There isn’t a huge amount of slack in your average teacher’s day. There’s always a lot to do in a job that generally seems to be moving too fast. Teachers work long hours, and though things have improved over the last few years, at the best of times teachers are still working around 50 hours a week, with sizeable chunks done on the weekend.
People have tried all sorts of things to cut workload down, and I wanted to start with things that, in my experience, don’t help:
- Telling people to go home early/closing the school at 5.30pm: if people have a task that will take x hours to do, you don’t help them by limiting their ability to actually do it. This should be obvious, but the number of times I have been told “don’t stay too late!” or even, to my shame, said it myself to colleagues, should put paid to the idea of it being obvious.
- Banning emails on the weekend: same as above, people have a certain amount of work to do. Some will want to do it in “school hours,” some will want to do it in their own time.
- Window dressing: this is where you run an INSET or a CPD twilight focussed on teacher-wellbeing, including yoga or pottery making or a stand-up comedian or whatever. This doesn’t help anyone. The majority of time people don’t have poor wellbeing at work because they’re really missing a bit of yoga in their life. It’s because they have too much to do, or are doing things that they think are pointless. That isn’t to say these things aren’t valuable – my school has optional after school yoga, staff choir and the like – but they are no replacement for actually getting serious about cutting things out.
As such, the way I see it, there are two main, overarching issues to do with workload:
- Teachers have too much stuff to do
- Teachers don’t see value in the things they are doing
Most of the discourse around workload should therefore be about finding things to cut out of a teacher’s busy day, which necessitates finding the things which have the smallest impact on student outcomes and, just, well…ditching them. In parallel to that runs the ongoing conversation of “why do we do this?” If you have a good answer to that, it needs to be communicated. If you don’t, then it needs to be ditched.
Having been a head of department for a year and a half now, it’s a good time for me to pause and think about the things we have done as a department to cut workload down, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and whether or not I need to do more. None of the below is definitive, but it may give you a couple of ideas.
I don’t want teachers to have to spend hours planning from scratch, so they are provided with high quality resources in the form of booklets for every subject they will teach. The booklets aren’t a straightjacket, and our department T&L policy says something along the lines of “you are welcome to use different resources, but they need to be at least as good as the centralised ones.”
At first I printed them for everybody too, but then a lot of them ended up not being taken and it was a waste of paper, so teachers do that themselves now. If someone asks me to print a stack for them I’ll happily do that.
Merciless folder curation
Part of the above is that teachers need to be able to readily identify the right resource. School hard drives are packed full of endless iterations of the same basic powerpoint or worksheet, each with a different initial or “V_7” at the end. This is madness and is a timekiller, as teachers have to hunt for a resource that works. It also means that teaching is being led by the question “ok, which resource do I think is good here?” as opposed to “what am I teaching today?”
As such, all main folders will have one or maybe two files (a booklet in Word and PDF or similar). There will also be a folder that says “other” or “archive” where people can dump their own stuff, but the main folders are kept clear. If I see someone has saved their own version into that folder they receive a marginally grumpy email, and a couple of days later I will delete the file if it hasn’t been moved. It’s not ok for one teacher’s workflow to increase another teacher’s workload.
Marking and data
We don’t do any comment based marking and don’t take books in (read here for more). As a school, we take data for students in Year 7-10 twice a year at their two assessment points. Year 11 is more frequent. We don’t do written reports. Nobody’s complained.
Trello + Teams
I wrote a bit about our department’s use of Trello here, but it really is a gamechanger for organisation and operational anxiety. Everything is in the same place, double entry is rare, everybody knows what is expected of them and how to execute their role etc.
Following Chris Baker’s excellent blog about instant messaging, we moved to Teams for all our departmental communications. We have channels for every year group (including all teachers of that year group), general dept stuff, curriculum/T&L and then for each shared class (which only has those teachers and me in it). It works pretty well and communication seems a lot more rapid and open this year.
