Ruth (squigglyruth) wrote,

The 2/3 challenge: is it possible to have a work-life balance as a full time teacher?

Moving jobs in September gives me the chance to try to improve my work-life balance. The European Working Time Directive limits the legal working week to 48 hours per week, averaged over 17 weeks. My average working week for the past nine years was well over 70 hours in term time, putting me above the limit even if I did no work at all in the holidays. How much of what I do is above and beyond the basic requirements of the job? Is it possible to be a good teacher without exceeding the directive?

No job is perfect, right? But if you find something you enjoy, and that you're good at, you should stick with it. Especially if you're making a positive difference to people's lives. Even if the work load is high enough to cause consistent stress and fatigue across the majority of weeks within the year(?)

That's what I've been telling myself for the past nine years. I love teaching. I can't easily imagine myself doing anything else. Time in the classroom is energising, challenging and rewarding. Planning allows me to show my creativity, to synthesise and experiment with ideas. Marking and determining the children's next steps is satisfyingly analytical. I get plenty of social contact - with adults as well as children - at the same time as learning new things. Then, to round it all off, there's the pleasure of knowing that what I do matters - that when I do it well, I'm improving children's life chances and adding to society.

Of course, on the downside, my working hours in the past nine years have been excessive. I've spent most of each term working seventy-plus hours each week, rising to more than a hundred at times. During term time I'm constantly tired, and stressed by the fact that, despite my hard work and good intentions, there are important jobs that I'm leaving undone. Trying to keep up, I skip social activities in the evening and at weekends. I don't spend enough time with family or friends, and relationships suffer. I end each term physically and mentally exhausted, often ill, and with the exception of the summer holiday I barely have time to recover, catch up with major jobs that have gone undone, and prepare for the next term before it all starts again.

This isn't a very sustainable way of life. But it is a way of life that I've chosen. However, the recent debate over teachers' working hours has prompted me to re-examine it.

Faced with articles like this (from the Daily Mail in April), I feel a need to stand up for the profession. The article paints a picture of teachers as privileged workers with long holidays, high relative pay and short working weeks, who are somehow unaware of the benefits of their job and are unreasonably demanding to be allowed to be even more lazy than they already are. This could not be more at odds with my own experience, or with what I have seen of my colleagues in school. Nonetheless, whilst it is an extreme presentation of the viewpoint, it chimes with much of public opinion (see these Guardian comments). Even a number of teachers are going on record to object to the NUT's attempt to control working hours. Apparently, aiming for a 35-hour working week is ridiculous.

Which made me think: how ridiculous is it, actually? Although the findings are debated, there is large body of evidence that shorter working weeks lead to better job performance. OK, most of that is within studies of factory workers, but there are also reports of high-tech firms moving to 4-day weeks and increasing productivity. Surely we want our teachers to work effectively, being at their best in the classroom? Might that not be achieved by putting a clearer limit on their expected working hours? If that means we have to cut workload and employ more teachers, might it nonetheless be worth the money? (And economically, might there not be savings in social costs as well as extra earnings from the future work force if we educate our children better?)

Of course, in this time of austerity, any suggestion that implies increased spending is going to go down badly. Much of the anger against the NUT came from their contention that contact hours with children need to be reduced. They argue that a reasonable working week isn't possible without a reduction to 20 teaching hours in the classroom. (The current average is 22.5 hours teaching classes, as part of an average working week of 49.9 hours for primary teachers, 50.2 hours for secondary teachers.) This would entail employing more teachers to cover the shortfall in classroom hours. An alternative suggestion would be to reduce class sizes (which average 26 children in state primary schools, higher than in most developed countries). However, that would also mean we needed more teachers, and therefore higher spending. The government solution is to ‘reduce paperwork’ – something I’ve yet to see any practical evidence of. (In my school, paperwork went up last year as pressure from Ofsted increased.) Any of these would be welcome changes, but their potential impact remains uncertain.

