10 Steps to Reduce Teacher Workload...

Posted by Matt Butcher on September 3rd 2017
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So THIS happened in the UK last week...


Allow that to sink in. That's right. Ofsted (the organisation assigned to inspect and report on the success of our schools) will - from the start of this new academic year - have teacher workload, wellbeing and work-life balance firmly on their agenda. This means at any point now - or in the immediate future - a school leader will be asked by their inspection team exactly how they intend to reduce teacher workload. But in doesn't stop there. It was also suggested that senior leadership teams consider teacher workload when implementing any new initiatives or policies. And the best thing: it was announced on Twitter.

For years, teachers have bemoaned the threat of Ofsted and their terrifying inspections. Their job was to march into schools, make teachers cry and tell them they were great, ok or pretty rubbish. Inspectors - some say - never smile; working for an organisation as old as the apparatus in our school hall and intent on ruining lives. Ofsted were - for many - the only reason we created the countless documents of ridiculous 'evidence' - more and more paper work because - of course - Ofsted will definitely want to see it. Ofsted were the enemy.

Then Ofsted evolved. Years ago. But nobody really told you. They've been pushing their 'Ofsted Myth Busters' for the last year (you can read the mythbuster article here). But how many schools shared this with their staff? How many staff-meetings were built around it? Two years ago - in an article entitled 'Thank you Ofsted' - I wrote: 'That’s right; those that had me running scared for so long have – this year – improved my work-life balance.' I also credit a former Ofsted inspector for a major shift in my approach to lesson observations and helping me hold onto both my sanity and integrity. So this 'new' Ofsted can't be that new.

Anxiety breeds anxiety. Fear and loathing is contagious; and we all - even young children - pick up on the slightest showing of any of these emotions. For many schools - not all of them - the threat and anxiety around Ofsted ends up on your desk; your inbox and across your evenings and weekends via your headteacher and senior leadership team. Not from Ofsted-Direct. SLT set the tone. But it takes a giant leap-of-faith to relax an institutionalised stance held for so long. It's bound to take time.

Can you see the irony in all this? We've got headteachers up and down the country frantically changing plans for training-days. I guarantee that you'll soon see a flurry of activity around work-life balance in schools. Why? Not because we've been on our knees pleading for change; not because more teachers are leaving the profession than ever before; but because it's now another 'It's what Ofsted want'.

We're not here to slate school leaders - they have an impossible job on their hands. Their work-life balance hangs by a thread; so - I'm sure - they'll welcome these new measures. Our fit2teach community includes school leaders of many state-schools and academies; we've met with a handful of them and I'd have walked over hot coals to teach in their schools. So here are a few potential responses to the all new - and very challenging - question on its way to schools in the near future: 'What's one thing you'll pledge to do to reduce your teachers' workload in the coming year?'

Our Top Ten Responses

#1 'We've gathered feedback from teachers to pin-point their main concerns.'

This shouldn't be a 'tick-box' activity nor be delegated to a senior staff member. This needs to come from the headteacher and match the feeling, ethos and relationships upon which the school is built. You can't expect to rock-up one day, summon your teachers to a 1-to-1 in your office and start asking searching questions about their work-life balance and home-life. Not unless that's the relationship you've worked hard to forge. I hate questionnaires but they'd work in some settings - or for some teachers. You could have a post-box for worries about workload; set up a task-force to collate areas of concern; or offer informal group meetings. Whatever you do; however you do it; it shouldn't be threatening or done through gritted teeth. Take the opportunity and embrace it. Your staff should appreciate it and - together - you can look to build a couple of actions around those areas proving the greatest threat to the welfare of your teachers in your school.

#2 'We've differentiated our approach to teacher work-life balance.'

