‘296 Minutes of Work’ Doesn’t Sum Up Chicago’s Teachers

Xian Barrett is a teacher of law and Chicago history at Gage Park High School, in Chicago, Illinois, and has a front row seat to the ongoing conflict between the Chicago Public Schools leaders and the Chicago Teachers Union. In particular, the issue of a longer school day — a campaign promise of current mayor Rahm Emanuel — is listed as one of the main things holding up the negotiations between the CPS and CTU on the new contract for the teachers.

Xian, writing in an editorial for CNN’s Schools Of Thought blog, explains that numbers being publicized, such as the one that says that school teachers in Chicago only work 296 minutes a day, present an inaccurate picture of how hard those who are responsible for instructing the city’s students actually work. He explains that his contract demands 5 periods of 45 minutes of instruction a day, along with a 30-minute home room period each Friday that results on each class being shortened by 4 minutes — a total of 296 minutes. But giving the time each teacher spends actually teaching each week hardly tells the whole story.

To show why that is, Barrett lays out the typical schedule of his school day:

I teach 9th grade world studies. In a given day, between classes, organizational activities, hallway interaction, phone calls and social media interaction, I will engage between 200-250 students, former students and parents.  At my current school, I report to work at 7:22 a.m. and can clock out at 2:15 p.m. with a 45 minute lunch period. This compares similarly with the lengths of school days in the higher performing suburban districts. In Chicago, public high school days that are the “shortest in the country” exist only in the minds of those attempting to impose a longer school day.

Barrett also spends 45 minutes four days a week on prep-work, although hardly any of that time actually goes to preparation of any sort. Instead, teachers usually spend that period of time helping students who show up trying to catch up on their own work, or who are serving punishments for any kind of rule-breaking during lesson time. Although having students serve out detention during the course of the school day rather than after is a good thing, the lost prep time taken up by supervising them still has to be made up somewhere. This usually happens after the workday has concluded when the teacher is technically off the clock.

Another period is dedicated to our mandated common planning time. We review the district’s latest initiatives or analyze our student achievement data. The students spend nearly four weeks of class time taking standardized tests

The last period of the day is spent with my cooperative special education teacher as we plan for the next week. We trade advice on how to support some of the students struggling a bit in each other’s classes.

Contrary to the commonly-made assertions, Chicago teachers aren’t working a day that is “shortest in the country.” A recent Gates study found that Chicago teachers worked on average, 53 hours a week. A similar study by the University of Illinois actually pegged that number even higher: 58 hours a week.

Last month, our hundreds of elected union representatives voted unanimously to reject a recommendation of an 18.2% pay raise in compensation for an extended school day. We want improvement in our schools, and we would like to be compensated fairly for our work. There are just far more effective ways to support our students’ learning.

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