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.

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