Fixing workload requires a culture change

These days, I am not blogging as much as I used to. This is partly due to my being busy and tired, but also because I don’t have awful things to report on from the frontlines anymore. It makes a difference to be working in a sensibly run school, surrounded by supportive professionals at the top of their game.

However, I am breaking my blogging purdah to write about two related issues that have cropped up on my Twitter timeline this week. The first was this tweet by Miss Smith, which has struck a chord with many and garnered 1,000 likes.

The second thing was a blog written by Mike Thain, a maths teacher of 17 years, in which he explains why he has decided to leave teaching. Reading the blog brought a lump to my throat, especially when he talks about the effect the job was having on his family life.

The pressure to deliver results in a maths team is something that unless you have taught maths, english, or science at secondary level you simply cannot understand what it requires of you. This pressure over the 7 years as a middle leader made me have to chose between my own children, and the children in the school(s) I was working in. My children are now 11 and 8. When you hear phrases come out of their mouths like “Daddy never laughs” and “why is Daddy always sad” your heart breaks. When you come home and within 5 minutes you are telling them off because you are so stressed after work that you are like a coiled spring.

Although I have never run a school department, I have experienced some of this feeling like a “coiled spring” in previous school jobs, so I can imagine only too easily what it has been like for Mike and, as it turns out, many other teachers working across the country. Since writing his blog, he has been inundated with messages from fellow teachers who have similar tales to tell. Perhaps, as he says, it’s time for structural change to support teacher retention.

This is an issue that is close to my heart because I too have felt the pull between work and family (and I know I am not unique in this respect). Unless you’re a superwoman type person like Nicola Horlick – and let’s face it most of us aren’t – then it’s incredibly hard to juggle the demands of family and an all-consuming profession such as teaching. I still have to make sure my boy has clean clothes to wear, that his homework gets done and that he gets a nutritious meal for his dinner. I try to read with him every evening for 30 minutes or so before his bedtime. I also want to maintain a harmonious relationship with my spouse, to have the time and energy to converse and spend quality time with him. All this is very hard to do at the end of a long, energy-sapping day.

When I first decided to get into teaching nearly 4 years ago, I spoke to a history head of department at a local school I wanted to get some volunteering experience at, and was taken aback when he said he worked from 7am to 7pm most days, and that I should expect this kind of long hours if I became a teacher. Surely not I thought at the time. It turns out he was right.

As I said before, I now work in a sensibly-run school which takes workload seriously. I get to work at 8:00am and leave at 4:30pm most days. I still have to work at home for around two hours in the evenings, though much of this is because of the extra stuff I have to do for my PGCE and also because, as an inexperienced teacher, I take a bit longer to do my planning. I would be extremely surprised, however, if any of my more senior colleagues manage to get their work done within those working hours of 8am to 4:30pm. It has not escaped my notice that most of them are already there long before I arrive at 8am. Quite simply, there is so much to do, even in schools where marking is not expected and planning is done collaboratively.

It will require a major re-think and cultural shift to change things in any significant way. The problem, as I see it, is this. Quite simply, the work of schools and teachers has expanded beyond the main remit of giving pupils an academic education. This is what it ought to be:

  • Children go to school, they learn stuff then go home.
  • Teachers go to school, they teach the stuff pupils need to learn, then go home.

But it’s no longer as simple as that, is it? I believe that if we want to have a more sane, less manic workplace, then we need to find our way back to those simple principles above. We need to keep the main thing the main thing, and stop the extras from creeping in. At the moment we’re in a rat race, constantly competing in what looks like a market-driven model – except it’s not really delivering optimal results for its customers (parents and their children). We also have, as collateral damage, the haemorrhage of teachers from the profession.

