The irony of a lighter workload

A couple of years ago, I published Teacher workload: why less is more. I maintain that a lighter teacher workload is better for students. I encourage you to revisit that post to see my list of reasons. I reshared that post on Facebook this week and, through reflection and discussions with fellow teachers, something occurred to me: I am working harder than ever, but there’s a key difference to when I was in England.

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.”

Simon Sinek

If you ask teachers in England (or other places where workload is an ongoing issue), they’ll tell you that the issue is caused by pointless paperwork, excessive data tracking, unrealistic marking expectations and the ongoing pressure to be “outstanding” (among many other things). These drain teachers and suck the life out of them. Many teachers work relentlessly and reluctantly in evenings and on weekends in order to chase these demands. Furthermore, I always felt that too much of my workload was about “covering my back” or gathering evidence for demanding Ofsted inspections.

When you stop telling teachers what they have to do, they can focus on what they want to do. Without pressure, teachers will continue to work hard on things that matter because of their passion. We care deeply about our students and this drives us to be the very best that we can be. When pressure doesn’t crush us, passion drives us.

If I wanted to, I could go most of the school year without working too much outside school hours. Teachers should be able to enjoy downtime, relax and sleep! These things alone will increase their effectiveness. In reality, however, we don’t usually clock out at 4pm and we don’t usually switch off from school for the whole weekend. Teaching isn’t a standard 9-5 job and we wouldn’t want it to be. Wherever you teach and whatever the workload, there’s no ‘finish’ button in teaching, there’s only ‘stop’ (to quote a former colleague). We can never finish because there are always new things to learn and ways that we can improve our practice.

“Teaching is such a complex craft that one lifetime is not enough to master it.”

Dylan Wiliam

Don’t get me wrong, teaching and learning expectations are higher than ever where I am (a bilingual PYP school in Hong Kong). Likewise, the whole school is as accountable as ever. We actually have an inspection coming up (IB, not Ofsted). We just seem to focus on things that actually matter and everything that we do is for the kids. As a result, I work with teachers who thoroughly enjoy teaching and remain enthusiastic about it. Like all teachers, they work hard and go the “extra mile”. It’s not just my school; this seems apparent across all Hong Kong private/international schools (I’m less familiar with the local system).

So, how do I CHOOSE to use my evenings and weekends? On my own terms, I love nothing more than to continue thinking about my kids and my practice. I love reading professional texts and benefit from them immensely (in my three years of teaching in England, not one teacher or senior ever encouraged me to read). I am constantly reflecting. I enjoy learning about new teaching approaches. I develop my skillset through optional and readily available PD. I have recently started studying for a master’s degree in educational leadership. I have discovered blogging which has become my favourite and most beneficial pastime. I also have time to connect, learn and share with inspirational educators all over the world through social media (in particular, Twitter is an exceptional platform for teachers) and casual face-to-face events such as TeachMeets and PubPD. I could go on! All of the above develop me as a teacher and influence my classroom practice. Importantly, they actually impact my students. I didn’t have time for any of these things in the UK because I was bogged down by tasks that were significantly less beneficial.

Crucially though, I can switch off whenever I like. None of this work is done reluctantly. If I’m tired, want to watch a movie or crave a pint, I simply press the ‘stop’ button. But considering all of the above, the hours spent working on my profession is probably about the same as when I was under pressure, drained and overworked. However, this new style of work fuels my passion instead of stamping it out.

To conclude, I wish to highlight the irony once again. With less pressure to work harder and harder… I’m working harder and harder. I’m no exception. For teachers, our profession is more than just a job. We want to be the very best that we can be for the benefit of our all-important kids. This is what gets us out of bed each morning. My message to inspectors and policymakers is this: the same passion that you’re crushing through unrealistic expectations and hoop-jumping is the same passion that accelerates student learning and promotes a lifelong love of learning. Passion raises standards.

“Skills are cheap. Passion is priceless.”

Gary Vaynerchuk


To read more about passion, I recommend Teach Like a PIRATE by Dave Burgess. Passion is the ‘P’ in PIRATE. The book also contains an extensive and invaluable list of lesson hooks that I constantly refer to. It’s definitely worth a read (as are the other books in the PIRATE series).

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18 comments

  1. I enjoyed your commentary and feel that your view definitely hits home for the majority of teachers. We are stressed mostly due to outside pressures that have nothing to do with our students. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hi,

      Thanks for your input. I agree. It has nothing to do with students. We want to dedicate all of our time and effort to them. Sadly (as I have said many times), it’s the students who suffer. They deserve to have teachers who are enthusiastic and energised, and teachers who have the time to plan amazing, personalised learning engagements. Such a shame!

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  2. Hi Adam,

    Could I ask how much planning you do for regular classroom teaching, above and beyond the UOI planner you happen to have for whichever unit you´re teaching at the time? How much of your planning is done at school and how much outside of school? Managing my workload and maintaining a decent work-life balance is a perenial issue for me so I´m always curious to hear how others do it.

    Thanks in advance.

    Like

    1. Hi,

      We have weekly planning documents on top of the standard UOI planners. For most of the typical teacher tasks (marking, planning, etc.), I am able to complete them during school hours. It helps that we have collaborative planning meetings on Wednesday afternoons. These are really productive. Also, I have a teaching partner so we are able to bounce ideas around and share the workload. Collaborating with her and the rest of the Y4 team saves a lot of time because we constantly share ideas and learn from each other.