Sometimes, you have to go back to basics and practise what you preach. For years you've held teachers to account for differentiation for the pupils in your schools. Now it's time to start differentiating for your teachers. No two are alike. Each work in their own ways; they have different triggers for anxiety; different home-lives (some have kids, look after elderly relatives; some both!); they have different work-habits and routines. Kicking them out at four on a Friday is a step forward but it won't suit everyone - you'll potentially create more work despite your intentions being lovely. Could you offer different ideas from #1 to give teachers a forum to offload - one they feel comfortable with. All this information gathering about individuals is second-nature to your staff. You expect them to know their pupils inside-out. And they do. So the least you can do is follow their lead and show a bit of flexibility around any whole-school decisions that are made for them.

#3 'We're providing opportunities for teachers to work from home.'

Finally! Your teachers are entitled to time away from the classroom. PPA or DOTT, Prep-Time, PD, Frees or NQT time - whatever it's called and wherever you teach in the world, it's an entitlement. But it's also an entitlement for that allocated time to work for the teacher taking it. If that means allowing staff to make the short journey home then try to provide for that. Some teachers prefer being school-based and having access to hardware and resources. Some don't. Some teachers have space to work away from their pupils; away from distractions. Some don't. It all goes back to flexibility. You give your English leader a day to work on something. They get up, get to school and - most likely - sit down after 9:00 to start work. I'm willing to bet they get three or four hours (if they hide in a cupboard!) of work-time. That same teacher at home will - through choice - start working before 9:00and will finish the project you asked of them. Because they're already home; they're relaxed and not distracted. They'll get double the amount of work done and earn themselves a free evening for their efforts.

While on the idea of PPA; please consider whether teachers would benefit from a termly rotation of their weekly non-contact slot. Yes that requires new routines; but there are huge differences gained or lost from the many specific PPA slots across your school timetable. The best: the ones that run into a lunch-break to allow you to eat earlier or work without fear of having to stop there and then; those that spread across the afternoon and through to the end of the day where you can shoot-off early or work through until a reasonable hour to avoid taking work home. The worst: scattered, isolated slots at the mercy of dodgy technology and where space is sparse; you've one eye on the kids getting back from assembly or returning from PE. These that the slots that require you to stop and use some time to prepare for that next lesson - the lesson you've been subconsciously thinking about while supposedly working. And don't even get me started about the slot that stops abruptly for a staff-meeting. Not only were you in the zone but you're now sat in a meeting that couldv'e been a simple email. How can these experiences make teachers equally as efficient? They can't. And the work-life balance of those drawing the short straw will suffer - because they got a bit unlucky.

#4 'We've reviewed - and streamlined - our marking policy.'

Talk is cheap so get it done. The feedback we've received from users in our fit2teach Staffroom cites this policy change as crucial for the reduction of their workload and an improved work-life balance. Aim for something that works for your setting; ideally created by - or at least with - your teachers. Keep it focused, visual and able to be carried out quickly. Highlighters are potential winners if used cleverly. But don't jump from from unmanageable method to another. Does all work need marking?

#5 'Teachers are designing their own timetables to suit their circumstances.'

Rigid timetables are great. For buses and cinemas. But our children's learning shouldn't have to be confined to rows of boxes on a Word document. A more fluid approach offers greater scope for teachers to build a teaching timetable that suits them while still delivering a broad and balanced curriculum. So what if you taught two - or no -maths lessons today; or if that art project worked better spread across two full days? This kind of flexibility empowers teachers to react quicker to the needs of their pupils and build a timetable to give them the best possible chance of nailing any non-contact time. Naturally, there are some slots that have to work at whole-school level that are fixed in concrete. But why not meet teachers half-way?

#6 'We're producing fewer written outcomes unless absolutely necessary.'

Hold your horses - whoooooaaaaahhhhh! This doesn't threaten the quality of your pupils' writing; nor is it a one-way ticket to poor whole-school standards. In some schools, pupils are expected to produce something written down in exercise books for every single lesson. Some might need marking/grading; some might not. That means that an inspiring bit of drama that engaged all pupils, comes back to a pencil and loses its magic. We're forced to ask them to write about their role and how they felt. A worthy activity; but one they already did dressed in Roman attire and wearing a smile in front of the class. A teacher can't - and shouldn't - be asked to evidence and mark every ounce of learning that takes place in their room. Any more than two written outcomes in a given day will generally end up with a teacher working at home at the end of a long school-day. Our data shows that once a teacher sees and starts to play with ideas around this, their work-life balance instantly starts to improve. They become more creative; they're more willing to take risks and they start building units of work that excite their pupils and reduce their workload. It takes time but we can help them on their way. The fit2teach App has a question based around producing too many written outcomes. So start to work out what's really necessary; what you really need writing down. Because if it's not for the kids, the teachers or Ofsted; then who's it really for?

