About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

It was an unpleasant surprise to discover — on payday, no less — that my salary had slightly decreased from last year. Amid the back-to-school whirlwind and the return of full in-person learning, my paychecks arrived at about $16 under what I had been making on the other side of summer. Admittedly, it’s an amount more annoying than devastating, but no one feels good about making less money, no matter how much.

I did the math: $16 per paycheck is $32 per month is $384 per year. That’s like six fancy dinners with my wife, or two to three weeks of groceries. I could almost feel what I would no longer have.

Then I found out why my pay went down: we dropped a bunch of after-school meetings for the year. That’s an exchange I can get behind, and I’m willing to bet a lot of teachers would be willing to take similarly sized pay cuts to eliminate excess meetings and otherwise trim the fat off their schedules.

This struck me as an idea worth exploring. Teacher pay is a perpetual issue, frequently discussed as the issue when it comes to addressing the state’s education woes. This is not without reason: the average teacher salary in Hawaii, when adjusted for cost of living, is often among the lowest in the country.

But the other side of “underpaid” is “overworked.” If teacher pay continues to be stuck in legislative gridlock, perhaps workload is another variable we can adjust to make teaching more palatable in the long term.

There are limits, of course. Pay can only be reduced so much before it nullifies any potential benefits that come with workload reduction. Rather, the argument wouldn’t be to mildly reduce pay in exchange for a lesser workload, but to keep salaries roughly the same or modestly increase them in conjunction with a reduced workload.

Part of the reason why more teachers than ever are considering leaving the profession is work-related stress. Burnout happens quickly, and it accumulates year-by-year. Making more money would be great, and it would likely motivate people to put up with being burned out for longer, but for most teachers it doesn’t actually address the issue of what burns them out in the first place.

Holomua Elementary School students walk back to their classrooms after recess.
Nearly everyone agrees that we need to invest more in education, but money is not the only way to do that. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

That’s why I was relieved to find out we would have fewer meetings this school year. I found them to be at best three times longer than they needed to be, and at worst total wastes of time. Even if good discussions were had and good ideas were generated, very little about our teaching practices changed. We’d all have to return to the same endlessly unfurling to-do list of the regular school year after the meeting ended.

How to lighten the workload is the tricky part. Work can only be reduced so much before it starts to negatively impact students. On paper, Furlough Fridays made sense — teachers worked less and got paid less. But it ultimately hurt students and did little to alleviate the burnout that drives teachers away. It was a lose-lose situation.

Although after-school meetings are easy to pick on and can definitely be reined in, they aren’t the real causes of burnout either — and some of them are genuinely important and necessary. The work of teaching and its attendant exhaustion happens throughout the day.

Teaching Versus Prep Periods

When I investigate my own burnout, the culprit almost always comes down to the amount of teaching periods versus the amount of prep periods. I’ve taught at several Department of Education schools, and I’ve only ever had one prep period compared to up to seven periods of teaching — sometimes in more than one subject.

On top of that, those prep periods are regularly conscripted for — you guessed it — meetings. Often these are the most productive meetings, since they’re with teams of teachers who share the same students, and they must fit within the time constraints of the bell schedule. But when you have other work to do, you’re not always emotionally and mentally available in those meetings the way you should be. Even when everyone is 100% present and focused, the end result is still the loss of a prep period.

Teachers are expected to do more than we have time to adequately prepare for. We are told to research and update our teaching practices while steadily improving curriculum while analyzing student data while evaluating and grading student work while communicating with kids and parents — on top of actually teaching classes all day. The only way to do all of this and do a good job is to continue working after work, and that’s where the burnout really metastasizes. If a job can’t ordinarily be done well within scheduled work hours, the system is broken.

In South Korea I taught for four hours every day, with three hours of prep around it. This gave me plenty of time to get all of my grading and planning done, as well as more ambitious and creative work. My team collaborated on lessons for extended periods of time to create multi-week courses and cross-content projects. We organized virtual speech contests and debate competitions with other campuses.

Easing Workloads

You don’t need to look overseas to see the same principle at work. Private schools in Hawaii usually give teachers more prep time, and it isn’t uncommon for public schools on the mainland to do the same. There are dozens of successful models currently in place.

With less teaching time during the day, teachers can get the daily paper shuffling out of the way and have more time to call parents. It can give teachers time to push into other classes for support and peer observations.

Transactional meetings can turn into meaningful collaboration, where teams who share the same students can build professional relationships and plan based on each other’s strengths:

Who’s good at coming up with ideas? Who’s good with the details and documents? Who’s good at connecting with students? How do we put things together in a way that will appropriately challenge low-performing, mid-performing and high-performing students? These are not simple questions to answer. They take sustained, focused time to figure out and put into action.

Education has looked the same for so long because teachers have not been given the time it takes to truly innovate, and credential programs are laughably insufficient. When you get busy, you rely on what you know — how your teachers taught you — and the cycle continues. This is a strain on teachers, and a disservice to students.

There are always people quick to point out that teachers get built-in vacations throughout the year, insinuating — if not explicitly demanding — that teachers just suck it up and deal with it. If it were that simple, then we wouldn’t be in a perpetual teacher shortage, and we wouldn’t be having the same discussions every year. This way of thinking doesn’t work, and anyone who has teaching experience will tell you that it can’t work.

Nearly everyone agrees that we need to invest more in education, but money is not the only way to do that. We shouldn’t dismiss the importance of competitive pay, especially in a place as expensive as Hawaii, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves solely to financial negotiations, either. We can just as easily, and perhaps more effectively address education issues by changing the type and amount of work that teachers must do.

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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

Latest Comments (0)

It is tough out there for teachers in Hawaii public schools. They must endure 30 to 35 hour work weeks for an entire 9 1/2 months out of the year. All teachers spend countless hours grading homework on their own time. Reviewing the homework of K through 3rd grade must take hours a day to finish. Most of these kids have horrible handwriting and can barely spell their name. As a result, teachers spend most of their time trying to identify the name of the child to grade the apple cutout pasted on construction paper. This type of unpaid administrative work poses an undue burden on teachers. Fortunately, some teachers have paid assistants who help them in their classrooms. These "assistants" are not even part of HSTA. Can you imagine having to endure working with a non-teacher in your classroom? The stress of writing this is almost unbearable and unspeakable. It is so unspeakable that this horrible truth is kept silent and we only speak of student teacher ratios. Educational Assistants, PPT's, PTT's, and the like are rightfullly ignored and kept in the shadows. Some schools are top heavy with administrators that they have 1 full time principal, which is excessive to say the least.

Mattie_H · 2 years ago

I'd agree with some of the comments about how low pay draws less desirable workers. My children have had both wonderful, talented teachers and miserable, lazy ones in DOE schools as well as private schools. The problem is many (though not all, thankfully) of the good ones disappear after a year or two and the bad ones stick around year after year.Administrative bloat should be reduced and teacher pay should be raised, but as a result, we'll really be stuck with some awful teachers for a while until they all retire. 

williamwilson · 2 years ago

First of all, teachers in Hawaii are under paid. period! There are some wonderful sub teachers, that the doe should help get certified, instead they ship them in from the mainland. The doe is not efficient, we need all new leaders. They are like our local politicians, stagnant and useless. So much of our local talent is wasting away.     It's time for some fresh air!! 

taxpayingauntie · 2 years ago

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