Teachers' Time Off: What's Real Issue?

COMMENT

May 23, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

"If you can read this, thank a teacher," reads a bumper sticker commonly seen on the highways these days.

The implication of the mobile message is that only school teachers are responsible for literacy, that parents and libraries and the innate human drive to make sense of written language don't count for much in the learning process.

The provocative slogan, however, inspires other versions. If you are alive to read this, thank a cop, a fireman, a nurse, a doctor, a paramedic, a soldier. If you can safely read this, thank an autoworker or a mechanic. If you can clearly read this, thank an optometrist. And so on.

Many occupations contribute to our basic well-being and, indeed, survival. Teachers are certainly important, but their admirable efforts are possible only through the contributions of others in society.

Despite an occasional bad memory of "the meanest teacher I ever had," most adults are highly appreciative of and positive about the teaching profession. No job group, as a whole, probably rates as highly in public esteem as teachers.

That's not to say teachers are lavishly rewarded for their dedicated efforts. Like a number of other jobs, the appeal of the job means that the large number of applicants drives down the level of pay.

Still, teachers get an uncommon satisfaction from helping young minds to develop and grow. That's a rich reward, a powerful stimulus to excel in the profession and to invest extra time in the task.

Which gets us around to the heated topic of whether Harford County's 900 elementary school teachers are appreciated enough to merit eight half-days a year for lesson planning, classroom preparation and other chores.

The school board has eliminated those planning days for next school year, at the urging of Superintendent Ray R. Keech, who feels that children need more time in class and "on task." Elementary teachers get planning time when their pupils are in care of special instructors in art, music, media and physical education. To remedy a shortage of art teachers (and thus planning time for some classroom teachers), he'll hire more.

The missing eight half-days (which have been gradually added over the past decade) are almost as much symbolic as substantive. Elementary teachers complain loudest that they don't get as much time (do they really mean "respect"?) as upper-grade instructors.

But conscientious teachers in all grades still do schoolwork at night and on weekends, trying to do their best, whether or not they have eight (or zero) half-days free.

Teachers do need planning time. Let's be clear about that. They need to prepare lessons and and grade papers when children are not present. The question is when and how that time should be made available.

Harford's elementary teachers are supposed to be in their schools from 8:30 a.m. to about 4 p.m., with a one-period lunch break. That's a seven-hour day, shorter than that of most other professions or other government employees.

Teachers are required to work 190 days a year (students attend school only 180 days), or the equivalent of 38 weeks out of the year. They get ample holidays and vacation breaks. They get sick days and time out of class. As any parent can tell you, there is no dearth of substitute teachers in the classroom.

The net effect is that school teachers are required to spend less time on the job than members of nearly any other profession. Their union's complaint of the school board's "sweatshop mentality" should be laughable to other working folk.

Few white-collar workers have "9-to-5 and forget it" schedules. Lots of professionals have to take work home at night, stay at the office to finish projects, spend weekends planning for the Monday crunch, attend night meetings and daybreak business breakfasts to get the job done right. Working off the clock is not just a teacher's burden.

Teachers' pay is not shabby, either, starting at $25,300 just out of college to nearly $45,000 with 15 years' experience and continued study. Fact is, Harford teachers make as much for their 10-month work year as do many people working 12 months.

Harford teachers have had no cost-of-living increase for two years and they deserve a raise this year. But that's not to say they should be paid extra for lost planning time, as school board member George Lisby suggested. It's not marginal pay that is at issue; it's designated time.

If extra education funds are available, why not reimburse elementary teachers for the money they inevitably spend out of pocket for small gifts, books and rewards they buy to motivate their young charges?

And let's give them more planning time. But make sure it occurs on full days, not the half-day sessions that play havoc with everyone's child-care schedule -- that's important -- and short-change afternoon-session kindergartners.

A few extra no-classes days for teacher planning time wouldn't be a bad idea -- not taken out of the children's 180 days, but added to their 190 days. And if elementary teachers had to stay on the job until 5 p.m. daily, 90 minutes after the pupils depart, they'd have a lot more official planning time within an eight-hour day. Point is, they really prefer the schedule flexibility and work at home.

So, if you read this column, thank an editor, a computer technician, a compositor, a newspaper delivery man. And a lot of good teachers.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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