Teacher workload. We don’t all go home at 3pm

A guest post from @Framheadteacher

The reason I get my hair cut at Jaff’s* on Gosforth High Street (other than the very reasonable £9 it costs me) is that the person cutting my hair doesn’t try to engage me in conversation.  It’s the same reason I let my wife sit next to the driver when we get a taxi.  Many teachers are more introverted than you might think. Whilst I am very proud of being a teacher, and now a Headteacher, I find that invariably when I tell strangers what I do for a living, I have to listen to a (usually good-natured) five minute monologue on how great the holidays must be and how they would love to finish work at 3.00pm.

For those not familiar with the teaching profession, our pay and conditions stipulates that I (as Headteacher) am able to direct staff for 1265 hours per year.  Once the normal teaching day (8.30am-3pm minus lunch in our case) is taken into account and we’ve added on a weekly briefing, a 10 minute buffer at the start and end of each day, parents’ evenings, and CPD, there isn’t much left.  In fact, there is nothing left.

Whilst there is an unwritten rule in teaching that every school must employ a slightly cynical “old-school” teacher (let’s call him Dave) who works out of a carrier bag and spends his/her break-time in the staffroom, and who thinks his/her job is to work 1265 hours and no more, almost every teacher across the land, does significantly more work than this.  Long evenings, weekends, days in the holidays are spent planning, marking, creating resources and generally thinking about students, lessons, or their ever-growing “to do” list.

All this is changing thankfully.  Teacher well-being and workload is now rising to the top of the agenda and about time too.  Secondary school teachers are leaving the profession in droves, at just the time when the number of students is increasing.  Sam Sims, a researcher at UCL wrote last year that “a prevailing view is that workload is mostly to blame for poor teacher retention rates in England. Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, has stated that tackling workload is his primary strategy for reducing teacher shortages”.  Sims found that it was lower pay (teachers’ pay has fallen further behind pay rates in the private sector in 9 out of 10 years in the last decade) that was the biggest factor in explaining the poor retention rates, but that teacher workload was clearly still a factor.

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There is no doubt that whilst teachers continue to receive real-term pay cuts, the issue of recruitment to the profession won’t be fully addressed.  Despite this, the publication of a strategy document to improve recruitment and retention into the profession, was welcome.  It is an excellent document and contains a number of initiatives such as improving support for newly qualified teachers, strategies to make recruitment easier, and promises of fewer new initiatives and changes which have contributed to workload in recent years.

Ofsted is currently consulting on a new inspection framework for implementation in September, and this too includes a section on teacher workload.  This means that schools will be judged on the effectiveness of the strategies it employs to improve the well-being of their staff.

All of this makes perfect sense.  When I took over as Headteacher of FSD in September 2017, I was one of 15 new staff.  The previous two years had seen a very high turnover of staff.  Some had left through enforced redundancies but many had just had enough.  The school had been judged as “Requires Improvement” and the strategies being put in place to turn this around were taking their toll.  Trying to improve the culture of the organisation so that the best teachers were retained was paramount.

In my previous school, as first Deputy Head, and then Head of School, I don’t think I did a very good job of managing teacher workload.  In part, that was because I wasn’t very good at regulating my own. I worked from 7am until 6pm on site every day, went home, had my tea, and started again, and usually worked one full day each weekend.  It wasn’t that I expected my staff to do the same, but I wasn’t setting the best example, and because I was working so much, I was generating documents, emails, and initiatives for everyone else to respond to or implement.

The injury shown below was sustained when I passed out in a toilet after an open evening in 2012.  I hadn’t eaten (hadn’t had time) between 6.30am and 9pm when the evening finished, and was found by the only other person in the building, or I’d have been there all night!

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I have learnt a lot about the importance of managing workload (mine and my staff’s) but it’s fair to say that it is only since starting in this new post in 2017 that I have really taken it seriously.  I look back at some of the practices we adopted in the past and shudder.  The fact that most schools were equally unenlightened is only a partial excuse.  Still….we are here now.

I can’t control teacher pay but I can control culture.  Here are a few initiatives we have adopted.

