Teacher asleep on school desk (iStock)

Opinionated family members say the darndest things when it comes to discussing the hours teachers keep — but researchers will tell them educators are indeed overworked, Tyler Berrigan writes.

“School teaching would have to be the cushiest job on the planet! I mean, finishing at 4pm … the long, paid holidays … it’s the dream! I honestly don’t know if teachers know how good they’ve got it.”

Ever had a well-meaning friend or family member regurgitate similar statements? It happened to me one sweltering Australian summer night at a sleepy Sunday barbecue, whilst waiting in line to plop some burnt sausages and potato salad on to my plate. I was mid-conversation with an otherwise inoffensive uncle when I heard the statement above drift from his mouth into my consciousness.

Exasperation and rage immediately boiled to the surface. You know those moments where you discernibly pause, as the slow-motion visions of clobbering them with the salad spoon in front of all your guests, run languidly through your head? It was like that. It took all my energy and mental stamina to not follow through on my irrational thoughts.

Feeling frustrated?

But why do comments like that drive teachers up the wall?

Firstly, because we know the antagonist has no clue about the nature of the job; the hours spent at school negotiating with energetic children and hormone-fuelled teenagers. Teaching is a roller-coaster and, at times, it leaves you drained and weary to say the least. My wife will attest to the fact that when I get home from a busy day teaching, I need about an hour of proper wind-down time, where I sit in silence and stare at the wall as the grey matter runs out my ears.

Thank goodness for the good times and successes that keep us teachers doing what we do.

Secondly, the antagonist in the above scenario likely does not fully appreciate the hours that teachers actually work. From lesson planning to reporting, marking tests, locating or making resources, keeping up with departmental requirements, professional development, parent and teacher nights, community events, extra-curricular activities, social media commitments, and compiling exam papers, there is seemingly no end to the plethora of additional work that a teacher must do. And this is not just my own experience. It is a grim reality that many teachers face.

Feeling tired?

Teachers are working more than two hours a day outside of regular school hours and it’s contributing to higher stress levels, researchers at the universities of South Australia and Canberra reported in Australian Psychologist. “The stress levels tend to be universally high,” study co-author Dr Peter Winwood told Adelaide’s Advertiser. “It can have very significant potential to cause both physical and emotional health [problems].”

These hours are often unappreciated and under recognised. In the end, something must give. But this isn’t just the experience of teachers in Australia. Teachers in the UK are also working an unreasonable number of additional hours.

The UK’s Department for Education’s latest teacher workload survey found that classroom teachers and middle leaders are working on average 54 hours per week. “Over three-quarters of teachers were dissatisfied with the number of hours they usually worked,” the survey found. “Most staff disagreed that they can complete their workload in their contracted hours and that they can achieve a good balance between their work and private life.”

In a time of supply shortages and high teacher burnout, this is indeed grim. Ultimately, it is driving teachers from the profession and harming the education of children. If we can address this issue, it would produce happier, healthier and more efficient teachers.

At the very least, it will curb family barbecue altercations.