Are teachers stretched to the limit?

Note: I love my school and all staff and students who work at my school. This post isn’t about how my school works. It’s about teaching in general.

I read a post tititled, How far can you stretch a piece of elastic before it snaps, this week and it really resonated with me. The post highlighted how the increasing workload demands on teachers are affecting their wellbeing. When I first started my current position, an older, more experienced teacher told me to watch myself because schools are blood suckers. They will keep drawing your blood unless you set the limits. It doesn’t matter how much blood you give, they will find a way to draw more until you are sucked dry.

This is a rather gruesome analogy that I don’t believe in 100%. I do believe that my school and the people who work in it all respect each other’s wellbeing and look after each other. But the post with the elastic band strategy and the blood sucking analogy highlights something that is rarely spoken about in schools – the effects of workload on teacher health and wellbeing.

One of the reasons I think many teachers feel they are stretched to the limit is the sheer amount of work involved in teaching. The following is a list of some thing steachers do:

  • Plan lessons & create resources
  • Marking and providing feedback to students
  • Work with colleagues to plan cross curricular lessons like project based learning
  • Teach classes
  • Admin and paper work – registers, recording student achievement data, entering professional learning hours onto a database, etc
  • Organising and running excursions, incursions and other extra-curricular activities like training sporting teams
  • Meetings – faculty meetings, staff meetings, committee meetings, parent meetings (there are many more types)
  • Observing other teachers’ lessons & providing feedback to them
  • Following up on student learning issues with a range of people including parents, counsellors, other teachers, etc
  • Follow up on emails – many, many emails
  • Create and monitor budgets for the area you are responsible for – faculty, sport, special programs

This is not an exhaustive list. I have probably forgotten to list a dozen more things teachers do on a regular basis. My question is can these things be done within work hours? I’m not talking about a 9-3 school day. I’m talking about a 8-5 work day that most other people in society work. My feeling is teachers cannot do what they need to do in a 9 hour working day and this is 9 hours straight. Many teachers do not eat, drink or even go to the bathroom at work because that is just not enough time.

My next question is is this what we expect teachers to do. Is teaching a job where to do everything you need to do, you have to put in 9 hours straight with no breaks at school, then work another 3 hours at home and then work 8 hours over the weekend?

People who know me may say that this post is just me adjusting to working full time after the birth of my baby. It isn’t. I have felt like this for a long time.  Many other teachers with or without kids feel this way. Many don’t want to say anything because sharing these thoughts may result in getting labeled as unproductive, ineffective, or uncommitted to your students. The last one is the worst assumption.

Are you a teacher? Do you think a teacher’s work can be done in work hours with minimal impact on personal wellbeing? Are teachers stretched to the limit?

16 thoughts on “Are teachers stretched to the limit?

  1. Before I retired I wouldn’t work at night during the week, but I would be at work at 8am, (7.30am before kids). This meant that I worked every Sunday up to 6 hrs and at times Saturdays as well. Saying this I had staff ( in my own faculty) who literally worked 9 to 3.30!!

  2. Reblogged this on Anne's Angle and commented:
    Alice Leung, a teacher whom I admire has expanded on this theme of the increasing teacher workload. Like Alice, I love teaching and am passionate about my chosen career. But I am worried. Worried about the increasing expectations out on teachers as they fulfil the roles that Alice mentions and many more. Alice’s post fleshes out what I began t say.

  3. Yes, teachers are stretched to the limit. I had to read your list a second time to see if you had included teaching your classes in that list and I realised that if you had left ‘teaching classes’ out of that list, you would still have too much to do. That’s the kicker! It’s a full time job before you do any actual teaching.

    • Hi Hana. I know what you mean. A lot of teachers including myself often say, “and I have to somehow fit teaching my classes into all the things I have to do”.

  4. Alice, great post. As Hana says above, the actual “teaching” of classes in face-to-face contact is our main task; complemented by the planning and preparation of lessons and the giving and receiving of feedback (with students, parents, professional colleagues, and occasionally, outsiders to education). Outside of teaching, I think the planning and preparation require the most time, although as a task, it very rarely gets all the time it could take. Summing it up in four words and an ampersand – “Plan lessons & create resources” – makes it look less important than it really is!
    Another aspect to consider, alongside what teachers “do”, and often taken for granted, is the knowledge that teachers hold as professionals. We not only need to know subject matter content, but also educational and pedagogical theory, learning and teaching strategies, philosophy (especially reasoning), psychology (cognitive, behavioural and social), and contextual knowledge such as that of our schools, our system, our resources, and especially our students. It takes time and effort to develop these domains of knowledge, and without time to reflect, we may not do it especially well.
    No wonder we are stretched.

    • I agree that teachers need to reflect in order to evaluate and improve their practice. I also agree that the things that make the most impact are often the things teachers spend the least time on because after doing everything else, there is no time. There are many articles that highlight teacher burn out as a major issue in schools. Like you said, it takes teachers a number of years to consolidate their subject matter knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. If we are not addressing teacher burn out, there will be a constant cycle of experienced teachers burning out and leaving the profession, taking their knowledge with them.

