Much is said in the media about schools being stressful places and, perhaps, education is nearing crisis point in terms of what is being asked of teachers. Workload is an issue that simmers on and, if not addressed, can have a significant impact on staff morale and school culture. It is, therefore, of little surprise to read that teaching is one of the most stressful professions to enter and be a part of.
While external agencies and government bodies play an obvious role in creating teacher workload and stress through their mandated requirements, school leaders also make decisions in either contributing to or alleviating the problem. We should not, however, ignore that teachers themselves may use practices that are neither effective nor efficient, making things harder than they should be, further compounding the problem.
While many schools have invested in well being initiatives for their schools, the issue of teacher workload surfaces time and time again. For all the initiatives to support well being, if the workload is not changed, then undoubtedly matters pertaining to teacher stress will continue. What’s more, dare I say it, if we do not take time to discuss and address how teachers can be more effective and efficient, workload matters will linger on.
So, what can school leaders do to address issues teacher workload in schools?
- See the big picture and address issues with teachers being pulled in many directions
There are many leaders in a school, not just the Principal, who make decisions that can negatively impact on teacher workload and stress. It is vital that this is acknowledged and, when discussing workload, a bigger picture is considered. Teachers are pulled in multiple directions, often completing requirements for different leaders within the school. Commonly, the various leaders in the school do not collectively consider what they each are demanding of teachers. This is a serious problem, as each leader may only consider ‘their patch’ and unaware that requests of teachers to complete tasks are being made made simultaneously.
It is essential that senior leaders are able to see this and have a firm grasp on the overall picture and can work with their group of leaders to consider the number of requests made of teachers, the priority order and achievable deadlines for completing the task. Too many tasks on the table for teachers to pay attention to, or complete, leads to a ‘danger zone’ of being overwhelmed and feeling that you cannot get the job done; a feeling that many school leaders know only too well. Similarly, the establishment of realistic deadlines for requests to be completed shows a sense that school leaders are ‘in touch’ with what teachers are faced with on a day to day basis.
2. Determine what is necessary and unnecessary
Leaders also need to carefully consider what is necessary for teachers to do. They can play a significant role in looking at what external agencies and governments require and minimising the impact on teachers by addressing only what is important. Schools should not be ‘slaves’ to external agencies and their requirements. Plenty of consideration should be given to the school’s context and what is best for students and teachers in decision making processes that can create and alleviate workload.
Obviously, not everything in schools is externally mandated and school leaders are largely responsible for the school’s internal processes. Leaders should come to school each day thinking about how they can make life easier for teachers to get the job done. This can be achieved by considering the basic needs of teachers and equipping them with appropriate resources in a timely manner. It can be as simple as having a school calendar that is followed and disruption to classes is minimised, with everyone knowing what is going on. Furthermore, it could be improving systems of communication, which can often be a source of frustration and stress for teachers.
Leaders can make things easier for teachers in schools and they can also take things away. The latter is easier said than done, though if one stops to think about it, there is a lot of unnecessary workload and perhaps leaders in schools are making things harder than they need be. Consider, how much time gets spent in our schools on the written, taught and assessed curriculum – is what is is being done effective and worthwhile?
Leaders have have to make tough choices in terms of what the school or a particular section of the school, will do or what it will not do. Even in taking certain things away to reduce workload not everyone will be happy but it may be necessary; individual teachers have their pet loves and their pet hates. These decisions have to be carefully considered and tread a fine line in terms of how much leaders end up telling teachers what to do.
If leaders are seen to be making genuine attempts to address matters pertaining to teacher workload it is certainly easier to begin to enter discussions with teachers about how they too can be more effective and efficient with their time.
Richard is currently Secondary School Principal of Suzhou Singapore International School, one of China's leading international schools. He leads workshops across the Asia-Pacific region for the International Baccalaureate in the areas of pedagogical leadership and approaches to teaching and learning. Richard consults with schools on the topics of school improvement and effective implementation and use of technology.
With a background in public and independent school education in the UK and Australia, Richard is enjoying his international school adventure in China. He is passionate about developing and supporting educational leaders, as it is essential to improving all schools.
Richard is a proud family man and feels lucky to be married to Kim and father of their son Austin.
In his spare time Richard enjoys to swim, bike and run and is a now retired football player and coach (with occasional guest appearances)