Teacher workload: why less is more

I trained in the UK (four years) and then taught there as a qualified teacher for a further three years. I’m sure that UK teachers will agree with me as they read this – the workload is horrendous! I worked every evening of the weekdays and every Sunday. As far as I know, this is the norm. I just had one day off per week, which I refused to give up! Holidays took the pressure off slightly, but these were usually filled with work too. My work/life balance was non-existent. I consciously describe it as ‘work’, because that’s what it was and what it felt like. I need to stress that I taught in two amazing primary schools in England. Leadership was constantly looking for ways to support us. The pressure was external, and they felt it as much as we did.

The workload was not why I left the UK. I actually assumed that it would be like that all over the world. In many places, including some schools in Hong Kong, I’m sure it is. But when I arrived at my new school, my new principal said this to me during induction (I remember it vividly because I didn’t believe her):

“If you work hard during school hours and stay for a while at the end of each day, evenings and weekends will be your own.”

She was right. They are.

In an effort to raise standards, it might seem logical to add more onto teachers’ plates. It might seem that removing this workload would have a negative impact on standards. On the contrary, having seen both sides, I strongly believe that students learn best when their teacher has a reasonable workload. Less is more. Here are ten reasons why workload should be reduced in places such as the UK:

  • Professional reading

Since university, I can’t recall a single time when anyone encouraged me to do any professional reading. This seems crazy now! Teaching is a profession that is constantly evolving and we need to keep up with research and ideas for the benefit of our students. Teachers should be reading and sharing on an ongoing basis, learning from best practice and research-informed pedagogy… but we need time for this.

  • Relaxation

This seems like the most obvious one, and yet people don’t seem to care about it. Even if we ignore the fact that teachers deserve a life, students will learn best from adults who are well-rested, energetic and enthusiastic about being with them. We tell our students to enjoy down-time and to come to school well-rested. The effects of rest on brain activity has been proven time and time again. This applies to teachers as much as it does students.

  • Adult learning

The IB states that we are all lifelong learners, and that we should demonstrate this and model it. Whatever you want to learn, connected to teaching or not, you should have time for it. It’s unacceptable for your workload to interfere with your life and your goals.

  • Focus on students

Without the extra pressures, teachers remain focused on what’s important – the teaching and learning. My priority has shifted from ‘getting things done’, to the students and their needs.

  • Reflecting

I am so much more reflective now. I am more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. On a daily basis, I think deeply about successes and things that didn’t work. I am constantly thinking about my teaching and rethinking it. My practice has changed so much in the last year, for the better.

  • Sharing

This should go hand-in-hand with reflection. Sharing is caring, and teachers should learn from each other. The sharing and discussions (even debates) extend all of our thinking and keep the focus on learning and improving. I have written many times about how much I value my professional learning network (PLN). Teachers all over the world help me to develop my practice on a daily basis via Twitter, Google+, etc. I hope that I similarly help my colleagues around the world. Again, we need time for this.

  • Special events

Teachers give up their own time for occasional special events outside of school hours. These are positive experiences that build the whole school community. Students and parents appreciate it. However, teachers can be reluctant when they do not have a work/life balance to begin with, and when other pressures are mounting up.

  • Quality feedback

A huge part of a teacher’s workload is providing feedback to students. I have no complaints about this because, when done well, it has a positive impact on student learning. The more time teachers have, the higher quality the feedback will be, and the more the students will benefit.

  • Family life

I don’t have children and I lived on my own in the UK. In terms of responsibility, I had an easy ride. I have no idea how parent teachers balance work with family life. No idea! I have the utmost respect for anyone who does it. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be. I can assume that there are many parent teachers struggling with the plate-spinning and this is not their fault. There should be plenty of time in your life for both your students and your own children.

  • Sustainability

(Teachers in England)

87% know at least one person who has left the profession due to workload in the last two years.

90% have considered leaving the profession themselves in the last two years.

96% say that workload has a negative impact on personal life.

(National Union of Teachers, 2014)

I don’t know how accurate these statistics are. It could be argued that this was just one survey by one union, or that the union has their own political agenda. However, a quick Google search will show countless other articles and statistics, all equally shocking. The UK needs to learn from more successful education systems and respect its dedicated, hardworking and passionate professionals in such a vital profession. The future looks bleak! Not just for UK teachers, but for UK children. If these statistics are anywhere near accurate, then it is a disgrace and shouldn’t be allowed to continue.


