ON the first parents' evening at my daughter's new school, the teacher gave out her home telephone number and e-mail address and urged us to get in touch anytime. "Anytime?" I asked. "Well, up to about 11pm, I usually go to bed then," she replied.
I knew that teachers worked long hours but this was selfless dedication in the extreme. It happened in the United States; perhaps understandably, no teacher in England has ever made the same offer.
Teachers' working hours vary widely from country to country. So do the regulations which govern both minimum and, occasionally, maximum working hours. International comparisons are difficult to make; statistics and definitions are slippery items.
Yet, as the Government and unions settle into their joint workload review, it seems worth asking: how hard do our teachers work compared with their international counterparts?
Teachers in England and Wales want the Government to look to Scotland where the McCrone Report will lead to the introduction of a maximum 35-hour working week for all teachers from August 1 this year.
It also heralds a phased reduction in maximum class contact time this coming year from 25 hours in primary schools, and 23.5 in secondary, down to 22.5 hours in all schools by August 2006. The deal is the envy of teachers south of the border who see non-contact time as the key to the workload problem.
Relatively few countries set maximum working or teaching times. In some countries teachers' maximum hours fall under general employment legislation. In others, a limit on either teaching or working hours is set specifically for schools (see box below left).
A more common pattern is for countries to establish contractual working times for teachers. These are, in effect, minimum working hours and usually include both teaching and non-teaching time. Even with a limited sample (see box, below right) the variation is wide. At 1,265 hours, England is near the middle of the range.
Working time is stipulated in different ways. In Belgium, Finland, France, Ireland, Portugal and Turkey, teachers are required to be at school only when they are scheduled to teach. In Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands, specific time is allocated for various non-teaching activities.
Some examples of the OECD's assessment of teachers' minimum working hours (see box, facing page) include both teaching and non-contact time, inside and outside school. Teachers in England will quickly point out that they work far more than the OECD's definition of 32.5 hours.
However, this is the best comparison the OECD is able to make. Andreas Schleicher, deputy head of the OECD statistics division, says national definitions of working time vary so much that it has proved impossible to do an international comparison of teachers' total workload.
Yet it is this total working time which is at the heart of the current problems in England and Wales, where teachers attribute most of the rise in their workload to the growing burden of lesson planning, marking and administration.
The diary-based workload survey for the School Teachers' Review Body Report found that, on average, primary classroom teachers were working 52.8 hours a week in 2000. This was two hours more than in 1996 and four more than in 1994. Most of the increase was spent on preparation and marking.
The length and pattern of the school year is another factor in determining workload. The number of "teacher days" in a year - effectively, the number of days that teachers are required to be in school - ranges from around 185 in the US up to 225 in parts of Germany. In England it is 195 - around the international average.
Term lengths vary considerably too. Indeed, one argument for the recent six-term year proposal is that it would even out the length of school terms, providing regular two-week "recovery" breaks.
Most countries have between 13 and 15 weeks' school holiday a year. Again, the pattern varies. In the US the summer break is usually around 10 weeks, leaving just four weeks' holiday throughout the rest of the year.
In England, only six of the 13 weeks' holiday are devoted to the long summer break, while Italy enjoys a 13-week summer holiday out of a total of 17 weeks a year.
A comparative study of teachers' working patterns carried out for the US department of education. To Sum It Up: Case Studies of Education in Germany, Japan and the United States looked at the qualitative differences in the teacher working day.
It found Japanese teachers arrive at school at around 8am and leave no earlier than 4-5pm. By contrast, German teachers begin early, often before 8pm, but usually leave by 1.30pm.
Like the French, German teachers do not have to offer extra-curricular activities for students and can leave the school during free periods.
Teachers in the US work the shortest teaching year, which means they have to be in school for the fewest days. But that does not mean they work the fewest hours. They must be in school before students arrive and remain there until after they leave. They also have to undertake non-teaching duties, such as meeting school buses, or supervising the cafeteria.
The American school day is also frenetic, with short breaks between classes. A 1992 study for the National Education Association, the biggest teachers' union, found that teachers' lunch periods averaged just 31 minutes, down from 40 minutes in 1961.
A study for the American Federation of Teachers found that teachers in the US spend much more time with students than those elsewhere. Teachers in Japan and Germany spent only around 17 to 21 hours a week on instruction compared to more than 30 hours in the US.
The workload review is near the top of Estelle Morris's in-tray. As the School Teachers' Review Body said earlier this year, "workloads and their implications for lifestyle are clearly an important adverse influence on morale, and on recruitment and retention".
But Ms Morris is between a rock and a hard place. Cutting working hours and increasing non-contact time may boost recruitment by making the job more attractive, but it will also require a net increase in the number of teachers.
The review body opposed limiting hours, arguing it would be "difficult and cumbersome to administer... and would not enhance the professional status of teaching". It preferred to focus on cutting the burden of paperwork and new initiatives.
The Government latched on to this rejection of limits and hopes the workload review will find an alternative way forward. But, after seeing limits introduced in Scotland, the unions will at least want non-contact time guarantees.
Overall, teachers in England and Wales seem to get a fairly raw deal, as they are both required to work fairly long periods in the classroom and appear to have a higher administrative burden than teachers in most other countries. Also, though guaranteed non-contact time is rare anywhere, teachers in England have less spare time during the school day than most of their counterparts.
Mike Baker is education correspondent at the BBC