Handling the Teacher Perks

Before turning teacher, I spent all but five years as a temp worker, self-employed or contract. Unemployment? A hassle I didn’t bother with the few times I was eligible. Retirement? My very own funded SEP_IRA, no employer matching. Paid vacation and sick leave? Outside of those five years, I never had any.

Going from that life to public school teaching was kind of like Neal Stephenson’s description (excerpted from In the Beginning was the Command Line) of the guy who was raised by carpenters from early childhood with only a Hole Hawg as a drill and then meeting up finally with a puny homeowner’s version.

What the hell. With so much free stuff, how can you call this work?

From Veteran’s Day to the first week of the New Year, over three weeks off, the bulk of them from mid-December to early January. Five plus days off at spring break, and two months off in the summer. Eleven days of sick leave that accrue, and two “use it or lose it” days. I get the same amount of pay every single month. Guaranteed pension, already vested comfortably, probably to retire with 30%—not bad for a late entry.

Plus, I hear it’s hard to get fired.

I clearly remember watching the perks of corporate employment slowly be stripped away back in my twenties, perks that few people under 50 can even imagine. So it’s bizarre to have entered a profession where it feels like the 80s again.

Now, I’m wondering if I’m getting used to it.

In the previous five years of teaching, my collective time out of the classroom was 3 sick days and 6 mandated professional development days. This year, I was out of class for nearly 10 days of professional obligations: three days for an honest to god, out of state, education conference, two-plus days for mentoring and induction responsibilities, and 4 days of Common Core testing.

I felt very guilty about all this time off, and without question the absences impacted instruction time and coverage. So much so that when I came down with a really severe case of with food poisoning (you know those rotisserie chickens? Used to love them. Hope I eventually trust them again) during testing week, I came in anyway because I knew it would wreak havoc both on testing schedules for administration and my carefully scheduled coverage plans (I was missing alternate classes during the week). I went four days munching crackers and chugging that weird chalky pink stuff, previously unknown to me.

In retrospect this struck me as idiotic, so I went to the principal’s secretary and asked how to request time off. That’s when I learned formally I had 13 days a year, including two use or lose–which I’ve been losing for the past five years. I took a whole day and a half just for a family graduation 10 hours away, when I normally would have left Friday afternoon and come back Sunday night.

More evidence: for the first time in eight summers, six of them as a teacher, I decided to forego employment (part-time and no benefits, of course) at my favorite hagwon, where I usually act as chief lunatic for book club, PSAT prep, and occasionally geometry.

Why? I wanted more time off.

This wasn’t a sudden decision. Last year it finally sunk in that despite the easy hours and students, the elapsed time of my hagwon day clocked in at 9 hours: three on, three off, three on, for eight weeks. While this hadn’t seemed punitive with a 5 minute commute, the schedule lost much of its charm when I moved 45 minutes away. Meanwhile, the eight week schedule left just eight uninterrupted days off at the end of summer.

Yes. The four weeks I am granted throughout the year is not enough. I want more of the eight uninterrupted weeks. It shames me.

But there’s hope. If eight days seemed too little, two months off seemed….excessive. Years of temp work leaves me never entirely comfortable not knowing where my next dollar would come from. Long vacations make me nervous. Back in my tutor/test prep instructor life, my son and I took a long road trip one summer that culminated in a 6 week stay in another city. I notified a local Kaplan branch, got some SAT classes, put ads in Craigslist and got some private tutoring, making enough to offset the fuel and food expenditures for the trip.

I am not yet ready to abandon summer work altogether. I wanted a summer job. Just a different one, with a shorter work day, a shorter employment term, and higher hourly pay so I’d get more time off but the same dollars’ pay.

Normal people are thinking “Hah! And a pony.” Teachers are thinking “Duh. Just teach summer school.” Public summer school, that is. Six weeks at most in my area, higher hourly pay, out at 1:30.

I have very strong feelings about summer school, none of them positive. But public summer school it is, this summer. More of that later, assuming I can push through and finish this absurdly non-essential piece because family fun time and work are coming perilously close to giving me writer’s block.

As a side note, a transition marked: I’ve now left all three legs of my previous income behind. Private tutoring mostly gone over the past two years, the hagwon this last year, Kaplan since ed school.

A job change to get a longer summer break. Another worrisome trend?

But then, just when I began to worry about having been slowly sucked in, I learned what my preps for the upcoming year would be and nearly had a meltdown.

Every year, teachers are given a form to list their preferences for subject assignments (aka, “preps”). Every year, my form says “I’m happy to teach any academic subject I’ve got a credential for–but please don’t limit me to one prep a semester. Two is better, three is best.” Then I list three classes I haven’t taught in a while, or would like to do a second time. This year, I’d asked to teach at least one session of history, to build on my last year, pre-calc, which I hadn’t taught in a year, and any lower level class, just to keep myself humble. Again, this is in the context of teaching any other class as well.

I went into school after summer started to work on one of the professional obligations above, and as a thank-you, the principal showed us the master schedule board.

Semester One: Algebra 2, Trig. Two blocks of each.
Semester Two: Algebra 2, Trig. Three blocks total, two blocks Trig.

