Education

Teachers may always have worked long hours. That doesn’t make it ok

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There is a pernicious (and false) stereotype that exists about those in the teaching profession.  The stereotype suggests that because a typical school-day finishes around 3.30, and because schoolchildren are fortunate enough to have long holidays throughout the year, teachers are simply lazy individuals that can’t hack normal working hours.

Fortunately for teachers, a new report has confirmed that this line of thinking could not be further from the truth.  A recent report from the UCL Institute of Education has ascertained that a quarter of teachers in England work more than 60 hours a week.  The average number of hours worked by a secondary school teacher sits at roughly 47 per week.  One in ten teachers works at the weekend.  Teachers are not just working “normal” hours: they go far beyond.

These long hours appear to be relatively similar to the hours worked by teachers 25 years ago; there has been little change in the levels of overwork that England’s teachers have done for decades.

And, to some extent, it makes sense.  Teaching is not just about the hours spent in the classroom – it involves time preparing lessons, marking work, focusing on wider pastoral issues.  But the report has also shown that the number of hours spent on these additional admin tasks is almost as high as the number of hours the average teacher spends in the classroom.  While these tasks are no doubt important, they should hardly be the core element of a teaching job.  They are certainly highly unlikely to have been a motivating factor for teachers entering the profession.

These extra admin tasks are an obvious reason why teachers’ hours are much longer than your typical school-day.  

But in Finland, a place often considered to have the best education system in the world, teachers put in an average of just 34 hours a week.  In other similarly industrialised countries to England, teachers work an average of eight hours less.  Contact hours between teachers and pupils across countries are similar, but in England it seems that teachers spend far more time on that extra admin than in any comparable country.

A culture of what has been referred to as ‘toxic accountability’ has been blamed for the overtime that English teachers put in.  This condition, where teachers have to meticulously document evidence and reasoning behind every decision taken leaves many feeling burdened with work that does not allow them to think creatively about ways of teaching.  Teachers are constantly monitored and assessed, and while this does not have to be a negative thing, many are judged along very rigid and unyielding lines.  They are required to constantly measure their pupils’ progress, and data monitoring is an intrinsic part of most teachers’ jobs.

If long hours are being spent on these kinds of tasks, then productive time to plan lessons and to interact efficiently with children is depleted. 

And this is clearly causing problems for teachers. A study has shown that 20% of teachers feel tense about their job most or all or the time, as opposed to only 13% of those in similar occupations.  Around 30% of teachers leave the state sector within five years of qualifying.

And yet, I suspect there is still remarkably little sympathy for those in the teaching profession from other workers and professionals.  Comments on some of the articles I have cited suggest some people don’t think teachers’ hours sound very long (even with the overtime).  People still scathingly refer to teaching as a ‘cushy’ job and throwaway remarks such as ‘Those that can’t do, teach’, can be found dotted throughout the opinions.  

Attitudes towards teachers amongst the general public often indicate that people cannot see beyond short school-days and long holidays, and lack a fundamental respect for the teaching profession.  Regardless of how long teachers’ hours are, it seems that those hours are high-intensity and high-stress.  Many in the profession feel close to burning out and as though they cannot do the core of their job effectively.  Teachers feel unsupported, and maybe this is unsurprising considering some of the ways people perceive them and their profession.

Long hours do not equate to productivity – we know this from studies of all professions.  Stress does not contribute to good quality lessons. Teachers continue to be paid low salaries that do not rise in line with inflation, and the schooling system remains underfunded.  All these factors conspire to create a system where teachers not only feel unsupported from within, but find that external attitudes towards them are very much shaped by the endless target-hitting and accountability procedures that the state piles on them.

And even if long hours have been a constant feature of the profession in England, and aren’t the sole reason teachers quit, it doesn’t mean that these shouldn’t be tackled right away.  Teaching should be about pupils learning and developing, personally and academically.  When the conditions that professionals face impede this, then it is time to review any and every effect that teachers are feeling – whether those are the effects of under-resourcing, rising social inequality, or simply finicky marking frameworks.  It should never be about extracting as many hours of work from teachers as possible, as if to somehow ‘justify’ their summer holiday.

Instead, we must learn from other countries to see what we are doing wrong here.  We must shake this attitude that persists across professions that more hours of work equals better work – for when you’re responsible for several classes of 30 pupils, the downsides of exhaustion and burnout cannot help but emerge.  And if other countries can cut down on admin time, then so can we too.  We can start to take small steps so that teachers feel less intensely monitored, and so that they can start to spend more of their time on what is truly part of their vocation: pupils and their learning. 

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