Summers off, two weeks of Christmas vacation, that week of spring break and seven-hour school days: At first glance it looks like school employees have a pretty cushy schedule.
As teachers and school support employees are pursuing contract talks and trying to get pay raises, some critics in the community say their wage demands are out of line for part-time jobs.
But if you talk to educators about how much they actually work, a different picture emerges. Senior employees report that the workload is crushing -- and growing.
Although employment contracts say that Kenai Peninsula Borough School District teachers work 188 days per year, and the mandated work day is less than eight hours long, employees will tell you that schedule is fiction.
"The amount of things we are asked to do simply cannot be done in a 40-hour work week," said Zada Friedersdorff.
She teaches a fifth- and sixth-grade blended class at Redoubt Elementary School and will retire this spring after teaching in Soldotna since 1978.
Class time is only half the education picture. Teachers also have to file reports, grade papers, prepare lessons, read regulations, apply for grants, attend training session and go to meetings.
"All that has to be done when the kids are not here. ... I easily put in at least 20 hours a week in addition to (class time)," she said.
When schools are in session, employees commonly work up to 15 hours a day. And many of those people are at school before it opens in August, after it closes in May, on weekends and during holiday breaks. When they are not on school grounds, they might be grading papers, chaperoning a trip or buying supplies for a class project.
Summer is not necessarily a vacation. Some teachers work summer jobs to augment their school salaries. Many attend college courses, paying tuition to gather credits they need to keep their certification or to advance.
Teachers invest summer hours in gathering materials, reading and developing lessons as well.
"Many, many of us keep our keys and come in during the summer 20 to 30 days," Friedersdorff said.
They spend so much summer time at school they don't even bother to take the aquarium fish or house plants out, she said.
"If you come to my building Sunday afternoon (during the school year), you would find more than half the people here," she said. "... I spent two full days of my spring break here, and that's probably less than I usually spend. And there were other teachers here every time."
Friedersdorff estimated that in a typical year her hours add up to more than a full-time job.
The burden touches district employees at all levels, with support staff and senior administrators alike putting in extra hours with no overtime compensation.
Beth Martin agreed that the job is more than full time. The head secretary at Soldotna High School, she has worked for the district for 20 years.
"Everybody, most everybody, puts in more time than their allotted day," she said. "You do what you have to do to get the job done."
She scoffed at the idea of education being a part-time job and invited skeptics to come watch her at work.
"I bet in my 10 months of the year I do 14 months worth of work," she said.
Nelma Cole, the counseling secretary at the school, added, "You know you are not going to get paid. You just do it."
The two women report that for school secretaries, the supposedly mandated breaks just don't happen, and most end up eating lunch at their desks.
Not all the educators work so much. But the ones who do tend to be thought of as the best ones.
Cole described one teacher she worked with at Soldotna Middle School who sometimes works from 5:30 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m.
"She takes on all the extra activities," Cole said. "There is no stipend for these."
Martin pointed out one subtle pressure to work off the clock: Interruptions are so common during the day that workers can be far more efficient after hours.
Many of the extra jobs school workers are doing are of recent origin. Society's problems come into the classroom, and children stay on the campus after hours because their mothers are at work or even because they are afraid to leave. The children at school now are not like those of past generations, Martin said.
She has seen her class sizes, on average, edge up 10 to 20 percent over the years. Turnover from transient families also is up. And more children then ever have emotional or academic special needs, she said.
At the same time, educators have fewer parents volunteering in class.
"It's not that they don't care. It's that they have to work," she said.
Unfunded mandates and cuts at the central office have added to the workload for school employees. For example, teachers have to do the paperwork on individual education plans for special education students, a task once handled by administrative clerks.
"The amount of paperwork we have to do has increased so much," Friedersdorff said.
Reforms that put in new standards, increased testing and mandated the high school exit exam have ratcheted up the pressure on students and educators.
"It is like everything's in a flux of change," she said. "It has been high stress because there is so much at stake for the kids."
Among those under the most pressure are itinerant employees, who divide their time among multiple schools.
Cole described one such aide.
"Ours arrives breathless in the morning. ... She eats lunch in her car on the way over."
Cole and Martin described other support employees going above and beyond duty. Custodians come in early to shovel snow, and nurses work extra days off contract to check vaccination records.
Friedersdorff suggested people compare educators' salaries to baby sitters'.
"An average teacher is getting paid under $10 per day per student," she said.
Friedersdorff knows the people in all the dedicated professions put in far more hours than they get paid for.
"Somehow people don't think we do. That's what hurts. We are given a job that cannot humanly be done."
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