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Phronesis: the wisdom of workload on World Teachers’ Day

The theme of this World Teacher’s Day is “The teachers we need for the education we want: The global imperative to reverse the teacher shortage”.

UNESCO highlights that “the 2023 celebrations will aim to put the importance of stopping the decline in the number of teachers and then starting to increase that number at the top of the global agenda.” To that end, we asked Sam Strickland, Principal of The Duston School in Northamptonshire, to write for us about the support teachers need.

‘Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.’ – Aristotle

Teaching is a complex art form. It is theatre. It is panto. It is drama. Even the most introvert of teachers has to adopt an extrovert persona as they take centre stage. 

Every single day hundreds of thousands of teachers are expected to walk into a classroom and engage, teach and inspire a group of pupils (typically 30 on average), lesson after lesson. In a primary setting the teacher invariably has the same set of 30 children all day, every day. In a secondary school any given teacher will encounter a new and different set of pupils every lesson. The physical demands alone of sustaining this over a 6, 7 or 8 week window are huge.

Sandwiched between these lessons are often break duties, routine meetings, extra-curricular clubs. After school, staff are often once again involved in meetings and then have the small matter of marking, planning, responding to emails and other associated administrative tasks that ‘need’ to be performed, as well as considering carefully their subject knowledge, their use of questioning and pre-empting misconceptions that pupils may have. This is no small ask.

At the time of writing this blog the NASUWT have engaged in industrial action short of strike action and the Department for Education have launched a workload task force. Workload is and remains a significant issued for teachers. Many teachers will work 60 plus hours a week. By week 5 of any given half term it will feel like you have hit the runners wall and to sustain doing all of the associated tasks attached to the role, let alone the actual classroom delivery, will require even the most superhuman of teachers to dig deep, deep and deep again

So, what can be done? If we take out the obvious big and significant wins – money, pay, recruitment, more teachers, increased PPA, remote working and flexible working – then we need to look at what else is within the sector’s gift. 

First and foremost is mindset. We need to adopt a positive mindset about teaching. I don’t mean one that is delusional and shouting out ‘but teaching is a calling.’ This approach, which was employed several decades ago, no longer washes. We need to think carefully about what the actual role, purpose and point of a teacher is. Ironically, a bit like a Ronseal advert, the clue is in the name. As Sir John Jones cites, teaching is a magic weaving business and the ‘magic’ happens in the classroom.

So, if we are insistent on teachers doing things outside of the classroom we really need to consider:

  • Why?
  • To what end?
  • Is it sensible, realistic and practical?
  • Does it serve a purpose?
  • What else needs to go to make room for this?
  • What impact will ‘X’ have on classroom delivery and the children that we serve?
  • What are the unintended consequences?

These are key questions any leader should be asking. Views of “…we have always done it that way…” or “…when I used to teach History…” are at best unhelpful. It is really important that time, care and consideration are taken to dissect any task that is set which transcends beyond the classroom setting.

Key areas of focus for staff should include:

  • The approach to meetings, including the volume, purpose and their length.
  • Duties – is it sensible for a staff member to conduct a duty during a five-period day? When do they get to eat, breath, have a drink, go to the toilet?
  • Enforced extra-curricular activities on staff.
  • Directions to work during lunch breaks.
  • The approach to marking – is this sensible, sustainable and does it have impact?
  • The approach to behaviour – how supportive, clear and sensible are the approaches? Can staff ultimately teach disruption free?
  • The approach to emails – different people have different views on this item but there is a huge danger that we are becoming a 24/7 industry.
  • The timing of school improvement – are staff given the time, training and ability to think through your changes at a whole-school level?
  • The allocation and use of PPA – can staff take this time off-site and use it as they wish?
  • Cover – are we truly adhering to rarely cover?
  • ‘Mocksteds’ – do we need these? What impact do they have on the school community?
  • Homework – what is the expectation here and any associated marking?
  • Co-planning – some people are resistant to this but why do we need to reinvent the same wheel over and over and over?

These are just a few of the things that can be done to support teachers to perform their role. Crucially they are considerations to support their work-life balance. It is really important that we remember teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. 

One thing we should never forget though, is to say to a teacher ‘thank you.’ Praise, care and kindness from pupils and leaders alike goes a long long way.

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