'But don't teachers work 9am to 3pm?'


Primary School teacher, Sally Baker, got so fed up with non-teachers underestimating the hours involved in our job, she put down on paper everything we do outside of the classroom.

I once mentioned to a relative that I get to school between 7:30 and 8am, depending on how busy things are, and am usually there until between 4 and 5pm.  “But what do you do in all that time?” I was asked.

Another time, I mentioned to a friend that my hubby had cooked a lovely dinner that night.  She replied, “Oh, I thought you would do all the cooking at your place, since you’d be home so much earlier from work than him”.

And just last week I visited a family day care centre to enquire about care for my son when I return to work from maternity leave next year. When I mentioned that I would need care from 7:30am to 5pm, the carer replied, “But aren’t you a teacher?!”

Us teachers, and anyone who lives with us, knows that the idea of a teacher only being at work from 9 to 3 is not only madness but also quite impossible if we are doing our job properly.

So what do we do outside the hours of 9 to 3?  Perhaps it’s time to let the wider community in on the ‘secret life of teacher’…

Setting Up, Packing Up, Locating Resources, Liaising with Colleagues

Our lunch times, and before and after school are generally spent doing such things as photocopying, binding activity books, finding textbooks, creating worksheets, trawling through library shelves to find picture books that contain plenty of words with the ‘sound of the week’, or finding poetry containing examples of personification.

We can spend half an hour squeezing paint into egg cartons, washing up paintbrushes, cleaning up vomit or wee from the carpet, laminating posters and games, pinning up student artworks, filing worksheets and student work samples, dusting the cupboards, and wiping down the desks. We spend time collecting test tubes/paint bottles/glitter/fossil samples/percussion instruments etc. for upcoming lessons.

We trawl the Internet for a video that helps explain states of matter, or for photos showing what life was like a hundred years ago. We inform colleagues about issues they need to be aware of with particular students, such as sickness, parent divorce, behavioural problems, and academic needs.

Meetings, Emails & Consultations

My current school begins each week with a 15 minute administration meeting on Monday mornings, to discuss upcoming events and issues for the week ahead. On Tuesday afternoons from 3:15 to 5pm we have professional development, and on Wednesday afternoons we have a team meeting, where team issues and planning are discussed and worked through. 

Throughout the year, we receive constant emails and have meetings with school counsellors, parents, and executive staff to discuss a range of issues, from a child being bullied on the playground, to our own career development, to a student being sent to school with McDonalds for lunch every day.

Planning, Assessing & Reporting

As primary school teachers, we teach reading, writing, spelling, handwriting, speaking & listening, maths, science, geography, history, visual arts, music, drama, dance, and personal development/ health/ physical education. Phew!! So on average, that’s about 15 or so unit plans we need to develop throughout the year, and then from that, about 5-6 different lessons per day.

For each of these 25-30 weekly lessons to plan for, we also need to find or make resources (worksheets, games, flashcards, literature units PowerPoint presentations, online videos, etc.) to go with them, and mark and analyse the work that students produce.

At the end of each unit, assessment tasks need to be created, administered, marked against assessment rubrics (also created by us) and analysed. We then record student results and many of us create MS Excel graphs and charts to provide visual representations of student achievement. After this process, we compare and check our marking against that of other teachers in the same year level, in order to ensure our grading is fair across the board- a process called moderation, which can sometimes take hours for just one assessment item.

Then, twice a year, we have student reports. This is often a case of multiple weekends of working 9-5 as we laboriously look through each student’s assessment tasks and results, wording comments, rewording them, and editing them. Spending multiple weekends writing reports all day, as well as squeezing in time for planning lessons for the upcoming week, is utterly exhausting, and families of teachers know that at these two times of the year, their teaching family member is not part of the family. They don’t resurface again until reports are done!  

Once or twice a year, parents are usually invited to visit us for an interview as well. Last year I had 28 children in my class, and every set of parents had an interview. My school was wonderful enough to provide a day for me to do these interviews, but five parents could not come on the allocated day, so even in this wonderful scenario, I had five interviews of 15-30 minutes to fit in after school that week. Many schools are unable to provide any time for interviews.

