by Joe Kirby
When teachers were asked about workload, 44,000 responded. Teachers work 50-to-60 hour weeks, often starting at 7am, often leaving after 6pm, and often working weekends. Some 90% of teachers have considered giving up teaching because of excessive workload, and 40% leave the profession within 5 years. There are teachers out there working 90 hour weeks.
For a school, there are great benefits to leading the way on reducing workload. Teachers who aren’t exhausted teach better. We contribute more over a longer time period. We are far happier to invest time in building trusting, caring, affirming relationships with children. We stay calmer in difficult confrontations, and are less likely to be short-tempered in everyday interactions. We support and encourage each other better. New teachers improve faster, veteran teachers stay longer, and everyone works smarter. A school that pioneers healthy work-life balance is more likely to attract teachers to join – and little matters more in a school than recruiting and retaining good people.
As a school leader, it’s worth asking: “what do you want teachers to say about the school when they’re with friends and family?”
In the school I work in, what I’d most like teachers to say is this: “We work smart. We focus only on what most improves learning. We stop ourselves from doing some good things, so we can put first things first.”
What it takes to reduce workload is a shift in the mindset and culture of school leaders and teachers.
You won’t spend very long at Michaela without hearing teachers mentioning hornets or butterflies. I first borrowed the analogy in 2012 from Sir Tim Brighouse, who said that hornets are high-effort, low-impact ideas, and butterflies are low-effort, high-impact ideas. Barry Smith has advised teachers for years to think about ‘learning return on time invested’. Since then it has become a part of our everyday chat at Michaela.
We can view everything we do at school through this lens. The idea is to get rid of the biggest hornets and search for the hidden butterflies.
Seeking out Hornets As senior team, we think ferociously hard about every decision through the lens of the impact-to-effort ratio. We encourage all middle leaders and teachers to do the same in their own arenas. Here’s what we’ve decided not to do:
- No graded or high-stakes observations
- No performance-related pay or divisive bonuses
- No appraisal targets based on pupil data
- No individual lesson plans at all
- No expectation of all-singing, all-dancing lessons
- No starters, plenaries, group work, attention grabbers, whizzy/jazzy nonsense
- No cardsorts, discovery activities or flashy interactive whiteboards
- No writing, sharing or copying learning objectives or outcomes
- No extensive photocopying of worksheets
- No shoe-horning of IT into lessons
- No mini-plenaries or checks on progress within a lesson
- No labour-intensive homework collection, marking or chasing up
- No unnecessary manual data input or entry
- No unnecessary paperwork
- No labour-intensive written ‘dialogue’ marking
- No time-wasting, temporary display
- No split timetabling
- No long-winded written reports to parents
It’s such a relief not to have to do any of these things and be free to focus on what matters most: our subjects and our pupils.
Searching for Butterflies
Knowledge organisers are the ultimate renewable resource: they can be used by every future year-group and every teacher who teaches them. A knowledge curriculum, teacher-led instruction and strong textbooks reduce workload by eschewing differentiated or personalised resourcing. I’ll write about this idea of renewable resourcing in another post.
Written marking is the ultimate non-renewable resource. By contrast, multiple-choice questions and icons are butterflies. I’ll write about our feedback approach and minimalist marking in another post.
Teaching teenagers full-time is an exhausting job in itself. The simple decision to have a two-week Autumn half-term has a powerful impact on staff energy in the longest term of the year.
We replace the hornet of transient, temporary display with the butterfly of permanent, enduring display.
We replace the hornet of highly labour-intensive written parental reports with online access to subject, behaviour and attendance data so parents can see online anywhere, any time, how their pupil is doing.
If you are blind to the hornets in your school, you are allowing your teachers to get stung. Hidden butterflies improve learning and reduce workload, burnout and turnover. At Michaela, we are just getting started, and we are confident that there are many more butterflies to find.