Teachers are to blame for their workload – they set unrealistic goals for themselves

Teachers want to provide the perfect education – and they feel guilty when they fall short, writes Professor Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted

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This is an edited version of an article in the 30 October edition of TES. To read the full article, subscribe to TES

That there is a workload issue in teaching in England hardly needs reiterating. Nor do we need to point out that staffroom stress is on the rise. Numerous causes are cited: the relentlessness of new initiatives by recent governments; the flood of regulations flowing from the Department for Education; the real or purported demands of the schools' inspectorate Ofsted.

Then there’s the tyranny of successive testing, tracking and reporting regimes, plus expectations of ever-improving results from politicians and pressure from headteachers worried about their own security and that of their schools.

There is no doubt that too many teachers are working too many hours, often on tasks that they see as pointless distractions from their core purpose. But although a lessening of accountability pressures would be welcome, would that resolve the workload issue? I suspect only partially.

If accountability pressures were removed altogether or greatly reduced, would there still be a workload problem? Yes, there would, but of a subtly different kind.

The problem is that most teachers, quite rightly, are dreamers. They have dreams, aspirations and ideals that can never be fully realised in this imperfect world. For example, they want to do the best by their pupils, but what constitutes “best” and would they ever know if it were achieved? They want to help each pupil meet their potential, but what if the notion of “potential” is meaningless and how can anyone know when it has been met? Teachers want to give their pupils fulfilling lives, yet they are only one influence among many, and is it appropriate to place any single notion of “fulfilment” on others with different life experiences?

Teachers want their teaching to be never less than good, but what does that mean and can it realistically be achieved in every single lesson? They want to intervene with optimum effect to develop pupils’ knowledge, but with the best will in the world – and even with all the time in the world – can teachers ever truly get close to understanding their pupils’ minds? And even if they could, how would they know their influence had been optimal?

The vast majority of teachers expect too much of themselves. They aspire to unrealistic goals. They always fall short – and deep down they realise that they do. They know there is always more they can do for their pupils. They know that what they and their schools provide can never be good enough for the young people in their care. They acknowledge that their schools can never be perfect. Inevitably, they feel guilty about their shortcomings when they fail to meet unrealistic aspirations.

Consciously or unconsciously, they try to assuage their guilt through hard work and long hours. And they succeed, at least to a limited extent, but at a vast cost to themselves.

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