Wake up to your dream job

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Managing Teacher Workload. By Sara Bubb and Peter Earley. Paul Chapman Publishing. pound;17.99

Too much to do in too little time? A time-audit guide opens Kevin Harcombe's eyes to a way out of the nightmare

I woke up in a cold sweat in the garden. The sun was shining, the birds were singing. My partner was bringing me a cool beer. "Thank God for that," I breathed. "I've just had this awful nightmare that I spent all my waking hours planning, teaching and marking."

"No," she smiled, "This is the dream, dear. You've just fallen asleep during your own assembly." Apologies to the Monty Python team for adapting a classic sketch, but some teachers are living that bad dream. Teacher workload elicits little sympathy outside the profession. And why should it? The problem of balancing work and life is not unique to us. But where teaching differs from many professions is in the intensity of the role.

As the authors of this book point out, teaching has many similarities to acting, "but no one would expect an actor to be on stage for five hours a day, five days a week and 39 weeks a year". ("Darling, I've just had 3C and they gave me three curtain calls.") Teachers are voting with their feet. Bubb and Earley tell us that some teaching graduates never take up a post and, of those who do, one in five leaves within four years to "have a life". This is a huge waste of investment and talent.

The authors' main tool for re-establishing work-life balance is a self-audit, originally commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, to identify and eliminate our "time bandits": "those people who sap our energy and eat up our time". (Surely that's my teenage daughter?) It takes between 15 and 30 minutes a day to do - "taking time to make time" as the authors put it. In the initial trial, the book says, weekly worktime was reduced for most teachers by between a woeful 15 minutes and a whopping (and atypical) 10 hours.

To do your own audit, you fill in the timesheet supplied in the book each day for seven days (weekend included) and compare with benchmark figures for the average primarysecondary teacher. Activities need to be weighted according to intensity: disciplining a pupil requires the same time as taking registration, but is more intense. You then reflect on the value of the various activities and identify which have given you the most (and least) professional satisfaction, the idea being to plan to eliminate the negative or wasteful. I completed a modified version of the audit for myself and asked my key stage 1 leader to complete one. She is a workaholic who wants to kick the habit but who, in the absence of a Workaholics Anonymous, often backslides into 12-hour days at school. Her favourite film is The Lost Weekend.

Encouragingly, she found that merely signing up for the audit was worthwhile. "It has made me think more carefully and I am already working less in the evening," she said at the end of day two, while conceding that "next week I will probably be really manic".

She found that she spent a greater than average time preparing, "but that's just me". Nonetheless, if the Government's intended 10 per cent guaranteed planning, preparation and assessment time comes to fruition in September 2005, it could have a positive impact on her and her family. "My husband doesn't understand why I have to tidy the classroom, or gather resources together, because that's not actually teaching."

She tries to keep Friday evenings clear, although it's not unusual for her to be in school until after 6pm even then. "Maybe I've got into the habit of staying late." She also takes one weekend day off.

After her audit, she decided to take a more pragmatic attitude to marking and preparing resources, and is also making more use of her classroom assistant for such routine tasks as photocopying. Best of all, "it made me realise how much satisfaction I get from my job, which is why I'm doing so much in the evenings".

Have teachers simply got into the habit of long hours (the authors suggest - mistakenly, I believe - that teachers are competitive about who works longest)? Their solution is clear. Ask yourself: "Is it really any better at the end of three hours than it was after one, and does it need to be this good? Is a Rolls-Royce needed or will a Ford Fiesta do just as well?"

My own audit told me I was spending a disproportionate amount of time checking and responding to emails - a displacement activity. I now restrict myself to checking them twice daily. I also spend a great deal of time servicing the governing body, a problem identified by many primary headteachers. Interestingly, the work I do as a consultant leader is strictly time-limited in my diary.

The potential pay-offs for teachers and children from reducing workload are great. Staff work better when you respect their right to a home life. My favourite management guru is Sir Gerry Robinson, who leaves work at 5pm every day and believes Friday is for golf. Hitting a small ball with a stick is not my thing, but the principle appeals. He also advises managers to halve the hours they spend in meetings. My staff meetings never last more than one hour, often less, and in report-writing season they are ditched. Even better, a colleague headteacher devotes one staff meeting slot a term to "staff wellbeing" and organises activities including Pilates classes, wine or cheese tasting, and walks on the beach. Staff can choose not to take part but they must leave the school; they're not allowed to work during that session.

The authors are refreshingly in touch with the realities of a teacher's day: "In terms of stress... the 10 minutes unjamming the photocopier may feel equal to an hour's planning." They know, too, how primary teachers multitask: photocopying while talking to the special needs co-ordinator and being interrupted by a pupil while trying to drink a cup of coffee.

Bubb and Earley recommend a collective audit so whole-school changes can be brought about, and they caution that there needs to be a tangible benefit or staff will feel more disillusioned. Their tips for smarter working are occasionally facile ("spend pound;5 on internet food shopping") but more often their strategies are useful, thoroughly researched and written in readable, unfussy language. In short, they have produced something that could go some way towards rousing teachers from the bad dream.

Kevin Harcombe is headteacher at Redlands primary school, Fareham, Hampshire

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