January 7

The Teacher Workload Misconception Ruining Education

Talk to many teachers and they will tell you that there is much which is broken in our modern school systems ...

From the way data is used, to the madness of reducing definitions of success down to what can be most easily measured.

But the BIGGEST reason teaching jobs are broken in many schools is actually very simple. 

It boils down to one simple thing .. 

.. that teachers have a capacity for workload, beyond which we cannot do more.

It might appear ridiculous to point out such a simple fact, but many educational leaders completely ignore it.

This has wide ranging consequences for teachers working today.

Just How Bad is Management in Many Schools Today?

unrealistic teacher workload

Management of education is basically a matter of deciding how the capacity of teaching staff is used …

… and where we should focus our efforts to get the best results for the students in our care.

When I started teaching 20+ years ago, managing this capacity was left largely up to teachers.

As the people who knew our students best, we were trusted to use the time we had to benefit them. 

I accept that the world has changed - and for one reason and another - teachers now have less say about what we do and how we do it. 

Personally, I believe this robs the profession of a large degree of its creativity - and that students suffer as a direct result.

But, whatever the arguments we could have about the 'top down' nature of management in education, the basic truth remains … 

… teachers can only do so much. 

Our capacity for workload is impacted by additional students, larger classes or busier timetables.

It can be filled with regularly changing priorities, curricula, or increased expectations. 

And, because our professional judgement is no longer trusted, we also have to meet onerous requirements for evidence to prove that we are doing our jobs - in addition to doing them in the first place.

The direct result of these changes since I qualified as a teacher, is to significantly increase the workload necessary to do an acceptable job.

Many teachers effectively now have two full time jobs.

The first is teaching our students - the second is proving to overbearing management that we are doing the first.

To Realise This isn’t Rocket Science

And yet, many managers in education choose to to tackle the workload problems they create, by labelling tasks as ‘non-negotiable’.

By taking this attitude, they are either assuming that teachers do very little - and have ample capacity for the additional work involved ...

... or effectively dehumanising teaching staff by normalising unrealistic workload expectations.

If you bought a cheap small car and then drove 1000 miles at top speed every day, you would expect to have mechanical problems.

Many teachers are managed like we are that car.

When We Wear Out, They Replace Us ...

teacher workload impossible

While education obsesses over data and a scientific management style popularised in the early 1900s …

It’s worth recognising that teaching doesn’t ‘scale up’ like a manufacturing production line.

In order to support more students, you either need more teachers or a change in expectation of what can be accomplished with each child. 

Similarly, to produce and track more educational data, the time required to do so will increase.

To solve this 'inconvenient' problem by making everything ‘non-negotiable’ is frankly, ridiculous.

When educational leaders choose to combine this with making teachers accountable for the impossible, in an atmosphere of enforced silence …

… it becomes abuse.

The profession today appears to be attempting to develop a new breed of ‘super teacher’ by overworking educators to extreme levels.

That somehow evolution will find a way .. and that we will all grow an extra pair of arms, or an additional head - out of the necessity of needing them!

'Working Smarter' is an Excuse ...

While I recognise that change requires us to adopt new working practises .. 

Telling teachers to ‘work smarter’ to solve the problems created by unrealistic workload expectations is, in many cases, insulting. 

Doing so often displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the jobs we do - and the needs of our students.

Paradoxically, while we are being brow beaten to search for innovations to 'work smarter', our ability to be creative to achieve the outcomes demanded of us is being removed.

The vast majority of teachers would love to take advantage of technology to reduce the amount of book work we have to do, for example - but we aren’t allowed to. 

It’s subtle -  but shifting the debate about unrealistic levels of teacher workload, to our need to 'work smarter' … is like the job Coca Cola did when switching to plastic bottles in the 1970s ...

Distracting the world from the fact that they were about to swamp us all with plastic waste - by conveniently starting to promote the responsibility we had to recycle it. 

We all know how that turned out .. 

unrealistic teacher workload expectations

What are the Results of Ignoring Teacher Workload Issues?

Many educational leaders use terms like ‘working smarter’ as a catch all excuse to increase teacher workload to unrealistic levels. 

The result of not realising (or just ignoring) our capacity for work - is the teacher burnout and retention crisis we are currently in. 

