10 Ways SLT can Reduce Teacher Workload

I’ve talked to some senior leaders recently about teacher workload and received less sympathy that I expected in response to the idea that teachers are breaking under the strain. While most are deeply worried about their staff, some seem less concerned. I think that when human beings are under stress they are less able to empathise with others and that’s one reason for this, but also I sometimes feel frustrated by a lack of will and imagination. Even where leaders seem concerned, they sometimes throw out red herrings in dealing with the issues. Here are three things I’ve heard in response to tales of teacher stress and breakdown:-

“She’s her own worst enemy – she’s too much of a perfectionist” (this of a teacher repeatedly asked to share her best practice with others as an exemplar).

“They’ll get a shock if they move on – conditions are far worse elsewhere.”

“It’s the cuts – we just can’t do anything to ease their workload.”

But it is possible to make life a whole lot better for teachers. One way to start is to accept that the working day of a mainstream, full time teacher might not be the same as it was when you were one. Even just in the past three years, the marking frenzy sparked by those immortal words “progress over time” has made the experience of anyone who hasn’t had to deal with a full timetable more or less obsolete. That’s not a criticism – it’s a reality. A good starting point, when a member of staff says they’re cracking under the strain, is to believe them and accept that it’s not their fault. Then, as a school consider what you might do to help. I know that most of the suggestions below are more applicable to secondary schools. But then I think staff are generally less isolated in primaries and isolation is a really big problem when dealing with stress. In fact, before I go on, think about what you can do to get teachers into the staffroom, talk to each other and take breaks! (Clue: Cake).

