Why do I feel guilty if I go home in daylight?

1st May 2009 at 01:00

For a lecturer writing a regular column, there's always the temptation to turn it into a moan-fest. Mostly I like to think I resist that temptation. From time to time, however, I'm aware that I fail. Now is one of those times.

Funnily enough, what sparked my discontent was the clocks going forward. About two weeks after it happened, I found myself going home in daylight. Did I feel elated by this? Full of the joys of spring, tra-la? Did I hell! What I felt was guilty.

From deep down came this nagging feeling that I was skiving. No matter that I had arrived at college soon after 8am and was leaving at 7pm. If the sun was up, then there must be important work still to be done.

Sadly, the problem of excessive workload is not unique to any individual lecturer. You have only to listen to colleagues to know that. And you know too that it's not just an issue in your college - but rather in every college - because research tells you so.

Last year, there were two such research projects involving surveys of FE staff. One, on behalf of the UCU lecturers' union, found that nearly 90 per cent of teaching staff experienced unacceptable levels of workplace stress. More than half of the respondents reported high or very high stress levels.

Of course, occupational stress may have multiple causes, not just workload. But a second survey, carried out by the Learning and Skills Network, found that the overwhelming majority of FE staff - 92 per cent - felt obliged to work beyond their contracted hours. Around a third of teachers said they often worked more than 11 additional hours per week, and about half of all staff surveyed said they were unable to achieve a good work-life balance.

Such imbalance is illustrated perfectly by a routine that has become established in my own household. On many occasions this year, I have found myself going into college for days over and above my contracted two and a half per week.

"Are you being paid for this day?" comes the demand as I try, but fail, to slip unnoticed out of the door.

"No," I'm forced to admit.

"So why are you going in then?" comes the inevitable reply.

The answer to this question is a complex one. As teachers, our job is governed not by the amount of time we commit to the endeavour, but by the number of tasks we are expected to perform. These tend to fall into two categories: real tasks and crap tasks. The real work involves contact with students and the preparation and marking that goes into making this activity work as it should. The crap stuff - and these days there is more and more of it - is all the bureaucracy that is demanded from on high.

Some teachers are able to handle this - normally in one of two ways. The first group says: "Well, if that's what the managers want, then that's what the managers get. The paperwork comes first and if it makes me perform less well as a teacher, then too bad." The second approach is to say it's the students who must come first and the managers can go hang when they come calling for their statistics.

I admire the second group but, like so many others, can't find it in me to emulate them. That little voice in my head tells me that I must be both a proficient teacher and administrator. Thus, the extra days, the evenings, the weekends. Even then, I'm often dissatisfied with my performance. However much I do, there's always the feeling that ends have been left untied, boxes not ticked.

If it were just me, it would be sad but not significant. But it isn't just me. We don't need surveys on workload and stress any more; we need action. At the very least, we need an official inquiry into lecturer workload, followed by action on its conclusions. Will it happen? Somehow, I think not.

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