I Will Work Harder: Knackered Teachers

Workload is pushing teachers out of UK schools. In a 2014 NUT survey 97% of teachers said that excessive workload had a negative impact on their personal life while 87% said they know someone who has left the profession in the last two years due to their workload. With a shortfall in recruitment, large numbers of teachers leaving the profession and a significant rise in pupil numbers, heads are finding it more and more difficult to recruit quality teachers.

It’s difficult to overstate how serious this problem is. A good education system can only be built on excellent teachers. It’s irrelevant whether or not teachers work harder than people in other professions. The bottom line is whether they want to stay in the job; increasingly it looks like many don’t.

But there’s more to it than just keeping people in the job. It’s about what our attitude to work is and what kind of environment we want to create in schools. In a profession that is so centred around social interaction, a teacher’s mood makes a huge difference.

So what factors ramp up workload and how can we improve the situation? In a previous post I discussed the impact of excessive marking. In this post I look at other factors, how they increase workload and how this can be improved.

Assessment

Problem: Assessments can be extremely useful but they are time-consuming. Devising the assessments, marking them, entering the results and then (hopefully) actually doing something with the data. However, many schools assess way too much. I don’t understand why you would need to formally collect data on a half-termly basis. At one school a French teacher friend of mine had 5 lessons with each KS3 class between assessments. This is a heinous waste of time.

Leadership Solutions: Use formal assessments less often. Why not just twice a year (or less)? Make sure data entry is limited and platforms are slick and easy to use. Fix assessment dates for the whole year at the start of the year. Consider different requirements across departments / faculties. Dedicated data management support staff could save thousands of teacher hours. Stagger ‘data drops’ for different year groups in order to avoid a teacher having 6 different sets of assessments to mark at once.

Department Solutions: What are you actually assessing? Make sure the department are clear on this and have good mark schemes. Moderate / discuss marking – this is an initial time outlay but should pay off later when teachers can assess accurately and quickly. Do people have the same size classes? If not can you redistribute papers? Set achievable deadlines for marking and data entry far in advance.

Behaviour

Problem: Teachers should be accountable for the behaviour of their classes. However, it is also, always, the responsibility of middle and senior leadership. Countless hours can be lost by chasing up kids for detentions, tracking down missing homework, meeting with parents and so on.

Leadership Solutions: Obviously good, school-wide behaviour is the aim, but there are some specific logistical points I think improve teachers’ workloads. After school or weekend detentions (or whatever euphemism you want to use) should be run by a member of SLT. Admittedly, there’s a line here around undermining the classroom teacher’s authority, but the aim is to deal with poor behaviour quickly, seriously and stamp out non-attendance of detentions. Similarly, homework detentions should be run by SLT (or a staff rota), generally there isn’t a need for a heart to heart about missed homework (unless persistent). Instead: ‘you didn’t do your homework, you should have done, you have a detention after school’. No need for the classroom teacher to be there.

Department Solutions: Departmental detentions could be supervised on a rota. Heads of department should be visible and take responsibility for poor behaviour. Good systems in place such as parking rotas (every teacher should know where they can send a kid if they absolutely have to get them out of the class).

Extra Time

Problem: It’s not just teaching (+planning +marking) that takes up time. It’s the briefings, parents’ evenings, revision sessions, extra-curricular activities and meetings (department, NQT, middle leadership, senior leadership, year group…). All are (often) very important, but they have a habit of popping up with no notice, going way beyond agreed times or just being expected without any real discussion of how you will fit them around your core teaching commitments. If you are being asked to spend your one free period in a meeting, it needs to be acknowledged that you will be planning / marking after school or at the weekend.

Leadership Solutions: As much as is possible all events should be in the calendar at the start of the year. People have lives and they shouldn’t have to constantly change travel, meeting up with friends, childcare, caring for family or just having a break because the person responsible for the calendar couldn’t get their act together. Meetings should be pared down and timetabled (they are directed time). Weekends or after school interventions shouldn’t be compulsory. Most teachers will go above and beyond anyway, as soon as you force them to do it it leaves a bitter taste and you feel put-upon. Discourage a culture of staying late for the sake of it. Someone who leaves bang on 3pm every day may: a) then be working for hours at home; b) have spent all weekend working so they could leave at 3; c) have kids to pick up; d) be teaching way better lessons than the person who stays until 8pm anyway. And finally, say thank you when people work hard.

Department Solutions: Meeting time should be respected. Be on time, realise that every long waffling digression is cutting into someone’s planning time (and therefore time with family, friends, Buzzfeed). Have an agenda. Encourage sharing of resources and keep file-sharing platforms organised. And again, say thank you when people work hard.

Fiddly Things

Problem: There are a lot of fiddly details that add considerably to a teacher’s workload. For example if you teach three Y9 and two Y10 classes, your planning workload is going to be less than someone who has one class in each year. However, someone who teaches a lot of exam groups is going to be in trouble (pretty much all the time but especially) in the run up to exams. Someone who teaches a lot of kids with SEND may have to plan more carefully while someone who teaches a top set English class will likely have a lot of long essays to mark.

Leadership Solutions: Be flexible and recognise that people will be under significant pressures at different times. Encourage the whole staff to recognise this and support one another. Protect gained time (e.g. after summer exams). Have a break time duty rota (where SLT shoulder the largest burden). Employ cover supervisors.

Department Solutions: Similar to the above. Aim to create a supportive culture in which people are happy to support one another when they are under particular pressures. Make sure people have a good balance of classes (this is also important for peoples’ professional development).

The above points can significantly reduce workload, or at the very least, make teachers feel valued by recognising their hard work and the time they are giving. Every decision should be underpinned by two questions:

  1. Does this support teaching and learning?
  2. Is the time commitment / benefit to learning tradeoff worth it?

Unfortunately there are huge contributors to workload that it can be difficult for schools to solve. For example unexpected, shambolic and frequent curriculum changes and underfunding (leading to more teaching hours, larger classes and fewer support staff). Teachers shouldn’t be expected to give up their evenings, weekends and even their health as a matter of course. Only by promoting wellbeing will we stem the flow of teachers out of the profession.

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