Not enough teachers part 2 – workload

It is safe to say that there is an impending crisis in teacher numbers; it is likely to get worse. Recruitment targets have either been missed or just about hit depending upon whose version of events you believe. But more worryingly 30% of teachers are leaving within the first five years. The government’s response is to say that there are more teachers than ever in schools; this may be true but it is a little bit like saying that I have more carpet than ever in my new house but neglecting to mention that I have built several extra rooms. The key issue is whether we have enough teachers for the students in front of us. This 3 part series will look at what is going wrong and what we can do about it.

Part 2 – workload 

At the time of writing #staffroomelephant it was suggested that the average working week for teachers was 59 hours and 56 hours per week for primary and secondary teachers respectively. The most recent survey suggests a slight reduction to 53 hours overall in secondary but as the graphic below suggests a significant proportion are working well in excess of sensible hours.


My most popular blog post of last year with well over a thousand views, as well as a key theme of my book, is the idea that #50isplenty. Key message – if you can limit each working week to 50 hours, you will give yourself the best chance of long term survival in the classroom. The key issue with workload is that it is cumulative. We may be able to manage the odd crazy week but if we do it week in week out it is this that drains us as teachers and leads to burnout. 

In writing about workload over the last couple of years it is clear that there are no magic wands but there are 3 causes or types of workload

1. Workload that you can control: We can reduce our stress by getting more organised. Having a year planner with all your schools key dates on one document and fitting your marking around it is essential assuming your school allows you a little flexibility. Invest some time in thinking about time saving marking strategies; My blog on feedback contains some useful links and ideas. We also need to stop the perfectionism. It is hard for some of us but part of our responsibility in dealing with workload is to accept that it can’t all be done and to make peace with that. Some teachers find that quite difficult and although I have no hard evidence, I think perfectionists are more likely to leave. 

2. Workload that your school controls: just as you make the weather in your classrooms so too your school and your leadership team affects how much you can control your workload. Here overbearing policies on feedback, over rigorous monitoring of lesson plans etc. under the misapprehension of what ofsted may or may not want have all contributed to excessive workload. If schools want to ensure they have enough teachers, this is an area where bravery is needed in cutting things that take time but add no value.

3. What only the government controls: even with good time management strategies and with the most enlightened senior management team, the workload in teaching is still considerable. There are two things that only the government can do. Firstly, stop constantly changing things. This year I have taught a new Linear A level. The increase in work for this has been significant. Some colleagues will have had new A levels, a new GCSE and changes in Key Stage 3 assessment all within 12-18 months linear. Please leave us alone now for a few years so we can see how these changes bed in! Secondly although we know we are responsible for outcomes, the level of accountability experienced is crippling. League table places and sudden decline in results often lead to heads being removed; in some schools middle leaders and heads of department have also been made to fall on their swords after a difficult year. We need to find a way of cutting people a little slack.

Workload is the killer in terms of teacher retention but there are things that we can do to help ourselves at least to an extent. The final part will look at some of the possible solutions to the crisis in teacher numbers that we may need to implement if the numbers continue as they are.

Not enough teachers – part 1 Money

It is safe to say that there is an impending crisis in teacher numbers; it is likely to get worse. Recruitment targets have either been missed or just about hit depending upon whose version of events you believe. But more worryingly 30% of teachers are leaving within the first five years. The government’s response is to say that there are more teachers than ever in schools; this may be true but it is a little bit like saying that I have more carpet than ever in my new house but neglecting to mention that I have built several extra rooms. The key issue is whether we have enough teachers for the students in front of us. This 3 part series will look at what is going wrong and what we can do about it.

Part 1 money – 

One of the common lines that you hear in discussions about teaching is that teachers are not motivated by money. Whilst I believe that this is generally true the fact remains that all teachers and people in other jobs for that matter have bills to pay. As pay in education declines in real terms,It is becoming harder particularly for younger teachers to pay those bills. 

Disclaimer: I am not necessarily saying that teachers have it harder than anyone else currently. The focus is on teachers as we are asking why we don’t have enough. 

1. Since 2010 as a result of austerity measures teachers have had either a pay freeze or a 1%  pay rise each year which is under inflation and we are told that this will remain in place until 2020. It is estimated that in real terms a teachers salary is now at last 15% less than it was in 2010. In terms of graduate occupations teaching is now at the lower end of the table.

2.  There is now no guarantee of pay progression. A teacher starting salary of £24,000 per year the piece below the average UK salary and there is no guarantee that they will progress up the scale. As a younger teacher I weathered my early years realising that if I hung in there, in a few years time I would be better off. There are now no guarantees. 

