Every fall, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis says the local teacher's union has to talk with at least one Austin ISD campus about teacher planning periods – the free time during the school day in which teachers can plan classes, talk with students or meet with other teachers.
The code says teachers should receive 450 minutes every 10 days for planning periods, which ends up being 45 minutes a day, or 90 minutes every two days. In Austin ISD middle and high schools, teachers are supposed to get even more time for planning, either by themselves or in a group. But that time is supposed to be during the school day. Ken Zarifis, the president of the local teacher’s union, Education Austin, says that doesn’t always happen.
“It’s one of the more consistent violations that we find and that we have to address on a yearly basis," Zarifis said. Often, teachers are often asked to attend meetings or handle other issues during that planning time, and that's a violation of the state education code.
“When we add even more on to a teacher’s plate and we don’t give them time to plan and push planning time to after school, it wears people out," Zarifis says. "It’s exhausting. We have elementary teachers who come in at seven in the morning and don’t leave until seven at night. They’re putting in 12 hour days.”
Burnout is one of the many reasons teachers leave the profession — especially in the first five years. Around 15 percent of teachers leave Austin ISD every year for a variety of reasons, but a 2015 district study found many teachers who leave were dissatisfied with the working conditions at their schools.
“Part of that work environment is the planning period," said Austin School Board Trustee Ann Teich, who represents District 3. "You have to have time to breathe during the day.”
Teich was a teacher for nearly three decades and she says teachers don’t get enough planning time for one reason: poor leadership.
She says teachers lose planning time, especially in Title I schools with predominantly poor students who may not be doing as well on state tests.
“They want to make sure teachers are always teaching," Teich said. "They want to make sure they’re getting as much work out of the teacher as possible."
The same 2015 district study found that school leadership s a good predictor of teacher turnover at high-poverty schools. Austin ISD teachers were more likely to stay if they felt involved in decisions and trusted to do their jobs.
Last year, in a step to address the instructional time problem, Education Austin and Austin ISD district officials agreed to limit the number of after school meetings to one hour per week.