Why do teachers work more than they should? It is because other teachers work more than they should.
I recently wrote an article about school open evenings, in which I said that teachers are overworked and that they shouldn’t be expected to stay in school late for open evenings to sell and promote the schools that they work for.
It is no secret that most teachers work well beyond their contracted hours, and the pay teachers receive for the hours they are actually contracted for – let alone the extra ones – is disgraceful. All in all, it has led to a recruitment crisis the likes of which the industry has never seen before, alongside an unprecedented exodus from the profession.
I was struck by one response to my article, in which a teacher said: “I love our open evening and I love my school. I will totally sell both to anyone who asks. I don’t mind staying late to show off my kids’ work and have a chat with lots of people about a subject I love.”
OK. That is great. I am delighted that you are willing to work unwaged to do what you love. But think for a moment of the impact that that has on the people around you, and the expectations that it raises for the profession.
Could you imagine a barista in a coffee shop saying: “I love coffee and I love making it for people. I don’t mind staying late to share the drink that I love”? Obviously, you can’t imagine it, because it would be absolutely absurd.
“I love representing my clients in court, so I love working overtime for no fee,” said no lawyer ever.
No self-respecting professional would work more than their contracted hours. Apart from teachers.
Most self-respecting organisations acknowledge that it is unhealthy for employees to work ridiculous hours. Not schools. In fact, not only are schools willing to allow their employees to work ridiculous hours, they expect it.
It is expected of teachers to work long hours, to work weekends, and to go above and beyond the call of duty for their students. So much so that going above and beyond is no longer exceptional but rather expected.
Going above and beyond
It is not uncommon for departments to be pinging emails back and forth on a Sunday evening. It is not uncommon for teachers to stay up until the middle of the night planning lessons or marking homework for the next day. It is not uncommon to see teachers staying late because they “love their job”. It is not uncommon, but it should definitely be unacceptable.
It has reached the point where if a teacher only works the hours they are contracted, they will fall behind on their work and questions will be raised about their work ethos. No one can manage to do everything unless we work on evenings or weekends.
I have heard teachers say things like: “I keep Saturdays free, and I only work about four hours on Sunday. I think that’s fair enough.”
No. It is not fair. It is wrong. You are using your free time to catch up on work, which then increases the expectations on other teachers to do the same. Working overtime is not something to be proud of, and it leads to an unhealthy work culture in which expectations become unmanageable.
Answering emails at 7pm
Many teachers I know have their school emails linked to their private phones, and reply to work emails outside of working hours. This is also not OK, as it sets a precedent for other teachers to do the same.
Lots of people justify teachers’ term-time working hours by saying that teachers get lots of time off during the holidays. Unfortunately, teacher holidays don’t justify or excuse the term-time working hours.
The institutionalised bad practice in teaching is not only limited to emails and working hours. Increasingly, teachers are expected to show their dedication and love for their career by privately funding resources for their classes, whether it is some colourful paper for origami or biscuits to bring in on a Friday.
When I was a trainee teacher, our subject lecturer at faculty suggested that we should buy fake blood to teach Macbeth. She said that, by using some fake blood, you can really bring the play to life for the students. She then said: “Your department probably won’t have a budget for it. But it’s really quite cheap so you can get it yourself. I think this one was only £1.99.”
Hold on a minute. Are you already conditioning teachers, before they are even teachers, to spend their own money on resources for their lessons? This is not what we should be teaching trainees. And yes, £1.99 is not a lot of money, but it is bad practice and would be completely unheard of in most other professions.
In a more extreme case, I know of schools where the maths departments don’t even buy their teachers the calculators they need to teach their lessons. This is partly because the department is well aware that the teachers will buy them anyway, and all they have to face is mild disgruntlement – which is an easy price to pay for the money saved.
Just to be clear: it is good to love your job and it is good to love your school. However, if you are using that as a justification to work beyond reason, you are setting a dangerous precedent, which will inevitably result in unmanageable expectations.
Teachers should not be expected to work overtime. They should not be expected to use their own money to buy resources, and they should not be expected to answer emails outside working hours, but they are, and they do.
By working overtime, by buying resources with our own money and by replying to emails on a Sunday evening, we are propagating that unhealthy work culture which is working to the detriment of teachers, schools and, ultimately, the children we teach – because a tired and overworked teacher is rarely a good one.
Guy Doza works as a professional speechwriter in Cambridge. Before training as a teacher, he wrote for politicians, scientists, business leaders and CEOs