I’ve talked to some senior leaders recently about teacher workload and received less sympathy that I expected in response to the idea that teachers are breaking under the strain. While most are deeply worried about their staff, some seem less concerned. I think that when human beings are under stress they are less able to empathise with others and that’s one reason for this, but also I sometimes feel frustrated by a lack of will and imagination. Even where leaders seem concerned, they sometimes throw out red herrings in dealing with the issues. Here are three things I’ve heard in response to tales of teacher stress and breakdown:-
“She’s her own worst enemy – she’s too much of a perfectionist” (this of a teacher repeatedly asked to share her best practice with others as an exemplar).
“They’ll get a shock if they move on – conditions are far worse elsewhere.”
“It’s the cuts – we just can’t do anything to ease their workload.”
But it is possible to make life a whole lot better for teachers. One way to start is to accept that the working day of a mainstream, full time teacher might not be the same as it was when you were one. Even just in the past three years, the marking frenzy sparked by those immortal words “progress over time” has made the experience of anyone who hasn’t had to deal with a full timetable more or less obsolete. That’s not a criticism – it’s a reality. A good starting point, when a member of staff says they’re cracking under the strain, is to believe them and accept that it’s not their fault. Then, as a school consider what you might do to help. I know that most of the suggestions below are more applicable to secondary schools. But then I think staff are generally less isolated in primaries and isolation is a really big problem when dealing with stress. In fact, before I go on, think about what you can do to get teachers into the staffroom, talk to each other and take breaks! (Clue: Cake).
- Think about timetabling. Several schools I’m working with have increased the length of lessons to between 90 and 100 minutes. It’s a bit of a shock at first – you have to plan differently to fill that amount of time in a meaningful way, but it means that some staff see more of fewer pupils, reducing marking. And even for those who don’t feel that benefit, once in the mindset of planning for extended periods of time (which allows pupils time to produce extended pieces of work), there is actually less planning and the day feels less packed. In a day with three 100 minute lessons, there is a break on either side – no dashing from lesson to lesson without time to pee. And the reduction in changeover, registration and settling time means the pupils get more genuine contact time. It also means that when staff get a “free”, they have a substantial amount of time to get something meaningful done.
- Think about timetabling so that at least two groups of the same subject/year group are on at the same time and encourage a culture of team teaching. This means that teachers can put groups together for periods of time for lecture style sessions, freeing up the other from time to time. While I wouldn’t overuse this, some short, lecture style activities are appropriate and part of a broad academic diet – it also prepares pupils for university style learning. In addition, teachers can plan together, share the burden of producing resources, swap classes and expertise and switch children between classes as appropriate. It also means that subjects who may feel that filling 100 minutes is difficult ( a common argument from MFL for example), teachers can co-plan much more activities and swap groups around, mixing lectures, supported independent learning and seminar style learning.
- Consider the point of parent’s evenings. We dropped them altogether and replaced them with a more open door ethos – children presenting their learning to parents at end of year review; open lessons that parents could drop in to; drop-in “ask the personal tutor” occasionally during term time. Attention was paid to where conversations needed to take place – more phone calls home at times that were relevant and pertinent to the issue as it arose, and an automated system of praise post cards generated by a quick online click and sent out by admin staff.
- Drop the ridiculous expectations about marking and evidence in books that have arisen from the fear that Ofsted will complain about a lack of work. Ofsted have been clear that they don’t expect every piece of work to be marked, certainly not triple marked. Learning happens in brains, not in books and if the children are not given time to process, discuss and articulate their learning, it is rarely retained. The fear of not having extended pieces of work in books is reducing the time children spend talking in class. This is not a good thing. Encourage your staff to allow children to evidence their learning in all kinds of ways and let them take responsibility for evidencing it when the inspectors call – by talking to them.
- Use some of the brilliant resources online to reduce marking time – coding, peer assessment, targeted marking etc can cut down a teacher’s workload while also making the pupils more agentive and responsible for their learning – enhancing their understanding along the way.
- If you can say it in an email, don’t set up a meeting for it. Never use your CPD time for information giving. Never send emails to staff after 5.30pm and don’t expect immediate replies.
- Let your staff decide what their CPD priorities are and give them time and scope to explore them. If they want to redesign resources/planning/assessments, let them use CPD time to do so – it’s ridiculous to expect everyone, regardless of their level of experience and expertise, to sit in the same PD session when many of them are learning stuff they already knew or things that have little relevance to them or their subject. It’s great to have moment of inspiration, but let staff learn from each other, co-plan and link that to a chance to engage with some wider reading. Why not give at least half of your PD time to planning great lessons, team teaching or co-observing? All will reduce teachers working in isolation at home and create a more collaborative working environment.
- On that note, accept that twilights are probably the worst possible times to engage anyone in deep thinking about learning. Your whole staff are wiped out at that stage in the day. What about having one morning or afternoon a week where the pupils are off timetable and staff are engaged in meetings/PD? Sounds mad? It’s doable if you slightly extend the days on the other four days – start at 8.45 now and finish at 3.15? Start at 8.35 and finish at 3.30. Over the course of the other four days you have made up the lesson time lost by finishing at 1pm on the Friday or Wednesday. You’ve also reduced after school meeting slots meaning staff have more time to plan and mark before they go home.
- Train your middle leaders and yourselves to always think about the time implications of a request. Ask the member of staff how long the request will take to action and when, realistically they think they can have it done by. Work to the realities of their timetables, not your expectations. If you needed it yesterday, you’re at fault for not planning ahead.
- You will, no doubt, have to deal with members of staff from time to time who are lazy, uncaring or unwilling to work in the best interests of pupils. But they are rare. In the same way we teachers have to step back sometimes from our perception that a whole class is “terrible” until we recognise that it’s just a couple of difficult pupils creating ripples, managers have to do the same with staff. In the words of Mary Myatt, “no-one sets out to do a rubbish job”. Plan your structures and routines around the expectation that everyone is doing their best and deal with the ones who aren’t as outliers. Never moan about “the staff”. It’s not fair to the majority. Could you apply the new Ofsted ethos to your staff? If proven good, you treat them as remaining so unless evidence points to the contrary. Is it really necessary to observe everyone? To go on learning walks (you can’t see learning, by the way)? Would learning walks be better conducted by people wanting to witness and learn from good practice – i.e. as a PD opportunity for staff rather than a quality check for management? Could you cover some lessons to make this happen?
Oh and one more…
11. If, as a school, you have a policy of setting detentions for misdemeanours, have the children given detentions come to a central location after school and arrange a rota for supervision so that there is one member of teaching and one member of support or senior staff taking the detention rather than many members of staff, all over the school, monitoring and supervising the same thing. If managed well, each teacher would only have to supervise one or two DTs per year. Make your processes for logging and recording misbehaviour as streamlined as possible – writing in planners is extremely time consuming for a teacher at the end of a lesson – how might this simply involve the click of a button?
I’m not saying these changes would make the lives of teachers completely better, but they’d mark a shift away from deficit thinking towards a more collaborative and trusting culture. I’m not saying these are perfect solutions – I’m thinking off the top of my head. But something needs to be done and if we wait for that something to come from government, we’ll be lucky if there are any staff in our schools left at all.