The problem is that there is little reliable evidence about how varying these measures might impact on educational attainment. Although smaller class sizes are consistently found to increase attainment, there is debate about how long the effect on the children lasts, allowing a recent government paper to argue that decreasing class sizes would not be cost effective. Unfortunately, much of the longer-term positive data is from international studies. When so many aspects of the education system are different between countries, it is always possible to question how well data might transfer. The issue with international comparisons is evident when examining OECD data on educational systems and outcomes in different countries. Because so many factors impact on attainment, it is hard to draw out any patterns at all. Even if we could reliably measure the number of hours teachers work in different countries, we'd be unlikely to be able to draw conclusions about the effects of those working hours. On a smaller scale, within any one country there are big difference in culture, working practices and teaching methods between different schools, so even a comparison of part-time and full-time teachers within the UK would be tricky to interpret, and cohort effects between years (as well as differences between teachers) lead to too much variation to easily compare within each school. Statistical techniques would allow us to design a study, but it would not be trivial, and the odds would be stacked against it finding an effect. (Most quantitative studies that try to measure impact on educational attainment fail to find an effect - whatever they are testing.) Having searched all the major education research databases, I can find no studies that have attempted to link teacher workload to children’s attainment. Similar caveats apply for systematically comparing effects on teacher stress or job satisfaction; as a result, most research dealing with these issues takes the form of case studies that may present a compelling snapshot but don’t tease out any systematic effects.

So, if comparative studies aren’t giving me the evidence to argue for the NUT’s position, can I draw on my own past experience? Well, actually not easily. Yes, I have worked very long hours and still not got it all done. But I also put myself under very high pressure, both with expectations of my basic work, and by taking on extra responsibilities in school. At the same time, other teachers in my school shared a similar ethic, so the overall culture has been one that invited working long hours. At least a portion of what I have done was above and beyond the basic requirements of the job, and it’s hard to say how big that portion might be. In which case, I can’t easily judge how reasonable the NUT’s 20-hour and 35-hour figures might be. (They may have done research to arrive at those, but I can’t find it on their website.) All I can say is that for me, in my school, even being within the European Working Time Directive of 48 hours per week over 17 weeks has seemed like a far-off dream.

That then is the challenge. Evidence from other industries suggests that shorter working weeks lead to better performance. It would be great to work less time and still be an effective class teacher. I would love to have a work-life balance. But is it possible?

To get down to a 48 hour working week, I will need to cut my work time by at least 1/3.

Things that should help:
I am moving to a new school next year, and will have only one coordinator role rather than five.
I won’t be part of school management, so fewer extra meetings and leadership tasks.
My class size will only be 23.
I will be sharing some planning responsibility with parallel classes.
I have done a huge amount of preparation and advance thinking over the holidays.

Things that might hinder:
The school I am moving to is in Special Measures, meaning it gets extra inspections.
I will need to change the way I do some things to fit with routines in my new school.
I’m going to have to plan for other teachers in some subjects.

I plan to measure my work time over the 17 weeks from the start of the October half term (28th October) to the end of the February half term (23rd February). That gives a ratio of 13 work weeks to 4 ‘holiday’ weeks – 76% work weeks, which is close to the 75% across a school year. To get a better picture of my work patterns across a term, I’m going to start logging my work time from the start of the school year (2nd September).

Whilst I’m not going to cut out any jobs that I think will make a difference to the quality of my teaching, I have done as much as possible of the ‘above and beyond’ type of work ahead of the start of term. That should allow me to stick to the basic requirements across the term and still do well by the children. If I nonetheless end up doing things that aren’t strictly required, I should be able to identify those tasks and log them separately, allowing me to make a calculation of time spent on required tasks.

Within each day, I will categorise the time spent on different tasks – classroom teaching, pastoral care, planning and preparation required by the school, marking and assessment, staff meetings, events outside the school day (e.g. parent evenings), extracurricular teaching (e.g. clubs), admin, classroom environment (e.g. displays), coordinator role, professional development, and tasks additional to those required by the school. In the interests of informing the debate, I plan to make the data available on google drive and possibly to tweet weekly totals.

The questions I hope to answer are:
Is it possible for me, as an experienced teacher with low management and leadership responsibilities, to keep within the European Working Time Directive without cutting out basic requirements of the job?
What proportion of my work time do I spend on different aspects of my job?
What does this imply for evaluation of the NUT proposal to reduce class contact time to 20 hours per week?

If you've read this far, let me know what you think of the plan!
Tags: teacher workload investigation

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