring for growing children. I believe that you have some strengths or passions that you can’t wait to dive into. For me, I enjoy researching for unit plans. I enjoy going down rabbit holes and talking to my friends about what I think I want to teach next. This one time, I spent three hours learning about the evolution of the criminal justice system and American prisons to prepare for a novel study of Kim Johnson’s “This is My America”. Another time, I spent about two hours reading and listening to speeches and sermons as I planned out my Master the Podium course (aka public speaking). Find that one part of the job that you absolutely love about teaching and if you feel that you need to work after contract hours, do that thing. It’ll keep you centered on joy!
Finally, you need to work through balance. Teaching is a profession in which no day is every the same. No class is the same. No school is the same. You’ll get a hang of the schedule to help you plan ahead. Find a time management schedule that works for you. Set realistic boundaries. You can’t take about balance without discussing the importance of being kind to yourself. Life will happen for you. There will be times when work takes a couple more hours than normal (report card time especially). It’ll require you to sometimes leave work at school or do a couple things at home. Find a balance that feels humane for you.
Patrick L. Harris II
All in all, I want people to stop oversimplifying the complexity of the teaching profession. There are so many factors that influence the work load. It’s not as simple as not taking work home if you want to feel prepared for the next day or the next unit. Second and ultimately, believe in new teacher’s ability to figure out what works best for then professionally and personally. Build relationships and check-in with them. New teachers are likely to suffer in silence. But, it’s important that they figure out for themselves their passions in our profession and how to strike a good work-life balance It’s not a one size fits all.