Jake Miller has been an award-winning public school teacher for 15 years. But when he adds up the additional hours he spends outside the workday on teaching-related responsibilities, he estimates his work years are probably closer to 25.
The 200 minutes per week allotted to Miller in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley School District district for “planning purposes” just aren’t enough, he says.
Within that time allotment, which breaks down to 40 minutes a day, Miller does paperwork, makes phone calls to parents, responds to emails, confers with other teachers—and, time permitting, takes a bathroom break.
Tack on to those tasks the increasing number of classes that teachers are asked to cover due to their colleagues’ absences during the pandemic. Miller recently covered his 93rd class of the school year for a teacher who was absent. Under those circumstances, even the most organized and diligent teacher’s planning period can unravel.
That is one of the reasons the veteran teacher handed in his resignation this month. His last day on the job will be March 1, 2022.
It’s no wonder that among 1,200-plus teachers, principals, and district leaders surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center in November 2021, 67 percent of respondents ranked “having more time to plan or catch up on work” as “very important” when considering whether to take a job in a school or district. It was among the top five most important factors cited by educators when considering taking another job—right up there with health benefits, compensation, and pensions.
‘We need to be responsive. We want to keep them.”
Responding to the need, some school systems are looking for ways to give teachers back more time in their workday.
This school year, Maine’s Portland Public Schools designated one of their preexisting weekly “early release” days per month as a time for teachers to do as they please—whether that means planning the next day’s classes or running personal errands. Normally, that block of time would have been spent either on professional development or in staff meetings.
“It’s a purposeful acknowledgement that it’s really hard for everyone out there, and we need to be responsive,” said Melea Nalli, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. “We know we have excellent, compassionate, and highly-trained people, and we want to keep them.”
Taryn Southard, a 2nd grade teacher at Portland’s Gerald E. Talbot Community School, has been spending those few extra hours per month on developing a new districtwide science curriculum. “To have the time to use as we need has been so nice,” she said. “It isn’t enough, to be honest, but it is really nice.”
Southard says she sees the staffing shortages in her school beginning to affect those who do try to show up to school every day, compounding their fatigue and stress. “There’s never enough people,” she said. “I’m personally very worried about how many people are able to sustain this long-term.”
Pre-pandemic approaches are not practical in an “all-hands-on-deck” environment
Even before the pandemic, research captured the widespread problem of insufficient time in teachers’ workdays. Harvard education researcher Susan Moore Johnson, a former high school teacher, studied teachers’ workdays in 14 schools between 2008 and 2015. The teachers’ workdays ranged from 6.5 to 9.25 hours, and most had designated blocks for planning and preparation. Regardless, most teachers reported not having time to complete “essential” responsibilities such as grading, lesson planning, and communicating with parents.
In her book Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools for Success, Johnson recommends strategies for nurturing, in her words, “high quality teaching.” A key component? Giving teachers more time. Some of the book’s suggestions include employing permanent, long-term substitute teachers assigned to specific buildings and avoiding assigning tasks to teachers that aren’t directly associated with their jobs, such as cafeteria monitoring and bus duties.
However, Johnson’s recommendations were made prior to the pandemic, before chronic staffing shortages required staff members in many districts to adopt an “all-hands-on-deck” approach. Right now, the strategies Johnson suggests aren’t practical or possible in many districts.
For instance, Portland administrator Nalli says she has learned to expect the occasional 5 a.m. wake-up call from her superintendent, alerting her that it’s her turn to drive the school bus route and pick up students—fallout from a bus driver shortage.
Extra time will not address other systemic problems
No stranger to the challenges all school staff face right now, Nalli questions the impact of well-intentioned yet piecemeal strategies districts are making to ease the strain on teachers. “I think these tangible moves are valued and appreciated, but I’m aware that these singular moves are not releasing the pressure folks feel from everything,” she said.
Educators have long pointed to low pay and other financial factors as reasons for discontent with the profession. But not having enough time in the day to effectively do your job suggests wider, perhaps more systemic problems that can’t easily be fixed with a salary bump. Further, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated complex challenges whose resolutions have no finite time table, such as responding to students’ mental health and academic struggles.
“The hat I love to wear most is teacher. But that is such a small priority right now,” said Miller, who adds that he feels like he was playing the roles of uncle, parent, and guardian angel to students at school. “The kids are emotionally beaten down. They don’t know how to interact with one another.”
As Miller sees it, students’ pandemic-exacerbated mental health challenges are just one in a seemingly insurmountable combination of problems facing schools right now. Others, he says, include lack of respect from parents, burnt-out school leaders, and overwhelmed teachers.
Miller has a pessimistic view of where things are headed if school districts don’t figure out how to address these challenges. “The system is collapsing,” he said.