Taking Control; Dealing with the Workload

James Theobold’s blog last week gave me the proverbial kick up the arse that I needed to write a blog that I’ve been brewing for some time. Teacher workload is constantly in the news and the pressures and stresses that the job creates are the single factor that causes teachers to visit the doctor and get signed off with stress for a few weeks. It is notoriously easy for a teacher to get signed off with stress; the common belief is that you tell a doctor that you’re a teacher and you’re struggling and the doctor signs the slip without another word. James’ post explores how we get to the point where we just have so much to juggle that we can’t cope, and comes to the conclusion that it’s the lack of joined up thinking and strategy that causes our workloads to spiral; we have so many individuals asking us to complete small tasks and each works in his own bubble, not taking into account the things that others are asking us to do. I can see the logic in this and I’m sure James has hit on a major contributing factor, but I’d like to argue that in fact teachers have more control over their workload than we like to think, and that in reality we need to exercise that control more aggressively to ensure workloads aren’t excessive and that we can cope. After all, a lack of a decent life/work balance can only have a negative impact on our teaching as we see from the headlines and from blogs and other publications. We regularly hear of teachers who work in excess of 70 hours per week; to my mind this is unsustainable and dangerous. How do these people ever manage to deal with their day to day lives? Do they have friends, family, children, hobbies? Or do they simply sleep and teach?

As professional people with high level qualifications and, on the whole, high levels of intelligence, we should be able to manage our workloads in ways that mean we are mentally healthy and have decent lives outside of work. Every day we ae bombarded with endless new requests for us to complete tasks. I’ve worked in schools where, even as a mainscale classroom teacher, I’d receive 40-60 emails per day. An email takes seconds to read but can take minutes to respond to. The first thing I ask myself when I receive an email is “does it really require a response?” Courtesy and upbringing dictate that, probably, yes, we should respond. But then we can ask a further question; is a response to the SENCO’s email that Verity may potentially be displaying signs of low-level autism going to affect the education of our pupils? In the big scheme of things no. So read and delete.

When it boils down to it, the things that really matter in any school are that every teacher is delivering a great learning experience for students every lesson, and as teachers we have to defend our right and ability to make sure this happens. How does this happen? By planning great lessons, marking work in an effective and timely fashion, and delivering 22 great lessons a week. Oh, and by maintaining our physical and mental wellbeing to ensure that we’re as on the ball as possible.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable for teachers to work 45-50 hours per week.  So, if we teach for 22 hours, that leaves another 20 or so for planning, marking and completing those other little jobs that add up. So how can we use this time wisely? Here are a few habits that keep me sane.

  • To-do lists: Every morning I make a to-do list of all the things I’d ideally like to do before I go home that night. It’s usually a long and challenging list, and it’s a very rare day when everything gets done, but if things don’t get done, I don’t beat myself up over it. I just move the things that didn’t get done onto the next day’s list. Make sure you prioritise the things that really need doing and try to get a couple of the quick jobs done first thing so you can see things getting cleared straight away.
  • Planning: On average I try to spend no more than 2 hours per week on lesson planning. This doesn’t necessarily involve writing schemes of learning, but lesson planning. I spend a short amount of time at the end of each day planning my lessons for the next day. I can only plan from one lesson to the next because I can’t always work out exactly what point in the learning episode a lesson will finish, so it would be pointless for me to spend two hours on a Sunday planning lessons that may not work out in the way I planned. Also, if you have control over the format that your lesson takes, keep lesson plans as brief and to the point as possible. If we know what we’re delivering and we know the students, writing reams and reams of “instructions to self” is of no benefit to anybody
  • Marking: to my mind marking should be the thing that we spend more time than anything else, after lesson delivery. But let’s be honest – it can be soul-destroying. To keep your soul intact, try to mark “little and often”. I try to do 2-3 sets of books per week. Use highlighters and codes as short hand to minimise the amount you have to write and make sure you plan plenty of peer-assessment and reflection time into your lessons. Also make sure students record and respond to your verbal feedback in lessons. Marking can be a pain, but it is, arguably, the most important thing we do. If done well, it has a huge impact on student development, and if you give the books the TLC they deserve, the students probably will too.
  • Be honest: to yourself, colleagues and students. If you’re struggling to get a set of books marked because year 10 controlled assessment has to take precedence, tell that to the students. Similarly, if a line manager identifies a problem with the frequency of your marking, be open with them about the reasons why. We’re all humans working in strange and stressful institutions whilst simultaneously dealing with external pressures. It’s a very unusual person who can’t empathise with somebody who has genuine reasons for struggling to cope with their workload, and most will take the time to sit with you and try to find a solution.
  • Keep a record of your marking. I started doing this three years ago. I keep a simple Excel spreadsheet that provides a visual record of how often I’ve marked my books. This tool allows me to see what has been marked and when and also stops any books from becoming neglected, which I find particularly important for those classes that we only see once a week or fortnight.
  • Be strict about keeping time for things outside of work. Have a strict cut-off point. Personally, I like to keep working at home to a minimum. I commute an hour each way and so I work through lunches and breaks and stay in the building till 5 or 6 o’clock. Some colleagues prefer to leave at 3.30 and work from home. Whichever you prefer, be strict about keeping non-work time sacred. In reality, we could work every hour God sends and still there’d be more to do. Teaching, by its very nature, throws up endless challenges and jobs to be done, but you’ve got to be ruthless about what you won’t do to keep your sanity.
  • This is such a cliché, but you must look after yourself. Eat well, sleep well and make time for exercise. If your body is fit and healthy, you’ll be happier and consequently do a better job.

I remember listening to an interview with somebody on Radio 4 a few years ago who said that a good SLT creates a culture and environment in which it easy to be a good teacher and very difficult to be a bad one. I thought this very pertinent, and to me it alludes to the idea that our schools should be open, friendly and eclectic environments in which colleagues share, celebrate and challenge each other’s’ practice. We all have a duty to make sure that we each play our part in ensuring the schools we work in are like this, and to do this we need to work hard but also look after ourselves.


About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

3 responses to “Taking Control; Dealing with the Workload”

    • Ben says :

      A very insightful blog, Andy – thanks for this. I think that the whole ‘I was up until 10pm, marking…’/’I worked all of Sunday…’ (show-off) culture is one that needs to be challenged by SLT in order to maintain a happy, motivated and enthusiastic workforce, capable of creating happy, motivated and enthusiastic learners!

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