As the Education Policy Institute produces (yet another) report about how hard teachers work, we thought we'd share the thoughts of two ex-primary teachers.
I was in a second-hand bookshop at the weekend, buying a handful of vintage Penguin books. Clearly, their titles were a bit of a give-away, because the man behind the counter asked if I was a teacher. His question stopped me in my tracks, because I’m not really a teacher anymore – I left in July after eight years.
Why did I leave a job I love? Because the workload and its effect on my life outside school was just not worth it anymore. The Education Policy Institute’s report that ‘Around a fifth of teachers in England reported that they worked 60 hours or more in the latest week’ doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I worked in four primary schools and all presented me with workload issues for varying reasons: cumbersome processes associated with overly detailed lesson planning; the requirement to run after-school clubs; onerous marking policies; planning your own PPA time for a teaching assistant to teach; and many others. I wrestled with the decision to leave for a long time, but in the end I felt that life was passing me by and I needed to get out.
The same report found that only ‘48% of teachers in England have more than ten years’ experience’ – this concerns me greatly because it takes time to develop and improve your teaching skills and, if we’re losing our more experienced staff, we’re losing a wealth of knowledge and expertise. That’s not to devalue NQTs and RQTs in the slightest, but they need great mentors and colleagues who can model effective teaching methods. I was not well supported as an NQT and, though I was dedicated to the children and worked extremely hard, I didn’t recognise that what I was doing wasn’t effective. Fast forward a few years and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some excellent teachers and leaders who helped me develop into an effective teacher and middle leader, but what will happen if we lose their skills and experience?
Similarly worrying is the finding that ‘England’s teachers spent an average of four days on certain forms of CPD in the previous year, including courses, observational visits, seminars and in-service training’ - if the teaching workforce is less experienced, then effective CPD needs to be a priority. I’ve sat through many INSET days of varying use and it’s hard (or impossible?) for a school to provide a one-size-fits-all approach that benefits all teachers at all career stages equally – so why use this model anymore? I’m sure many don’t, but I remember one INSET day where I found myself being asked by an ex-Olympian to throw beanbags into a PE hoop – I’m sure there was a reason why he wanted us to do it but I couldn’t tell you what it was, and I was mainly thinking, ‘Let me get back into my classroom to prepare for the children’s arrival tomorrow!’
Anyway, that’s a very personal experience and it was a long time ago; hopefully, things are better now and schools are more sensible when thinking about the impact they want from their INSET days, but if teachers are only exposed to the equivalent of four days of training per year then we can’t expect them to become the experts our children need them to be. I know a lot of teachers find the process of lesson observations stressful but, in my opinion, when it’s done as part of routine classroom practice and in a low-stakes format, then it’s incredibly useful and effective. Twitter was a great source of CPD: I accessed endless blogs from knowledgeable colleagues, but I did this off my own back in the evenings and weekends, and so it added further strain in terms of time demands.
One recommendation from the EPI report suggests that the use of ICT ‘should be explored from the perspective of teacher working conditions’. Whilst it would be great if ICT could help to reduce teacher workload, we should be cautious: the University of Durham and the Education Endowment Foundation (2012) found that ICT training for teachers ‘usually focuses on technology skills in using the equipment…this is not usually sufficient to support teachers and pupils in getting the best from technology in terms of their learning.’ This may be difficult when considered in the context of the CPD findings above. Time for another anecdote: I’m a bit of a techno-phobe and whenever I’ve been given training on the latest technology – iPads, new software, electronic voting pads, you name it – I’ve never successfully incorporated it into my daily teaching because I simply didn’t have the time to play around with it and learn how to use it properly because of all the other seemingly endless (and more essential) daily tasks you have to do as a teacher.
I miss teaching. I loved the buzz of being in the classroom, and being responsible for thirty little faces every day who are ‘yours’ – it’s an unbeatable feeling. But it got to the point where it wasn’t worth it for the impact it was having on my life. And it makes me angry that teaching appears incompatible with a life outside of work – I’ve certainly never met anyone who’s found a solution to it. Now, being able to plan things to do in the evenings and weekends, with no pile of marking sitting in the corner of my lounge staring at me, is amazingly liberating.
One last point: the EPI research found ‘long weekly hours for classroom teachers are not a prerequisite for strong educational performance’. I think that speaks for itself.
Anyone who has been a teacher or lived with a teacher will know that the job is pretty wonderful – the best job in the world maybe, but it is seriously full-on and utterly tiring. I know from my own experiences that teaching takes everything from you; you give yourself to the job and the children. I believe that this selflessness makes teachers who they are – inspiring, dedicated, and hard-working individuals. However, should there be a point at which you draw the line? In a job where there is always something to do, how do you decide when to stop? And, whose responsibility is it to make sure that teachers take a break?
You could argue that teachers should take responsibility for their own work-load, and know when to take a break. However, most teachers I know are so totally selfless that they will always go that extra mile, even if it is at the sacrifice of having a quiet hour to themselves on the sofa one night, or going for their much loved evening jog to unwind from the day. This characteristic is so bitter-sweet – it is the thing that grinds so many down, the thing that contributes to the horrifying statistic that 1 in 5 teachers quit in the first three years, but also the thing that ensures that children come into a classroom full of love and passion every single day, and that no one misses out on a first-class education.
You can see then why so many teachers feel insulted at the suggestion they’re not doing enough, from the government, Ofsted and sometimes their own senior leaders. There is an unbelievable amount of pressure on the workforce to ensure children make more progress, and to raise standards. But, if you’re already giving everything you have – emotionally and physically – then how can you possibly keep on giving?
Some might say teachers need to work ‘smart’ rather than ‘hard’. I was told this when I was teaching, by an Executive Headteacher drafted in to come and save our school. I’m not really sure what working ‘smart’ looks like, but perhaps that’s why I’m no longer teaching. I remember being told it was a case of ‘playing the game’… what does this mean?! Does it mean doing only what you need to do? Cutting corners? Anyway… the point I’m getting at is that I don’t think teachers enter the profession to play a game or work smart. They do it because they want to make a difference, and are willing to give a part of themselves to make that happen.
There is a sad statistic out today which says that many teachers are working a 60+ hour week. This doesn’t surprise me. Teachers struggle to say ‘no’ and draw the line on the amount of hours they are working. Sometimes, saying ‘no’ simply isn’t an option when you have thirty children waiting for you in the morning. Are you just supposed to turn up to a lesson with no planning or resources done, because you ran out of time? Of course not. If you revert to a simple ‘textbook lesson’ would the children be making good levels of progress?
In my view, it shouldn’t be the teachers’ responsibility to try and reduce their workload – it should be the role of Government, Ofsted and senior leaders to take care of their teaching workforce, value them, trust them and allow them time to do the best job in the world to the best of their ability.