When is a work week too long?

thanks to Monique Morrissey at the Economic Policy Institute for this graphic

I have blogged previously about the enormous number of hours required to proficiently teach high school English. Teens demand a lot of instruction and feedback to become better users of language. 

My school day typically starts at 6:30 am when I arrive at the building and goes until 5, when I leave with my load of homework–a total of 55 hours a week, not counting extra duty assignments.  However, when you factor in the average of four additional hours of paper grading and curricular arrangement per day, weekends included, you wind up with a total per week of 83 hours per week. I am confident, based on my 26 years of experience, that if my approximately 150 students are going to achieve significant literacy growth, it requires no less of me. And yet the value proposition is a conundrum, because after a certain point, my energy, enthusiasm, and efficiency begin to suffer. How long can anyone keep up that pace? And what good is an exhausted English teacher?

As the graphic above shows, all Americans have been working longer work weeks since the 1940s–post-World War II prosperity came at the price of less leisure time–and so the trend is definitely toward increasing time on the job. By itself, there’s nothing aberrant about the English teacher’s growing workload.

It is also important to note that as formidable as my workload seems to me, it is quite a bit worse for teachers in states like Texas, where teachers typically have class sizes 30% larger than ours (with 40 students/period not unusual) and a total of six, not five classes per day. [My source is a long-term sub, re-located from Dallas-Ft. Worth to my hallway].  In the world of high school teaching, Illinois teachers (probably in part due to teachers’ union-negotiated collective bargaining agreements) have it easy.

But how ironic I found it when, last week, concern arose at the abusive number of hours required of factory workers (an average of 56) at one of the major computer manufacturers in China, a plant that according to this article in Information Week, violates Chinese labor law and the guidelines of the Fair Labor Association. Surprisingly, Chinese law says that workers should not be toiling beyond 40 hours per week, and the FLA puts its limit at 60 hours per week. However, a survey of the Chinese workers involved found that most of them thought the hours and pay were reasonable, so it’s all relative, isn’t it?

When I and my colleagues must work more than double the time the Chinese government says is reasonable for its laborers to do their jobs well, something is wrong, in my opinion. But hey, I could be a voice in the wilderness, [a wacko in the wikiness], an aberrant workaholic not as efficient as he thinks he is.

So let’s get some data. I have created a survey for high school English teachers to verify my suppositions. Is it true that most of my fellow English teachers would say that asking them to ensure literacy growth in anything above 100 students is unreasonable, regardless of their pay? I suppose it is, but could be wrong. And is it true, as I suppose, that the majority of my peers will claim that their pay is not commensurate with the value of their work? The survey should give us some answers.

Feel free to take it yourself (if you are a high school English teacher) or pass it along to the hard-working folks in that post whom you know. I will post results here and perhaps we can spark some useful discussion about reforming working conditions in ways that would improve teacher morale and student outcomes. 

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