Classroom practice - Use simple techniques to lighten the load

Teachers' lives are being blighted by punishing working practices. Until policy evolves, relieve the burden with these practical steps
9th January 2015, 12:00am


Classroom practice - Use simple techniques to lighten the load

Teachers talk about work-life balance as if it's a distant dream, equivalent to a lottery win. It's no surprise: the old stereotype of teachers' short days and long holidays has been replaced by the harsh reality of punishing working weeks of 50 hours and then some.

Fortunately, politicians seem to have realised that the problem has become critical. The government launched its Workload Challenge on the TES website last October, asking teachers to submit workload problems and possible solutions. Whether this is a case of political opportunism in the long shadow of a general election or something that will result in practical changes is not yet clear, but it is an opportunity nonetheless.

Action is certainly needed, and quickly: stress is endemic in the working lives of teachers and it is costing both schools and students. A government study conducted between October 2011 and January 2013 found that 35 per cent of work absences related to "mild to moderate mental health disorders". Too many teachers are drowning in work and the related stress it creates.

So what is at the root of the problem? First, our punitive accountability system and the Ofsted behemoth. The corrosive effect of worrying about a poor inspection drives schools into the bureaucratic meltdown of bloated lesson plans, excessive marking policies, "mocksteds" and worse, all of which are driving teachers towards burnout.

This is compounded by a culture of managerialism. By this I mean target-obsessed management systems that insist on substantial data from teachers every few weeks at the expense of actual teaching. The issue is exacerbated by performance-related pay policies that demand reams of paperwork.

Is there a solution to these issues? Policy changes could certainly help, but schools and teachers can employ plenty of simple approaches, too.

School actions

Create a teacher workload policy

One simple solution is for the senior leadership team to reflect on the impact of every decision. Does the effort undertaken have a proportionate effect on student outcomes? What is being dropped to make way for the new initiative?

Leadership decisions should focus on the Pareto principle, which says that 80 per cent of our impact is derived from 20 per cent of our actions. We should zero in on the 20 per cent and remove any work that proves a distraction.

Devise high-impact marking and planning policies

Feedback and good planning are essential for effective teaching but we should still reduce the time we give to these elements as long as it doesn't damage their positive impact. A good marking policy ensures that teachers don't mark everything. It should stress the value of effective strategies, like peer- and self-assessment, that can reduce workload and improve learning. The same pragmatic and flexible approach should apply to lesson planning.

Improve CPD

One of the main reasons why teachers are so overloaded is because they often work in isolation. It is essential that schools ensure their teachers can take part in collaborative planning and put training into practice.

Adopt intelligent accountability

Avoid the stress created by a culture of perpetual fear. If Ofsted is jettisoning lesson observation gradings, then so should we. If Ofsted is slimming down the inspection process for successful schools, then we should do the same for successful departments. Intelligent accountability avoids excess.

Create a well-being group

The best chance our students have of success is through the regular attendance of a healthy and happy teacher. A group of teachers and school leaders committed to creating a school fuelled by kindness and care can mitigate the stresses that attend the job.

Projects could involve improving communal spaces, eating together on training days, supporting family days and so on. Great schools thrive on trust and fellowship.

Teacher actions

Start the day as you mean to go on

There is plenty of evidence to show that our minds are sharpest at the start of the working day, so plan how you will use your time during a golden 10-minute morning slot. Try the Post-it test - if your to-do list won't fit on a Post-it note, then it probably won't fit into your day. Reduce your stress by reducing your day to a little coloured square.

End the tyranny of email

You turn up to school bright and ready but an avalanche of emails quickly sours your mood. Sound familiar? Only a fraction of the emails you receive are important. Set aside a small pocket of time every morning to manage them and be ruthless about sticking to this slot. Yes, we are addicted to the espresso shots of interest offered by emails but they can distract us from essential tasks.

Prevent work creeping into your evening by answering emails at home in allotted time slots, too. Otherwise, what feels like efficiency can, perversely, create more work. If you answer emails whenever they arrive, one thing is certain: you can expect more of them.

Influence your meetings

Managerialism often shows itself in meetings. How often have you sat through bloated gatherings with little purpose and lots of wasted time? Make a difference. Ask for an agenda in advance. Expect the meeting to finish when it is supposed to. Ask for reading beforehand that will reduce meeting time. In short, manage upwards and don't accept your time being wasted.

Take a proper lunch break

Another part of work creep is the shrinking of the lunch break. What was once a lunch hour has been whittled away to nothing in many cases. The problem is that when we haven't eaten we are less effective and more likely to make poor decisions than those who have had a break and some healthy food. There is a sound link between blood sugar levels, willpower and general effectiveness. Start eating, resting and becoming more effective in managing your workload.

Sleep and be merry

A tired teacher produces diminishing returns. Sleep is like a service for your brain, providing a vital nightly clean. Fend off the temptation to do everything. Instead, admit your limitations, arrest your perfectionism and get some sleep. And spend time with your friends and family. Plan your recreation time with the same fervour as your lessons. When it comes to your health - both physical and mental - these activities are just as important.

Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York

What else?

Use this Teachers TV guide to find data-backed methods for managing stress.

See what an expert panel says about approaching an unworkable workload.

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