And so we come to the issue of accountability. We can’t pussyfoot around it. Most, if not all the factors that make teaching such a difficult job stem from it. We have one of the most high stakes accountability education systems in the world. It may have driven standards up a tad (I’m not even sure it has), but at what cost? And let’s face it, there are still many children who leave school with a mediocre education. So we have a high stakes accountability system that makes the job of teachers practically intolerable, but it hasn’t improved standards of education in any meaningful way. Yes I know that Ofsted under its present incarnation is moving in a more positive direction, but try as it might, a high stakes inspection regime will always result in some unintended consequences and perverse incentives, especially when there is the prize of getting an “Outstanding” rating still being dangled. Grumpy Teacher has written a fabulous blog about this very issue and comes to similar conclusions. We simply can’t use high stakes accountability systems to quality assure standards of education and provide value-for-money for our taxpayers. Here’s what GT concludes:

Well, I wouldn’t mind a basic inspectorate like the sort of hygiene inspection to which the hospitality industry is subject. By all means treat a school like an office, if you must.

How do I answer the taxpayer? I shrug and say well, sorry, we tried. But it turned out that trying to look after your interests meant that education was made significantly worse for our pupils. So we’re not going to do it any more.

Beyond accountability systems, there is another issue which I think unnecessarily contributes to teacher workload: planning lessons. Now I know some teachers are very wedded to the idea of planning their own resources – it is after all one of the teachers’ standards – but hear me out on this one. I myself have found great personal satisfaction in writing my history teaching booklets (please see www.learningformemory for more information). However, I’m fairly sure now that I’m wearing different hats when I teach in the classroom and when I write teaching resources. They are actually two separate jobs. Of course they are related, in that it’s very difficult to write good resources if you haven’t taught. On the other hand, I know that not everyone who teaches has the aptitude for writing well. I don’t believe every teacher should be writing resources from scratch. Why re-invent the wheel?

I’m particularly struck by this when I’m teaching maths (though really this is the case for most subjects). Here I am in 2019 teaching pretty much the same kind of maths I was taught in the 1970s. Last week I was teaching my year 4s how to round numbers to the nearest 10, 100 and 1000. I know my teachers taught me the same stuff when I was a child at school. They must have done their job well because I left school with this mathematical knowledge, as did most of my fellow classmates. There is an arrogance in thinking that we are better teachers today than people who did the job decades or even centuries ago. I simply cannot believe that in the last 40 years or more, the subject has changed so materially that we constantly need to plan new maths lessons. And yet everyday, in schools all around the country, there are teachers hunkering down to prepare their slides and worksheets anew. It seems like an awful waste of energy to duplicate work that has been done by others a thousand times over. Not to mention a waste of paper and ink.

This, I think, is where the advent of interactive whiteboards and PowerPoint have created a sort of monster. Lesson planning has been transformed into the preparation of slides and worksheets. When I was a child, we had a textbook and an exercise book. That’s all. I suspect the sum total of a teacher’s planning was to bookmark the page of exercises we were going to start next. She would go through a couple of them with us on the blackboard, explain it to us, then ask us to turn to page 122 and start doing the exercises independently in our books. Then we would mark it together, and she might explain a misconception where some of us went wrong.

I don’t dispute that interactive whiteboards can be very useful, but I think they also provide a perverse incentive to base lesson planning on ever more slides. Now I know it’s difficult to wean ourselves from our reliance on Powerpoint slides. They’re everywhere. They’re the norm. Nevertheless, I think the way forward has to be to have high quality textbooks or booklets that can be re-used year after year. If a school wants to create its own booklets, they can design them in PDF and have them professionally printed and laminated so that they can be re-used like textbooks. Think of the huge savings that could be had by reducing in-school printing of worksheets and text sheets to read.

However, this would mean teaching a lesson planned by somebody else. This would turn us into automatons, simply delivering content without any input of our own. Once upon a time, I would have believed this. In practice, that’s not the case. I know because we have 3 teachers in our year group and we all teach with the same resources, planned collaboratively. I can tell you that lessons have a vastly different flavour from teacher to teacher, despite starting off with the same resources. It’s perfectly possible to still have autonomy, to still put your own personal stamp on a lesson, without having prepared the resources from scratch.

It will take a big cultural shift to move away from the idea of planning individual lessons to using quality assured, pre-planned resources, for I know many teachers are resistant to the idea. The time saved though, would make working life so much more tolerable. Perhaps time to give it a try?