The Ticking Clock of Teacher Burnout

On average, American educators spend more hours with students than their international counterparts—and that may not be a good thing.

An illuminated clock on the face of Big Ben shines brightly against a dark sky.
Alastair Grant / AP

What if I only taught part-time?

That was my favorite daydream question as an elementary-school teacher in Massachusetts. Just to be clear, I wasn’t exactly looking to work less than a standard 8- or 9-hour workday. More than anything else, I craved a different schedule, in which I’d teach less on a daily basis and have more time to study my craft, plan better lessons, assess student work, and collaborate with my colleagues. With an average school day of about seven hours, about 5.5 of which I’d spend with my students, I always felt squeezed for time as an educator in the Bay State.

But my teaching environment changed when I moved to Finland. (Long story short: I married a Finn, we purchased one-way tickets to Helsinki in 2013, and I found a classroom teaching job at a Finnish public school, where I taught for two years.)

Just a few days before I started teaching in Helsinki, I met with my principal in her office, where she printed out my new teaching schedule. As I grasped that piece of paper, I struggled to believe what I was hearing for the first time: My full-time workload, reflecting a typical arrangement for other elementary teachers in Finland, would require only 18 hours of weekly classroom instruction. Not only that, but I’d have several 15-minute breaks sprinkled throughout each school day, which I could typically use flexibly (while my students played outside, supervised by a rotating team of teachers). This Helsinki timetable was a significant departure from my previous teaching schedule, but in Finland, where teachers have relatively fewer instructional hours compared to their international peers, it wasn’t exceptional. At my American school, I would usually spend an additional 10 hours instructing my students each week, and, every day, I’d usually possess just one block for planning.

Initially, I believed that Finland was an outlier with the amount of time it offers teachers to plan, assess, and collaborate on a daily basis. But, later, I’d discover that this kind of arrangement is fairly typical among countries that excel on international standardized assessments, such as the PISA. Take Singapore, for example.

In that high-performing Asian nation, lower-secondary (grades seven to nine) teachers work an average of 47.6 hours each week, only 17.1 hours of which are reserved for teaching their students, according to the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS).

Although American teachers at the lower secondary level work about the same number of hours as their counterparts in Singapore (44.8), TALIS showed that their “hours spent on teaching” are significantly higher. In fact, out of all the 34 participating countries in TALIS, American teachers had the most student contact hours at 26.8 hours each week, just a tick above what Chilean teachers reported. To put this data into perspective, the average number of weekly instructional hours per TALIS country, excluding U.S. data, was only 19.3, which means that American teachers reported spending 39 percent more hours, on average, teaching their students than did their international peers.

“Compared to 10 years ago, you know, the evidence I have is that there’s much more stress and time demands on teachers in the U.S.,” said Jon Snyder, a Stanford researcher who is a co-author of a forthcoming case study on student and teacher time in Singapore, “but my research doesn’t show that they spend significantly more time working than teachers in Singapore, but how they use that time is very different.”

Snyder, who is the executive director of Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), observed a career ladder at Singapore’s Kranji Secondary School (grades seven to 11), where different teachers assume various roles and responsibilities, and have different teaching schedules. For example, beginning teachers, after graduating from a teacher-education program, must complete a two-year induction program and two years of teaching successfully; those recent graduates in Singapore, Snyder found, only teach an average of 15 hours every week, while their more experienced colleagues have slightly more student contact hours (between 17 and 19 hours). “So compared to the amount of time that U.S. teachers spend in direct contact with students,” Snyder said, “that’s a lot less.”

Sensibly, this relatively light teaching load allows teachers in Singapore to devote more time during the school day to other important aspects of the job, such as planning and assessing student work. Beginning teachers in Singapore, Snyder found, have 19 hours every week for those two tasks. “And that’s the most because they are the least experienced,” he said. Senior teachers in Singapore, on the other hand, have 16.5 hours. If you’re a teacher with that much time for planning and assessment and significantly less student contact hours each week, Snyder pointed out, “you’re going to be able to do more and better work, because you can pay attention to it a lot longer.”

Dion Burns, one of Snyder’s colleagues at SCOPE and a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, helped to coordinate the time project and assisted in the production of a “day in the life” video of a senior teacher at Kranji Secondary School. This teacher’s typical working week, researchers observed, included 19 hours of planning and professional development, five hours of co-curricular tasks and assembly attendance, and 12-14 hours of classroom instruction.

“[Academic literature] shows that the things that keep teachers in the profession, among them, are working conditions,” said Burns. “And the kind of factors that are important to teachers and working conditions include the support from leadership, opportunities for collaboration and decision-making within the school, and access to resources for teaching and learning. So creating the conditions, including time for collaboration, I think, is an important factor in maintaining good teachers in the profession and lowering attrition rates.”

Compelling research involving Norwegian educators further underscores the importance of teachers’ working conditions. “Time pressure, in this study, was associated with emotional exhaustion, a contributing factor in teacher burnout,” Burns said. “Having more time, having more time to collaborate, increases teachers’ feelings of self-efficacy—that they can do the work, that they can be effective teachers—and that’s associated with increased job satisfaction and motivation to stay in the profession.”

Indeed, the TALIS report revealed, as Burns noted in an email, that “opportunities for teacher collaboration were positively related to teacher self-efficacy and teacher job satisfaction.” In a 2014 SCOPE report, Burns and the Stanford education professor emeritus Linda Darling-Hammond analyzed the TALIS data and findings and discovered that, as Burns put it, “in countries where teachers reported having more time for collaboration, they were also more likely to report that the teaching profession was valued in society, and that the advantages of being a teacher outweighed the disadvantages.” (In the TALIS data, Burns helped me to see, too, that the United States had the highest number of weekly instructional hours, on average, rather than the highest number of weekly working hours.)

There’s not as much research on the use of time as there is on most educational issues, according to Snyder. (However, he did note several recent examples, including TALIS and a 2016 study about teacher professional development in high-performing school systems.) “It seems a little shocking,” he said, “that it would take that long for the research community to figure out that time is the variable that matters and how that time is used.” In fact, SCOPE plans on conducting a study on four U.S. public schools, where researchers will investigate how teacher time is arranged and its impact on learning, for both students and teachers.

Snyder has a theory for why a much lighter teaching schedule hasn’t caught on in many American schools—one that he admits may sound abstract: “I think there’s a different notion in Singapore, and in Finland, and in other places where they think that teaching is actually complex, difficult work, cognitively engaging and challenging. [This is] as opposed to, ‘Well, you know, anyone can teach. We just tell ‘em the right words to use and the right way to do it ... and it will be done.’ But it’s not the way it works.”

While providing American teachers with more time for planning, assessment, and collaboration during the school day is important, it’s not a silver bullet for school improvement, according to Snyder. Policy-level ingredients, such as high-quality teacher preparation and adequate support for beginning teachers, matter too. “The starting point for thinking about this,” he said, “is the holistic, complex nature of teaching and what it takes to be a really great teacher.”