I have wrestled with this all year and found no real resolution. It is a relatively personal issue but one that I believe faces a lot of young teachers: drawing the line. How many hours in the twenty-four hour day should I give to The Cause? When should I push myself to work a little harder, when should I relax and take a few hours for myself?
Paul Tough set the high-bar for educators everywhere by implying in his prominent NYT magazine article that KIPP teachers, questionable paragons though they may be, work 15-16 hour days. Other professionals and business people work hundred-hour weeks and cite this as part of the reason for their great status and remuneration. My kids are more needy than KIPP’s and their education more urgent than any bottom line, so does that mean I should work seven 18-hour days a week?
TFA encourages “relentlessness,” which I would translate to “all day, every day.” That’s fine for corps members on a two-year adventure before the cushy academic life of policy school, but not for teachers who want to make this a life-long career. Our profession needs Type-A workaholism but it also needs wisdom and experience. I want to teach my way to the Educator Hall of Fame but I don’t want to burn out along the way.
Allow me to get specific. After spending my first-year trying to import the sleep deprivation practices that worked so successfully in college to teaching, I have learned that I am a far superior teacher when well rested. Perhaps lawyers and investment bankers can read their briefs and study their prospectuses after working until two the night before, but I cannot provide the dynamic instruction required to simultaneously manage and educate 35 ten-year-old minds bred on a steady diet of X-Box and MTV without good rest. Consequently, I refuse to sacrifice sleep, leaving me with an approximately 17-hour day. I already work an 11-hour day at school, 7AM to 6PM, plus another hour or so a night at home. 12 hours are already gone to teaching and another goes to getting up and going to bed. This leaves four, reduced to three and a half by my short-but-suddenly-significant commute. Three and a half becomes two if you’re willing to recognize the relative necessity of cooking, eating, and cleaning up a good dinner. That leaves me with two hours on the weeknights. That’s a thorough read of a day’s set of writing, or a delightful game of Scrabble and a blog entry.
But there are also the weekends. I claim a goodly bit of those for myself. I enjoy long walks and good movies, which take time, though I give up about a few weekend days a month to professional development, accumulated professional urgencies, or school projects. Perhaps more should go? Every Saturday? Half of Sunday too? After weekends come vacations. I’ll admit it: I didn’t do a drop of work over my most recent February break. A teacher at my school came in to prepare materials for the next unit. While I did have to move apartments, I still ached a bit with guilt.
And so we come to the heart of the problem: there is always more that I can do for my students. Not just the dreamland “more” of hunting down that ten-thousand dollar science grant or fashioning more thrilling hand-puppets than ever seen before, but the near-vital “more” of filling out the paper work to evaluate failing students for special services or reading and commenting on student writing. Likewise, there are always more hours in the week, even allowing for seven-hours of sleep. Where do I draw the line?
I think it would be easy to draw the line if it were only a question of profits boosted and money earned. But the return on investment in teaching comes not in pennies per share but lives transformed. I know my law of diminishing returns as well, but I also know that a diminished transformation is certainly better than none at all. I hear constantly that, for our neediest of kids, “nothing is ever enough.” But I live a slightly different perspective: For our young, idealistic teachers, what, if anything, is too much?