You shouldn’t need to be a superhuman to teach
for years, probably decades, teachers have lived in a world where those on the outside envied our holidays and what they saw as a short working day. In many ways, we are all susceptible to not truly understanding the working life of others. Perhaps the best way to deflect those views is to develop a healthy ability to laugh with people, while urging them to become teachers and share the life that they profess to envy.
In truth, we know that the working life of teachers has become very busy. Not only does it take many hours in a working day, but all too often it intrudes on our evenings and weekends, leaving teachers sometimes in despair. Many teachers are choosing to leave the profession, citing the work-life balance as a major factor.
Does this mean that only superhumans can join the profession? Is this the way it is – must we accept that life within schools is busy, busy, busy and get on with it, or is there something that we can do to change the status quo?
I believe that there is a way forward and that to bring about change is to turn ourselves into a 21st-century profession. To do this, we need to discard some of our traditional working methods and embrace the idea that, while the classroom may well be teachers’ responsibility, they do not have to do all the work. I remember a time when all teachers were required to do dinner duty. Now, quite rightly, it is the role of lunchtime supervisors.
We have to embrace the concept of unqualified (not qualified teacher status) teachers being involved within the classroom under the supervision of the professional qualified teacher. There are so many roles that they can perform to help reduce the teaching burden: marking routine work could easily be done by unqualified teachers; supervision; leading assemblies; helping with sport. The list is endless and allows the teacher to concentrate on the things that only they are qualified to do.
There is so much concern caused in the sector by the so-called “unqualified”, we somehow reduce the power of our teachers and yet we have welcomed a whole range of others into our classrooms for decades. Many music teachers come highly qualified to teach their instrument despite not having QTS; student teachers practise with our blessing. In both cases, the secret is that the qualified teacher takes responsibility for the process.
Far from reducing the professionalism of teachers, the teacher as the leader of a team within the classroom truly emphasises who is taking responsibility. If we can’t share our work, then we are probably in a doom loop.
School leadership teams have a crucial role to ensure a positive work-life balance. For too long, we have institutionally rewarded those who work long hours as if the hours alone are the requirement. What we should be rewarding is smart working that creates results without damage. I am not, of course, suggesting that the singular commitment of outstanding professionals should go unrecognised. Almost the opposite is true: if clever teachers have to work extraordinarily long hours to succeed, then the school leadership should examine what is going wrong.
It is absolutely reasonable that teachers should be able to go home at the end of each day with their car keys in hand and the thought of an evening with their family, instead of leaving with a pile of marking, planning and general administrative tasks. If teachers need to work smartly, then schools need to have smart systems where planning and assessment is not over-complicated.
It is perfectly possible for schools to have central planning systems to ensure curriculum coverage and differentiated approaches that do not require hours of work by each teacher each week. There is a wealth of support in some excellent textbooks to assist the development of ideas and concepts in children. By freeing the teacher from the “what”, we can concentrate on the “how” – and this is where teachers make a difference.
Here, we need to fight against years of dogma. It is actually acceptable to use the ideas of others to help us teach. Each teacher does not have to start from scratch for every single lesson. You can plan ahead, and you don’t have to wait until one lesson is over before planning the next. In some schools, teachers are allowed to share some planning. In a sense, it is all about the school leadership team giving others permission to work smartly. When teaching and learning are measured on pupil outcomes and staff morale, the combination is unstoppable. If you can achieve only through unsustainable effort – think again.
Much could be said about record-keeping. Suffice to say, only record what is necessary. Often, we see schools recording in such detail that they have forgotten why they’re doing it. The great schools (or indeed any other great institutions) create memories that record what works, and act accordingly.
We know that when teachers are released from the burden of tedium, they flourish and excel. When schools understand what works, they have the opportunity to release greatness in their staff. Be brave, be bold and set out the manifesto for your school that categorically states: “Here, we work professionally and we value our staff. We can and we will achieve through our skills, not our teachers’ lives.”
Headteachers: set the example.
Andrew Carter is headteacher of South Farnham Junior school and was chair of the Carter Review of initial teacher training