Most teachers go into teaching with good intentions. The desire to teach others and help them to do something useful and productive with their lives which contributes to the world, could be seen as a noble cause. However, teaching and noble causes are somewhat different, yet many schools use this mistaken belief as a way in which they can over-work staff and keep adding roles and responsibilities until they just can’t cope.
Rather than enough people drawing the line and saying this is ridiculous, as the roles and responsibilities pile up, for which a lot of people have no training nor systems in place to do properly, people just put in more and more hours and become less and less effective at everything they do.
I’ve seen this happening with increasing frequency at schools as someone has another idea which will ‘be great for the kids.’ This is a good thing, but instead of taking something away, this ‘good idea’ is just added to everything else that’s being done. Maybe one extra idea is ok, but then another one comes along, and another and another. Before you know it, you’re spending every waking minute of the week trying to get through all the competing responsibilities of teaching, planning, preparation, sports, community service clubs, co-curricular activities and planning and going on trips with students in the holidays. This is truly noble, unsustainable and completely mental.
One of the root problems is the fact that students actually learn more from all of these co-curricular programs and the real experiences they have, than they do in the classroom, but our schools are so ridgéd in their thinking around this, they tack these programs onto everything else that they’re doing, rather than just look at it with some perspective and find natural fits between the academic requirements and the real life experiences of all these ‘add-ons.’
This seems to get worse with non-government schools as their co-curricular programs form part of their marketing materials where everyone’s smiling and looking so happy and everything is wonderful in the world. The problem is … what’s the cost of those photos and those marketing materials?
The cost is that teachers are so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work they end up doing, it starts to significantly impact on the rest of their lives. At one school where I was working, this was putting the staff’s health at risk and students’ well-being at risk. Time and time again concerns were raised as things were being missed and overlooked all the time. Not from staff incompetence, but teachers were under so much pressure to ‘perform,’ that the more work that was thrown at us, the lower morale became and the risk of something significant going wrong dramatically increased. The tipping point for us in that organisation was after a four hour staff meeting in which the maintenance man inferred that we were just being lazy and the director said ‘That’s just what teachers do,’ it was clearly time to go.
Yes that’s right, you didn’t mis-read that, the maintenance man was, for whatever reason, sitting in our staff meetings giving advice on teacher and program performance. Thanks for that Grounds Keeper Willy. Insert stare face/rolling eye emoji here 😳😳😳!
Maybe most schools don’t invite their ground keepers to staff meetings, but this highlights in a stark way how people who don’t understand, or don’t seem to understand the realities of the pressures teachers are put under, view the job of a teacher. After all, they get all those holidays! In many teaching roles I’ve worked. I’ve worked back to back 70-90 hour weeks, most of which was actively engaged with teaching, supervision, co-curricular programs, staff engagement and meetings. This was totally unsustainable and whilst you always pushed through with the idea that ‘this will be great for the students,’ the fact is that it’s not. Running a school filled with exhausted demoralised staff is idiotic in the extreme and is something which needs to be addressed in many schools. It’s not just concern for the health of teachers, but it’s about being effective as a teacher.
Some schools however, really understand this and provide opportunities for balancing this workload out. When good leadership within a school can see this and the contribution which teachers make over and beyond what most other sectors require, you end up with a happy sustainable workplace in which staff and students can thrive.
We must avoid being drawn into the trap of overwork and an undervaluing of that work. Where a culture permits or encourages that, it’s time to find somewhere else. The issue of workloads and sustainability comes from the top and the creation of good cultures within schools. However, in the absence of any common sense and leadership in the creation of sustainable and positive cultures within a school, then the tendency is just to use this throw away line of ‘that’s just what teachers do,’ which seems to justify terrible and unsustainable practices.
As teachers, we all want what’s best for students, but at the end of the day, looking after yourself and your team is far more important than any other consideration. When you have a happy team that’s not stressed to the eyeballs all the time, you have the makings of an amazing school for everyone who goes there.