Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Top Ten #9: Don’t Work for Free

By on March 29, 2008

This week I’m in Wickenburg, Arizona, a small western town I’ve been going to for quite some time with my family, and it got me thinking about an artifact I picked up a few years back at an estate sale on the outskirts of town. I was idly going through a stack of paperwork someone found in an old attic, when I came across a teacher’s paycheck from the 1800s. It was for one month’s work, was for $8 and some change, and in the memo line was lightly scripted in ink, “cannot be married.”
So I find myself sitting here in April 2008, feeling the beautifully crisp Arizona morn’ on my cheek, hearing the sounds of my son playing outside with his Grandpa and the sounds of my husband snoring away in our room, and thinking how that ole’ paycheck, which is pressed in a book at home, relates to my own current practice as a teacher.
If you check out my Top 10 List of Taking Control of Your Teaching, you’ll notice #9: Don’t Work For Free. It could also be called: Don’t Make Sacrifices Without Compensation.
The memo line of that schoolmarm’s check said it all: “Thou shalt not have a life outside of teaching.” And I think that this attitude towards teachers, this insistence that a teacher be some self-sacrificing, Florence Nightengale-esque, single gal just grateful for the job, is a reputation that has haunted the career ever since the dawn of chalk and slate. It is also one that we as teachers have helped to propagate.
To begin with, check out the NEA’s salary calculator. Type in the actual hours you work vs. your salary. I found that I am earning for only 50% of my actual hours spent working.
Grrr. Considering that I get charged for missing a dentist appointment, it’s stunning that I cannot charge a mom who misses a months-in-the-making SST for her struggling son that she scheduled during my second period class. Considering that lawyers charge for the hours spent merely thinking about a case outside of the office, it’s stunning that the lesson planning and curriculum design that MUST be done outside class can’t be found on any itemized bill to a school.
So I propose that teachers stage a protest of sorts. Mind you, we shouldn’t give up teaching the kids 100% inside the classroom. No sir, a protest of this nature does not advocate sticking in a video and pressing play. The minute the classroom door closes, those kids should still be given our time, our attention, our rigor, and our support, as much as if we were paid like kings. What I am suggesting is that we protest the extra stuff that has also come to define our jobs, but that has not been reflected in our pay.
Here goes:
Don’t go to before-school department meetings. Don’t run a club. Don’t attend after school faculty meetings. Don’t do yard duty; let the school’s administrators monitor the students during your lunch break. Don’t do lesson planning outside of school; instead use only the mediocre books that the district purchased, and resist the temptation to supplement more engaging material that you have to spend time integrating, re-designing, and copying. Don’t go to professional development conferences on the weekends to better your classroom practice. Don’t sub for another teacher who is running late to school; instead insist the VP miss a meeting so that you can have your own prep time to prep for your own class so your entire day is not blown. Don’t read the latest books on student development in order to improve your understanding of how students learn best. Don’t read books or go to workshops to improve your content knowledge. Don’t stay after hours preparing for Open House. Don’t go to Open House. Don’t stay after hours preparing for Back to School Night. Don’t go to Back to School Night. Don’t set up your classroom before school opens in the fall. Don’t move the furniture. Don’t buy your own furniture. Don’t build your own furniture. Don’t spend hours in May covering up your walls so that students don’t see reminders of their lessons during standardized testing. Don’t volunteer as an after school tutor. Don’t chaperone dances. Don’t direct the play. Don’t coach a sport. Don’t answer calls or emails from parents. Don’t make copies. Don’t attend SSTs or IEPs. Don’t sit on the PTA. Don’t attend workshops outside of school hours. Don’t sit on the School Site Committee. Don’t sit on the Discipline Committee. Don’t do grading outside of school hours. Don’t use the grading program outside of school hours. Don’t fill out recommendations. Don’t report abuse. Don’t fix the broken cabinet in the back of the room. Don’t go to garage sales to furnish your classroom. Don’t buy books for your classroom library. Don’t troubleshoot your printer. Don’t translate for the Spanish-speaking family. Don’t fundraise.
Can I live up to my own challenge?
Sigh. I have to admit, probably not. Let’s face it; the minute that bell rings, I’m busy planning a better day, a more successful day, for tomorrow. I don’t know if I can stop reflecting over dinner and developing lessons in my rear-view mirror to fill some gap from the day before. I don’t know if I can stop answering the emails of questions from students asking for help at night or parents asking for advice or recommendations. I don’t think I can come to school right at the morning bell when I know there are kids standing outside in the cold for almost an hour before school, having been dropped off by a parent who is late to their first job of the day. I don’t know if I can lock my door at lunch when there are students who want to look through my classroom library on their free time. I don’t know if I can go home at 2:45 when the student I have been advocating for Special Ed testing is begging for help in his writing for the assessment tomorrow.
So there’s the rub. We care. We care so much that we are taken for granted and taken advantage of. But who can blame administrators or the government? It was our own early teacher troops that set up this pattern, and it is the current troops (me included) that encourage it.
But the teachers of today, those of the dwindling middle class, cannot afford this any longer. We can’t afford to give our free time away without pay. We can’t afford to devote time away from our own families for the good of other people’s children without the compensation that goes towards helping our own families. We can’t afford to live up to the past precedence set up by the teachers of yore who said, “sure, fine, OK, yes, I guess” to everything.
Teachers need to have a braver voice in demanding compensation. We need to have a united voice in demanding compensation. And, yes, we may one day, even have to demonstrate just how much we do beyond our contract in order to just do our job. But salary reform isn’t going to happen by administrators or politicians nodding with appreciation and opening their checkbooks. It starts with me, the teacher, and what I’m willing to do to stand up for myself.
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  1. David Cohen
    April 10, 2008

    Leave a Reply

    I spent three hours tonight accompanying some of my students to a rehearsal for an event. They researched and prepared a presentation that will be part of Santa Clara County’s official Holocaust Remembrance event next week. I don’t have time to comment….

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