#7 'We've improved communication to cut-down on time spent wasted in meetings.'

If Ofsted can drop the most important message of the last fifteen years via Twitter, then surely a school can start using email more effectively. Feedback from our users suggests that - as things stand - it's actually the mis-use of email serving as a threat to teacher wellbeing. So (please!) no more late night or weekend 'reminders' to teachers trying to enjoy their down-time and switch off from school. The school that assigns out-of-office replies for their teachers on school email accounts instantly sends a positive message of a commitment to improving teacher wellbeing. Go the extra mile and use email to replace a couple of meetings - try it. You can set up mailing lists for Key Stage, departments, NQTs or whatever takes your fancy. Don't suddenly lose that face-to-face contact; just pick and choose what's relevant for different members of staff. You could even do a virtual staff-meeting every term to allow staff to access the information at a time that suits them?

#8 'We champion - and learn from - our teachers with a healthy work-life balance.'

In order for this to work across the UK there needs to be a massive culture change in our schools. We need to bin this ridiculous idea that working between 51 and 61 hours-a-week comes with the territory; that it's normal and expected for teachers to work evenings and weekends as well as coming in through the holidays. We need to stop measuring commitment by how long a teacher loiters in their classroom at the end of the day and put an end to the myth that teachers can't have a healthy work-life balance and be a cracking teacher. Because they can. And we have the data to prove it. I'm very proud to have been considered (if such thing exists!) an 'outstanding' teacher. But I'm more proud of the fact that I did by leaving between 4:00 and 4:30; by working towards more free evenings and fewer working-weekends; and doing it while being a husband and a Dad. We should be congratulating those that do; learning from them. Instead, we whisper behind their backs, roll our eyes, call them lazy and presume that - for some ridiculous reason - they can't be working as hard or as much as we are. The whole thing's laughable. We've been our own worst enemies; divided like houses in a Game of Thrones. But 'Winter is Coming' and it's time to pull together; to educate and model - for those training and entering the profession - that the single-most important person in any the teacher. Or the TA ;)

#9 'We speak-up if things get on top of us; we safeguard our own mental health.'

I believe - with this latest development -that Ofsted 'get it' and that the best way to improve standards in schools is to build towards a school-system with happier, healthier teachers both physically and mentally. With around 85% of UK teachers having struggled with mental health issues over the past two years, it's about time something was done. Perhaps more worrying than the 85% is that only a quarter of these struggling teachers discuss health issues with their line managers.

It's imperative that we move towards a culture where we stop dismissing workload as a hazard of the job. Because if we continue to normalised these struggles then it becomes almost impossible for vulnerable teachers to come forward. And if/when they do, they're scared; so be kind to them. Please. Stop using 'the job' as an excuse and start drilling down to the reasons. This is mental health. It matters.

#10 'We've actioned all this. And we can prove that it's working!'

Our systems can map any national, regional or whole-school trends with regards to improvements made to teacher work-life balance. We know that - currently - our US users have the healthiest work-life balance. Those in NZ: less so. We have school-leaders already using fit2teach with teachers in schools around the world. And it works - we've proven that. Sorry - our users have proven that. Give it a go. Please. If not for you; for your staff and their families. And if you're still not sold then get in touch as we love a good pivot. Whatever it takes. What have you got to lose?

So there you go - it's a start. Ten ways to get the ball rolling and signal to those superheroes in your schools that you are - genuinely - committed to reducing their workload and improving their work-life balance. Happy, hard-working teachers. No drama. It sounds so plain and unimaginative; so safe, straightforward and boring. But - wow - doesn't it sound great!?