Teacher Workload Reports: initial thoughts

I welcome the reports into teacher workload and I hope that school leaders read them and implement some of their recommendations. Here are my initial thoughts on the data, planning and marking reports:

For leaders, not teachers

These reports are ultimately for the benefit for teachers, but if you have no control over your school’s policy, you will find little practical inspiration from them. The problem with workload is that it is often closely linked with your school and your leadership team. In the marking report, it is stated: “If the hours spent do not have the commensurate impact on pupil progress: stop it.” Yet if you are the NQT who does this, you are possibly going to fall foul of the next book scrutiny. You can see that there are only two recommendations specific to teachers in the marking report, two in the data one and two again in the planning, which reinforces the idea that the audience is not actually classroom teachers.

However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the advice is aimed at leaders and institutions. Teachers are very rarely the sources of their own workload problems. They are at the mercy of the “policy” and the “initiative”. I appreciate that the marking report states:

Evaluate the time implications of any whole school marking assessment policy for all teachers to ensure that the school policy does not make unreasonable demands on any particular members of staff.

The Data report:

Take measures to understand the cumulative impact on workload of new initiatives and guidance before rolling them out and make proportionate and pragmatic demands.

When I filled in the survey myself, this was something that I wrote about. Lots of things are good things to do, but they take up time. It is up to leaders to make these choices. There is a vagueness in what is meant by “unreasonable demands” and I am sure different people will have their own ideas about what this means, but it’s so important that we ask this question.

Broad advice

I do feel that this sense of imprecision runs through all of the reports. For example, the marking report recommends ITT students develop “a repertoire of assessment methods” and teachers use “a range of assessment techniques” without being precise about what these look like.  If you are a teacher struggling with the marking workload, being told to use a range of techniques isn’t helpful when those techniques are not clear.

There are definitely principles that everyone should get behind and there are not many parts of the report that I disagree with. For example, the suggestions of making marking “meaningful, manageable and motivating” seems sensible.  These terms are then defined in more detail, so can serve as a very useful starting point for any marking policy.

Once something is said to be good practice, it can take on a life of its own, so I appreciate why these reports need to be careful. It is much easier to say what shouldn’t be done than to say precisely what should (except posters). There are some case studies on the blog and there will hopefully be more, although this one recommends different coloured pens and writing VF for verbal feedback in books so perhaps we should be careful with these too.

I really like the line in the planning report that “there should be greater flexibility to accommodate different subject demands and needs, as well as the specific demands of primary phases.” It is important to acknowledge that there is much variation in subjects and phases, not just with planning but other demands too. Should an English teacher teach the same load as a maths teacher? Should a teacher who has predominantly KS5 have the same teaching load as one who teaches mainly KS3?

Workload issues in the planning report

The planning report has good intentions but some of its recommendations seem to lead to more time:

School leaders should place great value on collaborative curriculum planning which is where teacher professionalism and creativity can be exercised.

I agree that shared planning can be beneficial, but where does the time for this come from? It has to come from somewhere. Similarly, the demand to create “a fully resourced, collaboratively produced, scheme of work” as a default is a noble one but I can assure you that this is a time-consuming process and someone has to do this. I’m not arguing that this shouldn’t be done, just that to create a really good scheme of work that can be used by anyone takes time.

I have always struggled with the fact that there are not some free central resources that all teachers can access. Ones that they can adapt for their context, change and share back. TES can be useful, but there is a massive quality control issue- try to look for a lesson on similes (smiles/ similies) and you’ll see . Also, the idea of teachers selling their resources runs counter to a profession where we should be interested in helping each other. This happens on Twitter of course but I feel that the DfE should appoint teachers to make schemes, perhaps as a summer project, or recruit experienced, recently retired teachers to do it. Even just creating a quality controlled shared site would be a start.

On textbooks, I agree with the recommendations that we should use them but it is not a “mistrust of textbooks” but a lack of good enough ones that I am more concerned with. Textbooks are a huge investment when curriculum content changes so often, so the DfE should look at ways to make this commercially viable.

All in all, I think the reports make sensible recommendations that will impact positively on workload. We just need more concrete examples of what should be done.

 

Teacher workload: Can it be sustained?

Like many teachers, I filled in the DfE workload survey. I tried thinking about the external demands that increase teacher workloads but I quickly realised that most of the decisions around what teachers are expected to do comes from within the school.

It then forced me to reflect on the consequences on teacher workload of actions I take and advice I give. I have responsibility for CPD and deliver many training sessions to groups of staff and I need to ensure that my advice doesn’t increase teachers’ workload to unmanageable extents. Our school day is longer than most schools and teaching is a time consuming job anyway. I now try to approach much of my advice to colleagues with the question: Can it be sustained? Can it be sustained over a year and can it be sustained over a teaching career?

