This much I know about…the workload debate

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about the workload debate.

I’ve just completed a 63 hour week; by the time I get to Sunday bed time that figure will be 70 hours plus. I write that as a fact, not a complaint. From doing my bus duty to leading an eight hour strategy meeting with Headteacher colleagues to teaching Economics A level, I love my job.

None of us working in schools goes underground to dig coal. In relative terms, our working conditions are pretty good. We have long holidays. As Shakespeare said, working with young people, Physics the subject, makes old hearts fresh. Our teaching always has the potential to be joyous.

It’s a year this weekend since I wrote about how my job has impacted upon my relationship with my eldest son. That single post has had over 100,000 views. The comments it engendered were remarkable and some of the private email responses were both sad and humbling. It is no exaggeration to claim that the post changed some people’s lives. And things are still good between me and Joe. At 9.30 pm on Monday evening this week he asked me if I wanted to go play pool; I had more work to do than I’d care to admit, but I went, of course I went…

Playing-Pool-540x405

Headteachers don’t get paid more for the weight of work, but for the responsibility. I tried to explain my job to my youngest son this week and I told him it was like being a parent to 1,500 children for eight hours a day. Parents entrust me with their most precious thing in the whole world and my first priority is to return their children to them at the end of the day safe and happy. It’s not worth thinking too hard about the responsibility the job entails.

Classroom teaching is exhausting. Tom Bennett says that when you teach you should present the very best version of yourself all the time. A full teaching day will leave you exhausted; I compare it to being on stage for five hours a day. And after all that there’s the evening performance too. 

I am still thinking about Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. Chapter two is called Things Fall Apart; the following passage resonates more strongly than I would wish…

hand decline 1

Hand decline 2

Here’s a health up-date: my left thumb’s joints have seized up; my two biggest toes on my right foot have permanent pins and needles; I’ve had a proper bad back  and an aching hip for over a month; I’ve had a phlegmy chesty cough since August; my pacemaker needs a new lead; I’ll need a new knee when I’m sixty; and there are a couple of other ailments you don’t need to know about!

The 2010 spending cuts are beginning to bite. One of the funniest things to happen this week was my first physiotherapy appointment for my creaking back…by telephone! We were mid-lesson, with us discussing how both major parties were going to balance the budget after the next election, when I had to take a diagnostic call from a physiotherapist. My students were highly amused.

George-Osborne-as-Edward--007

Where are you in your teaching staff’s age rank order? Over the Christmas break I calculated that out of 114 teachers at Huntington, only six are older than me.  How the hell did that happen?! I still feel about 24 years old, max. Like everyone who has ever lived, I never thought I would age. In 2004 I ran the London Marathon in 3 hours 50 minutes and 33 seconds for goodness’ sake!

Teachers who retire at sixty-five have a life expectancy of 18 months. I have cited that line many a time, but it’s not true. As we all live longer, the evidence shows that teachers should live for decades once they retire. And yet…as evidenced in our school, few teachers make it into their late 50s before retiring, let alone to 62, the age at which I can access my Teachers’ Pension, or 67 when I’ll receive my state pension.

At home we have a principle of having high quality bath towels for our everyday use. I know that sounds odd, but for years we used to save our best towels for guests whilst we made do with old, threadbare beach towels. Somehow we realised the folly of our ways. Kate Gross’ parting advice, in her book Late Fragments, is essentially the same principle: always always eat from your very best crockery, because where can we live but days? Gross’ book is not mawkish. Late Fragments is a sunlit celebration of what it is to be alive and how to manage your world when your body falters fatally; it’s well worth a peek.

kate-gross-late-fragments1

 

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in General educational issues, School Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to This much I know about…the workload debate

  1. garykaye says:

    I’m a classroom teacher. Do I not have responsibilities and a duty of care for children? Entertaining as your blog is it’ still the old message that Head Teachers constantly repeat, ‘You lot in the classroom don’t know what hard work is.’ I cannot retire until I am 67 and I’m am not being over-pessimistic or hyperbolic when I say that I don’t believe I’ll live to see retirement.

