'The biggest crisis in education isn't workload – teachers don't mind hard work – it's the erosion of trust'

12th March 2018 at 11:01
Most teachers feel overworked – but that doesn't stop them from finding the joy in teaching. The biggest problem is the lack of trust and professional integrity from senior leaders, writes one teacher

"I have been thinking about how best to explain the conditional to you far more than is strictly healthy" is the kind of line I use pretty often with my Year 11s. And it’s true. I have a shortcut to my MFL Facebook group and I can’t remember how I managed without the constant stream of inspiration and advice from #TeamEnglish on Twitter. On holiday in France, I went around snapping interesting and amusing things to share with my students, and I frequently pull over to take a picture or make a note of an amusing or controversial topic that might get Year 11 enthused about the non-fiction English paper that they worry about.

I have endless admiration for my colleagues in drama and music, who are at every school performance, looking and sounding fabulous, and putting on Herculean efforts into putting on stupendous productions every year.  And then there are the trips abroad that children go on. Teachers take hundreds and hundreds of extra hours to organise them, on top of the battle to actually take the students out of the classroom because, God forbid, a Year 10 child should miss more than two hours of maths. Why bother? Because they know that the lifelong impact on the students will make every moment worth it.

What’s my point? Teachers don’t mind hard work. No teacher went into teaching for an easy life. (Caveat: I have met two lazy teachers in 20 years. The one who confessed to "using his weeks to recover from his weekends" and the one who started training because her parents said she could only keep living at home if she did so. Neither lasted more than a few months.)

My research for my book, How to Survive in Teaching, showed that 26 per cent of teachers said they worked more than 20 hours a week outside their contracted hours. There’s actually no surprise here. But this statistic alone isn’t what should concern us. How about this one: 

Some 52 per cent would strongly disagree with the statement “my workload is manageable”. 

“Manageable” is an interesting word. I imagine there are very few of us who don’t recognise that feeling of being entirely swamped to the point of head-buzz.

The scourge of 'evidence of impact'

If the kinds of tasks named above aren’t the issue, what is? I would argue that it’s not about the amount of work, but about the nature of the tasks. Here’s what my respondents told me were the biggest contributors to the workload issue – and these persist, despite apparent efforts in recent years to address them:

  • "Waffly" meetings, "surprise" meetings and meetings that go on too long.
  • Tasks that fall into the category of: "Look! I’m doing my job!" – it’s not enough to have a great idea in the classroom or to set a great piece of homework. It has to be documented. It’s not enough for a student to say, "I love your lesson" – their words must be evidenced for this to "count". The scourge of "evidence of impact"…
  • This is a big one: duplicating data. "We’d like this presented on these smart new forms," says a data manager to one of my participants. Response: wails of fury and frustration: but it’s "HERE! Look!"
  • The Fit2Teach app (which is free and great) has a set of daily questions to establish what kind of a day you’ve had. Aptly, it includes fights with photocopiers. Into this category, we can also include: "no time for a wee" or to eat or drink anything. How many teachers tumble through a five-lesson day and only then stop to wonder why they feel dizzy and faint. Oh, that’ll be forgetting about basic self-maintenance. Schools like Helena Marsh’s listened to teachers and made break five minutes longer. It really is the small things.
  • Monitoring. This is an interesting one. I feel very strongly that schools and teachers should be monitored and should be accountable. We are in a privileged position and these young people are entitled to the best we can offer. But it’s how such monitoring is executed that is significant. If teachers feel that they’re being checked up on, that they’re not trusted to do a decent job – it is here that we have an issue. My research participants had stories of books being checked for marking whilst they were off sick, of being disciplined for setting homework on the "wrong" day, of being made to feel inadequate for having a disruptive student removed from a lesson...


There’s even more to it than this, though. This is what I like to call "professional integrity". The vast majority of teachers take a huge amount of pride in their work in the classroom. A last-minute special assembly that takes their Year 7s away on the day they were due to give their presentations; a diktat which says precisely what to teach and how to teach it on a given day; a perceived criticism over the handling of a vulnerable student. These are the kinds of gremlins that can eat away at teachers. These, I believe, are the key contributing factors to the teacher crisis and the alarming statistics such as these:

Some 42 per cent would disagree with the statement “I am happy in my work” and 66 per cent have been tearful at work. 

And it is down to this: the erosion of trust and professional integrity, which I have come to believe is at the heart of our current crisis in teaching.

School leaders must have faith in their staff: faith that they want to be there; faith that they want to do the best they can. After all, as Chris Chivers always says, "no one comes to work to do a bad job". Will there be exceptions? Of course, there will. But if senior leadership teams are in offices bemoaning the incompetence of the teachers (enough for many teachers to be losing sleep at night), the results will be nothing short of toxic.

I’m aware this makes for some grim reading, but the situation is not insurmountable – not by any means.

So many schools are getting it right. So many teachers are doing a brilliant job. I’d like to end with a tribute to Mr F, my daughter’s Year 5 teacher, who instilled in her such a passion for learning and a confidence in herself that she’d never had before. The key stage 2 curriculum can be pretty rigid and demanding. Mr F has taught Year 5 for as long as I can remember. This must make life pretty straightforward, yes? One set of resources, dusted off each year. Well, no. Mr F saw a programme called River Monsters and decided it would make a great scheme of learning, so he created one. Mr F used meerkats to teach English, science, geography for half a term.

Someone said recently that the best teachers are "those who make every child feel like the favourite without the others realising it". Is Mr F overworked? I imagine so. Do new initiatives and colour-coded marking get him down? I’d bet on it. Is he leaving teaching anytime soon? Not, I would hazard, until he has to be wheeled out of the building.

Emma Kell is a full-time head of department in north-east London and completed her doctorate in education last year. She is author of How to Survive in Teaching

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