3. Linked to this is the pressure on school budgets. School spending has been cut per pupil and will continue to be squeezed. Even the best headteachers having their budget squeezed year-on-year may find it difficult to do the right thing and allow pay progression where it is deserved.

This is not particularly a personal argument. I’m relatively fortunate and I’m paid reasonably well for what I do. Yet even I cannot help noticing that we have needed my extra income as an examiner to ensure that we get the family holiday on a couple of occasions and to pay for the roof to be fixed when it started to leak!

Although my examining is seasonal I am well aware that some teachers  do you have regular second jobs. I know of one young teacher who was working several nights behind a bar to make ends meet. As a parent you have to ask yourself whether that is what you want for your children’s teachers. How effective will they be in teaching your son or daughter?

I’m sure that for most teachers it genuinely isn’t about the money but if people are working 60 hours per week and they struggle to see the possibility of owning their own home or being able to provide for their own family it may be that they decide to pursue other options. 

Next time the bigger issue – workload 

Lessons from 2016 for 2017

I missed last year’s nurture posts due to my writing and am late this year having had a virus in the first week of the New Year. My 14/15 post was written in the middle of a difficult year and some of the themes indicated here have reappeared. 

‘It’s no secret that ambition bites the nails of success.’ (U2 – The Fly)

It has certainly been an interesting year professionally. Yet bizarrely I ended the year feeling flat and over dwelling on the things that got away. (Particularly 1 internal and 1 external interview for senior positions) I have since had a word with myself. If a few years ago you had told me that I would have a book published, be appointed as a principal examiner on the New A level spec, be managing History as a result of a merger of departments and have done 1/3 of an MA all in one year I would have been delighted. I love teaching RS and Philosophy and I’m trying to consciously notice and appreciate the magic moments in the classroom. It’s a privilege to be doing this. 

LESSON For 2017 – Be content, look around and enjoy the view a little more!

You reap what you sow – but not always where you sow

 I have always believed in the principle of sowing and reaping. You get what you give. What you put your energies into and how you treat others affects what happens next. Although interestingly enough the plants don’t always grow where you expect. However when I step out and try things, whenever I develop new skills or invest time in an area of life, there is a benefit even if it isn’t the one I expect. I have several examples but none that can be publically shared, sorry!

LESSON for 2017 – Keep sowing and growing, time and truth are friends – all I need to do is keep trying to do the right things. Results will come. 

Simplifying and making space

Lots happened in 2016 but probably too much. Whilst I have learned that although I have a large capacity and energy that keeps most of the balls up in the air I have reflected that that in terms of quality of life and work I need to simplify and reduce some of my involvements. I have slowed down the MA, stepped back from one of my additional roles, and will probably be on social media a little less. I am trying to start each day with at least 15 minutes of quiet time and am being more rigorous in applying #50isplenty.

LESSON for 2017 – Make space. Creativity and clear thinking needs regular pauses. The space will also allow good things to happen such as family time.

Wishing everyone a happy and purposeful 2017

Too old to teach?

Yesterday’s Guardian’s Secret Teacher column caught my eye: ‘I feel too old for the job but I’m trapped.’

Having taught for over 20 years now, reached my mid-forties and this year published a book on teacher wellbeing, I thought I’d share a few thoughts

Firstly a few concerns. No matter what age we are, we have to keep growing and developing as teachers. The writer refers to poor student evaluations of her teaching and her frustration that CPD sessions are being led by younger more enthusiastic staff. I am not convinced that our teaching has to decline as we get older. I think I am a better teacher now in my forties than I ever was in my twenties. Mindset is more important than age

Secondly I am not convinced that the age gap to our students is necessarily a problem. What matters is our ability to connect and relate as human beings not our ability to make references to popular culture or music. Hence I’m not sure that this is as big a problem as it may seem.

Having said that there is actually a valid point that the writer makes and I suspect it is her main point. Those outside the profession don’t necessarily realise the physical and mental energies that teaching requires. The feeling that ‘I can’t do this into my sixties’ is common amongst very good teachers that I talk to who are a similar age to me. I’m not sure whether this is age related or just the wear and tear of having done the job for a number of years. Certainly I will watch what happens with Lucy Kellaway who has decided to retrain as a teacher aged 58 with interest. 

Those who, like the secret teacher, may feel they are becoming too old to teach have some unfortunate evidence for their view. On two separate occasions when speaking to union officials I have heard it said that most capability proceedings are being brought against staff in their 50s. Why should this be the case? Whilst it may be that they become disengaged and their skills decline, I believe it is more likely to be a simple case of the body slowing down and not keeping up with the energy required. We need to find a more dignified way of supporting these colleagues rather than managing them out as ‘failures’ in our compliance led regimes.