  1. I work in a school where staff have two hours per day off class. Yes two hours per day- two of those per week are collaborative planning meetings. Work day is 7:15 – 2:20 pm …. Staff say they ” don’t have time…” I am perplexed. Marking= Feedback = planning forward for learning so I don’t think it should be a workload… It is good teaching practice…

  2. Hi, in our school split classes have become a huge issue. My tt for next year shows 17 classes in 5 subjects and all 17 are split. I am part time, working 7 days a fortnight in school and am HoD. I can’t contemplate this. I cannot work anymore evenings than I do. My 3 kids complain they never see me. Feel so sorry for our students. I have so many ideas for my dept but will have no time for these in my 3 frees a week. It’s imploding. What a mess 🙁

    1. Hi Becky,

      This sounds like a nightmare! Are you in the UK or somewhere else? I’m not really sure what to say to help you, but thank you for your comment. It continues the discussion and supports what I’m saying. It’s particularly heart-breaking to hear about your own kids. It needs to change drastically.

      Speak to your SMT (assuming that they’re supportive). Consider a change next year, perhaps. You can’t continue with an unsustainable workload. Even if it’s a salary cut, it would probably be worth it to have some life back!

      Keep me updated, and good luck!


  3. Great post Adam! I agree totally. Teachers need time to question, inquire, experiment and reflect and this cannot happen if they are overloaded with content, marking and superfluous documentation. A leaders role is to create an environment where this can happen. It is so important because schools,like all communities, are fractal in their nature. If the staff have an inquiry approach the students will develop an inquiry approach. Happy inquisitive teachers create happy inquisitive students.

    1. Hi Ross,

      Thank you for the comment. I’ve never heard of communities described as ‘fractal’, but I definitely agree and I’ll remember this. This adds an interesting layer to the post actually, because the stressed, overworked schools are also fractal environments. Students in the UK (as well as US and Australia, so I hear) are under huge pressure. Sleepless nights, tears and exam panic are all commonplace, sadly.

      Thanks again for your contribution to this post.


  4. In Australia it is the biggest focus for teachers and union negotiation is work load. Work/life balance seems like a myth. The age of the digital era has been great in many ways but it has also meant constant data retrieval, manipulation, conversations, meetings etc, plus the hours searching to find that perfect resource online and the level of lesson planning and reporting expectations has been very dramatic over the past 20 odd years I’ve been teaching. I found as teachers we can be our own worst enemies. We are always searching for new and better ways to do a lesson to make something fun and engaging. I had to train myself to say ‘stop’ and ask … Are my students going to suffer or their academic growth decline if I don’t do this? More often than not the answer was no, so I stopped myself doing it. Less became more. My interactions with the students became better in class, I was more relaxed and less stressed. Their results stayed on track, no one said they were bored in lessons and we had fun. I know the expectations can be different at individual schools and yes, Principals can change the environment of a staff and demands on their workload. Learning to say ‘no’ when it wasn’t a core task for my position and ‘stop’ to myself made such a difference.

    1. Hi Anita,

      Thanks once again for the comment. From other comments on social media, it seems like Australia and the US are two more places with a similar issue. It’s good that you have found ways to deal with the workload. These are excellent tips and I echo them. However, successfully saying ‘no’ and ‘stop’ sometimes relies on supportive leadership. Not all teachers are as fortunate as us. I have never had an unsupportive principal, but I’m sure that they exist.

      Thanks again,


    2. i really enjoyed what you have written here Anita. The connection and quality we bring to the relationships we have is first and foremost and it is surprising how everything else falls into place. Like many teachers our workloads are high and the demands are never ending. What has proven very supportive over the years is to build relationships with colleagues and this promotes collaboration. A lot of the stress, overwhelm and feeling that you are on your own disappear. The amount of ease that has become part of my day is from the teachers I work with. Everyone does there bit and together we make the whole. Our students have also commented on how more relaxed and funny we are to watch as we teach and share our workload.

