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Life Hacks from Chicago’s ‘Work-Action’ Experiment

April 1st, 2017 by jacqueline

Chicago’s Northside High School Teachers, April 24, 2017

Also printed in the Huffington Post:

As the Board of Education and the Chicago Teacher’s Union lock horns over impending budget cuts, Chicago’s teachers spent the past week in the trenches participating in a radical citywide ‘work-action’ experiment. In the Northside High School teacher’s lounge (where folks do anything but lounge), jaws dropped as CTU delegates explained the new world order: for the following week, teachers would only work their contractual obligations. To the letter, Governor Rauner. Click. Clack. Moo.

“How will we teach effectively without arriving an hour early and staying an hour or two late, and working evenings and weekends?” 19-year veteran English teacher, Nora Flanagan asked in disbelief. Teachers, already struggling against budget constraints and workflow logistics, have been working double and triple overtime to fill in the gaps. True to their calling, several teachers decided to turn the challenging ‘work to rule’ experiment into a teachable moment.

Before the week began, the very idea of stopping work at 3 o’clock sharp seemed unimaginable. A daily commute without responding to parent’s phone calls on the fly? Cooking dinner without simultaneously grading papers, preparing in-class and observation materials, and responding to emails from every possible school community stakeholder? Surely classrooms would implode if teachers had time to be, well, normal?

Twelve-year veteran math teacher, Jill Sullivan, left an eleven-year career at Accenture where time-tracking for billable hours was the rule. Since 2008, she’s been conducting her own ad hoc ‘work-to-rule’ experiment at Northside, collecting data on her colleagues’ productivity and analyzing the results (*see below). By her calculations, CPS teachers require at least twelve additional hours per week to perform their school duties to maintain even adequate levels. This total does not even include the extra unpaid time allocated for mandatory after-school tutoring, coaching, or extracurriculars that help Northside consistently rank as one of Newsweek’s top ten high schools in the nation.

Ms. Sullivan believes that her informal data plus this week’s feedback highlight a fundamental flaw in how the contract sets the ratio of planning to instructional time. Currently, teacher planning may not exceed more than half the instructional time. “Can you imagine any professional being asked to solely plan and deliver a one-hour presentation with less than thirty minutes of preparation?” Ms. Sullivan asks. “This is what we ask our teachers to do week in and week out for an entire year. Pile on differentiated instruction and 140 personalized reports? No wonder why teacher burnout has become an epidemic.”

How did the Northside teachers manage to compress their already overburdened workload into just seven hours? The most successful learned to say ‘no’ (or at least ‘not yet’) more often and cherry-pick from a highly curated To-Do list rather than bounce from one fire to another. Technophiles turned to Chicago’s productivity-guru Saya Hillman for her favorite digital life hacks and time management platforms. Here’s what worked:

  • OneTab: If you have a gazillion tabs open all the time, you’re hogging your computer’s memory. Converts all your tabs into one list that you can pop open as needed.

  • Boomerang: Write emails now but send them later and remind yourself if someone hasn’t gotten back to you.

  • Goo.gl url shortener: An extension which allows you to shorten the current website with two clicks (no more tiny.url’ing).

  • HelloSign: Makes signing documents super easy. No more download, print, sign, scan, upload, send.

  • Evernote: The ultimate digital filing cabinet. Great for keeping articles, brainstorms, receipts, notes, screenshots of everything. “Your brain is for generating ideas, not storing them.”

And yet, even with Saya’s nifty tech tools, no one concluded that treating professional white-collar work with a blue-collar labor structure is in the best interest of children. “Teaching isn’t a job that has a realistic starting or ending point in the day,” explains Tim Jung, a fourth-year teacher of English and Philosophy who also taught at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. “The ‘work-to-rule’ action made it clear that most of my job as a teacher actually takes place before or after school and on the weekends — and that’s all unpaid labor. If we only work the contracted hours, there’s significantly less time for planning, grading and virtually no time for coaching and tutoring. That’s a problem.”
Ms. Sullivan enjoyed her newfound leisure time as much as anyone but insists a compressed work week isn’t sustainable. “If I were restricted to seven hour work day forever, sure, we’d all muddle through, and maybe I’d even be happy for awhile, but ultimately, my kids would be so short shrifted that I’d want to quit. The joy of the work would disappear.”
Ms. Flanagan concurs but sees larger takeaways for others struggling with work-life balance. “I’m taking huge lessons from this action regarding the value of my time and setting limits around my working life. It’s high time I stopped carrying around the consistent sense that I’m perpetually falling behind.” That compartmentalization might be short lived. Ms. Sullivan’s data suggests that high-performing veteran teachers work even more hours than their less experienced peers.
However, Springfield isn’t delivering a lesson on self-compassion or smart work habits. This is a fight about money and that’s not something that a digital life hack is going to fix. Teachers aren’t shift workers any more than students aren’t cogs.
The only platform that really fixes this is a political platform that supports the reality of investing in world-class education. Coders don’t build that platform. Citizens do.
Want to support Chicago’s teachers?
Please help the cause by asking CPS CEO Forrest Claypool to support progressive taxation and the release of TIF funds to public schools (FEClaypool@cps.edu; 773.553.1508). #TeachersRock
And let’s show teachers all over the country some love!
Create a simple page like this in 60-seconds and easily collect videos of students telling their teacher why they’re appreciated. Then, use your free code (teachersrock25) to edit the clips together into a powerful montage that you can give as a gift. Here’s a sample Tribute video that Teach For America created last year during Teacher Appreciation Week. Isn’t gratitude the best life hack of all?
*Ms. Sullivan’s combined data suggests Northside teachers, like most professionals, regularly overlook their contractual hours to get the job done.
Years Teaching versus Extra Hours Worked by Week

Workload does not level off over time. Color coded by year the data was collected, each dot represents a teacher that shared their data. Thus, (1, 10) is a 1st year teacher working 10 extra hours/week while (1, 23) is one putting in 23 hours/week.

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