Take back control of your teaching workload

Written by: Julian Stanley | Published:
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There are steps teachers can take to win back control of their workload and achieve some work/life balance. Julian Stanley advises

If you are finding your workload too much to bear, take heart – you’re not alone. Our 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index found that 32 per cent of all education professionals are working more than 51 hours a week.

The annual survey also found that working long hours and feeling stressed appear to be closely linked, with the highest levels of stress coming from those who work more than 41 hours a week. And secondary school teachers are more stressed than in the primary sector. So what can you do?

Meaningless data

In our research, many teachers said they were required to collect what seemed like lots of meaningless data, which appeared to have no obvious use for teaching.

For one secondary school teacher, Victoria, it all became so arduous she broke down over the increasing data requirements at her school. The solution for her was to leave and find a new position at a school where wellbeing was given priority, and which had much less of an emphasis on data collection.

Of course not everyone can move schools, but the government now accepts that workload and excessive data collection is helping to cause a crisis in recruitment and retention and the Department for Education (DfE) has recently produced a paper advising teacher training providers on how to reduce workload during initial teacher training (November 2018).

The paper recognises that workload is one of the most commonly cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession and that it can also be a disincentive for potential new teachers to join.

The Teacher Workload Advisory Group, set up by the DfE, has also recently produced a paper – Making Data Work (November 2018). This too recognises the need to cut down on the heavy workload teachers face due to the so-called audit culture and the unnecessary amount of time spent on data collection. So hopefully change is coming...

Personal organisation

While education professionals wait for this new outlook to filter through, Victoria suggests that teachers who feel overloaded should employ time management skills and set themselves cut-off points.

She explained: “Personal organisation and time management is crucial. Work a designated time on, say, lesson planning and don’t go over it as you lose time you can spend on something else. Remember good is good enough. Don’t aim for perfection, just do what will do the job.”

Victoria now runs a blog called Mrs Humanities, which helps teachers to manage their workloads. For example, giving live feedback in the classroom rather than spending hours marking is one of her many suggestions that you may find helpful – and is something that SecEd tackled in its best practice pages last year (November 2017).

Taking the initiative

There are other ways you can try to manage your workload so that it doesn’t overwhelm you:

  • Ask for help. If your senior leadership team, mentor or department head is not aware that you are feeling overloaded, they can’t help you. It is a leader’s job to manage their team and ensure they can cope with the workload. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness it’s a sign of strength.
  • Prioritise. Rank in importance the jobs for which there are serious consequences if you don’t do them and work down from there. Not everything is urgent; not everything has to be done today.
  • Accept that a to-do list rarely gets completed. But lists are useful and can provide evidence, if needed, of how much work you are trying to handle.
  • Focus on what you can control. Stress is ameliorated when you feel you have control over your workload.

Learning to say no

Teachers find it difficult to say no. You may fear letting someone else down – the school or your students. However, we all need to say no sometimes and it is much better to say no at the outset than to say yes and have to follow this up later with a no.

Training yourself to be more direct in your communications with colleagues and leaders is ultimately much less stressful than saying no, regretting it and forever fretting afterwards as you try to find ways of getting out of something.

Feeling guilty

Many teachers feel guilty if they do not perform at their peak (and beyond) the whole time. But often the person we most fear letting down is ourselves. Even though we may justify those extra hours as something our school, colleagues and students need, more often than not it is a standard we set ourselves internally.

As well as learning to say no, it is important to try to let go of some of this and let go of guilt. It isn’t easy. Guilt is a tough emotion to deal with and some colleagues and leaders do emotionally blackmail teachers over the extra tasks they want from them: “Think of your students!” or “Think of the school and how much pressure everyone is under.”

However, if you already have a full plate you may have to accept that you simply cannot take on any extra tasks.

Control

As individuals, despite being overworked much of the time you do still have some control over your workload – even if it is only which tasks to tackle first.

By taking as much control as you can over your workflow it can help you to feel less stressed about it. Asking for help when you need it and letting others know when you are overloaded is also a useful coping mechanism.

The key to managing a workload that sometimes feels out of control is to get as much control over it as you can. And accept that you can’t do everything – perhaps the toughest task of all.

  • Julian Stanley is the CEO of the Education Support Partnership.

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