Penelope Monger tries to clear up some of the unfairly-held illusions about the supposed holiday-rich life of those in the teaching profession.


Want to rile up a teacher?

Just remind them how many holidays they get.

A non-teacher friend of mine said to me recently that she had come to the shocking realisation that the education industry is based on “ridiculous hours of unpaid overtime”.

This conversation, based on observations of the workload of her teacher husband, was both timely and gratifying. Timely because, as a matter of personal interest, I logged my hours for Term 1 this year to see just what I was “worth” in the education industry. Gratifying, because it is so far removed from the usual rhetoric around how many holidays we teachers enjoy and how few hours in the day we work.

Following careers in various other sectors (broadcasting, communications, publishing) I came to teaching four years ago and currently work part-time in an independent secondary school. I am paid for four days work per week, based on an eight-hour working day. In Term 1 of this year, I averaged 46.3 hours each week, adding up to a whopping 169 hours – 16 days – of unpaid overtime. Of the nine weekends in Term 1, I worked seven out of nine Sundays. The overtime has predominantly featured planning and marking (and more marking), but also extra-curricular demands such as parent/teacher interviews, taking students on day trips, providing tutoring after hours and report writing.

Now, you may say, “At least you enjoy all those holidays”, and indeed we do. However, we teachers like to refer to our “holidays” as “student-free weeks”. Don’t for a minute think that teachers do not work on the holidays. If we go back to my calculations, I earned 16 days of holidays last term alone and received nine days (plus one public holiday) in these recent Easter holidays. Not only did I well and truly earn those “holidays” as payment in lieu, I actually worked a full four days during those two weeks anyway.

Students I teach can earn upwards of $26 per hour at the local sports centre. Based on the hours I worked in Term 1, I was worth the kingly rate of $25.50 per hour (keeping in mind I am in the independent sector – those in the public sector earn even less). And people continue to wonder why there is such a low retention rate of graduate teachers!

Why on earth would you stay in an industry that demands so much and pays so little?

And the demands are great. Having experience in other sectors, I have never worked as hard as I do as a teacher. I appreciate that the work is not rocket science – not by a long shot. However, there are not many industries that require both the engagement of the intellect (enough to be able to teach sophisticated and complex concepts to others) and the emotional. Teaching requires an incredible balancing act. We must know our subject and be able to communicate it in a variety of ways to suit different learners. We must act with diplomacy when dealing with students and their issues. We must communicate with parents, again acting with diplomacy and care, even when faced with the most demanding of people.

Finally, there is the nurturing that society expects of us; it is not simply a matter of teaching auxiliary verbs. Rather, we are expected to develop the “whole person” and this means investing in each student.

This investment means that we care and are thus affected when our students experience difficulties. We are the sounding boards when students are affected by parent break-ups. The mediators when students are suffering negative peer relationships. The counsellors when students need to make difficult decisions about their future pathways.

And we, too, suffer alongside them and with them and for them.

It is this aspect of teaching – the relationships we build with the young people in our care – that ironically makes it so incredibly rewarding, and so incredibly draining. This is why you will see teachers crawling on their metaphorical knees towards each student-free (holiday) period.

The education industry would not survive without our ridiculous hours of unpaid overtime, which is a crying shame. Apart from the pay, it is this factor that undoubtedly contributes to teaching’s poor reputation and retention rates. My colleagues and I earn each and every one of our student-free periods – and then some.

So next time you consider articulating how little teachers work and how many holidays they get, think again.

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