I think it is easy to forget just how challenging it is to have a full teaching load when you haven’t had one for a while. You have lots of marking, lots of planning and it can be quite intense to work all day with little time to take a breather. Many leaders don’t suffer the long term draining effects of this because with promotions come reduced teaching loads and it can be easy to downplay the experience of these who have worked these hours over a long period. It has been nearly a decade since I taught a full teaching load and by the end of my one quite busy day I am exhausted- many teachers have 5 of those days!

Whenever a new idea is pitched at staff and they are asked to all do it, we have to consider this context and the cost of the new initiative: Will this increase teachers’ workloads? The answer to this is usually ‘yes’ so we have to carefully consider what we must get rid of in order to accommodate this new amount of work. Otherwise, either teachers have to work harder or things won’t get done. Neither of these consequences are helpful.

Marking is probably the place where we can make our biggest wins with realistic expectations of what we expect from staff. I’ll try not to labour this point as I have already written about 300 blogs on feedback. Suffice to say that that we need to shine a spotlight on feedback and make sure that it is effective and done for the right reasons. It’s the thing that drains teachers’ time so we need to do whatever we can to reduce this time and make it more efficient. No teacher should be giving feedback that will remain unread by students in fear of ‘failing’ a book scrutiny. Mary Myatt writes sensibly about what Ofsted expect to see here.

@Cherrylkd shared a story in this blog about teachers being asked to hand in their planning a week in advance. The story reminded me of a friend who had to prepare detailed lesson plans for every lesson and where snap inspections took place to check. I cannot fathom why schools would place this unnecessary burden on their staff. We work hard enough without additional layers of work which hinder our effectiveness.

When it comes to planning lessons, the majority of my lessons are now pretty simple. It’s not often that you will see something that looks magnificently complex as you would have seen in my classroom in the past: hats and balloons and rhythmic gymnastics. But good lessons- even those deceptively simple ones- take a long time to plan properly. They take time to conceptualise and resource, so asking for a detailed lesson plan is just more work. Asking for it a week in advance is like asking me what I fancy for my tea next Tuesday- or asking me to write the recipe for what I will eat.

We also need to take a sensible approach to things like differentiation and understand that there are differences between what we can do and what it is reasonable to expect teachers to do. See these blogs from Andy Tharby and David Fawcett for ideas.

While Ofsted can be used negatively to increase teacher work load- ‘You need to do it because Ofsted say they want it’– we should also acknowledge that they have made it abundantly clear that there are some ridiculous things that have been done in their name, and they have attempted to quash these myths. (We shouldn’t let Ofsted off the hook completely as many of the myths originated from their reports and from inspectors moonlighting as trainers.)

There are times when I would encourage working hard for a shorter period. For example, I tend to mark books more intensely at the start of the year to a) inform my teaching and b) to set a standard. There are other times when a lot of initial effort reaps rewards e.g. that tough class where you will benefit from speaking to many of the parents early on. I also think that time should be invested in curriculum design which again saves time at a later date. None of these things can be sustained over the year.

Sometimes I get frustrated when I don’t get a reply to an email or when somebody misses a deadline. Yet I also have a massive to-do list of emails I haven’t responded to and deadlines that I too am struggling to make. My complaint is that I keep getting asked to do more things. Which means that the things I ask others to do are having the same effect. They are one thing in many things that teachers have been asked to do. James Theo write about this piecemeal accumulation of workload here.

There are some difficult questions posed when you consider the sustainability of different approaches. For example, how can you decide what to sacrifice? Will we need to stop doing some valuable things because of the burden on teacher workload? I know a number of things which I could do to make my teaching better but if these come at a cost to my well-being, are they truly worth it? Schools tend to live in a culture of short-termism and we can often justify intensive intervention (when this is normalised, is it intervention at all?) by saying it is ‘just this once’.

What I do know is that no child will benefit if they have an exhausted teacher in front of them.

Getting on top of marking

For the first time in my 10 years of teaching, I don’t feel the stress of marking and I hope to explain how in this post.

I’ll start by saying there are no quick fixes when it comes to marking.  You can’t cut corners.  There are some methods to reduce the time spent doing it, but the ways to get on top are more about how to increase the impact of marking.  Mainly, it’s about establishing a different relationship between you and marking.  Instead of seeing your marking as that horrible thing that you have to do on top of all the real teaching, see it as the most important aspect of that teaching.