This schedule would be, to most teachers, a perk. Just two preps I’m familiar with. An easy year, after an extraordinarily demanding one in which I had two brand new classes, one of which was in a completely different academic subject for the first time in five years. Some might view the schedule as a form of thank-you, or maybe an acknowledgement that I’ve got more professional responsibilities so require a schedule with less planning or curriculum development.

I looked at the board and thought Christ, I have to quit this school, that’s awful, I love this school, but I have to get out of here. I need some time for job-hunting. I can’t quit summer school, it starts Monday. But I can jobhunt in the afternoons, it’s a Friday so I have some time to update my resume. Maybe I won’t have to leave the district, so I could keep tenure, and maybe I can talk to the administrator at summer school, hey, it’s actually good that I’m not at the hagwon this year, I just need to update my resume….

So not a perk, to me.

I tend towards extreme reactions, as alert readers may have noticed. Self-knowledge has led to compensatory braking systems. In years past, I would have just turned in my resignation on the spot. But my braking system kicked in, I remembered that quitting is just a symptom of my temporary worker mindset. I reminded myself how good it felt to get tenure, that my administration team likes me. Before I quit, I should perhaps consider other alternatives.

I will cover those alternatives, and my fears, in a follow-up post. No really, I promise.

So no, I’m not yet sucked in by the teacher perks. But I do want more free time during my 10 weeks off. Call me ungrateful.

***************************************************************

Note: I will always value intellectual challenge over predictability for my own job satisfaction. But many teachers do an outstanding job teaching just one subject or the same two preps for thirty years. Outsiders, particularly well-educated folks with elite pedigrees, champion intellectual curious teachers with cognitive ability to spare as an obvious advancement over what they see as the “factory model” teacher turning out the same widgets ever year. But little evidence suggests that intellectual chops produces better results, much less better teachers. So please don’t interpret my rejection of predictability and routine as evidence of anything other than a fear of boredom.

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16 responses to “Handling the Teacher Perks

  • anonymousskimmer

    I feel ya. I just got a full-benefits, salaried job in the UC system from a permatemp contract job.

    First time in 15-20 years my spouse and I have had health coverage (+dental!, +vision!). + Two full weeks of vacation (and an additional week to cover mandatory time off around xmas) and 12 sick days. I remember having to save what little PTO at my other job until the end of the year to cover xmas and new year’s eves and the infrequent times I was sick.

    It’ll take some getting used to, but the best perk of all is being a fellow employee. Makes me feel like a citizen of the organization instead of a condescended to child.

    • educationrealist

      I used to feel that way when I was a temp clerical worker, but since that time I’ve always wanted to be a temp. But congrats on the conversion!

      • anonymousskimmer

        Thanks!

        I was fired from my previous job, so this wasn’t a standard “conversion”, and involved a huge relocation.

        I preferred temping when doing menial jobs (as any sort of employee status would feel like a trap, or a lie on my part), but prefer the opposite in my chosen field. Being a temp, or even hourly employee, in my chosen field feels too limiting at the low level (bachelor’s) I was employed at.

        Still don’t know how comfortable it’s going to be to take vacation days. 🙂

      • educationrealist

        As a tech, I was hired as an acknowledged “expert” or at least specialist, so I outranked the people I was working with. I was helping them and had no interest in being hired. As a tutor, I was an expert with multiple clients. So it was never an issue with me.

      • anonymousskimmer

        I’ve read that about consultants.

  • malcolmthecynic

    So now it’s the summer, and I’m looking back on my school year, which saw 40 hours of observation and a Curriculum and Learning class. I’ve now realized something:

    I am not cut out to be a K-12 teacher.

    I am Just. Not. Organized. Enough.

    I want to make it clear: I passed the class, and if I tortured myself I’m sure I could make it through student teaching and get my degree. But it was, for me, MISERABLE. It also didn’t help that the articles I chose to show to the class during one of the two lessons I had to teach were considered far too difficult when they were all below High School reading level.

    My Professor actually recommended I just work to become a college professor, because I’m not bad at teaching, per se (I originally said no, but now I’m starting to reconsider). It’s just…ugh. So. Much. Paperwork!

    Teaching: Not for everyone.

    • educationrealist

      yeah, you’re insane. the job prospects for college professors are non-existent. And I’m completely disorganized.

      I’d keep plugging away. If you’re an ed major, feel free to major in something else. I think a year long credential is fine.

      • malcolmthecynic

        Bwahaha, oh I KNOW job prospects for professors are non-existent. Believe me, I’m not making annnnnny decisions lightly. I didn’t consider it at all until a professor actually recommended to me. That said, it’s the mother of all biased samples when somebody WITH a job is recommending you FOR that same job on the assumption that, well, THEY got in, sooooo….

        Advice is much appreciated. I’m impressed you don’t drive yourself nuts teaching with a disorganized mind.

        (Saying “I’m disorganized” over and over smells of excuses even to me. I can only plead that, man, I did not enjoy last semester at all.)

      • educationrealist

        Well, sure. Why on earth would you be so silly as to use “highschool” level reading material?

        And professors are aways advising others to follow their path. It’s not a compliment.

      • malcolmthecynic

        Hey! In my defense it was 6th to 8th grade level.

        Mostly my fault, though. That specific class was bad for what I was attempting (though it could have gone far worse too). In my defense, my second lesson (which used fairy tales) went MUCH better.

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