Tuesday, December 30, 2008

One Myth About Teaching

I was confronted with the opinion the other day that teachers are overpaid because they only have to work 9 months out of the year but get paid for a full year. I'm pretty sure the person who expressed this opinion has never actually met a teacher before, but it seemed like a thought that a lot of people might have. So, I thought I'd set the record straight.

First, a teacher in any field typically gets paid a bit less than a working professional in that field, even though they have to know just as much (if not more). This is why a lot of teachers feel underpaid for their work -- because with their qualifications, they could make more if they weren't teaching.

As for being underworked, I know of very few teachers who sit idle on summer/winter break. In my own experience, the time fills up fast:
  • There's a lot of prep work to do for classes before they start: revising syllabi and course content, evaluating new textbooks, and keeping current with industry trends all take time.
  • If you're teaching any brand new courses, you have to develop everything from scratch, which typically takes about as much time as teaching the course itself (i.e. one new course = two old courses, in terms of time commitment).
  • Keeping professional skills sharp is important. Over breaks I usually end up doing some kind of freelance contract work.
  • Ever heard of summer and winter classes? A lot of teachers hold classes over these supposed "break" periods.
  • And of course, during the academic year teaching is a lot more than just a 9-to-5 job. In theory you're supposed to have a 40-hour work week, which is 4 or 5 classes if you're full time (that includes face time in lecture or lab, and also out-of-class time spent grading). But in addition to that, you have other duties: academic advising, office hours, faculty meetings, and (if you're really unlucky) being on a committee.

In reality, teaching is more than a full-time job.

Does that mean that these thoughts of "lazy" teachers who only work "30 weeks out of the year" are completely inaccurate? Unfortunately, no. It is possible to reduce the workload. You can hold office hours for your classes simultaneously, and then use the time to get other work done if no students show up (although this means you'll end up treating students like they're interrupting you when they show up for scheduled office hours). You can just copy your course notes from earlier classes without updating them, which reduces prep time to almost zero (but then you cheat your students out of a modern education). You can set up your assignments so that they're easy to grade (but anything easy to grade is usually not that meaningful -- for example, you can tell a lot more about a student's understanding by reading an essay than you can get from a multiple-choice question, but multiple-choice is easier to grade).

So, it is possible to have lots of time off, work 40 (or fewer) hours per week for 30 weeks a year, and have the rest of the time free to... um... do whatever teachers do when they're not working. But so far, the only way I've found to do that is to cheat your students. If you want to be a good teacher, forget any thoughts you had of annual three-month vacations...


wonderwhy-er said...

I actually agree. Have some friends teaching and know how they work to teach... There is just a wide range teachers and from them I could point some that.
Work days.
1. come at work at 9AM and have 2-3 lectures/practical hours till middle of the day.
2. Then they work on checking works students sent/work with science/prepare for conferences/help Bachelor/Master students with their scientific projects. Do various works for university from paper work till work on recherches that was ordered from outside.
3. Then somewhere at 6pm second part wave of evening students comes and they have more lectures to tell till 21:30...

So it is a work day with 12 hours at work?!?!

And some of them even have lectures from 9Am-2Pm at Saturdays for not full time students...

So for some it could end up being 65 hours a week spent in university... Yeah not all of those may be working hours but still I could not call them free aether...

And then it is like you said at summer vocations... Planing how lectures/practical for next 9 months and doing some side freelance or university work...

Anonymous said...

I find that it takes me at least as long outside class as the lesson is long to prepare. I think that's a new teacher thing, though, and I hope that soon I won't spend an hour prepping for an hour's lecture.

Ian Schreiber said...

Meg: In my experience, it depends on the class.

For classes where the material is constantly changing, you'll probably be doing prep work forever. For classes where the experience is more or less the same from year to year, yes, it gets easier. (But if you do it right, prep work should never drop to zero -- each time you teach a class you'll learn what works and what doesn't and find better ways to explain certain things or you'll want to experiment with adding or removing specific topics or reordering things.)

As for "one hour of prep for one hour of instruction"... well, there's a huge range there, too. The best speakers at conferences usually spend 10 to 20 hours preparing for one hour of stage time (granted, the stakes are higher when you're presenting to hundreds or thousands of your colleagues). Still, you can easily spend a lot of prep time, especially if you like to do a couple of dry runs of your lectures to make sure they take about the right amount of time. (I realize that the reality is that there's seldom enough time to do this the first time around, which is why I say you'll probably continue to do prep work for these classes in the future... you build up those amazing presentations incrementally over time, rather than putting in a huge effort up front.)

But then, it still depends on the class. For studio classes where you're not teaching so much as supervising student projects, you need practically no prep work at all for the individual classes. So it all depends.

Yusuf said...

There is a good analysis of whether university faculty are overpaid or not at The Chronicle

The conclusion is that nobody with as much education (and experience) earns as little as university professors do. Additional comments on my blog

With the economic downturn, people are looking at "secure" jobs with much more envy these days, but the data clearly shows that being a university professors is not the road to financial riches.