Teachers Work too Much and Why You Should Care.

Teachers work too much. It’s true. I know this from personal experience as an educator of 17 years. I also know this from research. Consider the following finding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Teachers work an average of 10 hours and 40 minutes per day.

Many professions work long hours. Teachers work even more. According the the Bureau of Labor and Statistics teachers work more hours both at their place of work and at home. On any given day 30 percent of teachers took work home, compared with 20 percent of other full-time professionals. Other full-time professionals such as health care, business, finance, architects and engineers.

Teachers are also underpaid. A high-school mathematics teacher will make $56,000 mid-career salary with a starting salary near $36,000. Contrast that with the average mid-career salary of a math major in the U.S. which is over $90,000. And mathematics and math related fields are consistently ranked as among the highest paid entry level jobs. Teachers in the U.S. are not even paid on par with other OECD countries.

“Schools need to put an adult in the classroom even if that adult doesn’t have the skills needed to teach the class they have been assigned.”

As a result we are seeing historic levels of teacher shortages. From personal experience I can affirm that shortages in hard to fill positions, such as math, have a strong adverse effect on student learning and teacher morale. Math teachers end up with larger class sizes due to unfilled positions. Often unfilled positions are filled by an unqualified emergency substitute. Schools need to put an adult in the classroom even if that adult doesn’t have the skills needed to teach the class they have been assigned. Often this results in a certified math teacher having extra mentor or supervision duties over that emergency hire. If you are concerned that a profession with long working hours, difficult working conditions, and low pay may not attract and maintain the best talent, well… you should be worried. However, that is not the whole problem.

“…teachers spend too much time on activities that have very little educational impact”

A quick look at how a teacher spends their day reveals another problem. Teachers spend most of their non-teaching time engaged in activities that do not have a direct impact on student learning. Activities such as supervision, discipline, emails, grading papers and other paper work. What teachers should be doing is preparing lessons. Lessons that will have a direct positive impact on student learning. Unfortunately teachers only spend 30 minutes a day preparing to teach. Most teachers teach more than one subject. I commonly taught 2–3 different courses each day. That means that 30 minutes of time in preparation must be shared among 2–3 courses. That’s 10–15 minutes of preparation per course. Think about that. Other than teaching, in what profession would a person be asked to prepare 4–5 hours of a presentation or training and be given less than 30 minutes to prepare?

Teachers in the U.S. teach more hours than teachers in other countries. The U.S. is well below the OECD average. In the U.S. we give teachers very little plan time to teach, yet we require them to teach more hours each day.

Why should you care?

Now let’s consider how the U.S. performs in mathematics compared to other countries. Take a look at the PISA ranking below.

Don’t see the U.S.? That’s because the U.S. is still further down the list. Does it bother you that Lithuania and Hungary outperform the U.S. in mathematics? Does it bother you that the U.S. performs well below the OECD average? It should! The U.S. has been underperforming for years.

“Teachers should spend more time preparing lessons than grading papers”

Teachers already work enough hours to fix the problem. The issue is that teachers spend too much time on activities that have very little educational impact. Unfortunately the fix for this will not be easy. It will require systemic and technological changes. I propose the following.

First, teachers should be required to spend more time in lesson preparation and teach fewer hours each day. That will require school districts to make additional hires to cover activities such as student supervision. And it will require hiring more teachers. Money will be an issue.

Technology should also play a role. Teachers should spend more time preparing lessons and less time grading papers. Technology can help. This was part of my motivation for starting a mathematics software company Ardor Education. We need to make sure schools have what they need to modernize so teachers can spend time on activities that have a strong direct impact on student learning. The truth is, the pace of information technology adoption in the private sector far outpaces what is happening in education. More training and infrastructure are needed.

Finally, teachers need to be paid a competitive wage if we expect to attract and retain the best talent. We should consider paying teachers a market rate based on the subjects they teach. In most states K-12 teachers are all paid equally regardless of what subject they teach. (If you have never done so before take a look at a common teacher pay scale.) Question: Why do so few high schools have a full time computer science teacher? Answer: Because you won’t find very many people with that skill set willing to accept an entry level position at $36,000. Did you also know that only 2 out of 5 high-schools offer a physics course? You can probably figure out why. We should be embarrassed by how little we currently pay our teachers.

Take heart. Teachers know how to fix our education performance problem. The problem isn’t them. The problem is us. Let’s fully fund our education system and give teachers the support our children deserve.