We need an end to the toxic work-all-hours culture

Why is it still taboo for teachers to declare that they will not work all hours of the day, the weekend and the holidays? Emma Sheppard reports

Emma Sheppard

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“But this is a big job,” I remember being told in an interview for a leadership position. “How do you envision going about it with…all your other commitments?”

At the time, I laughed (and spat a little bit) – a reaction my professional mentor later suggested might not have been the best response in an interview scenario. 

But, having spoken candidly about my professional achievements, both in school and as the founder of a national charity, as well as the fact that these had been accomplished while on maternity leave and working full-time with a small child, I was surprised that my ability to succeed at big jobs had gone unnoticed.

I didn’t get the job (though I did get mastitis from skipping two feeds to attend the interview). But, on more than one occasion, I have wondered whether I should have been more bitter about potentially falling victim to an unconscious bias that bordered on maternity discrimination. The implication was that I would not have been able to effectively fill a leadership position while also keeping my two children alive. 

Workload: Working all hours doesn’t make sense

Two years later, however, what continues to strike me about this scenario is the awkwardness that met my actual response: “No job should require so many hours that we can’t have a life outside work. Good leadership means ensuring our staff have a positive work-life balance, whatever their commitments or interests outside school. Working all hours of the day doesn’t make any sense.”

It was quite clear that I was talking a foreign language at this point: balance and reasonable hours were clearly not what these interviewers had in mind for the role. And, while it felt good to state my beliefs confidently, it was frustrating to think that unhealthy attitudes towards teacher workload still dominated our profession. 

Half of teachers are parents. In an industry dominated by women, the tension between workload and parenting commitments can often mean that comments like the one I received can build a convincing case for maternity discrimination. 

But, while children are a very obvious reason to protect our personal lives, what about the other half of the workforce who do not have caring responsibilities? Was the assumption of my interviewer that a different candidate would renege on friendships, domestic responsibilities and love life in order to meet the demands of such a “big job”?

Celebrating our staff as human beings

If the gatekeepers to leadership positions simply continue to hire candidates who promise to go above and beyond for students, who will do anything and everything necessary, and who proudly boast that they can work like machines, then we will never hear sensible voices in leadership that are capable of celebrating their staff as human beings. Or modelling humanity, as well as excellence, to our students. 

My interview took place in 2018, five months before the Department for Education published its Workload Reduction Toolkit, loudly urging school leaders to address the overwhelming working hours teachers were facing. 

It was a year sandwiched between the 2017 and 2019 teacher workload surveys, which indicated that teachers and leaders work on average between 49.5 and 55.1 hours per week. And it was more than a year before Ofsted included the stipulation for reasonable teacher workloads in its 2019 inspection framework.

And yet the discussion around workload has been going on for decades. It is not news that heavy workloads drive teachers to leave the profession or to suffer from poor mental health and burnout

So why is it still taboo to confidently declare that you will not work all hours of the day, the weekend and the holidays, nor ask other to do so? Why are so many teachers and leaders still set on a panic mode, which drives us to confuse long, hard work – at the expense of all other aspects of our lives – with effective teaching and leadership?

Upon reflection, what I experienced probably wasn’t maternity discrimination: it was the toxicity of the working culture of the education sector. Had I spoken proudly of my PhD study, of competing at a sport at national level, of a side business making robotic arms, I may also have been challenged over my ability to fulfil the requirements of a “big job”. I may also have been passed over in favour of a candidate who deliberately avoided touching on the richness of their personal lives for fear of being seen as less committed to the role.

Whether teachers and leaders want their evenings and weekends to spend time with families, to watch Netflix or to perfect their cross-stitch, attitudes at interview need to change. We need to hire leaders who will empower reasonable expectations of workload rather than modelling an impossible and damaging all-or-nothing commitment. 

Emma Sheppard is founder of The MaternityTeacher/PaternityTeacher (MTPT) Project and a lead practitioner for English

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Emma Sheppard

Emma Sheppard is founder of The MaternityTeacher/PaternityTeacher (MTPT) Project and a lead practitioner for English

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