Some colleagues may counter this by seeking promotion to senior management. A few years ago I complimented one of our Assistant Principals on his lesson which I had overheard whilst in the departmental office next door. His honest and very modest reply was that given he only taught a few hours a week his lessons should be excellent. He didn’t feel he would have the energy to cope with a full timetable now. I think he would have been in his mid-fifties at the time. Senior leadership is hard work and stressful but it doesn’t seem to bring the same exhaustion as full time classroom teaching. 
Clearly we need to find ways of helping ourselves and each other; some of my own strategies are in my book. (Shameless plug…) We can make some progress in ensuring we have some success and longevity but I’m not sure what the overall solution is. We certainly need to manage workload and expectations nationally; there have been positive signs here and the better leaders understand this and don’t pass on their stress to staff. 

Perhaps we also need to be more open to part time working – and not just for those who are returning after children. Maybe we need to encourage younger teachers to career plan and think about what they may do – indeed what else they may do in later life. In my own case I have never seen teaching as a job for life; I love it and feel I’m doing as good a job as I’ve ever done but it would be naive to think that I could go on indefinitely. I have plans in place to do other things if the moment comes that my energy levels lag way behind the pace of the job but I wonder if that makes me unusual.

I hope that our secret teacher rediscovers her enthusiasm for teaching and is able to maintain some balance in her life. There is nothing worse than feeling trapped in a job you no longer enjoy. I also hope that as teachers we can find a way of harnessing the wisdom and skills of our older colleagues

Lessons from my worst week 

When you have blogged and published a book on teacher wellbeing you inevitably set yourself up for a fall. When you start a half term announcing that #50isplenty, then even more so. I admitted in the blog that there would almost inevitably be a week in the term to come where I went over the 50 hours. The week before last was that week. 

Having started the week behind on a couple of key tasks including marking, add in two late evening events, a new topic I hadn’t taught before and a couple of other unexpected and urgent deadlines that arose at the 11th hour, I managed to put in around 70 hours and I entered the weekend feeling stressed and dejected. 

This is not something I wish to make a habit of and I have spent some time reflecting on what went wrong. Was I wrong to suggest #50isplenty? What about the other ideas in the elephant in the Staffroom? What can I learn?

Firstly I don’t think I was wrong about the ideas in the book and the blogs. The problem is that it is actually very difficult to do. The theory is sound but practically we don’t always implement them particularly when we get swamped. 

So here’s 4 things I learned the hard way during the week

1. Planning – when you have one of those weeks, you have probably stopped planning your day. Here I was reacting and crisis managing rather than being strategic. I caused some of my own workload by my own inefficiency and lack of planning.

2. Priorities – when you work one of those 60-70 hour weeks you have lost sense of your priorities. Certainly you have lost track of your out of work priorities. For me although going to the gym and checking in on my father were theoretical priorities, the reality was quite different. After all our actions give away what we really value. 

3. Pride – I noticed that several people including my line manager tried to help and offered support. Like the monty python knight I declined  ‘it’s just a flesh wound’ I noticed that it was my own stupid sense of professional pride that brushed off the concern and help. Heaven forbid that I should be seen as not managing.

4. Principles – generally my principles – particularly keeping my word and honouring existing commitments – are a strength. However given two unexpected urgent/important additions to the things to do list, this may have been an opportunity to offer apologies. Principles are general rules that occasionally throw up exceptions; I failed to see that last week needed to be the exception.

In the last week and a half I have got back on the wagon. 50 is plenty and sometimes things don’t get done. The alternative as I have discovered is far worse!

50 is plenty

Recent news stories of 60 hour weeks,  Debra Kidd’s honest reflections on her experience and the subsequent debate on Twitter have led me to a thought on teacher workload – 50 is plenty. This is something I’ve said for a while, suggested in my book, and have tried to live by. But now I want to argue it little more strongly. 

Here’s the solution – what if we just stopped each week once we reached 50 hours? After all if the problem is too much work, logically the solution has to be less work.  If the problem is too many hours then the solution must be fewer hours. Am I making sense? At the start of each week we would plan when the 50 (or less) would be and would stick to it.

The figure of 50 hours a week is not as arbitrary as it sounds. Studies in industry productivity suggest that this is the maximum amount of time where we can be fully effective. Hours after this diminish in value and over 56 hours a week adds no more than 55 would. We have all experienced those weeks where we overdo it and things start to take twice as long. This is unpacked in a little more detail in the book (last plug I promise)

Secondly, this is still conscientious and professional. If you were to generally work up to 50 hours a week it would be very difficult for an intelligent member of SLT to accuse you of being unprofessional. In the past some of those who have stood up for teachers rights have perhaps sought unreasonable things and in doing so have sounded unprofessional. Of course that wasn’t their intention but that was the effect. Note that I am also NOT saying that teachers must work 50 hours a week, merely suggesting that this becomes our self imposed limit.