Regular, high quality marking will:

  • Help students to get better
  • Build positive relationships (they see that you care)
  • Improve presentation
  • Allow you to evaluate teaching
  • Make students value what they do (they know you’ll read it)
  • Improve behaviour (you are a teacher with high expectations)

You can read my detailed post about the specifics of making written feedback more effective here.  Here are my views on how to get on top of marking:

Mark for the students

Forget the book scrutinies and the Ofsted inspections.*  Just focus on making your feedback work for you and your students.  This means high quality feedback which the students act upon.  It means giving them opportunities to meet the targets you set and to use your feedback to develop.  Get that right and then you don’t really have to worry about what ‘they’ want to see because your books are going to show that students are learning. You can spend your life trying to second guess what people are looking for but the fact is that no one can argue when students are clearly improving.

I have been involved in looking at colleagues’ exercise books and, trust me, there’s nothing worse than seeing lots and lots of red pen (or green or whatever) which is never read.  I’d rather see less of it but the feedback being used effectively.  If you ever find yourself having to take home 3 boxes of books because you have received ‘the call’ then I think you have your priorities all wrong.

Marking is planning

I always used to prioritise lesson planning over marking.  Now, I prioritise both by ensuring the students act on the feedback.  They either complete an activity or redraft-or both.  The rest of the lesson is built around any other misconceptions evident in students work. The next few lessons are sorted too because you know what to teach based on the work produced by the whole class.  You are saving time because the next lesson is planned and you are making your lessons more efficient because they are truly tailored to what students need to learn.  David Didau writes about his ‘marking is planning’ mantra here.

Without marking students’ work, how do you really know what to plan anyway?

Mark regularly but selectively

Be selective in what you mark. There is no point in marking a spelling test that they self marked.  I would generally give good quality feedback every 2-3 weeks.  Usually that would be for extended writing which is the culmination of planning, drafting, editing, peer marking etc.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule by the way- just an estimate. I would also add that you should read everything-it doesn’t take that long.  You might find something out that helps build the relationship with that student or you may identify something that you think they need to work on.

Save time on writing out comments

I have written a post on how to use mailmerge here.  I honestly think this is the greatest discovery I have made to make my written feedback more efficient.

I often find that I am writing similar targets for several children.  If it is an essay on poetry, for example, then there are a finite amount of targets for improvement.  This will be especially common if there is a misconception owing to your teaching.  Writing these targets again and again- plus an activity to help them improve takes forever.  Using mailmerge means you can type comments, use copy and paste, and print individual target sheets.  Have a look at the post for more details.

Being able to print out all of my students’ targets like this just saves a lot of faffing in class too.  Print them out and glue them on the front of books.

 

Remember that you are never behind marking

Although I am pretty much on top of my marking, if I were to get behind I wouldn’t waste my time going back in the book and marking work from the past.  Unless the students will read it and do something about it then what’s the point?  Pick up from where you are with the students and give them feedback based on their most recent work.  Of course, you will sometimes have key assignments that you need to mark- controlled assessment is a real pain.

There isn’t going to be a massive negative impact if you haven’t marked some work.  There will be a negative impact on your sanity if you try to catch up on everything once you have fallen behind.

Regular marking makes the experience of marking a pleasure

Bear with me!  Marking is a chore and I won’t go so far as to say I actually enjoy it.  However, I do like when I read a piece of work and the student has ‘got it’.  I like the coming together of our efforts over a year and comparing work at the start of the book with work at the end.  When marking is like this- and it will be if you get it right- then it makes the time burden slightly more bearable.

 

*I’m not naive and understand that there are some pressures to conform to school policies etc.  There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, especially as some of them are not particularly hard to do e.g. sticking marking policies in books.  I have often received helpful feedback on work scrutinies too so we can’t dismiss them entirely.

 

 

Work-life balance

At the moment, I am working on our school’s teaching and learning magazine.  I decided to write an article which contains lots of tips on how to improve work-life balance.  Here are the top tips along with some further thoughts:

First of all, the tips I can honestly say I follow:

1) “Does your lesson really need a PowerPoint with magnificent transitions or a complicated smartboard presentation?  If not then leave it.” 

I do this more and more nowadays.  I make slides that I might need such as sentence starts or interactive quizzes etc but I’ve stopped typing up objectives, outcomes and things I will be saying in class.

2) “You can’t always say yes.  If you have to say no to an extra project then do so.”

I am doing this increasingly too.  However, I still tend to set up lots of things (e.g. this blog) which take time.  I see this as time well spent and actually quite enjoyable.  Those tasks which have a whiff of ‘delegate because I can’t be bothered doing it myself’ get a firm no!

3) “Ask for help.  If work is getting on top of you, then discuss it with your line manager or a supportive colleague.  Then tackle the real issues head on.”

It’s quite hard when you move into a leadership position to say that you are struggling.  I have led training on behaviour management and then if I find that I have a challenging class it can be difficult to admit it.  When you do, and you access the support that others can give, it is a no brainer really.  I know that there are people I work with who can help me and it is ridiculous to let pride get in the way of that.

