Talk to anyone who works in education, regardless of their role or position and it won’t take long for workload or well-being to come up in the conversation. Increasing levels of accountability mean that leaders and teachers are under increasing levels of pressure to get results. When I have dared to bring up the issue of workload to some of my non-teacher friends, I have been instantly reminded how we ‘have it lucky’ and ‘don’t know we’re born’. I have long stopped trying to defend my profession. To the outside eye, we have on average 13 weeks paid holiday a year, relative job security and a decent pension, so why are we moaning? Having worked in other sectors myself, I am fully aware of the pressures that come with other professions and I do appreciate that I am very fortunate to have a job that allows me to travel the world during my holidays. However, with more and more teachers leaving the profession and a recruitment crisis, we can’t afford to dismiss the fact that teaching is a tough job!
One of my responsibilities as Deputy Headteacher is staff welfare. When I first joined my school over five years ago, I wouldn’t say that this accounted for much of my working week. Increasingly, it is becoming a significant part of my role.
It is little wonder that staff are feeling the strain in light of changes to exam specifications, increasing accountability and, for us as a school, a less than favourable school inspection. As a Senior Leader, I am well aware that we have a responsibility to ensure that staff workload is manageable. We have taken measures to hold termly staff welfare meetings and to conduct staff surveys in order to identify and address some of the issues that our staff are facing. I strongly believe in staff having a voice and that we all need a platform to vent out our frustrations. Whilst getting things off your chest is cathartic, we also need to be realistic that often it is the education system at fault rather than the school.
Take for instance, monitoring and evaluation. I am fortunate to network with lots of senior leaders from local schools, all of whom carry out regular learning walks and book trawls. Indeed, if you were to rank the frequency of monitoring and evaluation in local schools, we would come out pretty rosy on the staff welfare front. That’s not to say it’s not a contentious issue in our school. No doubt, monitoring and evaluation would be abandoned by most teachers, and being slightly controversial, by some leaders too. Done properly, it’s a time consuming process for all parties involved.
That said, I do think monitoring and evaluation has its place when conducted in the right way. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with students have been during student voice meetings. Young people can be very perceptive when it comes to their learning and we can all take something from their feedback. But the nicest moments are when you try to unpick why it is they love a particular subject. More often than not, their response is simply because of the teacher. We always aim to give staff feedback from monitoring and evaluation and there’s nothing nicer than telling a member of staff that a student really values what they’re doing.
So, back to lessons learned for teachers and leaders.
I saw a great quote recently. It read ‘Stop trying to make everyone happy, you’re not tequila’. This is certainly the case in a school context! We will never please all students, all parents and all staff. There has to come a point when simply doing our best is good enough. In terms of staff welfare, we have revised our school marking policy, streamlined our reporting and performance management system and allocated more CPD time to departments. Will this make everyone happy? No, because marking, reporting and performance management still have to be done. I was fortunate to sit on the Department of Education’s Marking Review Group, so I’m a big advocate of cutting down unnecessary marking. That said, could I rely solely on verbal, self and peer marking? No, because I still believe students deserve some form of personalised feedback for their efforts. I’ve tried marking codes, pre-printed marking sheets and the use of model answers to speed up the process. In terms of marking assessments such as mocks, I have yet to find a quick fix.
What we can try and do as a leadership team is to look at our school calendar and take into consideration pressure points. The calendar itself can be a contentious issue! We have consulted staff on the calendar and taken on board their feedback. No matter how much you try and factor in the lessons learned and make the necessary changes, you can’t be ‘tequila’! One change in the calendar invariably opens up a whole new set of issues.
So, what steps can be done to manage workload? Here are a few that we have tried at our school:
School Marking Policy
We have a red pen policy whereby students self and peer check their work and respond to any teacher feedback. We do not expect to see extended written comments by the teacher and have moved away from the ‘What Worked Well / Even Better If’ approach. We encourage the use of question codes and live marking where applicable.
We have moved away from three commensurate targets to two targets that are commensurate and one target that is personal. Historically, staff had to come up with a list of actions for each target that they would evidence throughout the year. To streamline the process, we produced a list of sample actions linked to job specifications and Teacher Standards. We have advised staff to choose up to three that they feel are their areas of development. We do not expect staff to upload any evidence or write lengthy comments justifying how they have met their objectives. As well as saving time, the hope is that this will result in more professional dialogue during review meetings and a feeling of professional trust.
We have streamlined our reporting process using the drop down judgements for classwork, behaviour and homework etc. Written comments take the form of two targets selected from a pre-populated comment bank. This has significantly reduced the amount of time writing and proofreading reports.
After each training session, staff complete an online evaluation. Feedback suggested that staff would like more time to work with their departments on curriculum planning. However, a shift from whole school training to subject training risked putting extra pressure on Subject Leaders. To limit this, a menu of suggested CPD activities was shared, along with sample resources that Subject Leaders could select from.
In terms of well-being, staff have been proactive in arranging events that bring everyone together.
This has included a staff curling competition, yoga and bake offs.
More recently, one of our Academic Coaches organised a Secret Saint activity. Staff who volunteered to take part were allocated someone to do random acts of kindness for. The response was overwhelmingly positive and a real morale booster. Gestures such as a chocolate treat for breaktime and pamper kits for the weekend were truly well received. Lots of staff took to Twitter to share their secret surprises.
When it comes to my own wellbeing, I have learned to accept that I cannot be a perfectionist. Here are a few tips that have helped restore my work life balance.
Go Back To Basics
Don’t be afraid to use textbooks, teach students how to make notes effectively and devote lesson time to deconstructing exam questions the best lessons don’t have to be all singing, all dancing. Quite often, it’s your personality that makes lessons memorable. Smile, laugh or refer to your own experiences. My A-Level geography teacher didn’t ‘edutain us’ but his passion for the subject certainly inspired me!
Less Is More
As a geography teacher, I have realised that the volume of content that I was teaching was overwhelming my students and giving me grey hairs trying to cram it into two years. When I looked through the sample papers, I realised that I was teaching in way too much depth. I now restrict content and focus more on the academic language that students need to know in order to understand what the question is asking of them.
Hand write model answers at the same time as the students. Not only is this time saving, but it gives students a realistic idea of what can be produced in the given time. Make use of a visualiser or photocopy your answer for the next lesson. Get students to improve their work prior to handing it in and you immediately cut down on marking.
Be A radiator, Not A Drainer
We all need to offload, but remember the importance of having a laugh too! This also applies to out of school. Cut down the teacher chat and simply switch off.
Have A Night / Day Off
Give yourself one night when you don’t take any work home and don’t feel guilty for it. Go to the pub for dinner, spend quality time with your family or simply have a soak in the bath. Doing a ‘feel good’ activity works wonders. For me, it’s a military boot camp, although I accept that this would be some people’s idea of hell after a day at work.
I have come to accept that there is no magic wand when it comes to addressing staff wellbeing. Quite often external factors are at play and sometimes it’s just offering an ear or a shoulder to cry on. What we can do is to look out for each other and take good care of ourselves. Sometimes that means shifting our own mindsets and practices and not letting guilt overcome us.
Emma Thom @Geoggersthom is a Deputy Headteacher at Plantsbrook School in Sutton Coldfield. Her responsibilities include Teaching and Learning, CPD and staff welfare. Emma was a member of the DfE’s Marking Policy Review group.
She is keen to promote staff wellbeing and strategies to reduce teacher workload. Read her blog at knowgoshowtheway.blogspot.com