Managing teacher workload

“Let us sacrifice our today so that our children can have a better tomorrow”.

I saw that quote recently. And, well, doesn’t that just summarise that workload crisis in teaching?

I’m not going to “sacrifice” myself for my teaching. Being a teacher is a job – a job that I will do my very best to do well at – but still a job. It is not a moral obligation to prioritise your students’ needs over your own.

This blog is on what I think is one of my strengths as a teacher/HoD; managing teacher workload. It hasn’t always been a strength of mine; but I think it is now. If you’re interested in hearing my thoughts on this in person then I’m talking at Teachmeet Science Icons in Manchester on Saturday the 26th of February. Free tickets available here:

Now I made a *lot* of mistakes very early in my teaching career; I marked terrifyingly late into the evenings. I spent most of my weekends planning lessons. I constantly felt like I *could* and even *should* be doing more.

On the face of it; observers would say that my teaching was going swimmingly. But my personal life was suffering. I was miserable. And I was thinking of leaving teaching for something less demanding and draining.

Now, I think many teachers would relate to this. While teacher retainment seems to have improved a little during the pandemic, the picture is still stark. According to a recent NEU survey; one in three teachers plan to quit teaching within five years. Workload is cited as one of the main reasons. Moreover, only 22% of the required numbers of physics teachers were recruited last year. Keeping and recruiting teachers is a problem.

Now I reckon I’ve got a team of fantastic teachers. I want them to remain a part of my department; and for that to happen working in my department must be more attractive than working elsewhere. I think managing their workload is one of the keys to this.

So. What do I do? Well a few things, and in many of them ratio is key. How much benefit am I getting per unit time of teachers work?

Here are a few things I do:

  • Shared resources

Probably not a surprise given that I have a whole site dedicated to shared resources.

But, for real, everybody planning/doing the same things makes absolutely no sense. I was astonished when I started teaching that it was the culture for everybody to plan their own lessons.

Like what? How many physics teachers are there in the country? All doing the same thing? Like 100 000 kinetic energy worksheets? Madness.

This is not good for my personal workload but, primarily, I take the load here. I now reckon that I’m quite good at making resources. And can do it very quickly. I also really really enjoy writing.

When I make something; I fully intend for it to be used a dozen/a hundred times. So I do it well. Even if I spend a long time making the resource, that’s still an exceptional ratio of effort to reward.

Now, as I said, that’s not good for my personal workload but you can:

  1. “Magpie” from elsewhere; i.e. here for physics.
  2. Develop shared planning within your department. I have a teacher that *loves* teaching electricity. Cool! Show us how you do it.

Ideally your HoD would develop a way to do shared planning; but even if not…what’s stopping you from teaming up with a colleague and doing it?

This also extends to pre-planned departmental homeworks (preferably self marking or peer assessed) and tests.

  • Sensible policies

Extensive comment based marking is an example of something that has poor ratio. Get in the bin, then.

I don’t want my teachers spending hours of time marking. It has a small benefit for a very high cost. It also makes teachers miserable. Nobody gets into teaching for the marking. Marking is something that I think should be reserved for summative assessments.

Instead we have a thorough culture of *feedback*. Immediate feedback is preferable so that students can act on it straight away & fix whatever misconception they were happily burrowing away with. Verbal feedback following cold calling. Live written feedback during a task. Whole class feedback following a homework/test.

I’d argue all of these have a greater benefit than extensive comment based marking & have far better ratio.

Another example of a sensible policy would be for schools to have centralised detentions. Each teacher setting & administering their own detentions? No! Terrible ratio. Also has the effect of punishing the teacher as well as the student; and makes it less likely for a teacher to set one in the first place.

Centralise them & your ratio goes up a hundred fold.

  • Flag deadlines early

During the TAG apocalypse last summer, my department had an awfully large amount of tasks to do. Like, ridiculously large. Good lord I hope it never happens again.

But. We got through it. And, in part, that was down to flagging deadlines extremely early so staff could manage their own personal workloads & avoid any bottlenecks down the road.

Very genuinely, I sat down during that summer term and wrote down every departmental deadline for the next couple of months. I explained to everyone that it’d be a rough term, but we’d get through this by looking at pinch points in advance. In the end it was okay.

It’s a pet peeve of mine when a deadline is chucked onto me last minute. You want this doing by the end of the day. Like this current day? Cool, I’m teaching 8 periods and taking a lunchtime club but I’m definitely keen to stay an hour or two longer in the evening to get this last minute task done. Obviously sometimes there are unavoidable emergencies, but this isn’t ideal.

  • Think about “ratio” of tasks

Now, to extend the idea of ratio a little more why not audit all of the tasks that you do on a daily basis and review whether they’re time efficient?

Let me give one example; I used to spend over 20/30 minutes a day printing as a trainee/NQT. That’s now zero as I use pre planned booklets. Bam. Better ratio. Has other benefits too, like it being easier for students to know what to catch up on.

What tasks do you do with poor ratio? What can you do that’s more efficient?

  • The 80/20 rule

This is an idea that I borrowed from a Ruth Ashbee blog that I first read a few years ago:

In the link above, Ruth describes how spending 20% of the time on a task with the result of getting to 80% of the quality that’d you’d achieve by spending 5 times more time.

I’m going to be honest; my booklets are an example of this. I wrote each of my GCSE/A level booklets in a day or two. They are absolutely not perfect. They are a little rough around the edges. I *could* have spent more time on them; but then they wouldn’t have been completed. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good etc. etc.

Now, I can and do spend time refining them & making them better over time but getting them done was the most important initial step.

Extend that principle further to many less urgent tasks. Get them done quickly & think nothing more about them. If they don’t meet the quality required then revisit the task. This rarely happens.

  • Culture

And finally consider the culture of your department. Is there presenteeism? Do staff feel allowed to leave school site at the bell?

My school has a wonderful policy here than originated during the pandemic. As soon as you’ve finished your last commitment of the day; go home. This was originally to reduce chances of catching COVID, but the policy has persisted.

The first few weeks of this policy being implemented, my staff felt uneasy about doing this. To be honest, not many did. *But*, that changed when I started going home at 2/2:30pm. That set the tone that there really was no presenteeism & frankly, if I did it why couldn’t they.

Hopefully some of those ideas are useful; do come listen to me talk about this in more depth in Manchester at the Teachmeet Science Icons!


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