Public Release: 

Childcare responsibilities don't hinder student-teacher face time

Penn State

While elementary school teachers with children do work slightly fewer hours than teachers without children, childcare responsibilities do not shorten the time that teachers are available to students or other faculty members, according to a Penn State labor studies expert.

"In general, the elementary school teachers' workday is 10.3 hours, far longer than the 6 to 7 hours called for by teacher contracts," says Dr. Robert Drago, professor of labor studies and women's studies. "While teachers who are parents work less time, they still work more time than contracts require, averaging 9.6 hours a day and spend the same amount of time physically present in school."

In a recent issue of Feminist Economics, Drago reports that working parents find the time to care for their children by working only about 45 minutes less per day and finding the remainder of the time by reducing personal time, passive leisure, educational/computer time and exercise time. This last category could be problematic as the average parents reduced their exercise way below that recommended for good health.

On the school front, the 45 minutes not worked by parents are, he believes, made up for by voluntary extra duties done by other teachers in this predominantly female occupation.

"Non-parent employees may volunteer to pick up the slack for parent employees," says Drago. "Sometimes a particular teacher will, and at other times will not, have substantial commitments to family, so helping out when family commitments are minimal might be accepted and expected."

This life-course approach suggests that the childless teachers realize that they, too, will eventually need others to step in when they are parents and that the teachers with older children realize that someone volunteered in their stead when they were raising little ones.

Drago used information from the Time, Work and Family Project run by Drago and Robert Caplan and David Costanza, both of George Washington University. Data come from four school districts and 46 schools, all urban public schools. Two of the school districts are on the East Coast and two in the Midwest. Three of the four districts were heavily minority and very low income; the fourth was only 23 percent minority and a third low income. Schools like these, according to Drago, put a heavy burden on teachers' time.

The data on working time was collected using a 24-hour time-use diary filled out by teachers on a Tuesday. Teachers were also asked if that day was a representative normal day. Because of the predominance of women in elementary schools, all male teachers were chosen for the survey and then women were picked randomly to fill the remaining spots.

"Because of the norms affecting them, teachers who become parents will strive to minimize the public appearance of commitments to their own children and maximize the appearance and reality of commitment to their students," says Drago.

The norms affecting teachers are the ideal worker norm and the norm of parental care; two norms that at times contradict each other. The ideal worker norm is that of a professional who works long hours with only minimum interruption for short vacations. The norm of parental care, applied in teaching, implies that women are parents both to their own children and to their students. When only single women could be teachers, there was no conflict, but when married women with children began teaching, a tug of war between the norm of parental care as applied to offspring and to students ensued, with the students generally winning out.

In an effort to professionalize teaching, the adoption of the ideal worker norm in teaching fed into the long hours. The Penn State researcher concludes that "regardless of parenting responsibilities, teachers work very long hours and uncompensated, voluntary and arguably unfair transfers of working time from parents to non parents occur in elementary schools where at least 80 percent of the teachers are women."

Some solutions to these problems may include increased compensation for the long hours, reducing the overall length of the workday, integrating work and family life, and publically provided or subsidized child and dependent care initiatives.

"I believe that some mixture of all four approaches makes sense," says Drago. "Each approach responds to the concrete issues of long working hours and difficulties in meeting simultaneous commitments to work and family."

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