The Myth of Teachers’ Free Periods

I know I am fortunate to teach at Gatlinburg-Pittman. If you’ve read much here on Socrates Underground, you’ve picked up on how helpful our district supervisors are; you know I have a great local support community here; you’ve noticed how fond I am of my students.  When I started looking into planning time for this post, I again realized that my situation truly would be Heaven for many teachers. On Reddit, one teacher commented, “I recently finished a temporary contract teaching grade 7. We got a one-hour prep period every 6 days.” In Tennessee, this would not even be legal in a public school; I don’t know where this teacher faced such abusive conditions. I am fortunate enough to have a full class period’s planning time, 90 minutes, every day. Even that, however, does not keep me from working on lessons during the summer, grading essays late into the night, or writing tests in my dreams.

desk clutterThe Planning Period, sometimes disparagingly called a “free period,” is no guarantee that teachers have time enough to plan at work, though. Another teacher on Reddit, who is fortunate enough to have planning time, is fairly typical of teachers I know. “I teach five different classes (two entirely different subjects) and have one 53 minute planning period. This year it is at the beginning of the day, which is nice for planning. I usually also stay after at least an hour to grade or finishing planning.” Why exactly do teachers never seem to have enough time? Do teachers just have poor time management skills? Do television shows that portray teachers sitting around socializing during their “free periods” have it right?

Absolutely not!

numbers-time-watch-whiteDedicated teachers spend much of their “planning” time doing much more than planning lessons and grading papers. My planning period is at the end of the day, so I can get caught up for the current day and ready for the next; I like it that way. I’m not good at leaving things undone. I have three different preps (That’s teacher jargon for classes with different content.), with a brand new schedule to accommodate this year. I’m a veteran teacher, though, and none of these are brand new classes for me, so I’m very lucky. Still, I find it a strain to stay even half-way caught up each day. So how am I using my planning period? Below is a partial list of some of the things I have done in the past two weeks during my “planning” period. Each week, I have  7.5 hours of “planning” time. Below are examples of some teacher responsibilities that can’t be done during class time.

In the past two weeks, here is how I spent my allotted 15 hours.

Parent conferences– I met with parents of struggling students. Each of these two meetings lasted about 30 minutes. (1 hour)

writing on paper2Writing letters of recommendation– A major component of students’ college and scholarship applications is the letter of recommendation. The latest National Association for College Admissions Counseling report indicates that the teacher letter of recommendation is outranked in importance only by SAT/ACT test scores, Strength of Curriculum, and Grades in College Prep Courses. Private and more selective schools place even more importance on letters of recommendation. According to Compass Education Group, “At selective schools – those that accept fewer than 50% of applicants – greater emphasis is placed on strength of curriculum, overall GPA, the essay, letters of recommendation, and AP/Subject Test scores.” Just tossing something off on a recommendation is not helpful, and could even be detrimental to the student. Admissions committees can tell the difference between a thoughtful, personal letter of recommendation and something superficial. Each letter I write takes at least an hour. In the past two weeks, I wrote four. (4 hours)

Serving as “Tech Geek”– As the on-site techie, when a student’s scholarship application required her to record her application essay as a speech, then record it as “a regular audio CD,” the guidance counselor sought my help. This was a situation that had not come up before, and when the student brought in the application seeking help in the guidance office, they did not know what to do. The head counselor knows that I’m into all things computer, so she asked me. I did have the required software, and we managed to get the application completed. This took about 45 minutes.proofreading

Proofreading an essay for a former student– I don’t stop being my students’ teacher when they leave my classes. They often stop back by and ask for help with their an essay for a scholarship or that first big paper for the joint-enrollment class. No, I don’t have to do this, but I’m a teacher; I teach. This time, it was a short read. It took about 15 minutes.

Meeting with the guidance counselor to discuss student progress– I have some students who have been struggling, and our guidance office has a wealth of information about students that can point me in the right direction as I help these students. It takes time to go through the information, though, and to work out a plan with the guidance counselor. Over the past two weeks, I’ve probably spent an hour in the guidance office.

Correspondence– Each day, I spend about 20 minutes responding to messages from parents and students. I have various messaging systems in an attempt to be as accessible as possible (without giving out my phone number). I get to school early and try to knock out as many replies from overnight messages as possible before the day starts, but I get new messages throughout the day, and I try to respond the same day if messages come in before the school day is over.

Homebound student coordination– I met with a homebound teacher to coordinate lessons for a student with a prolonged absence. I also had to set up a separate online course for this student to facilitate the lessons. This took about half an hour.

crying womanTalking to two students who were in distress– Students who are in emotional distress cannot reach their academic potential. Research aside, a person who can ignore another human being in pain should not become a teacher. I know am not a professional counselor, and while the guidance counselors at my school are amazing, students open up to the person with whom they feel a connection. Often that is a teacher. They see their teachers every day; they may only see the counselors a few times a year. I spent two entire planning periods talking to students who were in crisis these past two weeks. Those situations eventually ended up with our guidance counselor, but those students chose me as their starting points.

Total time I spent in the last two weeks during my “Planning Period” NOT working on lesson plans or grading papers: around 12 hours

330px-Wooden_hourglass_3This left 3 hours of paid, at-school time in the last two weeks to actually plan lessons, gather materials, and grade papers. During this time, I graded 62 Romeo and Juliet essays, about two typed pages each. If you’ve ever graded an essay and written thoughtful, helpful comments, you know this took a long time. I’ve graded various vocabulary tests. I’ve written and graded two exams for history of the Bible. (There is no textbook for this class.) I’ve updated my classroom website. I’m in the process of looking for materials for a new unit I’m planning. (Fortunately, it is not on the books until next semester.) During all of this, I drive some students to school, try to get to know my new students, catch up with former students, and somehow stay sane. (I make no guarantees about that last one.)

I love being a teacher. Really.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of Teachers’ Free Periods

    1. We start at 8:00 and end at 3:30. I usually get here at 7:45. The day isn’t really too long; it’s just exhausting. Then, of course, there is all the work I do at home. I really like writing exams, though. Grading tests–that’s another matter.

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