  1. Think about timetabling. Several schools I’m working with have increased the length of lessons to between 90 and 100 minutes. It’s a bit of a shock at first – you have to plan differently to fill that amount of time in a meaningful way, but it means that some staff see more of fewer pupils, reducing marking. And even for those who don’t feel that benefit, once in the mindset of planning for extended periods of time (which allows pupils time to produce extended pieces of work), there is actually less planning and the day feels less packed. In a day with three 100 minute lessons, there is a break on either side – no dashing from lesson to lesson without time to pee. And the reduction in changeover, registration and settling time means the pupils get more genuine contact time. It also means that when staff get a “free”, they have a substantial amount of time to get something meaningful done.
  2. Think about timetabling so that at least two groups of the same subject/year group are on at the same time and encourage a culture of team teaching. This means that teachers can put groups together for periods of time for lecture style sessions, freeing up the other from time to time. While I wouldn’t overuse this, some short, lecture style activities are appropriate and part of a broad academic diet – it also prepares pupils for university style learning. In addition, teachers can plan together, share the burden of producing resources, swap classes and expertise and switch children between classes as appropriate. It also means that subjects who may feel that filling 100 minutes is difficult ( a common argument from MFL for example), teachers can co-plan much more activities and swap groups around, mixing lectures, supported independent learning and seminar style learning.
  3. Consider the point of parent’s evenings. We dropped them altogether and replaced them with a more open door ethos – children presenting their learning to parents at end of year review; open lessons that parents could drop in to; drop-in “ask the personal tutor” occasionally during term time. Attention was paid to where conversations needed to take place – more phone calls home at times that were relevant and pertinent to the issue as it arose, and an automated system of praise post cards generated by a quick online click and sent out by admin staff.
  4. Drop the ridiculous expectations about marking and evidence in books that have arisen from the fear that Ofsted will complain about a lack of work. Ofsted have been clear that they don’t expect every piece of work to be marked, certainly not triple marked. Learning happens in brains, not in books and if the children are not given time to process, discuss and articulate their learning, it is rarely retained. The fear of not having extended pieces of work in books is reducing the time children spend talking in class. This is not a good thing. Encourage your staff to allow children to evidence their learning in all kinds of ways and let them take responsibility for evidencing it when the inspectors call – by talking to them.
  5. Use some of the brilliant resources online to reduce marking time – coding, peer assessment, targeted marking etc can cut down a teacher’s workload while also making the pupils more agentive and responsible for their learning – enhancing their understanding along the way.
  6. If you can say it in an email, don’t set up a meeting for it. Never use your CPD time for information giving. Never send emails to staff after 5.30pm and don’t expect immediate replies.
  7. Let your staff decide what their CPD priorities are and give them time and scope to explore them. If they want to redesign resources/planning/assessments, let them use CPD time to do so – it’s ridiculous to expect everyone, regardless of their level of experience and expertise, to sit in the same PD session when many of them are learning stuff they already knew or things that have little relevance to them or their subject. It’s great to have moment of inspiration, but let staff learn from each other, co-plan and link that to a chance to engage with some wider reading. Why not give at least half of your PD time to planning great lessons, team teaching or co-observing? All will reduce teachers working in isolation at home and create a more collaborative working environment.
  8. On that note, accept that twilights are probably the worst possible times to engage anyone in deep thinking about learning. Your whole staff are wiped out at that stage in the day. What about having one morning or afternoon a week where the pupils are off timetable and staff are engaged in meetings/PD? Sounds mad? It’s doable if you slightly extend the days on the other four days – start at 8.45 now and finish at 3.15? Start at 8.35 and finish at 3.30. Over the course of the other four days you have made up the lesson time lost by finishing at 1pm on the Friday or Wednesday. You’ve also reduced after school meeting slots meaning staff have more time to plan and mark before they go home.
  9. Train your middle leaders and yourselves to always think about the time implications of a request. Ask the member of staff how long the request will take to action and when, realistically they think they can have it done by. Work to the realities of their timetables, not your expectations. If you needed it yesterday, you’re at fault for not planning ahead.
  10. You will, no doubt, have to deal with members of staff from time to time who are lazy, uncaring or unwilling to work in the best interests of pupils. But they are rare. In the same way we teachers have to step back sometimes from our perception that a whole class is “terrible” until we recognise that it’s just a couple of difficult pupils creating ripples, managers have to do the same with staff.  In the words of Mary Myatt, “no-one sets out to do a rubbish job”. Plan your structures and routines around the expectation that everyone is doing their best and deal with the ones who aren’t as outliers. Never moan about “the staff”. It’s not fair to the majority. Could you apply the new Ofsted ethos to your staff? If proven good, you treat them as remaining so unless evidence points to the contrary. Is it really necessary to observe everyone? To go on learning walks (you can’t see learning, by the way)? Would learning walks be better conducted by people wanting to witness and learn from good practice – i.e. as a PD opportunity for staff rather than a quality check for management? Could you cover some lessons to make this happen?

Oh and one more…

11. If, as a school, you have a policy of setting detentions for misdemeanours, have the children given detentions come to a central location after school and arrange a rota for supervision so that there is one member of teaching and one member of support or senior staff taking the detention rather than many members of staff, all over the school, monitoring and supervising the same thing. If managed well, each teacher would only have to supervise one or two DTs per year. Make your processes for logging and recording misbehaviour as streamlined as possible – writing in planners is extremely time consuming for a teacher at the end of a lesson – how might this simply involve the click of a button?

I’m not saying these changes would make the lives of teachers completely better, but they’d mark a shift away from deficit thinking towards a more collaborative and trusting culture. I’m not saying these are perfect solutions – I’m thinking off the top of my head. But something needs to be done and if we wait for that something to come from government, we’ll be lucky if there are any staff in our schools left at all.

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Beautiful Work, Beautifully Done

Some schools blow your mind. You go in and never want to come out again – that’s School 21 in Stratford, London. It’s a free school. Squirm. But like, it’s a FREE school. In that it hasn’t set itself up to protect the interests of the children of a few middle class people. Or to rescue a mediocre private school losing fee paying students. Or to conform to the norm with little imagination just for a bit of extra cash. This is a school that said “if we could start from scratch, what could we achieve”? And believe me, that’s rare.

