In Search of Sustainable Teacher Workload

Four simple tips for primary teachers chasing the work/life balance unicorn

When time becomes scarce, teachers are usually asked to pick their guilt trip: ignoring work, family, or their health and wellbeing.

The ‘teaching as a vocation’ narrative suggests the best teachers are willing to sacrifice their personal time and health because ‘great teachers take extra time to do it right’ and kids deserve it’. But buyer beware, embracing this brand of neoliberal toxic positivity is more likely to lead to fatigue and burnout than drive sustainable teacher workload.

“It is dangerous and unfair to romanticize teachers “above and beyond” behaviors… The message is that overwork and self-sacrifice are commendable behaviors for teachers. If these behaviors are routinely acknowledged as “amazing” and “outstanding” they will become the expectation rather than the exception. Normalizing self-sacrifice is detrimental to individual teachers and the profession as a whole.” Lory Peroff, Stop Celebrating Teacher Self Sacrifice

This past year, my ability to plan and assess and report from home spiralled into a chasm when I became a dad for the second time. With two kids under three, no extended family to lean on, and my wife and I both working, time at home became seriously scarce. Choosing between being a lousy teacher or absent parent wasn’t a choice I was particularly excited to make…

“Public primary school teachers teach an average of 782 hours per year, but teaching time ranges from less than 570 hours in Greece and the Russian Federation to over 1000 hours in Chile, Indonesia and the United States.” -Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators

Sustainable teacher workload is complex, influenced by personal factors and structural issues. According to recent research, Australian teachers (NSW) work an average of 54 hours per week (43 hours at school and 11 hours at home). The activities which have traditionally followed me home include planning, assessment, reporting and administrivia, so these were the tasks I attempted to shift back into the classroom.

There is any number of books and articles about how to work within existing systems to manage time more efficiently or minimise stress via self-care, far less is written about how to radically disrupt those systems. So this blog post is broken into two parts; the first highlights some low-risk strategies to help reduce or manage workload. The second (to follow later), is for the risk-takers. For educators seeking radical change. Those willing to unlearn and expunge some of the misguided beliefs we teachers anchor ourselves to because it’s ‘part of the job’. Regardless of which part resonates, the message is the same; do less.

1. Working smarter or harder isn’t the answer.

According to Principal Mark Sonnemann, it’s a trap.

Our natural instinct as teachers is to find a way to work harder or ‘smarter’ or more efficiently, but I think that is a trap. Workload is increasing almost unceasingly, and any gains we make tend to get eaten up by new priorities. Instead, I would suggest that teachers keep in mind a couple of guiding lights. First, what are your non-negotiable? Is it family dinner, a drink with friends, a sports league or hobby? Don’t sacrifice or compromise that time ever. Next, you need to be able to build some joy into your work life and your personal life. Not so much balance, but the time to enjoy the best parts of both times. We all know what kind of emotional and intellectual reserves and resiliency are required to do this critical work.

Graphic c/- Sarah J Donovan, Ethical ELA

2. Grade less.

Seriously. Grades are summative and signal the end of learning whereas formative assessment suggests that learning is ongoing, encouraging continued growth towards mastery of standards and skills via rich, narrative style feedback. The impact that grading and marking less has on reducing workload may not be as obvious as it first appears. Sure, it would reduce the number of hours sacrificed grading in front of a screen or hauling workbooks home to mark, but the real power of this shift can be seen in the language of the Assessment vs Evaluation/Grading graphic shown above.

Shifting focus from grading to assessment means the teacher is no longer the sole evaluator of learning which matters because, as Dylan Wiliam points out, “feedback should be more work for the student than it is for the teacher.” It has been over three years since I placed a grade on an individual piece of student work (and yes, kids still “do the work”). In fact, sometimes, I don’t even give individualised feedback. Using strategies like the “Letter to Class” method turns seeking feedback into detective work for students.

Other methods of assessment in our class include self and peer assessment using Peergrade and 30/60/90% conferences which switch feedback from teacher-driven monologue into a shared dialogue. “Explode These Feedback Myths and Get Your Life Back” by Arthur Chiaravalli was the gateway text which led me to entertain grading less, check it out at Teachers Going Gradeless.

“What if we can teach students to become adept at looking for the things we notice in their writing and then allow them to work together and by themselves to revise and workshop their own writing? What if we give them the tools and the vocabulary to give feedback to each other?” — Star Sackstein

3. Say no.

Identify your non-negotiables, set boundaries and stick to them. This year, I was invited to participate in several exciting projects which I turned down because, in my gut, I knew I couldn’t do them justice. The story I usually tell myself is that I can totally juggle *insert shiny new thing* and school/life when in reality, I usually end up doing a lousy job of everything and feeling bad about it.

Saying no also extends to the endless stream of administrative work that, due to our always-connected lives, demands our attention at all hours of the day. Whether it’s emails, correspondence with parents, or general administrivia, set and communicate clear boundaries with colleagues and parents and stick steadfast to them.

We often feel like we need to apologize or justify when setting a boundary. We don’t. And, likewise, it’s not your team’s job to make you feel better or more comfortable setting a boundary. Just be clear, respectful, and open for questions. Most of the time, people will be thankful for the clarity and appreciate the rarity of seeing someone ask for what they need rather than be passive aggressive or pissed off.- Brene Brown, Dare To Lead.

Actually, when it comes to communicating learning with families, why not shift that responsibility to students as Karen Cribby describes in this blog post.

4. Work slower not faster.

Give yourself permission to slow down. Prioritising curriculum and choosing to deep-dive into content that is relevant and engaging for your community of learners can be a daunting prospect, but a focus on quality over quantity is key. Slowing down also applies to our willingness to consider and initiate changes to pedagogy, so once again, I defer to Mark Sonnemann,

Work slower not faster. Changes to pedagogy take time and reflection. Give yourself the same grace you would want your students to have when learning something new. It has no chance to stick otherwise and just adds stress and self-doubt when we rush this cycle. Lastly, remember that data and directives are only a part of the job. The best teachers in my experience are those whose life is the most important lesson for their students. If you are stressed and pressured and anxious you will pass that on. Live joyfully and you will pass on that.

Adopting these strategies would contribute to better work habits and even result in some modest time savings, but transformational they are not. Part two of this post will focus on the human-centric practices needed to disrupt systemic barriers and rewrite the rules on sustainable teaching, including ungrading, student self-reporting, Assessment As Learning, co-designed curriculum and experiential learning.

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” — Joseph Campbell

If you are interested in a deeper exploration of progressive practices, I highly recommend this primer by The Human Restoration Project.

Several educators contributed ideas to this blog post, I’m grateful for their ideas and opinions.

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor

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