  5. Something that is not on a list is following up on student behaviour problems ! For example you have a busy day of lessons with just one hour free time to organise all those other things for the next day etc and suddenly something goes wrong in one class with one student and it requires you to follow up with incident reports and phone calls home and pass this info on to your Head Teacher or other welfare people. And if you are a Head Teacher then you have to follow up on the incidents that happened in any of your teachers’ classes as well. Sometimes that can really throw your whole day !

    • You are completely right. Following up on student behaviour is necessary but takes up a lot of time. Sometimes I wonder if teachers at more challenging schools should have a reduced load because of this.

  6. Great epiphany! Your older friend was correct in some respects but I’d like to add to her metaphor by saying that the job consists of many leeches all sucking blood and they are more concerned about their engorgement than that of the surrounding “suckers”. They are also basically ignorant of the overall demands on teachers because they have not done the job or left it to become admin and have forgotten or it was much less demanding when they left. So I agree with your mentor. YOU must put on boundaries and limits. So says a two-times-burn-out-victim and one who eventually got to a point of having such disturbed sleep that I was functioning on one to two hours of REM sleep a night. This led to some bizarre behaviour during the day (nothing dangerous) and so I left teaching and retired. I am sure that if I had kept pushing I would not be here writing to you and your readers. After three years I am nearly back to normal (with the help of a CPAP breathing apparatus) and regular medical checks. I am seeing my friends fold like packs of cards and also the stress of work influencing young teachers to leave the profession. What we must all see is where we can make a difference safely and effectively. Learn to handball some of the workload and demonstrate to our colleagues that we are willing to help them occasionally as well. Coupled with all of this is quality ME time. This includes regular health checks and holidays where there is NO work related attachments. Good luck with ever increasing demands of the “leeches” in future.

  7. This post really connects with teacher wellbeing; a notion rarely spoken about let alone acted upon. Schools can forget that teachers are human beings and are thus fragile.

    What scares me the most is that what everyone has said makes sense; however, noone has offered a solution. Is this because there really isn’t one that is feasbile? I don’t think that it is okay to just say ‘well, it is the nature of the beast.’ Good organisational structure, open channels of communication and an awareness on a school and system that staff well being MUST be nurtured would all contribute to a different culture in schools surrounding teacher workload.

  8. I’m a teacher in my second year. At the beginning of this year I was overworking myself, I would wake at 5:30, commute for an hour to school, arrive at 7:30 start school work, work the whole day, leave school at 4:30 commute one hour home and work on school work until 11:00 at night. I would then also fill my weekends with school work. I had a breakdown at least once a fortnight so my husband made me see a psychologist. I was diagnosed with severe anxiety.

    First request from psychologist was make weekends school-free zones. Next request was give myself one achievable goal each day/night. For example my job today is to mark all my year 10 half year lies. Once the job is done I’m off the clock (unless I’m on Pinterest).

    My wellbeing has benefitted from this intervention and I think I’m a better teacher for it.

  9. Here’s a report prepared by Dr Anthony Daly for the Independent Education Union of SA:

    http://ieusa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/150504-IEUSA-v6-teacher-workload-report.pdf

    Teachers in SA Catholic schools are feeling under the pump, not so much from the already quantified aspects of work load, but those areas which are not regulated. Excessive hours are being worked before and after school, during lunch breaks, holidays and weekends to the detriment of people’s work life balance. Not enough is being done to support the demands placed by

    special needs students,
    meetings
    assessment & reporting, nor
    the encroachment of electronic communications and record keeping

    • Some significant conclusions from the SA Catholic study we can all relate to are:
      1. ALL ” teachers’ work life balance in all sectors was negatively impacted by the feeling of being rushed and having to work through lunch time and out of hours”
      2. “The level of support received from the school was often considered by respondents to be inadequate, particularly when dealing with special needs students.”
      3. “42% dissatisfied with the remuneration level.”
      4. “If these tasks and duties are considered by all to be valid and valuable, additional time must therefore be made for them, within a realistic and reasonable workload. ”
      In summary – our work to life balance is out of whack, we are being asked to do more but given less time to do it. The pay is inadequate for what we do and there is little recognition by management. I think if you asked any teacher on the planet they would agree. BUT WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT. Teachers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains and nothing to gain but your lives.

  10. Hi Alice,

    One wonders what the impact will be on principals over a generation too. The pressures are far greater for these ‘teachers’ who have such a high level of expectations placed on them to sort everything out…24/7.

    @Darcy1968

    • Hi Darcy. Thanks for your comment. I agree with you. I’ve done a short stint as relieving DP and I don’t know you DPs do it. I’ve seen my principal work. Don’t know how principals do it. When I first started out teaching, I was hoping I would one day be principal but I don’t know anymore.

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