I’d rather a free school had an ideology I disagreed with that no ideology at all. And what I saw here was a beautiful combination of rigour and creativity; of collective responsibility and individuality; of freedom and responsibility. I always say to teachers when I’m working with them “know why you do what you do.” Here, not only the teachers know why they do what they do but so do the pupils. On my way round, I’m encouraged to find chinks. To critique. And while I know there must be some, I couldn’t find them. What I found was wall after wall crammed full of truly beautiful work. What I heard were murmurs of purposeful talk. No silent corridors. But calm, happy chatter.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m tired of the false dichotomy of traditional versus progressive – it seems to me to only apply to those determined to reject any child centred approach at all. But here, there is absolute discipline. There is a commitment to excellence – to drafting, redrafting and being held accountable. There is a commitment to outcome and to knowledge. But everything is framed in a “so what?” attitude. What is the point of learning if no-one hears you? What is the point of academic success if you can’t interview successfully? What is the point of knowledge if you don’t use it to change the world? The mission statement says it all:-

“To create beautiful work that makes a difference to the world.”

Ron Berger’s Ethics of Excellence are not simply talked about in this school, but they are plastered all over the walls in the drafts and redrafts of children’s work – right through from reception. Displays matter.

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In the hall there is a zone labelled the “War and Conflict Zone” and inside it are two huge chess tables. Each piece of the chess game is a sculpture created by Year 9 pupils exploring the Cold War. In project based learning, they have examined the key players in the Cold War, researched them and created a chess piece to represent them. They have then argued, debated and reached a consensus about who was who. What was the King? A Pawn? A Castle? Why? Their understanding is extraordinarily sophisticated.

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Head of project based learning, Joe Pardoe, explains that he feels our education system is predicated on an assumption that children don’t know until we tell them – a preemptive system. He gives several examples of where this has been shaken by his pupils – those who could already speak Russian for example who brought so much to a project on the Russian Revolution. Or one who brought in prior knowledge of Rousseau when exploring the French revolution.

“It’s so much better to start with what they already know and work from there,” he says. Simple and obvious. Why don’t we all do that? Well, you need three things – time, structure and purpose.

On the walls of the project based learning area are clear targets, deadlines and goals.

“Creativity operates within constraints,” he explains “deadlines, briefs, obstacles…” And so the children are given creative briefs, but within tight and demanding constraints.

The structure of how the sessions operate is made explicit. They start each 100 minute session with a 20 minute lecture – “there is a place for the didactic and for teacher talk.” On the board is written “University style lecture.” It’s clear that the routines of Higher Education are writ large in the minds of everyone involved. Underneath it says “University style seminars” and during the lesson, pupils will be withdrawn, 12 at a time, to work with a member of staff in response to a text they were given to read in advance. Flipped learning, you might call it. The rest of the time is given over to individual project work, with Joe circulating and offering feedback to pupils.

“In an average lesson, I probably get to spend 3 minutes one to one with each pupil – it’s not much” he shrugs. But it’s more than most teachers can say.

The results are evident in the levels of focus and commitment from the pupils – there’s a concentrated level of engagement across the group. It’s really impressive. How do they get this in older pupils? They develop it in the younger ones – it’s part of the DNA of the school.

We walk into a Year 7 Oracy class. Yes, an Oracy class. Led by the charismatic Mr Ahmet, the pupils enter the space in silence. They stand in neutral position, legs hip width apart, the atmosphere enhanced by calming music, a clear sense of “this is how we do things” in that everyone knows exactly where to be, how to be. Talking them through a list of visualisation exercises that I recognise as a drama teacher, he moves them into the key elements of the oracy curriculum – they have prepared poems for performance. They are led through tasks that take them into the physical, emotional, linguistic and cognitive realms of oracy. They know each one by heart. They are focused. It’s almost cultish, but performative and the calm, concentrated contentment of the group is palpable. When it’s time to move on, I want to cling to the door shouting “include me, include me”… The power of the collective is strong.

What struck me more than anything else when I walked around this school is that they were not offering a challenge to the knowledge-led, disciplined vision of more traditional schools, like Michaela. But saying that we too have the same aims. We too believe in discipline, in rigour, in knowledge. We too aspire for our pupils to succeed academically. But in addition, we want them to thrive, to become leaders in the world, to have the confidence to know that they are agentive, able to meet challenge, solve problems, interact and integrate. We want more than the common denominator of examination success – exams are part of, not the end all of an education.

