Ahhhhh ... the last day of work.
Kids are gone, grades are submitted, rooms are packed, and summer break is imminent.
On this final day, school leaders have a decision:
Do I keep teachers to the end of the day?
Or, do I let teachers go early?
At first blush, a few hours of work seems trivial. But in reality, this decision speaks volumes about the way teachers are treated.
As a high school principal, one annual tradition was a golf outing on the last day of work. This event was less about playing golf (I am a terrible golfer) and more about spending time with colleagues in a social setting.
Hoping to play nine holes before it got too late, our social committee set up tee times for 4:00pm. When the plan was shared with me, committee members were curious if I would allow staff earlier than their “contracted” time of 3:30pm.
To me, the answer was obvious: of course they could leave early.
“In fact, why don’t we let staff go after lunch?” I offered.
“Well, we might get into trouble.” said one committee member. “What will the district office think? And the community might wonder why we aren’t at work…”
“You guys worked hard all year long,” I responded. “I know staff has put in far more hours than their ‘contracted time.’ The least we can do is let them leave a few hours early.”
Not only did we allow staff to leave after lunch, I publicized the event and encouraged employees to attend the golf outing. Even if they didn’t play, I encouraged them to ride in a cart or hang out in the clubhouse. I also convinced our administrative team to cover a $300 tab at the "19th Hole.”
As a superintendent, I used a similar approach to the last day of work. Prior to assuming the role, it was expected that staff stay the full contracted day. So – when I inquired about staff leaving early – similar questions arose: “We’ve never done that before” said one employee. “Is that fair for all staff members?” said another.
Again, I pushed back on these concerns: “I hear what you are saying,” I responded. “But I feel like staff would really appreciate this gesture. If it helps, think of an early dismissal as ‘trade time’ that has accumulated over the year.”
Not only did we allow staff to leave early, we worked with local businesses to organize an all-staff “tailgate” to end the year in style. Complete with limitless burgers, brats, and fixings, summertime music (cue Kokomo by the Beach Boys) and a “bags” tournament, this was one last opportunity for staff to congregate before leaving for summer break. Furthermore, I shared plans of an informal gathering at a local “restaurant” following lunch and encouraged employees to attend.
The bags tournament bracket - our staff gets pretty competitive!
“What’s the big deal?” non-educators may be thinking. “We let employees go early all the time.”
Whereas it is common for public sector employees to work shortened hours (when was the last time you saw the dentist on a Friday afternoon?), the prevailing opinion is that educators must fulfill every minute of their contract.
Obviously, most school jobs require that staff be in the presence of children, meaning employees can’t just come and go as they please. However, school leaders who understand the importance of time and approach the concept with an open mind typically have no problem finding occasional opportunities to let staff leave early.
Scenes from the 2021 and 2022 STC Bags Tournament
Looking to let staff leave early in your own setting? Here are five common barriers, with a response to each:
“But you’re not following the contract!” Some people will argue when school employees are allowed to leave early that the district is “wasting taxpayer money.” I would argue that school employees routinely work far more hours than is indicated on their contract. Leaders should consider these early dismissals as “trade time” staff accumulate over the course of a year.
“But the community will complain!” Some may worry that if school employees are seen at the golf course or local "restaurant" before 4:00pm, community members will grumble. I have supported these activities for 15 years and have yet to field one complaint. "Happy Hour" is part of the modern work culture and is readily accepted in most professions (both of my business-world brothers often enjoy happy hour drinks in the office!). If people still want to complain ... invite them to spend a day in a classroom.
“But they have work to do!” If you think the last contracted day is when “important” work needs to be done, think again. Unfortunately, many districts think they need to get every ounce of work out of employees before summer break. While extensive end of the year professional learning and data reflection sounds reasonable, forcing work down the throats of already-checked-out teachers on their last day is a terrible idea.
“But what about the other schools?” Depending on district office philosophy, school leaders could find themselves in hot water allowing staff to leave early while other schools keep staff until the end of the day. Keep in mind that the larger the district, the more likely your school can fly under the radar. When I worked in one of the 600-plus Chicago Public schools, we could have told staff to stay home on the last day of work and no one would have noticed. While every district is different, building leaders who have the courage to make sensible, staff-friendly decisions earn loyalty from employees.
"But what about hourly staff?" When teachers are told they can leave early on the last day (or other days), it's easy to forget the custodians, secretaries, and other hourly staff. What is difficult is that hourly employee pay is governed by the punch clock or time cards. While all situations are different, classified employees should be encouraged to leave with the teachers and get paid for the hours they miss. Not only will this ensure that hourly employees feel valued, any work lost during those afternoon hours will be made up when those employees return to work well-rested and highly-motivated.
Allowing teachers to leave early on the last day of work may seem insignificant. But in a profession with few perks, school leaders must look for every opportunity to show employees they are valued.
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