All of the above is codified into an admin policy which sits in the drive. It was written collaboratively, and everyone had the chance to discuss and suggest amendments and the like. Everybody is expected to know and adhere to the admin policy, and it makes the culture of the department explicit. It’s especially useful for new teachers to the department and you can check it out here:
Signalling whole school markers and deadlines
Something I wasn’t good enough at this year (and I am grateful to a colleague for pointing this out to me) was signalling whole school markers like when Year 11 exams are or whatever. Signal these too long in advance and people think “ah that’s ages away”, cut it too close and people can’t prepare. So I need to get into a better habit of signalling things like this. For departmental deadlines, we use Trello so that’s pretty clear as I organise the list in date order, so everyone can see what needs to get done first etc.
Centralising behaviour issues
This is complicated because it is highly dependent on the whole school policy, but I try to take as much as I can away from staff without undermining them.
Narrate the positive
Just wanted to publicly thank Dave who emailed me earlier in the week to ask if anyone needed help getting all their Year 11 papers marked by the deadline. Please do remember they need to be done by XXX and I know everyone is really busy now, so if you are going to struggle to hit it please do let me know as soon as possible, it’s easier to know in advance so we can all help each other if needed!
Is a good email to send. By “narrating the positive” (i.e. what Dave did) you normalise a collaborative atmosphere and a positive culture. You also have to actually mean it. If someone emails back and says “yeah I’m really struggling” then you need to follow through, and either take the papers away from their pile, or find something else to cut. After that point it’s a good idea to figure out exactly what is going wrong, but the time to ask those questions is once the immediate need has been met. On a couple of occasions colleagues have told me they are struggling, and on each occasion I asked them to write down all the things that are causing them stress and then we could meet and go through the list. On both occasions we have managed to find a way for those colleagues to have a more positive experience with their work by changing some organisational practices.
Explain the purpose
This kind of ties into the above. Often, you have a particular policy that doesn’t seem to make sense, and then people resent having to do work towards it. A good example here would be assessment points: our academy chain has fixed assessment points with common exams across all the schools. Of course, in our curriculum we aren’t quite at the same point as everyone else, and it feels daft setting an exam for students which contains content that they haven’t learnt yet. However, when you look at the advantages of the system which is that you can actually make a normal distribution of results due to thousands of data points as well as feed off the whole school culture on assessments and revision pushes then it feels a bit different. Still may not be “ideal”, but nothing ever is, and it’s a lot easier to work towards something when you understand the benefits there will be to you and/or your students.
Replace “don’t stay too long” with “what have you still got to do?”
The answer to that puts you in a position to actually help. It could be something the person doesn’t need to do, or you could take away from them, or could be amalgamated into something else or whatever. Similarly before breaking up for the holidays don’t say “remember to take a break!” say “are you planning on doing any work? What work?” and then following the exact same process as above.
I got a cool idea off Stuart Lock for solving the “emails on weekend/holiday” conundrum, and added the below to the start of my emails in those periods:
The point here is to build a positive culture around emails. If you have a toxic email culture, dictating to people “no emails at time X” isn’t the way to deal with that culture. It might be a part of the way you deal with it, but the main thing would need to be asking questions like “ok, why am I sending this email at all? Is it crucial? Is it a task somebody doesn’t actually need to do? Is it going to cause the recipient anxiety? Is it going to a bunch of people who don’t need to read/action it? Could it be added to the school notices instead?” (this section generated the most talk online, I wrote a longer response here: https://twitter.com/adamboxer1/status/1343681803262046208?s=20)
At my school we work damn hard and get a lot of stuff done, but I think it’s good to note that it is now the tenth day of the holidays and I haven’t received a single work email. Not because they are banned in this period – they aren’t – but because we have built a positive culture around work and emails.
Anyway, that’s all the stuff that I do. I’m sure there are more things I could do, and please let me know if you’ve seen or heard of a great idea that you think others would find helpful. Oh, and if working in a school and a department that takes workload seriously interests you, did I mention we are hiring?