Defending the Teaching Profession

The teaching profession has a bad rep. Based on a number of comments and stories I hear, somehow teachers are thought to be lazy, uncaring, and mediocre-performers at best. The most frequent comment is that teachers have it “easy” with short work hours from 8:30am to 3:30pm, extra days off throughout the year, and two months off at summer. While holding back my exasperation, I respond with two questions: 1. Do you know any teachers? and 2. Have you ever had to stand-up and actually teach a class of kids for as little as an hour? The response to the latter is usually “No” and to the former is either “No” or “Yes, but that person hates teaching.” It’s nice to see people have well-informed opinions. Without a doubt there are some lousy teachers out there. But let’s agree that the same can be said about every job – restaurant owner, doctor, janitor, project manager, salesperson, lawyer, CEO. So how is it that one job is so poorly regarded on the whole? 

I grew up with a father who dedicated his life to his kids and his career to the kids he taught. I have friends who are in the middle of doing the same thing. These people arrive at their schools early and stay late so they can be there for kids outside of school hours and to coach school teams. They spend time at home marking assignments, preparing lesson plans, and putting together report cards. Short work days don’t exist for the teachers who are committed and passionate. As to those teachers that show up just before school starts and leave soon after it ends? You likely work with the same type of person who shows up when they need to, takes long coffee and lunch breaks, and does the bare minimum. My point is this behaviour happens everywhere so let’s not just paint teachers with that brush. Okay, you say, but what about all those “extra days off?”

Many organizations provide about five days to their employees for professional development that often includes attending local courses and seminars or even out-of-town conferences. Chances are you’ve taken advantage of this and teachers are no different. They get five days of professional development too, it just happens to be spread out over the school year. Hold on, though, there are those two weeks off for teachers at Christmas which- no, wait, that’s only about seven working days and it’s likely you can take that time off too so let’s call it a wash. But what about spring break? Boy I wish I got five days off at the end of March. Okay, so let’s add those five days of vacation to the previous seven which brings a teacher’s vacation entitlement to 12 days for the school year (the average professional gets 15 days by the way). Consider one more thing: you’ve probably felt a little burnt out during the year and have had the flexibility to take some time off – your boss was understanding and that work assignment could wait a week. Unfortunately, teachers don’t have this same luxury since their vacation windows are set according to a school board schedule and students can’t just “wait a week.”

And now we come to the heart of many people’s gripes about teachers: they get two whole months off for summer vacation, how outrageous. Before seeing how much further you can cram your head up your butt, consider that a variety of different factors led to the current school calendar (and it’s not the agrarian cycle, see [1] and [2]):

  1. School reformers were looking to standardize schedules and age-grade levels. Interestingly enough, near year-round schooling was common in the 1700s and 1800s with terms running during spring, summer, fall, and winter. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee that students were starting at the same level for each term and reformers sought to standardize entry points.
  2. Wealthy families tended to go on vacation in the summer months and pulled their children out of school during the summer term.
  3. The summer heat isn’t very enjoyable for teachers or students to be stuck inside. This may be less of a factor today what with air conditioning but there are still schools without adequate cooling facilities.
  4. Teachers and students alike needed a break from instruction. Prior to teaching certifications, teachers went to receive training during the summer and kids, well, got to be kids.

So now that we know how the summer break came about, why do teachers need it? Well, a few years back I taught four one-hour sessions to Grade 3 students and I can tell you that it wasn’t easy by any stretch. You’re constantly juggling teaching the material, keeping 25 students focused, and dealing with disruptions and challenges to your authority – and that was just an hour. I can only imagine the enormous amount of energy required by ten months in the classroom with 25 or more students. Not to mention the additional time and energy that’s needed to prepare lesson plans, coach teams, provide students with extra help, respond to parent emails and phonecalls, mark assignments, attend parent-teacher conferences, and generate report cards – oh, and that’s all outside of the 8:30am to 3:30pm when you need to be “on” for the students. It should therefore be abundantly clear that teachers need the summer break to recharge and prepare for the next year.

Still don’t believe me? You try it.

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