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Teacher Salary and the Duty Day: Is It Really For the Kids?

Teacher Salary and the Duty Day: Is It Really For the Kids?

As long as I’ve been married to a teacher (on our wedding day, Reagan was just starting his second term) I’ve heard about the duty day, and to be honest, I’ve never quite understood it. I mean I understand that teachers have a contract with their employer (the school district) and it says that they are to work this many hours and that they will be paid this much money which will depend on how many years of teaching they have and how much education they’ve attained. You probably have a contract too or at least an employment agreement, so you know what you’re getting paid per hour or per week or month and you know what you have to do to get paid.

What’s harder to understand is the odd relationship between teachers and their employer when to comes to what, in any other similar profession, would be called “overtime.” If you work in a factory or as a nurse, you get paid for up to 40 hours per week at your standard rate. Let’s say $20/hour. For every hour of overtime you work, you get paid time and a half, meaning in this case, $30/hour. This is how it works for cops and fireman and so on. Many such professionals relish overtime because the rate of pay is so good and most employers avoid it because it’s so expensive.

But in the case of teachers, there is no overtime. There is the duty day: the hours one is supposed to work each day. Except I’ve never met a teacher who actually does that. I’ve met quite a few who work 55 to 60 hours a week including weekends. If you need me to explain what they are doing, I will, but suffice it to say that those papers aren’t going to grade themselves, those science experiments aren’t going to get set up by the teacher’s admin assistant, and those parent phone calls and emails aren’t going to go unanswered. Simply put, teaching isn’t a 40-hour a week job. And before you remind me that teachers “get the summer off,” I’ve argued that one myself a few times and I’ve always lost. Summer is the time when teachers get their masters degree, take continuing education, and redo their entire curriculum for the fall. Others have to paint houses or wait tables to make ends meet. I knew a teacher once who found out in June she was moving from geography to science because they couldn’t find anyone else to teach it and the district made the decision with less than two months before school started in August. Guess what that teacher spent her summer doing?

The Lawrence school district is now, quite unwisely, choosing to take it’s teachers to mediation over a unilateral decision the Board has already made. After years of recessionary spending, the Board will give teachers about $500 a year (insurance went up nearly $1000 for a family policy) and put the rest of the windfall into it’s contingency fund. The State Board of Education advised all districts to do the opposite. But USD 497 is clever about these things. They know that the teachers are caught in a trap. If they’ve worked past about seven years of teaching, they can’t really leave the district because they would take a salary cut, not because other districts pay worse than Lawrence (they actually pay much better), but because teachers can’t enter another district’s pay scale grid with all their years intact. If they could, some advanced teachers would be making $25,000 more than they are in Lawrence. Believe me, I know all to well that this disparity exists. I notice it every month. So the Board understands that Lawrence is cool place to live, a lot of young teachers want to come here, and thus the market of supply and demand is in it’s favor. Sort of.┬áThe problem to this solution is that teachers are becoming increasingly scarce, especially in science, math, and special education, and that’s catching up with the district now and it will press them even more so in the future. Positions are vacant and younger teachers are catching on to the problem of getting a good salary now and a really bad one down the road. A wise young teacher will instead, see USD 497 as a baseball player sees the Kansas City T-Bones, as a farm club before entering more lucrative employment elsewhere.

So, why don’t Lawrence teachers go on strike? Oklahoma and West Virginia teachers did and those are far more conservative jurisdictions than Lawrence. Because we live in a “right to work” state which really means “right to get fired.” Teachers can be delicensed for striking, presumably because this might hurt the kids. Of course, not paying teachers enough isn’t considered hurtful. Just allowing teachers to have some leverage in bargaining, that’s hurtful.

The only leverage teachers do have is the one I’ve long puzzled over: They can opt to work the duty day, to actually do what their contract says they must do. They can come in at 7:30am and go home at 3:45pm or whatever their school’s contracted day is set to be. They can choose not to attend voluntary events like open houses. They can have the students grade their own papers (we did it many times). They can use YouTube to watch experiments rather than actually doing them in the classroom. They can turn on the History Channel and teach from that, rather than poring over the textbook and preparing lesson plans.

Obviously this is a dumb idea and heretofore, teachers have refused to do it. They threaten to do it, but they never follow through. Until now. At this point teachers in USD 497 are working the duty day. Well…kind of. They are no longer going to external events, but most are still grading papers and making lesson plans and so on, all outside the duty day. But as the school district continues to refuse to bargain, I suspect teachers will finally begin to say “no” and if that happens, education as we know it in Lawrence will collapse. The district gets literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of free labor from teachers over a school year, and teachers have gone along with it, all in the spirit of “serving the kids.” This has simply rewarded and enabled the mismatched hierarchy between employer and employee. Next time you imagine that teachers are really unionized, consider that problem.

This idea of only working the duty day might make you mad at teachers. But if that’s your stance, I think you must not have as many teachers in your family as I do in mine. Obviously no teacher goes into this business to get rich, but all of them expect to have a living wag. We owe them no less. Or maybe you’re mad at the district for it’s wasteful spending. A new target is on the back of administrators. Depending on who wins the election, we may see some big layoffs in that sector of the educational economy. It’s fun to pick on admin, but that too is a false promise of cost saving, a political trick to get constituents to take your eye off the critical issue of educational funding.

Drive through Johnson County. Read it’s history. Consider how it compares to KCMO. What’s the biggest difference dating back to the fifties? Schools. In JOCO public school reigns supreme. It was a big part of what drew people out to the suburbs. Shawnee Mission and then Blue Valley districts became legends of public education. In KCMO, things are different, shall we say. Which direction will USD 497 go? For now, that question is quite literally at an impasse.

Joel and I did a show on this topic this week. You can listen to it here:

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