Social and Emotional Development of Students

Lunch times and before and after school are often taken up with conflict resolution, working with students who have been fighting, are being bullied, or are having trouble making or maintaining friendships. This can involve lengthy discussions with groups of students, parents, and sometimes executive staff members and school counsellors, as we try to determine the cause of the problems, develop strategies for improving the situation, and determine if any consequences are needed for students at fault. 

As teachers, we also deal with the vast range of issues students are going through in their private lives at home. Almost every year I have been teaching, a student in my class has had a parent battling cancer. As the child’s teacher, this can involve many heart-breaking conversations with both the child and parent, helping the parent find appropriate resources to help them speak with their child about the cancer, as well as lots of consoling, comforting, and talking through their fears with them. I have had a student announce her father’s cancer during news time, had a parent cry in front of me as they told me their cancer diagnosis and that they didn’t know how to tell their child, and I have had a child send me a private letter asking me “What does throat cancer do to you?”

We spend a great deal of time each year in meetings with parents and counsellors trying to help address the needs of children with a vast range of social, emotional and academic issues. This often involves us spending months documenting daily evidence of a child’s behaviours and abilities, and filling in various psychological and medical forms and checklists in order to assist in the diagnosis of language disorders, giftedness, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and more.

We watch on as our students act out, or become angry, sad, naughty, hysterical, or silent, when a pet or grandparent has died, or their parents have split up, got divorced, started living with a new partner, been injured, come out of the closet, or had an affair.  Each time, we need to take the time to talk with the child or families, determine what is upsetting the child, and help the child to come to terms with the situation in the most sensitive way possible. 

We have assisted girls who have come to us, awkward and embarrassed to tell us they have just started their period and don’t know what it is, or what to do. And we have spent mornings before school helping feed and clothe children suffering parental neglect, helped these children with homework and projects so they aren’t the only one in the class who hasn’t done it, and sat with children after school while they waited for their parents who turned up over an hour late. We have had conversations with students, counsellors and parents about students who have hinted at possible sexual or physical abuse, and have made nervous, heart-breaking phone calls to Care & Protection.

Weekends & Stand-down Time

Teachers are required to do 20 hours per year of professional development outside of teaching hours and normal after-school activities. This means toddling off to lectures, seminars, workshops or even postgraduate study on weekends and in term breaks.  We often spend part of our summer holidays packing up our old classrooms, and preparing for our new classes - ducking into school to set up tables and chairs, laminate name tags, bag labels and book labels, organise classroom resources and furniture, and meet with ex-teachers, counsellors and parents of students who have special needs. 

During the year, stand-down time may be taken up at least in part, by reading class novels in order to create literature studies, catching up on marking, tidying our classrooms, refining upcoming lesson plans, collecting & buying resources (think coloured velvet wall hangings & candles for a Harry Potter unit, dice for a maths game, toblerone chocolates to study the shape of triangular prisms, etc.). 

Weekends regularly involve a few hours spent planning and collecting resources for the upcoming week.  Because we teach so many subjects, we also aren’t always as familiar with all topics as is necessary to teach them well. So in this case, research is needed!  We might spend our Sunday mornings researching atoms, how electricity works, world religions, Roman numerals, and more.

And so….

In my experience, the vast majority of teachers work very long hours each week, and put an amazing amount of time, thought, care and passion into their job. They genuinely care about their students and strive to do their best for them. I have felt such heartache, happiness, sorrow, love, pride, joy and excitement for my students over the years. They become such a part of your life for the time you have them. In fact, the first day of the school year has always been my favourite day of the year.  I compare it to Christmas - I get 28 presents; 28 unique, amazing surprises to discover and invest my time, energy and thoughts in throughout the year. 

If only the wider community could understand just what an amazing, exhausting, wonderful privilege it is to be a teacher! So what do teachers do between 3pm and 9am? The answer is, what don’t we do?

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