 4) “Plan with colleagues.  It saves on workload and is much more fun than doing it alone.”

I love this part of my job.  I love sharing ideas and learning from others and when done well it can also save so much time.  This week, we combined the English and Art departments to share ideas on teaching Expressive Arts.  It was great sharing ideas and my planning load is now much much smaller.

5) “Take advantage of the web.  Sites like Twitter, Pinterest, Scoop.it and The TES are full of resources and teachers sharing them.  Start there before you spend hours creating things.”

Twitter has saved me so much time and the resources/ideas I get are amazing.  I can usually find an appropriate resource or lesson idea just from a quick search on the web or a glance at #ukedchat, #edchat or #engchat.

6) “Put in extra effort to save time later.  For example, phone a parent after the first poor lesson for a quick call and not 3 weeks later for a time and energy sapping discussion.”

Sometimes you do have to put in time to save time.  Lack of preparation or intervention can lead to much bigger issues to deal with further down the line.  The example given was about phonecalls home but it is more than just that.  Like putting off a conversation with a colleague that has to happen and will at some point in the future.  You need to take the time now to stop things from coming to a head much later.

7) “Good enough is good enough.  Does it matter if things are not perfect every single time?”

I can’t plan detailed, outstanding lessons day in day out, mark books, attend meetings and have any kind of a social life without compromising somewhere.  So I make sure that my lessons are pretty good and I throw in some great ones at regular intervals.

8) “Get organised:  Make lists.  Keep your desk tidy. Plan your week.  Repeat.”

I used to be very badly organised.  On so many occasions, someone would remind me of a meeting I had missed or a task I had not done.  I started making lists and wrote down everything.  I check my lists regularly and cross items off. However, my desk is a disgrace.

And the tips I have yet to get to grips with:

9) “Decide what time you are going home and stick to it.  If you really have to work at home, work to a time limit.”

I am rubbish at this.  I am writing this sentence at 9.21 on Thursday evening before we break up.

10) “Plan the non-work things first.  Make appointments and stick to them.  You need hobbies, interests and friends outside of school.” 

I must confess that I haven’t got this the right way round yet.  Writing the article has made me realise how many commitments I have broken because of work.  This has to be the big change I make in 2013.

 

 

 

Written feedback using Mail Merge

I have been placing written feedback at the top of my priority list, particularly getting students to engage with the feedback.  The holy grail is to find something with high impact but which doesn’t take up an excessive amount of time.  And I think I have an answer.

My usual marking process:  I write a comment and a target for improvement (medal and mission), together with an activity to make sure the student acts on the feedback.  Since I have used this method, I can see real improvements in the students’ work and this is generally continued into the next written task.  This does seem to have a high impact. I have an Excel spreadsheet as my markbook and, as I mark, I record targets.

However, it is quite time consuming to create a task for each individual student.  Even when I write the same task for a similar target, it takes a while.  I needed a way to reduce the time I was taking on that part of the process.  So I spoke to our data guru, and he showed me the wonders of mailmerge.

Here is how it works.  I read the work as carefully as before.  I write ‘see feedback sheet’ in students’ exercise books.  I type the strength and target for improvement into my spreadsheet.  If two students have the same comment/ target- as often happens- then I can copy and paste.  Then the wonders of mailmerge create individual feedback sheets for each student.  Students use the sheets and work on their targets then glue next to the work in their books.  You can see two examples below.

The first example is a generic writing target sheet.  We were reading The Monkey’s Paw.  It is really straightforward but highly effective.  All I need to do is highlight the section of their work I want them to improve  and- voila.  The second is one of my early attempts and is on reading targets.  This took a little longer as I had to create a few more activities but once I did I had models for future reading activities.  In total, this didn’t take longer than marking in the ‘usual’ fashion anyway.  On both sheets, I have also added the ‘time travel’ element which a) reminds students that this is ongoing and b) allows me a clear opportunity to check progress over time.

Another brilliant aspect of this which is equally timesaving is that I can collect all the targets of a particular student together like this to stick on the front of their book:

Here are a few more examples of target sheets:

Spoken Language Targets

StoneColdTargets

 

 

Mail merge step by step

1)      Record your targets in the spreadsheet.

 

 

 

 

 

2)      Create the template.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3)      Use the mailmerge wizard>choose ‘letters’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4)      Click Next>’use current document’>Next.

5)      Choose ‘Browse’ to find your spreadsheet.

6)      Then click OK a lot!

7)      Insert the fields you want on each target sheet.

 

 

 

 

8)      Then click through ‘Next’ until you create your target sheets.  You can choose ‘edit individual letters’ to then adapt them and insert tasks etc.