The workload epidemic: do the ends justify the means?

Absolutely not, writes this teacher as she shares her stressful and sad story

The workload epidemic: do the ends justify the means?

When I bumped into my old headteacher, she was surprised to see me. It was the middle of a school day. Why wasn’t I at school? I told her I’d been signed off work with ‘anxiety’. In reality, it was way more than that. 

Both she and I know that I am a good teacher. Yet, under new leadership I wasn’t given the conditions to consistently show it. The warning signs, however small, had been there from the start.

Before the September Inset had started, I had been emailed 32 policies over the holidays to read and approve. We were told we weren’t compliant, so I read them all and replied to each with annotations.

When Inset day came around, we were hooked. Our thoughts and ideas were collected for use in the school development plan and there was a real sense of drive. Systems would be improved by this woman: she was a tour du force and I admired her.

My first observation had been great. I was given minimal feedback to improve on with my mixed-age infant class. The lesson was a good reflection of my day-to-day teaching, the head said she liked my style and the outcomes. My classroom environment, according to her, was the best in the school.

And yet…the signs were there. “Children shouldn’t touch pencils when you talk to them” and, “Don’t let them sharpen pencils in lessons. Have a pot of sharp ones ready.” I appreciated the praise and I understood the feedback was motivated by ‘excellence’. That week, I made the effort to refresh the displays in the entrance and hall. I had always felt valued enough to give discretionary effort.

In the following observations, expectations changed again. Children were stopped from gluing during lessons and a strong emphasis was placed on TA time to be solely used to discuss pupil outcomes. I now did the gluing at home. Each lesson daily slips were expected to be filled out with WALT and success criteria. It was nothing I hadn’t already been doing in some way with my class but now they were no longer able to fit on a sticker. They had to be printed, sliced and hand glued in. This alone took an hour and a quarter each evening. It was also recommended that children stop reading on entry to school but instead practice spellings. The mantra was: every single minute they’re in the classroom, they need to be 100 per cent on task.

After the observations followed planning and book scrutiny. The feedback that I needed to improve my differentiation was fair – I had let this slip whilst managing the new gluing workload. New lesson planning formats were introduced for every lesson. I had always planned daily in my own way: annotating medium-term plans and writing in a notebook for my TA to read each morning. She would leave me feedback there too. The hours spent working at home increased further with the need for these typed daily plans.

Next, the assessment system, tracking, and marking system changed.

Gluing and typing consumed my evening. I typed daily plans, pasted objectives into grids to print, made endless PowerPoint presentations, as recommended by the head, to supplement the daily planning. I spent hours mounting children’s work, the learning intentions and the success criteria to be displayed in the classroom the next day.

My son started to tell me he missed me: I saw him for an hour after I came home before it was his bedtime. We’d rush a meal and play a board game. I often lacked the energy to play and a glass of wine in the evenings easily became two as I listened to my husband watch evening television in the neighbouring room, his workload long finished. He too was a teacher, but at a different school.

Evening workload flooded into the weekends. My son asked for me to do bedtime every night (not alternates as we usually did with Daddy).

Slowly, the realisation hit. I barely saw him. Those golden brown eyes full of love yearned for quality time and my brain wouldn’t allow me to give it. I found no joy in the moments I had with him – I only feared the work I still had left to do

It was with this moment of clarity that I handed my notice in then. “But you’re good,” the head uttered and I told her that somewhere along the line that message had been lost. I cited work life balance in my letter to governors. Tears rolled down my face as the truth came out in a whispered breath: “It takes all of me and I can’t keep doing this.”

It was November and I requested a February finish in the letter. Nothing improved in my last few months but I endured. I willed myself through near 60-hour weeks to leave with dignity to show I could meet the demands placed on staff in the strive for excellence. By January my shoulders merely shrugged when yet more new changes came on Inset – I was told all my classroom displays had to be re-backed in want of ‘colourful and bright’ ones.

I objected based on the research of working memory and was cut off. I’m no artist. I had no time to build and paint vast ships and pyramids like those in my presentations and to what end? Whose work did it celebrate?

I struggled watching my colleague paint a wall decadently for 2 hours. I drank more in the evening as I balanced the workload and started mentoring a student.

Morale was low and a colleague spoke to the head. Of course, she had all the right answers: “This is all for excellence in outcomes. This is education. This is what other schools do.”

At this time, one evening around 8pm, an email about a new workbook and more daily slips to glue for all pupils was whipped around. I lashed into my wrists. My long nails glided over the skin, reddening my flesh and taking control of the rage I felt as yet another unassessed change impacted.

I walked downstairs and confessed my self-harm immediately to my husband. I should have left then. but I continued for another week. That week we were all observed again, this time by a headteacher from another local school. The unobserved input was good but the lesson later fell apart. The pitch wasn’t high enough for the ablest pupils and it led to some disruptive behaviour as they exhausted two planned extensions. It wasn’t my norm. I declined verbal feedback. In the supermarket that evening, I bought a small bottle of wine and drank it in the car. At home, I poured gin upon gin when steaming through some planning.

At 5am I emailed my head, told her I’d been sick in the night, and that I wouldn’t be in for the next few days. It was true. I sent another email at 8am with my planning. I rang and booked an appointment with my GP. That was 25 January.

I wrote a list of symptoms for the GP. I’d lost 10lbs since New Year, self-harmed, abused alcohol, felt detached and numb and experienced suicidal thoughts. I was medicated and signed off with anxiety immediately.

In the first days, I went to the library. A teaching friend who had experienced similar last year recommended a good trashy novel may help. I found myself in the philosophy section where I sought to understand how education had become a place of business. My wellbeing seemed irrelevant and somehow detached from the children’s outcomes.

I picked a book on ethics. I came across the phrase: "Do the ends justify the means?" Do they? Was my burnout somehow morally permissible?  I had planned to apply to do a master's in education once I’d served my notice. If I do, I will be honest in my application.

I refuse to work within a system with these ‘ethics’. The ends simply do not justify the means.

The writer is a teacher in England

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