“I learned the hard way” – tips from a teacher on managing workload

Teacher and author, Dr Emma Kell, looks at workload and presenteeism in schools, and shares her strategies for easing the pressure in her latest Teacher Support tips for BBC Teach.

Excessive workload is a problem in teaching. This can’t be ignored. I’m talking to teachers stressed out of their minds at the moment and tying themselves in knots trying to pre-empt what the schools’ inspectorate ‘might want’ from them.

From ‘mock deep dives’ to intent, implementation and impact documentation, the sheer amount of administration incurred by these new perceived pressures is beyond belief. For many teachers, this comes on top of the existing workload pressures identified by teachers, which includes reporting on student progress, data analysis, performance appraisal and time spent in meetings.

“The 1980s perception of teachers as ‘lazy’ is firmly in the past.”

Teachers don’t mind hard work. The 1980s perception of teachers as ‘lazy’ is firmly in the past – it is very clear that teachers don’t go into the profession for an easy ride (ok, I did meet one once – he said he used his weeks to recover from his weekends… he lasted a matter of weeks).

Teachers I know frequently spend their holidays gathering nuggets to share with their students, from river monsters to amusing signs in French supermarkets. Teachers I know, in fact, get extremely upset when the projects they’ve planned for their classes are disrupted or prevented from going ahead. It’s not about workload: it’s about professional integrity.

People gain a sense of self-worth from knowing they are using their skills and their intelligence and doing a great job. People lose a sense of self-worth when they’re micro-managed and mistrusted. People lose a sense of workplace wellbeing when they feel the work they’re doing is tokenistic, pointless or done to please people who aren’t the ones who matter: the pupils. And when that happens, there’s a danger of losing all sense of perspective.

Teacher and author Dr Emma Kell offers workload advice to teachers.

“Presenteeism is a slippery, cunning beast, because when you’re in its grip, you’d rather go through full-on burnout than admit that you’re being fuelled by insecurity and contagious, poor working practices.”

A memory: five years ago. My children are just five and seven. My Mum is at home with them, waiting for me, and she’s undoubtedly worried sick. It’s 9 p.m. I left the house at 6.45 this morning. My phone is out of battery and I’m driving along country roads in a way that I know is putting me at huge risk, but I have to get home. I haven’t seen my kids awake in three days. I found a message I’d sent to a friend around the same time. ‘I love my job,’ I protested (a bit too much),’ but it’s Thursday and I’ve already clocked a 70 hour week.’

I had fallen fully and completely for the scourge that is presenteeism: ‘the act of staying at work longer than usual to show that you work hard and are important to your employer’ (Cambridge dictionary). Presenteeism is a slippery, cunning beast, because when you’re in its grip, you’d rather go through full-on burnout than admit that you’re being fueled by insecurity and contagious, poor working practices.

Let’s look at it for a second. 70 hours by Thursday?? It doesn’t matter how senior I was – I clearly can’t have been managing my time very well, or indeed, doing my job very effectively.

“I’ve known far too many talented teachers drive themselves to the very limits of what they can cope with physically, psychologically or emotionally.”

“I’ve seen too many family break-ups, chronic illnesses and the loss to the profession of the most inspirational people not to shout about this.”

We know from all of the research (see for example Caroline Webb, How to Have a Good Day) that if we imagine we’re doing a good job when we’ve failed to attend to our most basic physical needs for sleep, food and trips to the toilet (nobody has time for such indulgences!), we are much more likely to make mistakes.

I learned the hard way – I’ve known far too many talented teachers drive themselves to the very limits of what they can cope with physically, psychologically or emotionally.

I’ve seen too many family break-ups, chronic illnesses and the loss to the profession of the most inspirational people not to shout about this.

I will never advocate against hard work – the vast majority of teachers love hard work, but futile and excessive and inhumane working practices are, frankly, toxic.

If you do feel you’re in danger of falling prey to such practices, here are some strategies that have worked for me and for others – approaches which, I should note, can never be taken for granted and need constant review!

 

“From ‘mock deep dives’ to intent, implementation and impact documentation, the sheer amount of administration incurred is beyond belief.”

1. ‘Good enough’

The mantra from Donald Winnicott has become my most-used of all.

Teachers are notoriously prone to perfectionism, but from everything and everyone I’ve researched and experienced, it has no purpose or value.

Ditch it. Seriously.

 

2. Have a day each week (at least!) when you leave on the bell.

There may be a reason for this – a swim or a meeting or childcare – but there needn’t be. You gain almost half a day this way!

Don’t skulk out the back way – walk out proudly.

I was inspired to do this by a younger colleague who was fearsomely efficient on a Friday and would leave proudly for her weekend adventures every Friday at 3.25.

 

3. Use the word ‘reasonable’

If you feel that you are being put upon in a way that isn’t benefiting your pupils’ performance, be brave and have those difficult conversations.

Go in clear on what you want to achieve – keep the waffle to a minimum.

Effective leaders will listen to your feedback.

   

"Have a day each week (at least!) when you leave on the bell."

4. Never forget it's just a job

I remember a colleague retiring early in my career. In his speech, he said, ‘this is a wonderful job, but never forget that it is just that – a job’.

I know that I too can be guilty of a bit of martyrdom and the feeling that this job is the only thing in the world that matters – this is the nature of it; heavy emotional investment and a job that’s never finished.

But it is ultimately a job. Loved-ones, health and a sense of perspective matter more.

   

There is another way

There are many, many wonderful school leaders out there whose moral compasses are intact.

Ask around, look around, network and keep your eyes and ears open.

"It is ultimately a job. Loved-ones, health and a sense of perspective matter more."

If your job is leading you to risk your life on country roads or, over weeks and months, has eroded your passion and your mojo and your ability to hold a conversation in the evening with your own children, find another.

Finding a school which works for you is absolutely key, and I promise there are wonderful ones out there.

 

If you’re a teacher in need of support, call Education Support's free and confidential 24/7 emotional support helpline on 08000 562 561.

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