Here’s how to stop workload ‘swallowing you whole’

Stop lambasting other teachers for their approach to workload - focus on your own work-life balance, says Susan Ward

Teacher workload: There is no easy solution because workload is such an individual thing, says depute headteacher Susan Ward

Twitter’s had a lot to say recently about teachers posting “before and after” shots of their new classrooms. Some have found it inspiring, sparking them to roll their sleeves up and head into school to tackle classroom makeovers of their own. Others have questioned whether learners will be jostling for elbowroom amongst all the busy displays, brightly coloured memo boards and reading nooks stuffed with brand new soft furnishings.

As is the way with social media, some teachers have lambasted everything: the cost, the potential for sensory overload, even the devil-may-care use of Blu Tack on freshly retouched paintwork. More than anything else, though, opponents have asked the age-old question that every single teacher who has ever worked hard has heard from a colleague at least once: how long did that take you?

At a time when workload is the hot topic in staffrooms up and down the land, and knackered teachers everywhere are looking for the magical solution that will permanently shorten their to-do list, it is perhaps no wonder that those who choose to so publicly display how they are working through their holidays will come in for a fair bit of stick.

But that doesn’t mean it is OK.


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The trouble is, we are using this word “workload” like it is some sort of standard measurement of What Teachers Need To Get Done. We use it in a way that suggests workload is constant, fixed, unchanging and the same for everyone. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that is not true. There are times of the week, month, term and year when their workload is heavier, and there are pressure points and bottlenecks that make those times even more challenging to cope with.

Tackling teacher workload

How heavy someone regards their workload is also heavily influenced by their own personal circumstances, how much mental and emotional capacity they have to dedicate to their work, what else is happening that is likely to be sucking up their energy reserves. Traditional workload messages about working smarter, not harder, and just saying "no" are not helpful, because workload is not a one-size-fits-all kind of a gig.

Pushback from colleagues about how many hours you work can, of course, be a well-meaning effort to look out for your wellbeing. But, actually, it’s not our job to be passing comment on each other’s working patterns. And it is not helpful to workload-shame people on social media who are simply proud and excited about what they have achieved. How much and when someone decides to work is their choice, nobody else’s.

We need to reset our definition of workload to see it as personalised to each individual. It’s not about whether I’ve got more to do than you; it’s about how much capacity we each have to do what needs to be done. This is why two teachers in the same school may react totally differently to a new initiative. If you’ve got headspace and a clear diary, the new change might be exciting and inspiring. But if you are already approaching your tipping point, it might just be what pushes you over the edge.

What we need to do is take responsibility for our own attitude to workload. There is no silver bullet that will rip through your to-do list. There is no magic wand to make it all go away. Tackling bureaucracy is a crucially important struggle and we have to fight it – but let’s not kid ourselves that it is going to be sorted overnight.

What you can control right now, from this moment, is your attitude to your workload. Decide where your hard lines are, what you will not be moved on. At busy times of the year, you might need to make adjustments, redraw the lines to protect yourself when things are tough so that you keep feeling OK. Let the showboats sail past you, rather than working all weekend to keep up with them. Decide that you could keep redrafting that plan, but actually it's fine as it is. Make a plan for how you will implement a change so it is manageable, even if that means you won’t be first to do so. Teach yourself to know when to stop.

These small, resolute actions are yours and yours alone, and they will help you protect your time and energy so the workload does not swallow you whole.

So, how about we stop giving others a hard time about how they manage their workload – and look to our own front door instead?

Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30

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