The Job that Never EndsDecember 20, 2010
Teachers usually have to teach lessons for somewhere between twenty and twenty four hours a week and, we can probably take twenty one hours as a reasonable figure. These lessons are meant to be thoroughly prepared, with a range of activities (i.e. not just working out of a textbook) all aimed to be at exactly the right level for the class, and differentiated for differences in learning style and ability within in the class. If each activity takes only four minutes to plan on average then even a three part lesson with no differentiation would take twelve minutes to prepare and longer if homework is to be set. To plan a lesson with the variety it is meant to have, would take at least twenty minutes for every hour, so planning would take seven hours a week for the truly conscientious teacher. Teachers normally have form tutor responsibilities as well, that usually take about twenty five minutes a day, or about two hours a week.
Of course, students are entitled to feedback for their work. A school’s marking policy is likely to require that students books are marked every couple of weeks. Marking is not meant to be a matter of “flick and tick”. Work is meant to be assessed and levelled and formative written targets included which should take some time and reflection to do properly. If a teacher averages ten classes of twenty five students and each book takes five minutes a fortnight to mark then that will require about ten hours a week for marking books. Every student should also have homework at least once a week which will again have to be marked and levelled, which even at three minutes per homework per week would take another twelve hours a week. Even if there may be marking that can be put off until the holidays, or weeks without homework, then the marking of coursework and mock exams should more than fill any lost time.
During the week a number of other responsibilities are likely to be scheduled. “Duties” before school, after school or at break are likely to take up at least half an hour in total if you include the time to get there or back. Meetings (both in the form of briefings in the morning and after school) are meant to be limited to a total of an hour a week but rarely are.
According to the school rules, teachers should be giving detentions for everyday offences like refusal to follow instructions, lateness or not working. In many schools teachers have to do their own detentions, so if the policy is followed (and this one really gives away the fact that this is all based on the unlikely situation of a teacher doing everything they are supposed to do) then we would expect every teacher to do half an hour of detentions each day. A similar amount of time would be spent on referrals if teachers were to follow the discipline policy to the letter.
We’re not done yet. Parents also deserve feedback. Teachers are expected to attend something like five parents’ evenings a year (I believe the limit may be six, although obviously it is less for teachers who only teach some year groups) each of which is about two hours long. Every student is meant to have a written report at least once a year, and often shorter progress reports for at least one other time of year. Fortunately schools are moving towards computerised report systems which can be done by ticking boxes, although some still expect a certain amount of personalised comments that may take longer. Even if we can cut this down to five minutes per student then we are still talking about another twenty hours a year. It is probably also not unreasonable to suggest that another ten hours a year will be spent on other forms of communication with parents, such as letters home, phone calls to parents of misbehaving (or even high-achieving or improving) students, following up absences or concerns, although this does seem to vary drastically between schools. Altogether communication with, and feedback to, parents should account for about forty hours a year, or one hour a week.
So let’s total this up for the week:
Classroom activity and preparation: 30 hours
Marking: 22 hours
Duties and meetings: 1.5 hours
Detentions and referrals: 5 hours
Communication with (and feedback to) parents: 1 hour
So we are looking at something around 60 hours a week, or half as much again as the average full-time job. Now there are people who thrive on long hours, but teaching is one of the most stressful jobs there is and teachers usually need some time in the week to unwind, and as a graduate profession where early retirement is common it is hardly rare for teachers to have young families to look after, and we should recall that the majority of teachers are likely to have at least some extra-curricular activities or additional responsibilities which increase the workload. Given these hours, it hardly seems possible that many people could survive for long in the profession.
Of course, the (very) obvious explanation is that nobody, and I mean nobody, does the job to the letter. Students mark their own homework, or homework is not set. Marking is not to the required standard. Lessons are lacking in variety and differentiation (or worse, they simple aren’t terribly appropriate to the students). The discipline policy is rarely followed to the letter (I have often felt like I am the only teacher in a school spending an hour a day following up behaviour, even though I know many teachers experience far worse behaviour than I do). So what does it really matter?
Well, all of the things I have listed can be demanded at the drop of the hat. Managers can always ask for evidence of extensive planning; check on homework; check marking; criticise failure to manage behaviour, and generally require the full sixty or more hours of work. Any teacher is vulnerable to the manager who decides that they should be made to do their job to the fullest possible extent. New teachers will always be overwhelmed by what can be demanded of them until they realise where there is room to slack off. We are all inadequate teachers if subjected to enough scrutiny.
The reality of this means that:
- Many people quit teaching feeling they aren’t good enough to do the job properly.
- There is a constant incentive to follow a career path that gets you out of tough classrooms and into either a less challenging school or a management position.
- Teaching is ideal for bullying managers; they can always find some failure to use against a colleague.
- Most school policies (discipline, teaching and learning, assessment, performance management) are simply a fantasy that nobody will ever follow to the letter and are only there to cover up what is really going on.
- In the average school teaching no longer attracts people with extensive outside interests. It will not suit aspiring novelists, local councillors, amateur musicians or indeed people with any hobby (other than blogging or drinking) despite the fact that such people might have much to offer.
- Conscientious teachers will suffer. Leaving teaching (or at least leaving teaching in battleground schools) can feel like waking up from a coma to discover the world has moved on without you.
Unfortunately the political mood appears to be towards worsening rather than improving the working conditions of teachers. Academies, in particular, are adding to the duties described above with covers and more lessons. The chances of an honest appraisal of what teachers can or cannot be expected to do seems further away than ever.