Setting a limit may sharpen your time management. @thatboycanteach’s idea about #teachertimesheets could be relevant here. It will require good time management to ensure that we get the best out of each hour. So the Covey Quadrant and the practice of spending 2-3 minutes planning your list each day are invaluable. Equally where things aren’t done we should be prepared to share our timesheets with our line managers. If a manager is able to look at our working practices and suggest how we could use our time more efficiently surely we would welcome that, wouldn’t we? If we are being asked to do X and Y, which is the priority and what else can be left? Often our line managers are not aware of all the things we’re doing. 

As professionals we can also decide to some extent decide when those hours will be. For me four 10 hour days in college and one 7-8 hour day means little work at home except perhaps a couple of hours at the weekend. Of course other patterns are available, we are professionals, we decide. But without a limit things can expand to fill the space – we’ve all sat in meetings where there was nothing to discuss but the meeting took up the full time. Setting the limit may improve our time management

Like any good talk or article, the killer point comes last. We can talk about energy and professionalism but this is about our health and longevity as a professional. ’50 is plenty’ is a principle not an absolute rule and no doubt there will be a week in the near future where I will go beyond 50 hours. In health terms as a one off that may be fine; the body can stand brief periods of flat out activity and stress. The issues come when this is chronic – week after week, term after term. To be blunt your body isn’t built for chronic stress and you will do yourself damage. This point is made brilliantly in James Hilton’s ‘leading from the edge.’ We could also make similar points on relationships; your significant others can accept one busy week but if they hardly see you every week that is a different matter.

So does our health or our relationships matter? Like any rules or principles whether they are followed or not often depends on being aware of the consequences. That’s why the rule about driving on the left tends to be obeyed. The catastrophic consequences are obvious. Yet it is also why many people continue to stupidly ignore laws about mobile phones and driving. They just don’t see that the consequences may one day affect themselves or those they love. Could our workload be similar to the latter case?

So suppose we all decided that #50isplenty and tried it for the next 6 weeks, what’s the worst that could happen? I know that in my own practice as a full time teacher that when I am rigorous in imposing this limit,  my work actually improves. 

The truth about the 60 hour week

This week’s headline education story is the news that some teachers are working 60 hour weeks. It’s not really news to those of us in the job. For those non-teachers reading the story the first thoughts might be ‘surely that can’t be right? Why don’t they just do a bit less?’ In writing the Elephant in the Staffroom – a stress and wellbeing survival guide for teachers – a few things came to light.

First things first. The stat is about right. The average hours worked according to the DFE’s own workload diary survey of 2013 is 59 for primary teachers, 55 for secondary. For headteachers (and they are teachers after all) it is 63 hours. So yes, the numbers are about right. In fact the most important piece of data that has not been widely reported is that of the 55-60 hours each week, only around 19 are spent in the classroom. You know the 9am-3pm with an hour for lunch that teachers allegedly work according to some.

But surely the holidays compensate? I’m not so sure. Here’s some Maths. If teachers work 55 hours each week for the 39 weeks of term – that’s 2,150 hours. Suppose someone in another job had four weeks holiday. If they were to also work 2,150 hours in the year that would be 44-45 hours a week. Still above average hours in most jobs. 

The hours are increasing as are teachers stress levels as the non-teaching hours get longer and harder. Each of the 19 or so hours teaching needs preparing and work needs to be marked. Inceased class sizes mean more marking, removal of mental health support means more care for student welfare. There is always more that can be done. If we add in syllabus changes – significant ones – rushed in at GCSE and A level, league tables which rate schools against each other, and performance related pay based on the above it is easy to see why many in the profession are so stressed and why it is becoming harder to recruit teachers. And when things go wrong – and they do occcasionally – the teacher is the convenient scapegoat. 

Because teachers care, and possibly care too much, they keep going. It does not occur to them to do a bit less. Yet the evidence is that working over 55 hours a week crosses a threshold – nothing useful is added. Studies in industry have shown that working a 60 hour+ week achieves no more than what a 55 hour week would. If the case on energy levels does not persuade then consider the effects of long term stress. Our bodies can stand extreme stress for short periods perhaps even the occasional 60 hour week, yet this can’t be done over a long period of time, week after week without harming our health. 

One of the key arguments of my book is that given the system we find ourselves in we have to take our wellbeing into our own hands. One recommendation is that teachers self-limit to no more than 50 hours a week. So as a teacher as you look to the week ahead why not plan the hours you are going to work. When will they be? Which evening(s) will you go home early? Will you get enough rest at the weekend? Are the hours you plan to work no more than 50? Remember if we look after ourselves first then we may actually do a better job in the long term.