Teachers quit because personal days are stigmatized

  • Taryn Williams is a teacher in a public school district in Alaska who feels guilty about taking days off.
  • Incentives not to take days off and misconceptions about free summers compound the problem.
  • She knows she is a better teacher when she takes time to recharge.

Taking paid time off has become a much-discussed topic in recent years, and there are headlines all over the internet about how people should take more time for themselves – a necessary reminder, as only 21% of employees took all of the leave available to them in 2020, according to a recent Priceline survey.

However, these conversations typically focus on 9-to-5 jobs with flexible or generous annual leave and typically don’t include careers that follow different PTO systems.

Teachers have always been excluded from these conversations because there is a widespread belief that we already have enough free time. Add to that having to overcome the guilt of leaving our students and the fact that we can actually lose money taking personal time, and it becomes easy to do your entire career without ever taking a day off.

There is a stigma around teachers who take time off

People still tell me regularly how lucky I am to have free summers. When I recently told someone that I don’t usually take the whole summer — last summer I spent two full weeks taking classes, a few more weeks planning classes, and even more time to prepare for the coming year — they said they hadn’t. think that was the norm.

The data tells a different story: about one in six teachers work a second (or third) job during the summer, as teachers are still woefully underpaid compared to other fields requiring a degree, and even more spend at least part of the summer planning classes and taking professional development courses.

I added up the hours I work each school year and divided them by the number of weeks someone in a 9-to-5 job works, and that’s still over 40 hours a week – and I know that I’m not alone.

I usually work 11 hours per school day and about six hours on weekends. I spend the evenings jotting down and preparing for the next day, and the weekends working on new materials and programs. The majority of teachers work well beyond their scheduled hours and some even go on weekends – there just isn’t enough time to do anything else.

Despite this, teachers should not be expected to prove that they have earned time off – all people, regardless of their career path, deserve to have a life and experiences outside of their work.

There is often monetary compensation for do not take days off

Most teachers receive a fixed number of paid sick days (about 10 to 12) and personal days (between one and five) each year. There are rules associated with taking these days off – three or more consecutive sick days often require a doctor’s note, for example – and any extra days are deducted from our pay.

On top of that, however, there are often monetary incentives for not taking the days personal. While the day itself is paid, many districts pay teachers an extra amount at the end of the year if they have days left. They often offer teachers between an additional $100 and 125% of their total salary for not taking a day off. Because our overall compensation may be low, it may be difficult to get rid of any extra money that comes our way.

Additionally, some places, like North Carolina, have tried to charge teachers for replacement coverage, leaving many wondering if the cost was worth it.

For this reason, many teachers avoid using their personal days so that they can rely on that check at the end of the school year.

Taking the day off doesn’t just affect us, it also affects our students. At a time when teachers are dropping out in record numbers, many students find themselves without a certified teacher or learning in overcrowded classrooms. It’s a burden both for students who don’t get the quality education they deserve and for their colleagues who have to shoulder the extra work. When the system already seems so overloaded, many teachers want to do what they can to feel like they are not contributing to these problems.

Taking a day off requires me to leave my students with someone who doesn’t have the content knowledge that I have – and requires taking extra time to write extremely detailed lesson plans – and I have feel like I’m letting my students down when I do it then.

Some districts are doing what they can to help teachers take time off — my school district supports teachers who take personal days and provide more time off than I’ve ever seen — but it’s hard to take advantage of that. ‘a day off when you feel guilty about what’s going on while you’re gone.

Teachers leave because they are exhausted. Taking one day off per semester to recharge may be what I need to stay in the profession long term.

Last semester I took the first personal day I’ve ever taken for fun (I’ve had to take them before for lectures or because of frequent plane delays in the Alaskan bush). A friend was visiting my village and I wanted to hang out with him and show him around, so I made the necessary lesson plans and made it happen.

I reminded myself that my students were where they needed to be academically and that I would be in a better position to support them if I took time for myself. Perhaps the way to address the current teacher shortage is to advocate for teachers to take care of themselves first – to teach them to put on their oxygen masks first, before helping others.

In the changing landscape of work-life balance, we’ve already made so much progress advocating for time off, and I know that taking personal time off is significantly less stigmatized than it was just a few years ago. Everyone deserves a break, and we shouldn’t judge those who take time for themselves. Employers offer personal days, PTOs and other breaks for a reason: we do our jobs better when we’ve had a chance to rest and recharge.

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