- Taryn Williams is a teacher in a public school district in Alaska who feels guilty taking days off.
- Incentives not to take days off and misperceptions about having summers free add to the problem.
- She knows that she’s a better teacher when she takes time off to recharge.
Taking paid time off has become a highly discussed topic in recent years, and there are headlines all over the internet about how people should be taking more time for themselves — a necessary reminder, as only 21% of employees took the full amount of leave that was available to them in 2020, according to a recent Priceline survey.
However, these conversations usually center around 9-to-5 jobs with flexible or generous vacation leave and don’t usually include careers that follow different PTO systems.
Teachers have historically been left out of these conversations, because there’s a prevailing belief that we already get enough time off. Add to that having to overcome the guilt of leaving our students, and the fact that we can actually lose money by taking personal time, and it becomes easy to go your entire career without ever taking a day off work.
There’s a stigma around teachers taking time off
People still tell me on a regular basis how lucky I am to have summers off. When I recently told someone that I don’t generally take the full summer off — last summer I spent two full weeks away taking courses, another few weeks lesson planning, and yet more time preparing for the coming year — they said they didn’t think that was the norm.
The data tells a different story: About one in six teachers work second (or third) jobs during the summers, since teachers are still woefully underpaid compared to other degree-requiring fields, and even more spend at least part of the summer planning lessons and taking professional development courses.
I’ve added up the hours I work each school year and divided it by the number of weeks a person at a 9-to-5 job works, and it still comes out to more than 40 hours per week — and I know I’m not alone.
I typically work 11 hours on a school day and about six hours during the weekends. I spend the evenings grading and preparing for the next day, and weekends working on new material and curricula. The majority of teachers are working well beyond their scheduled hours and some are even going in on the weekends — there just isn’t enough time to get everything done otherwise.
Despite this, teachers shouldn’t be expected to prove that they’ve earned the time off — all people, regardless of their career paths, deserve to have lives and experiences outside of their work.
There’s often monetary compensation for not taking days off
Most teachers receive a set number of paid sick days (around 10 to 12) and personal days (between one and five) each year. There are rules associated with taking these days off — three or more sick days in a row often requires a doctor’s note, for example — and any extra days come out of our pay.
In addition to that, however, there are often monetary incentives to not take the personal days. While the day itself is paid, many districts pay teachers extra money at the end of the year if they have days left. They often offer teachers anywhere between an extra $100 and 125% of their full wages to not take a day off. Because our overall pay can be low, it can be hard to let go of any extra money that comes our way.
Additionally, some places, such as North Carolina, have tried charging teachers for substitute coverage, leaving many to weigh whether the cost is worth the time off.
For this reason, many teachers avoid using their personal days so that they can count on that check at the end of the school year.
Taking a day off doesn’t only have repercussions for us — it also affects our students. In a time when teachers are quitting in record numbers, many students are without a certified teacher or learning in overfilled classrooms. This is a burden both on students who aren’t receiving the quality education they deserve and colleagues who need to take on the extra work. When the system already seems so fraught, many teachers want to do what they can to feel like they aren’t 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 do — and necessitates taking extra time to write extremely detailed lesson plans — and I feel like I’m letting my students down when I do so.
Some districts are doing what they can to support teachers in taking time off — my school district supports teachers taking personal days and offers more time off than I’ve ever seen — but it’s hard to enjoy a day off when you feel guilty about what’s happening while you’re gone.
Teachers are leaving because they’re burnt out. Taking one day off a semester to recharge may be what I need to stay in the profession long term.
This past semester, I took the first personal day I’ve ever taken for fun (I’d been required to take them before for conferences or because of the frequent plane delays that are common in bush Alaska). A friend was visiting my village and I wanted to spend time with him and show him around, so I prepared the requisite lesson plans and made it happen.
I reminded myself that my students were where they needed to be academically and that I’d be in a better place to support them if I took some time for myself. Perhaps the way to fix the current teacher shortage is to advocate for teachers to care for themselves first — to teach them to put on their oxygen masks first, before assisting others.
In the changing landscape of work-life balance, we’ve already made so many strides in advocating for time off, and I know that taking personal days is definitely less stigmatized than it was just a few years ago. Everyone deserves a break, and we shouldn’t judge anyone who takes time for themselves. Employers offer personal days, PTO, and other breaks for a reason — we do our jobs better when we’ve had a chance to rest and recharge.