    Until Head Teachers actually join together, and stop simply acting as conduits between Government policy and their teaching staff, workload for everyone will remain at intolerable levels. I agree John, teaching is not like going down the pit but tiredness is tiredness is tiredness. It’s all contextual so that was a slightly vacuous comment to make.

    Head Teachers and rank and file teachers need to work together on workload issues. Head Teachers also need to remember what it was like teaching a full timetable. I’ve been teaching for 14 years and in that time workload and accountability have increased incredibly. You’ve been a Head Teacher for 11 years, so you are obviously 11 years away from having taught a full timetable and whatever you believe, from behind your office door, the pressures on classroom teachers have become almost intolerable at times. That’s why so many teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years and why so many experienced teachers would leave if they could.

    A couple of years ago a classroom teaching colleague was given a secondment to the position of Assistant Head Teacher in a school. After his first term he told me that anyone who argued that working in SLT was harder than classroom teaching was bonkers. Yes, he said there was extra responsibility but he felt that teaching fewer classes and having less marking gave him time to carry out his duties. He cited thing such as being able to make a cup of tea when he wanted, or being able to go to the toilet when he wanted as small issues but major factors in making him feel more relaxed and better able to cope with his workload.

    I know you are a good Head Teacher John, because I hear about you in various teacher networks, but if you. and other Head a Teachers, wish to be the leaders of a workload revolution you must stop telling classroom teachers about your 70 hour weeks (and by the way I find this a totally unacceptable workload and fully agree that a limit to working time needs to be placed on all levels of teaching) and start acknowledging that classroom teachers work equally as hard; their hard work is produced from a different set of criteria. Perhaps the , and only then, can we all begin to tackle the current workload issues together.

    • johntomsett says:

      There is much I agree with here and understand Gary. Thank you for responding. To be fair, I never ever suggest HT’s work harder than full-time main scale teachers. I never moan about my lot; I have a wife who works full time at another school in York and I see how tired she becomes with the relentless marking and preparing lessons. The point of the post as a whole is that the pressures of teaching wear us all out so that few make it to the age of 60, let alone beyond, before retiring early and experiencing a less financially beneficial pension package than if they had worked to full retirement age. It’s untenable to suggest that teachers work until their mid-60s before they can access their full pension. I’m a relatively fit 50 year old but my body is deteriorating, like any 50 year old. That’s the point of the post; I have too much emotional intelligence to protest about how hard I work. The thing is, we all are working long hours…but there is no point moaning in a way that no one will read what I have written. What I do is write in a way that readers are engaged and entertained, and then encouraged to reflect and think. It’s much more effective than moaning.

  2. Frederick Sandall says:

    Re workload: as a retired headteacher, teacher and laterly educational adviser, I worked long hours out of choice. I guess the most hours I worked or rather the hardest I worked was as a teacher. The reason I saybthis us because standing in front of a class for five hours a day is exhausting, rightly so as the number of interactions per second is enormously high and you can never truly relax. As I travel by train through any city, I am often intetested in the number of office workers who are staring out of their windows and it struck me that a teacher could rarely do that as the job requires you to have total concentration for all students! As a headteacher, I did have some time to reflect, indeed it was an important part of the job, looking at the long term implications before making decisions as well as teacting to the immediate. As an adviser the reflection was even morexappropriate as others were going to act on that advice for tge benefit of large numbers of students and their staff.
    So what is too much workload. I guess I was happy to work over 70 hours a week because I enjoyed the day job. I feel for teachers under pressure in their schools to jump through hoops which they believe are not correct, that must be the worst sutuation. We need to trustbour professional teachers more to do what they know is best for their students and, above all make each day rewarding and, as farcas possible and appropriate FUN!

