How a Chicago Public Schools teacher WILL find a work and life balance

After the first quarter of this school year—which felt ridiculously more challenging than any other—I decided I’m done.  I’m done bringing work home.  My teaching day starts at 8:00 a.m. and ends, in accordance with our union contract, at 3:11 p.m.  I decided to stay every day until 5:00 p.m., finish what I need to, what I can, and go home without work.

I decided that my priority, as it always has been, is ensuring the students in my classes get challenging, meaningful learning experiences that develop their academic and social-emotional well-being.  My other responsibility is to guarantee an engaging and responsible school newspaper is published every month.  And what we publish is not a montage of photos and terse teacher profiles.  This year, students have written about their dislike of the Aramark lunches and explored the question “What is good teaching at our school?”

This means, of course, that I’m still behind in the paperwork I have to turn in: the documents outlining what I taught and what I’ll teach (teachers know these as lesson plans or curriculum units or maps).

This does not mean I do not plan.  I plan extensively.   I spend my time planning the questions I will ask, designing or re-designing assignments for students to thoughtfully analyze visual texts, and figuring out how students will find independent, insightful, well-researched answers to prompts such as “How do our emotions affect our decision-making process?”

Responsibilities like this are impossible for any good teacher to complete within the regular school day.

I don’t believe in complex, highly detailed lesson plans.  I document the big picture for each few weeks at a time-- the big writing assignments, the key skills, the core texts--and go from there.

My paycheck says I get paid 6.25 hours a day.  But I’m required to be in the school building for seven hours and eleven minutes.  With my decision to stay until 5 p.m., yes, I’m working for nine hours a day but only getting paid for six hours and fifteen minutes, according to our contract.

Interestingly, a study that came out in January from Columbia University's Teachers College would only count the hours I’m actually teaching—actually leading a lesson in front of students—as me teaching or, I guess, really working.

“Teachers in U.S. public schools work hard," the report says, "and under increasingly stressful conditions . . . But they do not, as reported in detailed tables published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) every year since 2000, spend so much more time instructing student than teachers in other OECD nations.”

So I guess I should stop complaining?

The report goes on to say that “through regular repetition by academics and journalists, this misinformation has become conventional wisdom.”

So, according to the this report, what’s the truth?

“In reality,” the report finds, “U.S. primary teachers spend about 12 percent more time leading classes than their OECD counterparts, not 50 percent; U.S. lower-secondary teachers spend about 14 percent more time, not 65 percent; and U.S. upper-secondary teachers spend about 11 percent more time, not 73 percent.”

So that’s not that bad?  I only spend 11 percent more time teaching than teachers in countries such as Finland, Poland, and Korea.

The report includes a table that outlines how in 1998 (my fourth year as a teacher), the average number of teaching hours for U.S. upper-high-school teachers was 942; for teachers in other OECD countries, it was 616.

By 2014, the average number of teaching hours for U.S. upper-high-school teachers increased to 1,076; for teachers in other OECD countries, the average only increased to 621.

But another article published by the National Education Association emphasizes how “Teachers spend an average of 50 hours per week on instructional duties, including an average of 12 hours each week on non-compensated school-related activities such as grading papers, bus duty, and club advising.”

That’s an average of over 2,000 hours working as a teacher with the Chicago school calendar, not 1,076.

Non-teachers can be skeptical about how many hours we work.  But teaching is more than being in front of students.  Teaching is

  • determining what students know
  • figuring out what they need to know according to new national standards (I like Common Core Standards, by the way)
  • finding that ideal article or video to help them think beyond the obvious
  • designing or re-designing assignments to help students with multiple learning styles
  • adapting lessons in between classes because something didn’t work last period
  • building students’ confidence to take academic risks
  • helping them find ways to remember what they learned
  • motivating them to do come to school so they learn
  • counseling them through social-emotional struggles
  • grading papers and using the results to figure out how to help students who struggled
  • creating new ways to challenge students who pick up concepts easily
  • teaching students to believe they can succeed inside and outside of our classroom

And it’s so much more.  I haven’t mentioned reaching out to parents, the meetings, the after-school clubs, the Open House events, the field trips.

So during my off period today in between classes, I closed my classroom door and turned off the lights.  I sat in a corner not visible from the entrance, put on some good music (at a low volume), and ate my tuna fish sandwich.  I cherished the solitude.

I heard knocks at the door many times.  “Salazar.  Salazar!  You in there?  Where you at!”  Students, also on their lunch period, wanted to come in the classroom and talk and joke around. But I didn’t say a word.  If I let them in, like I did all first quarter, I lose out on moments when I can get a few more papers graded or get myself organized.

To get out of the building with enough work done for the day, I must keep my conversations with students short, my conversations with colleagues even shorter.  I missed an after-school meeting today so I could improve the research-paper lessons that start tomorrow.

I still have letters of recommendation to submit to colleges.  Now that my journalism students know how to write well-balanced articles, we need to move on to editorials.  About five students missed my journalism class today so I have to figure out how to catch them up and move the other twenty-two students forward.

My AP students have to create those audio essays.

And, yeah, those curriculum maps gotta get done ASAP.

But yesterday and today, I left school a little after 5 p.m. with only my empty lunch bag.  Last night, my little girl fell asleep (and so did I) as I held her in my arms on the sofa while we watched TV.  Tonight, I read a whole chapter from that Mockingbird / Hungry Games book to my little boy.  I ran on the treadmill for thirty minutes.  I ate my wife’s home-cooked meal for dinner.  I wrote this blog post.  I still need to make  time to finish my novel.

Good teachers—just like everyone else—deserve to have a life outside of work in the evenings and on weekends.  I don’t know if every day will be like this.  But I’m going to try.  And I’ll still fulfill my teaching responsibility to my students even if I miss a meeting and turn in my paperwork late.

For over twenty years,  under so many principals’ leadership, I always received the highest teaching rating possible.  And if I don’t get the highest one this year because I’m missing paperwork, at this point at my career, I don’t care.

Last week, my students' evaluations of me all had high ratings.

In two unannounced class room observations by high-ranking CPS leaders, I got positive feedback.  I must remember what I tell my students: "You can't do it all.  Focus."

I’m at an advantage: I’ve taught AP English Language and journalism the past four years at this high school.  If I were a less-experienced teacher or at a new school, I don’t know if I could aim to leave work without work.  But I’m making it a possibility this year.  No—I will make it a reality almost every day and every weekend from now on.

If you're a teacher, how do you aim to find a work and life balance?  Add your comment below with your Facebook account.

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