The oldest pupils in the school are now in Year 10. Everyone waits with baited breath to see if the GCSE results will stand firm – not in terms of excelling, but in terms of supporting what is far more holistic than test results. If they do, we’ll have a very exciting model of education indeed. I’m already scouting for a site for a School21North. Anyone in?

 

Minded to Matter

I work a lot with schools on curriculum development – in fact last week, I was really delighted to be working in a school in Hong Kong which is pushing the boundaries of what learning might look like for their pupils. The problem is that a curriculum is just a gift bag. It can be a fairly functional paper version or a designer model with all sorts of added bling, but it’s a bag nonetheless: empty without pedagogy. And pedagogy is the gift no-one wants if it’s offered without purpose. What do we mean by purpose? For me it is about offering children their learning experience in such a way that it has emotional value for them. To make the matter, matter.

I spent a lot of time with the teachers and leaders in Hong Kong last week working on this – finding ways of infusing what was good structure in terms of offering a balance of knowledge and skills with something more than a set of criteria and tasks – to pull in the heart to drive the learning forward. We were getting somewhere and were excited. We’d gone from thinking about how one might make a small bedroom feel more spacious, to immersing the children into inquiry – “what do we mean by ‘fit for human habitation?’ – what do human beings really need?” taking them through a learning journey in which they would have to really consider and FEEL the question by walking in the shoes of others – from their bedrooms to caged migrant housing and back. Then I moved on…

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I went to another school, also in Hong Kong. They have a beautiful building in an exquisite location with views so expansive and gorgeous from the staffroom window, that I’m amazed anyone makes it to their classes at all. But the school doesn’t sit back on its privileged position and coast. They reach out. They’ve partnered with local charities, set up a Matrix Club that brings in refugee children to learn and play with and among the school community, providing food, learning opportunities and support. It’s a school with a heart and last weekend, they were hosting an ISTA Connect Festival.

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ISTA is the International School’s Theatre Association and I’ve worked with them all over the world, helping young people to bring theatre into their lives. But this festival aimed to do more than just create art. It was about creating heart. They began with live testimony from the refugee community in Hong Kong. Human rights lawyers exiled from their homes with only two hours’ notice to leave; law students forced to flee to avoid voodoo initiations that threatened their lives, middle class citizens facing the trauma of their loved ones being massacred for asking questions that offended: each story unique and heart wrenching. But it was not the reason they left that made the biggest impression, but their treatment on arrival in what they dreamed was a safe place. No clothing, no food, no shelter, no right to work or even volunteer. These was the first problems they faced. But worse – being spat on, abused, avoided, humiliated, shunned….having people move away from them holding their noses, shaking their heads, averting their eyes. These were the wounds still bleeding.

 

We can’t begin to understand the terror of having to flee. Or the grief of losing loved ones or leaving them behind. But we can surely show compassion? This was the question the children were left with. How do we show compassion? How do we raise awareness? How do we make sure we work with sensitivity without falling prey to the sensationalism of trauma tourism? This was the challenge for the artistic team and the kids they worked with over the weekend.

Creating theatre is hard work – once the ideas are generated and developed, there is rote learning, repetition, practice to be done to hone the idea into a product. And at that point children usually start to wane. We are, at one point, standing in the theatre, going over the song they have written, over and over. Nailing diction, rhythm, projection. They are starting to slump. The musical director plays the introduction slowly and he speaks…

“Remember the people who came to talk to you. Remember their faces, their words, the promises we made….”

The children stand tall, they respond, they sing with the whole of their souls.

We can’t underestimate the power of an emotional connection to learning. The human being in a dilemma is a starting point that we can begin almost any area of the curriculum with. And such starting points don’t just hook kids in – it’s not just about engagement. It’s about investment – investment in someone other than yourself, in the world, in the future. A curriculum and pedagogy that offers this as a purpose is a gift worth having. And we can all shape our work in this way, whether we’re artists or not.