  • Data collection.  When I started, in 2017, our school calendar had half-termly data collections for each year group on it.  We reduced this to three per year and are giving serious consideration to reducing it to two from September.
  • Written reports.  We don’t have written reports for any year group (a policy I inherited but one I was very happy to support). In one of his excellent blogs (this time on low impact strategies schools can do less of or scrap altogether), Tom Sherrington writes “how many students improve their learning outcomes or experience of school because of what is written in their annual report? Hardly any. The input-outcome path is far too circuitous relative to the power of in-class feedback.  How many teacher-hours are spent on this per year? Way WAY too many.  Ditch them”.
  • Stopping recording everything we do.  Again, back in 2017, teachers were being asked to record on SIMs the interventions they were making for our disadvantaged students.  Why?  For who?  We continue to support students; we just don’t feel the need to write it down.
  • Detentions – teachers no longer do detentions to manage behaviour, punctuality etc. Apart from the fact that teachers managing detentions will never allow a consistent behaviour management strategy to flourish, they are time consuming.  Now all detentions, for anything other than missed homework, are carried out by senior and middle leaders in a single, central whole school detention.
  • Ensured (almost all) lessons are delivered by subject specialists.  Back in 2017 we had PE teachers teaching science and maths, whilst science teachers taught elsewhere.  Crazy. Whilst not making much educational sense, the workload on teachers preparing lessons for which they weren’t trained was excessive.
  • Email – I have banned weekend emails.  Whist there is an occasional lapse, it is VERY occasional.  I read an article recently where the writer felt this policy ignored the needs of those who wish to juggle their time (perhaps because of childcare) and send emails late at night or at weekends instead.  In my experience though, the very presence of an email, places some staff under pressure to read and respond (or even just read and think about it).  My own strategy, if I do work at weekends, is to write the email but delay sending it until “office hours” resume.
  • Lesson planning.  Whilst not requiring lesson plans (I know some schools still require written plans to be submitted at the start of each week), we did have a system whereby we had a particular lesson plan structure everyone was meant to follow, which included having the stages on a PowerPoint in each lesson.  This has now gone too.

Of course, some of the strategies are not specific initiatives.  The most important thing you can do as a Headteacher is to create a culture which promotes staff well-being and be kind to people.  Allowing staff time off to attend sports days, nativity plays, funerals, and medical appointments is important, as is being sympathetic when a caring crisis (child or elderly relative) occurs.  In my experience, staff value but don’t abuse this. Having a very strong behaviour management policy is important too; many of the people I know who have left the profession have done so because their senior colleagues have failed to get a grip of student behaviour and they don’t feel supported.  I have written before about the increase in parental complaints and (often abusive) social media comments.  Again, it is important that staff feel supported in the face of these.

The culture is set by the Headteacher but must be shared.  I am very lucky that my whole senior team buy into, and help create, this culture too.  As do my Trust Board and Governors. I attend a number of meetings per year but all are scheduled with thought and sensitivity for me and the other paid employees who attend.  Governors meetings take place at 4.30pm and NEVER go on for more than two hours.  Trust Board meetings are scheduled during the day. We’ve never held a Saturday “strategy” meeting.

Have we got everything right?  No I don’t think we have.  Staff turnover is now way down.  One member of staff left last year and one is leaving this year. All of the recruitment we are doing is due to the growth in student numbers.  But there is much more to do.

We need to do more about marking and feedback (to make it more useful for the students, and less time-consuming for teachers), and more on homework (for the same reasons). The 1265 hours means that there is always a pressure on directed time.  We have an early finish on Wednesdays and have used most of these sessions for collaborative planning in departments.  Increasingly I want to move to a model where this time is used for training, so planning will have to take place at other times.

It is important too that any initiative we introduce does not only have a positive impact on staff, but also improves the learning experience of our students.  That’s why many of the initiatives we have introduced are evidence based (e.g. the impact of written reports on student learning) and why, although it is also important to be kind (I hope the staff can recognise that trait in me), it doesn’t mean we don’t continue to work very hard indeed and have high expectations of our own performance.

I still have a few pet hates (and share these with staff from time to time).  Whilst the 1265 hours outlines the amount of time staff must be on site, I don’t believe you can be an effective teacher if you arrive on site 10 minutes before the start of the day, and leave 10 minutes afterwards.  Teachers are professionals, and (rightly) should be seen as such.  Teacher pay, though lower than it should be, still places them in the top 10% of earners in the UK, so leaving regularly at 3pm isn’t a good look.

There is much to do after the day has ended (running additional sessions for students near exams; phoning parents; planning lessons; giving written feedback; running extra-curricular activities).  I would argue that none of these – including planning and marking – can be done as effectively from home.  Some can’t be done at all. In an ideal world I’d want all of my staff to work from 8am ish (we start at 8.30am) until 5pm ish on-site each day, take nothing home, and do no work at the weekend.  Those with additional responsibilities might do a bit more but not ridiculously more.  Of course, we aren’t in an ideal world and we need to be sensitive to the teachers’ individual needs (child care; family commitments; the needs for flexible working).  I hope we do all of those.

Whilst I don’t/won’t stand in the car park and check people coming in and out, I know which staff don’t stay late or spend enough time with colleagues/students after school. I also know which staff are regularly here at 6pm at night.  Both these groups cause problems for different reasons but I hope that as we continue to work on our culture and on teacher workload, and as I try to listen and respond to the needs of my staff, the former group buys into the culture more, and the latter group feels that we are responding to their excessive workload.  I am very lucky with the teaching staff I have got but I’m determined to keep working at making their job more enjoyable and doable so that the student experience is a great one.  Then we all win.

*Other barbers are available (but not as good).

This post was published on the author’s blog and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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