Teacher burnout due to workload

It is one which destroys careers and families ...

... takes teaching parents away from their own children.

It forces creative, talented people to leave the profession.

And it results in a turnover of teaching staff which negatively affects the students who schools exist for.

Much as a regular change in who is parenting children will negatively impact their personal growth, having new teachers at regular intervals damages their educational growth too.

Students are also much more aware than school leadership seem to realise.

To assume that they don't pick up on the abuse many teaching staff are subject to, in the pursuit of ever greater productivity ...

... is like warring parents imagining that their regular arguments aren't noticed by their young child.

Ignoring teacher workload capacity damages much more than just the educators attempting to cope with it.

Educational leaders should be conscious that, just as education can be the solution to many of society's problems - managed badly, it can be the cause of many more. 

What Can be Done to Fix the Workload Crisis in Education?

The obvious solution to impossible teacher workload expectations, is to lean into the professionalism and knowledge of teaching staff.

teacher workload solutions

To consult those at the coalface when new initiatives are at the planning stage.

To trust the motives and professional judgement of experienced teachers ...

... and rely less on data to report levels of human progress.

We could prioritise changes which produce a better experience for the students we exist to serve.

I doubt the current education systems' ability to make these changes.

To do so would be to admit that the ‘progress’ which has apparently been made in education in the last 20 years, was a mirage.

Instead, school systems in many countries will continue to plough forward, making casualties of its teachers (and many of its learners too) in the pursuit of 'progress'.

It is extremely sad that a caring profession, charged with the development of our precious young people, should be managed this way.

If you are a teacher being swamped by unrealistic workload expectations, please remember ...

1. Your health should not be put at risk by your job

If you are aware you are doing too much, use my Teacher Burnout Self Assessment tool to produce a report to help you.

2. You should not be subject to Bullying by Your Employer

Educate yourself on the 7 Workplace Bullying Tactics used by Schools to Force Teachers Out.

3. You are MUCH more employable than you realise

Examine just how transferable your skills are in 373 Alternatives for Teacher Tired of their Classroom Jobs.

Much love from here,

If this resonates with you, please share it ...

About the author 

James Anthony

After teaching for 20 years in the UK, I now help Schools, Universities, and Entrepreneurs to create and deliver transformational online learning.
I also work with educators across the world helping them use their skills in new ways - to live happier healthier lives.


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  1. It's not just the workload but the unannounced scrutiny of additional tasks. For example two days after ' lock down' being sent formal feedback on my online learning for my seven year olds. Then being given seven different ways to use technology to improve prerecorded lessons and interactions. This by the way is whilst teaching half a class in school and providing packs, prerecorded lessons and material and giving feedback to learning photographed and sent in.
    Oh and must ring every child too!

  2. Ah yes, the old

    “Let’s have 1-2 nights per week where you have to work until 8pm. Doing open events during a national pandemic and parents evenings, not to mention commercial ventures. Oh and you need to work this Saturday from 10-2, but you have to get here at 8am for some reason and you’re not allowed to leave until 4. Oh and you have your 1 graded lesson observation in this week as well, if you fail that, you’ve got to give up 3 hours extra a week to attend support meetings. And whilst you’re at it, can you personally call the parents of any students who don’t turn up to your lessons or don’t do their homework, or got below a C on your tests that you have to do every 3 weeks as proof of progress. Oh and can you record that data in 3 different spread sheets? And can you write reports for all your students. Oh and here’s a tutorial group with 40 students in. Who you have to meet with every 6 weeks and set them targets and the review those targets. And if they don’t meet those targets can you arrange meetings with their parents”

    “Why are all our staff so bloody negative all the time? Cheer up or we’ll get someone else to do it and on less pay!”

  3. For me it’s the “can you just…” tasks that are on top of everything else that we do.

    Can you just… print this, make this, ring this person, find a book for, meet with so and so, email that parent, make an assembly slide, move that equipment, do a learning walk, mark these tests, enter this data, take this to the office…

    When you’ve “just” done those then you might get somewhere near your own workload.

    1. Oh yes! .. ‘can you just’ show very little comprehension of workload issues. Especially as these mini tasks break up time in which we could be trying to be efficient and getting the big stuff done.

      These smaller ‘asks’ wouldn’t be an issue if we weren’t already overloaded.

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