I went to a training last week at an innovative private school for low-income kids. It was great; I got tons of good ideas, and I started implementing some of them in my classroom the day I got back. I came back to school feeling inspired and energized … and guilty.
We traveled from classroom to classroom at the training and heard a lot of different teachers and administrators speak. In every room we visited, we heard two messages. “This country doesn’t respect teachers, and it shows in the way students and parents treat us and the way we’re paid. If we want decent pay, we need to show the world that we’re professionals.” Sure. Got it. Agree.
But in explaining the drive and dedication of the teachers at the school, there was another message.
“Everybody here shows up early and stays late. Every teacher at this school tutors after school for free because they care about the kids.”
And that part was a little soul crushing.
See, I love my students. I do all the things teachers all over America do: I make time to spend with them one on one; I buy school supplies and sometimes food for kids who need it; I show up to their extracurricular activities and cheer until I lose my voice. But I’ve also got two kids of my own and a husband who travels, and somebody has to pick the baby up from daycare.
As any working parent knows, it’s more like a seesaw than a balancing act. I just burned through two days of emergency lesson plans so I could have a Harry Potter movie marathon with my sick third grader. But I’ll be missing both elementary and preschool Christmas parties because I have to be at the holiday dance at my own school. Somebody is always getting the short end of the stick and, no matter where you are, you probably ought to be somewhere else.
So I can’t put in a 10.5-hour day every day (unless you count the time I spend grading and planning after my kids are in bed).
I left the training feeling guilty about this. if I just cared more about my students, if I were a more dedicated teacher, what would they be able to accomplish that they won’t do without my help?
On the way home, though, I had an epiphany: I shouldn’t feel bad because I can’t work for free. They should feel bad about not paying their teachers for their time. When it comes to teacher pay, the teacher-martyr stereotype is a whole lot more damaging than Casual Fridays. (This school felt that wearing jeans in the classroom undermines our professional image.)
It’s certainly not just this school, either. I’ve had administrators who expected teachers to spend hours of unpaid time at school every day. I’ve listened to administrators say things like, “Some people’s classroom libraries look a little shabby. I know it’s a lot to ask for you to go out of pocket for that, but it’s really important that our students see books in every classroom, and we expect everybody to chip in … .” I’ve asked about overtime for weeklong field trips, only to be told that if I cared about the kids I’d be happy to do it for free.
I care about my students and my own children. I care about my physical and mental health. But I also care about being able to keep the lights on and the mortgage paid.
These things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Schools have limited resources, and there are real kids with real needs at stake, who run the risk of falling through the gaps in funding and time. But could we, as a profession, agree that the job of teachers is not to stretch ourselves so thin we’re transparent as we try to fill every gap? If, instead, we could agree to speak up for our students, to make their needs apparent rather than use our already-slim resources to fill them, maybe we’ll see a change. But as long as we keep shaming teachers who can’t or won’t work for free, we’re feeding into the myth that our work isn’t valuable. And I’m not buying that lie anymore.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on whether or not teachers should work for free. Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.
Plus, why teachers shouldn’t say they aren’t in it for the money.