I’m the guy who does their job. You must be the other guy.
Det. Sgt. Dignam [The Departed]
Teachers work long hours: a survey conducted in 2013 claimed that primary school teachers worked, on average, 59.3 hours a week. Now, I’m sure non-teachers at this point, will start banging on about our long holidays, but we can quickly counterpoint that with tales of lost evenings and weekends. Whichever way you cut it, teachers work long hours.
But do teachers work well? The majority of teachers I have known over my career work hard (not just long) but fewer have worked well. In terms of worker productivity, research has suggested that working over 40 hours a week is actually counter-productive in terms of job effectiveness. Studies have shown that though a 60 hour week may provide a short term ‘boost’ in productivity, over time, this productivity declines. Interestingly, this decline in effectiveness, even when felt by the individual, does not often result in them reducing their work hours. This is likely due to a perceived logic that if they work less they will achieve less. They have become painfully unaware of what is really holding them back.
In my experience, within education, I would say that the teachers who miss the most deadlines, do not complete tasks well, fall behind in their day to day duties, are often those teachers who work the longest. They are often not however, the teachers who work well. They are teachers who give all their energy to their school and yet they deliver ever diminishing returns.
They are not necessarily bad teachers but they have become victims of their own chaos. To see them in action is to witness a whirlwind of stress desperately trying to run up a downward travelling escalator.
Who is to blame?
Firstly, you would be right to question the school’s leadership. It is the duty of school leaders to enable teachers to be effective. Part of this is in managing teacher workload. To do this well, leaders must get their scales out and make sure that there is a respectable balance between national and school expectations. You can’t expect teachers to thrive if you’re suffocating them with an overloaded workflow. I am not advocating thoughtless cuts to whatever initiatives you’ve got going or ignoring national policy just to curry favour with the staff. Instead I am suggesting some critical thinking, at a senior level, around ensuring realistic expectations within the working week.
Leaders should also ensure that teachers have an appropriate level of autonomy with regards to their workload. To teach is simple: teach, assess, plan. To be a teacher is anything but. Every week there will be something that prevents a teacher from just teaching. Therefore, teachers need to be in control of their workload so that they can deal with the ‘here and now’ priorities, whilst not losing sight, or control, of the big picture: helping children achieve. More importantly, they need to manage their workload without fear of repercussions. Leaders, more than anyone else in the school because they’ve been there before, should understand the subtleties that are required for a teacher to do their job. Leaders should know that a brief absence of marking in the books is likely to occur for a multitude of perfectly understandable reasons and is not proof that a teacher is in need of some managerial support.
But what about the teacher who can’t manage their workload? Well, they need to take a good look around. If everyone around them is also drowning in a sea of half-finished tasks, unmarked books and missed deadlines, well, read the above paragraphs; better still, print them off and hand them in to your SLT. If you’re the only one however…if you’re the only teacher who is always the last to arrive in staff meetings, never visits the staff room, has a pile of unmarked books permanently in the boot of your car, is the last person to find out about school initiatives, regularly requires extensions on deadlines, loses emails, fails to keep a tidy classroom, leaves displays up until the colours fade and eats their lunch on the toilet because that’s the only spare minute you have…well, then you’re the one who needs to change.
Chances are you’re in education for the right reason. Chances are you can’t think of another job you’d rather do. Chances are you assume you have to work this way in order to be good. Well, let me be blunt: you’re not that good. Nobody is. Nobody can do all the jobs of a teacher all of the time. If they try, they end up burning out. To be good you’ve got to be effective and being effective means taking your foot off the gas once in a while. Effective teachers know how to prioritise in order to meet the demands of the day whilst keeping the big picture in plain view. Effective teachers can ease off on a particular ‘expectation’ one week, in order to fulfil some other demand, safe in the knowledge that they have the capacity to pick it up again, before any harm is done. Effective teachers optimise their workload so the hours they do spend in the classroom are worth their weight in gold stickers.
So, whether you’re a teacher or a leader, when it comes to workload: make sure you’re the guy who does their job, and not the other guy.