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The Burden of Teaching -and What To Do About It

At this writing, teachers in England face an apparently unsurmountable problem.

It’s not educating the children under their care: that has almost nothing to do with it, which is the irony. In fact, ‘education’ as a true function suffers because of this problem.

It’s the mechanical paradox of how to fit the amount of work they are required to do into the number of hours in the week. That’s not the number of paid hours - I mean literally the number of hours in a week. I have personally seen teachers working 35 hours a week in addition to their ‘day jobs’ of 30-35 hours in the classroom. That means that, in some schools, there is effectively a ‘slave labour force’ of teachers working more than twice the hours for which they are paid.

Do these extra hours spent outside school time actually improve the quality of teaching and learning? No.

What are all these extra hours spent on then? Largely on marking and planning. Teachers in some schools spend longer on planning lessons than actually delivering them; then they spend equally long marking work at home, late into the night, following overly complex systems which require different coloured pens and styles of ‘boxes’ or hours of computer input. Most of this planning is never viewed by anyone else or used in any truly constructive way; most of the marking is viewed perfunctorily by the students and is then forgotten.

This overload has arisen due to a fundamental and dangerous misdirection: it has been conceived over time, not by one person or even one government but by increments over many years, that detailed and complex administration builds a machine which effectively communicates data and skills to children. As this ‘machine’ fails to do so, the answer has been to add to it, making it a bigger and stronger and more time-consuming monster - which then also fails.

Education is not accomplished by a machine but by live communication between teacher and student and between students themselves. But teachers, exhausted by slave labour, are continuing to concentrate on feeding the monster rather than the child.

Fortunately, there are still two broad things that can be done about this. But the school needs to recognise that its current approach is insane and doomed before either of these things will be implemented.

1. A school needs to take control of its direction and pacing.

All staff, teaching or non-teaching, need to know the direction that the school has a whole is going in. Getting this clearly understood and paced out realistically means that, rather than the school being hierarchical, with a commanding team or perhaps individual at the top issuing orders and a slave-like labour force following instructions blindly at the bottom, a school can be transformed into a series of ‘cells’. Each teacher and non-teacher, and each group and sub-group of staff, knowing the philosophy and strategy of the school and understanding it completely, can then make their own plans that align with it. In the absence of this general understanding, the Head or senior leaders find themselves generating communication after communication right down to the minutiae of daily lesson-planning. Being removed from that daily scene to one degree, they tend to overload it with orders, most of which are unnecessary and misguided. This creates an immense burden on the professional teacher, who, given space and an understanding of the border situation, is generally quite capable of dealing with things herself.

This also means that school leaders need to decide on medium and long term strategies and then stick to them. Furthermore, the endless hours of meetings ‘after school’ could be seriously reduced. There should be one meeting a week for coordination, to ensure that the school’s strategy is being employed at a tactical level; and there should perhaps be one other for the sharing of plans and best practice. Exhausted teachers, given prediction and direction, could start to recover their strength and breathe again.

2. A school needs to use assessment as a tool rather than a judgement system.

There are two ways assessment can be used: one is to test and grade and stream and cull. In other words, one can test a child in order to determine that child’s future. One can use the results to channel and compare and strategise. This approach places the school at the centre of assessment and fails the child, ultimately. It is also costly in terms of money and time as more and more ‘advanced’ and burdensome systems are brought in to ‘streamline’ things.

Assessment can also be used to help the child. Results should not be used comparatively but individually, to reveal strengths and weaknesses. Strengths should be heavily rewarded (something that is almost always overlooked); weaknesses isolated and worked on with a view to eradicating them over time. This places the child at the centre of assessment and pays off - studies have shown that it is the quality of the interaction between teacher and student at this level which actually effects grades positively. Marking is part of this, and should be carried out alongside the child, talking, discussing and planning with each child so that he or she become engaged with the task of improving. Marking done late at night away from the school is counter-productive and almost always the feedback is ignored or glossed over by the child concerned.

If these two things were introduced into schools, one would observe several effects over a fairly short period:

i) teachers would grow in confidence and strength as they grasped the wheel of their day and were able to steer the class through to broader and brighter uplands of learning

ii) recruitment of teachers would pick up, as it began to be an enjoyable experience to each again

and most importantly

iii) children would grow happier, more confident and more learned, as the teacher spent working with them for their own benefit rather than feeding the monster of administration to no real productive end.

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