  3. jillberry102 says:

    So much of this post struck a chord, John! I’m 56 and have just been diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both knees. I’m just now starting to recognise the effects of physical deterioration and to become aware of things I used to be able to do that I now can’t do, or can’t do easily. I’m not moaning – just stating the facts! I’m trying to get my head round this. I recognise that the knee is a complex joint and, although I’m relatively fit and not overweight, I’ve used mine every day for 56 years….

    Garykaye’s comment and your response made me thoughtful. I know you weren’t saying that heads work harder than classroom teachers; it’s just responsibility of a different order. I did actually feel I worked harder as a head than I had done as a teacher/Head of Department/Head of Sixth Form/Deputy Head – I certainly worked longer hours – but I didn’t moan about this (I don’t think…) It seemed to me that it came with the territory, I accepted it and was sufficiently resilient to cope with it, though ten years was enough for me. I tried really hard NOT to lose sight of what the staff in my school were having to manage, and I did what I could to support that. However, (and I know garykaye won’t like this…) I do feel that most of us work as hard as we demand of ourselves, not as hard as others (whether that’s leaders in school or the govt) actually demand of us. We do have choices – tough choices, but still choices – about what we’re prepared to do and how much time we’re prepared to spend on it, and whether to carry on working or stop to play pool. (The right choice…)

    As you know, I was 52 when I finished full-time teaching/headship after 30 years. I really enjoy what I’m now doing and the better balance I have in my life, and would recommend it to anyone who can take this course of action (and I know that not all can, for a variety of reasons). I’d reassure anyone who’s concerned that there is fulfilling life beyond your teaching career.

  4. dodiscimus says:

    Whilst I’m not sure that I fully agree with garykaye there is an important point about the responsibility that headteachers carry for workload issues. In the 6th Form / FE sector, for many years there was a funding formula which meant that colleges got the same money for most qualifications (e.g. A-Levels) regardless of the actual amount of teaching delivered. The funding represented the average delivery time for the qualification across the sector. Under this system, if any particular college cut delivery time they cut costs, but if many colleges cut delivery time the funding got reduced. Principals couldn’t resist the temptation. Now 6th Form / FE funding has been cut again and again for many years so I have some sympathy but it remains the case that teachers have ended up with more classes, taught for less time, under major pressure to maintain/improve results. In schools there is a sense that each school is striving to do even better by the children but as the ante gets upped, very few schools or teachers can keep up by working smarter; most have to work harder. I can’t see politicians suggesting that a manageable workload is more important than continuous improvement but I think headteachers ought to be thinking about how they raise this up the agenda. What do headteachers think is a reasonable workload? And what do they expect their staff to do when they start regularly needing to exceed this in order to meet the apparent requirements of their jobs?

    • garykaye says:

      Just out of interest, what parts of my response do you not agree with? I think I give a fair and balanced view about issues surrounding workload for classroom teachers. There is an emerging crisis in recruitment and retention and workload is at the heart of this. The trouble is that rather than Head Teachers challenging Governmental interference the actual workload is passed on to rank and file teachers. I have a 5 year old daughter and guess what? I would rather spend my evenings and weekends with my family rather than working. I work very hard for an hour before school and an hour after school, in my workplace. That means, in the workplace I complete an 8 1/2 day. Is it not reasonable for me to then say that’s my working day done? I don’t get paid the £80,000+ that secondary Head Teachers receive and I would seriously dispute the figure of 70 hours a week that I keep reading that Head Teachers work. Are they really working 10 hours a day, 7 days a week? If they are I would argue that they are not setting a good example of work/life balance. In real terms I would argue that it’s almost impossible for them to be working 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. Surely no family relationship could stand that level of work audit would mean that even on Saturdays and Sundays Head Teachers would be working from 8 til 4. I just refuse to believe they are.