      1. Hi Natalliya,

        Thank you for your contribution to this discussion. I totally agree with your points. It’s vital that colleagues share, collaborate, inspire and support. I would also add that colleagues online are similarly beneficial. Thanks to social media, professional connections can be made beyond your school and even beyond your country. I am constantly calling on my PLN (professional learning network) for ideas and support.

        You might be interested in this blog post: https://mrhillmusings.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/the-power-of-a-professional-learning-network-collaboration-with-kriti-nigam/

        Thanks again,


  5. Of course we all want time to plan exciting courses, engage in bespoke marking and deliver amazing results as a byproduct of this.

    However, from teaching in the secondary sector, everyone recognises early on that exceptional marking and planning cannot be sustained at the same time. It has almost become an unspoken rule that teachers have ‘planning weeks’ when marking is low and ‘marking weeks’ which effectively cause the quality of lessons to plummet.

    Sixth forms and colleges are also extremely labour intensive, though problems here arise through financial constraints (such as having no cover teachers) and an obsession with league tables. Even the best institutions in this sector have heavily overworked staff.

    For this to change in any way at all, a huge shift in the UK’s educational culture must come into force. Namely, limiting the number of classes a teacher is responsible for, freeing up periods in which to plan and mark effectively. At one point, I was teaching SEVEN classes across every year group from year 7 to 13; there was no way of keeping up with that sort of paperwork.

    At current levels of expectation (20 hours teaching a week), increasing pressure on staff to achieve unrealistic targets (or no pay rise) and a diminishing focus on the students as being responsible for their own achievements, it is no wonder that the profession is met with high figures of dropouts.

    An essential profession with insubstantial methods of harnessing it.

    1. Hi Jon,

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. It’s good that you have an alternate planning/marking schedule. This will ensure that you have at least some of both. However, in an ideal world, both should be happening at the same time on an ongoing basis. I can understand that it’s totally unachievable for you right now (unfortunately for the students). A drastic shift is needed away from pressure, workload and pay rise threats.

      Thanks for the comment,


  6. It’s an interesting debate and one that is not only relevant to the education sector.

    I believe there has been a trial in Sweden of a six hour work day with the hypothesis that a shorter working day = happier worker = more enjoyment = happier worker. It will be interesting to see what the rest of the world makes of this, if it is a success.

    Returning to the debate in hand it seems scandalous to expect a teacher to give up so much time throughout the week, practically giving up a social life for the enjoyment of a profession because that enjoyment will diminish with time, leading to, as you showed with the statistics, an increasingly frustrated workforce where teachers start to either question their career or become increasingly tired and therefore start to put less effort into planning, prep and delivery which only has a negative impact on the children, who they are there to serve in the first place.

    I think the lifestyle you have as a teacher in HK is something that could be applied to other countries being used to increase producivity and possibly stimulate ‘burnt out’ teachers who have started to lose the love of the job.

    Of course, with the extra time you have to develop professionally by using some of the methods stated above, you have the constant reinforcements from the class through success to keep you hunting new techniques, new theories and new methods of teaching to make a difference. It would turn a negative downward spiral into a positive upward spiral.

    I am reminded of the quote which, thinking abstracly, perfectly sums up the pressures the majority of teachers face. “Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.” If teachers are being expected/demanded to be everywhere, do everything and with enjoyment they will be stretched, worn out and left at the side of the road not wanting to continue along the path.

    1. Hi James,

      Since publishing, I have become very aware at how the article generalises. It’s important to point out that many schools in Hong Kong face similar pressure. I need to remind myself that I work in an independent school. State schools here might be a similar story to the UK. I’m not sure.

      Great quote! I think many teachers (and other professionals, as you say) will relate to it. We need to put all of our effort into the important things and do them well. Teachers are too often ‘scraped over too much bread’. I totally agree.

      It’s interesting what you said about Sweden. I’ll be interested to see how that works out. Another European country brave enough to do things differently is Finland. I know that it is very different to traditional schooling that we know, and that standards are very high. I don’t know much else though. I’d like to find out more.

      Cheers for the comment!


    1. Hi,

      Thanks for the comment. I have just discovered your blog and started to follow. It looks great at first glance! I’ll read more later.

      Where are you teaching?


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