      Sorry to hear that you’re struggling with the workload. Maybe this will help: https://mrhillmusings.com/2016/11/17/ten-strategies-to-manage-your-teacher-workload/

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  3. I absolutely agree. I can spend as much time teaching one class as I can teaching a full spread with overload. The more classes you teach, the less time you can devote to each one. The more time I have to devote to each class, the better job I can do tailoring what I do to each child.

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  4. Great post, Adam. I totally agree. I think this paragraph sums it up nicely:
    “When you stop telling teachers what they have to do, they can focus on what they want to do. Without pressure, teachers will continue to work hard on things that matter because of their passion. We care deeply about our students and this drives us to be the very best that we can be. When pressure doesn’t crush us, passion drives us.”
    Although I am no longer in the classroom, my passion for education and for children has not abated. I constantly read to stay in touch with current trends and create ways of making learning more fun for students while reducing teachers’ workloads. Most teachers retire when they finish in the classroom. I feel my work is just beginning.

    Like

    1. Hi Norah,

      That’s fantastic! We appreciate all that you do. It’s really important to stay up to date because education is evolving so quickly. There are always new things to learn. I love the quote from George Couros: “In a world that is constantly moving forward, if you’re staying still, you’re falling behind.” So true! My lightened workload allows me to continue growing and learning.

      Thanks for your input as always!

      Adam

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That quote from George Couros is very true. I must admit it is getting harder to keep up than it used to. Change is occurring more rapidly now. Thanks for what you do in helping to keep me informed.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Absolutely – and it is our responsibility to create schools from the administrative side which foster excellence by supporting teachers, trusting their professionalism and expertise, respecting and acknowledging their time and dedication to our children, and by encouraging their passions. It simply creates better schools which in turn, create magical, creative and inspiring “studios of learning” for our students to explore, create, discover and challenge. An excellent and thoughtful article. Thank you so much Adam!

    Jacqueline Fierstein
    President of the Jewish School Board “Leo Adler”,
    Basel, Switzerland

    Like

    1. Hi Jacqueline,

      Thanks for your input. I totally agree! Admin has a role to play and this seems to be a key difference among schools in England. I wonder though, to what extent are their hands tied? School leaders also have targets, standards and expectations to meet.

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  6. I agree, Adam. This is an ideal I can live by: Focusing on what one wants to do rather than what they have to do, a sort of internal carrot to chase.

    However, not all teachers are as passionate (as with any profession) and there might not be much that they want to do, rather than get by day-to-day. The blog and Twitter-sphere is full of the want-to-do teachers (why else would we create professional accounts?), motivated to perform. People in corporate jobs, for example, have targets to meet, and meeting these dictates their salary and potential for promotion. This motivates them. Want-to-do teachers don’t need this because, well, they want to do well, they want to educate their students regardless of pay packet. But, exactly what percentage of teachers are like this?

    Without a carrot, the horse needs a stick.

    I wonder… maybe giving teachers freedom returns the disenfranchised among us to the light side?

    Like

    1. Hi Brett,

      Good points. I agree. We still need to be held accountable so that the less motivated teachers aren’t allowed to slack. That’s why I mentioned our school. Expectations are still high and we must meet certain targets and standards, but we’re held accountable for things that actually matter. This is hugely different to England where teachers generally have to spend an awful lot of time on things that don’t necessarily have much impact on learning.

      I believe that lightening workload would reignite many teachers’ passions. Not all. There will always be a small minority of teachers who will do the minimum but they shouldn’t be dragging down the rest of the profession. We can hold them accountable without crushing the passions of the majority. I think the majority is a large percentage. Few people go into teaching for an easy ride. It matters too much.

      Thanks for your input!

      Adam

      Like

  7. Love this post! You hit the nail right on the head. It’s beliefs like this that should be driving policy, but here in Aus we seem to be forever going in the opposite direction. I also left teaching in England for that same reason, I just couldn’t sustain the workload and keep my mental health. Australia is much more enjoyable to teach in, but we still have a very long way to go!

    Like

    1. Hi Emily,

      Thanks for your input. After my first workload post, many teachers from Australia commented that the situation isn’t much better there. US teachers as well. This is not a problem that’s unique to England. So sad! When will governments realise that this isn’t the way forward?

      In what way is Australia more enjoyable? Anything you can put your finger on?

      Adam

      Like

  8. Wonderful post Adam. I really have nothing to add to what you have said. Teachers will work hard if they have the freedom to. An example I can give is we went one to one and teachers were very stressed because there was talk of expectations like have a minimum of ten post and kids must turn in every assignment through Schoology and teachers must create 5 quizzes on Schoology, etc. first, that is bad because these requirements do not work in every subject and the teacher is just told what to do. I am happy to say that our district did not do that and the initiative went off with a hitch. They had two expectation: 1. Submit your lesson plans through Schoology and 2. Post your projects and quizzes on the Schoology calendar. Those expectations were very low and easily accomplished. What happened was awesome, the teachers went way above and beyond and ended up meeting the demands that they were going to put on us. But like you said, it was on our terms and if teachers felt they couldn’t get a project or lesson done, they COULD stop without any penailzation from administration. Most teachers are very passionate about their craft. Hopefully admin is listening to us!

    Like

    1. Hi Shawn,

      Thanks for the feedback and for contributing to this post with a fantastic example. That’s great to hear! I also believe that the vast majority of teachers are passionate, committed and willing to go above and beyond. Nothing kills this passion like workload pressure and unrealistic expectations. So sad!

      Thanks again,

      Adam

      Like

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