      • tborash says:

        Just doing the math, the time wouldn’t have to be the same every day. I could easily see 60+ hours adding up over the course of the week- a 7-7 day with after school times spent contacting parents seems highly plausible (and perhaps more regular than not), and adding in a night or two spent supervising extracurricular activities like sporting events and concerts or attending a cross-school work session or division wide meeting adds up pretty quickly. Not to mention the time spent at home after the family goes to bed in constant communication with staff and parents via email. It seems to me that these 60+ hr work weeks could easily be the norm, and that’s without regard for any weekend time spent (which at least on Sundays almost always adds up in planning for the week). I’m not trying to invalidate the challenge of anyone’s work- it just seemed to me to be much more plausible (and frankly a more regular occurrence than not) for these hours to add up and take their toll.

      • johntomsett says:

        Thanks for pointing out the obvious…not for me to do.

  5. I’m married to a headteacher and he regularly puts in a +60 hour week, when you add in the governing body meetings and the parents evenings, the days when he gets up at 5 to do a couple of hours before school starts its certainly adds up to more. For once this weekend he has put his health first and taken a rest before he makes himself seriously ill.

    I’m a teacher too and no matter how exhausting 5 lessons in a day is it doesn’t compare to the mental fatigue carrying around the burden that the buck stops with him! (Oh and I’m not sure where you get the £80K from @garykaye? not all schools are in London!)

  6. emmaannhardy says:

    Thanks for writing this John.

    What is evidently clear is that we ALL work hard in schools and that workload has become unacceptable for ALL. I think it’s unhelpful and counter productive for us to compete over who does more. Yes poor headteachers drive workload in some schools but what makes them do this?

    I’d argue that it is our current accountability regime, rapid changes in the curriculum and examinations, governmental policy whims (anyone already working on proving they teach British Values?) changes to assessment and removal of levels etc etc are all creating the workload perfect storm.

    Instead of fighting amongst ourselves we need to unite and address the issues above. We need professional unity more than ever, we must find ways to work together and reclaim our profession. Enough is enough.

    Sometimes the old sayings are the best….united we stand and divided we fall!

  7. Ian says:

    Dear John,

    I just wanted to say “thank you”. I have be a regular reader of your blog for sometime. I am now a Headteacher myself and always find your posts an interesting and thought-provoking read. They have often prompted me to investigate further (just finished the Nuthall book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ thanks to you) and have helped to shape my thoughts and influence the direction my school is taking. I may take the plunge and start to chronicle my journey to share with others at some point. in the meantime I will continue to regularly read your posts with interest.

  8. I would like to pick up on the point made by someone else about full timetables. I don’t know the author of this post but it is good to know that you teach something – A level economics. [Do you allow other members of staff to take a call during a lesson?] Anyway my main point is this: how many hours per week do you teach? It is very easy for managers to forget the pressures of a five period day. How many back to back lessons do you have in which as soon as one class leaves, another arrives. Also managers tend to create policies without ever having to implement them (eg marking policies etc). Even if they do have to follow their own policy it is often with just one token class who they don’t have full ownership of in any case. I feel the present workload crisis exists partly because managers have ideas which they think will impress ofsted. These ideas are often untested but imposed on the powerless member of staff (who then lives in fear for marking in the wrong colour, or doing anything contrary to consistent school policies). Oh and when ofsted ever plant the idea of increased whole school consistency, teachers watch out. Anyway my final comment to you would be to point out that you may have more control over your own work life balance than your members of staff. I don’t know you personally and so I am responding to the content and tone of the article

  9. Daniel J. Ayres says:

    Reblogged this on Education Web Gems.

  10. Pingback: ORRsome blog posts January 2015 | high heels and high notes

  11. Pingback: Education Panorama (February ’15) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

  12. Pingback: Monthly roundup | Living and teaching in Spain

  13. Jim says:

    Spending a couple of years as a staff governor taught me exactly why working conditions as so poor for teachers. While the school is very happy to get some impressive looking badges about investing in people, genuine improvements in our working conditions that might actually reduce our stress levels don’t even appear on the agenda. The simple reason for that is, since it isn’t a requirement from Ofsted it isn’t a priority for Head Teachers.

    And I really don’t want to burst your bubble John but when staff laugh at your jokes – it isn’t because they find them funny.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s