Saturday, 31 October 2015

Great Expectations

I alluded in my last blog post to a previous version of said post which included a surfing metaphor. Prompted by yesterday's TES article by Professor Colin Richardson I thought I'd post it as he and I had some similar thoughts. 

My prediction is that the Prof's article will not go down well. The main argument will be along the lines of "But we have no control over the pressures put on us by the government, SLT, governors and Ofsted inspectors!"

And it's true, we don't on the whole. But we can control our approach to the workload we are lumped with, and in a controversial move Professor Richardson actually makes some good points.

But first, here was what I began with:

You're lying on your board, eyes cast over your shoulder scanning the waters for the next wave. It appears and you squint, gauging its size as it rolls closer, gathering momentum. It's a big one. Mentally, you fear both riding it and being overcome by it, but those are the options. Better to try and chance success than to be pummelled. A keen surfer at this point is almost unaware of the choice - there is no option for them but to catch the wave and go for it. A stressful situation no doubt, if one lets it become so. But are surfers typically tightly-wound balls of stress? No! We consider them to be the most chilled out, relaxed people around.

I wonder if the knowledge (no doubt compounded by social media's endless brainwashing) that teaching is indeed a demanding and busy profession leaves many-a-teacher quaking in their boots as they anticipate the deluge. When the workload gets heavy they're already resigned to the fact that they won't be able to deal with it all. I wonder if many of us never get on top and ride the wave because we think the wave is just too big to be conquered.

Even a confident surfer knows that any wave might just conquer them, and that an attempt may leave them gasping for air, fighting the undertow. But they also know that they can get back out there and wait for the next swell. They're relaxed about their chances, knowing that perfection is not always guaranteed. 

A lot of teachers are perfectionists - this is not a bad thing, it means they care and want to do a good job. It also means they will inevitably think that their job is never done. And it isn't. There will always be something more to do, something that could be done better. Subconsciously many teachers attempt perfection even when they know it is unachievable. We must begin to realise that we will have a bad observation, we will get the wrong end of the stick with the marking policy and we will struggle to assess without levels for a while. But we also must realise that none of those difficulties spell the end of our career. We must see them simply as opportunities to learn. We must be willing to swim back out to sea, ready and willing to get back up on the board and try again.

And I couldn't have summarised better than Professor Richardson:

"The vast majority of teachers expect too much of themselves. They aspire to unrealistic goals. They always fall short – and deep down they realise that they do. They know there is always more they can do for their pupils. They know that what they and their schools provide can never be good enough for the young people in their care. They acknowledge that their schools can never be perfect. Inevitably, they feel guilty about their shortcomings when they fail to meet unrealistic aspirations.

Consciously or unconsciously, they try to assuage their guilt through hard work and long hours. And they succeed, at least to a limited extent, but at a vast cost to themselves."

I urge you, stressed and overworked teacher, to at least give this article some credence. Could it be that you could make some changes in your self-expectations? Might it be a good idea to put a time limit on your work next week, finishing at a given time rather that 'when the work is done'? They might be piling it on, but fight back by admitting that a teacher's work will never truly be done.

Further reading: Addressing The Balance - 5 tips for sorting out your work/life balance

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Crowd Sourced: Advice on Coping with the Workload

On Facebook I recently asked my teacher friends this question:

What are your strategies for coping with the workload?

I particularly asked for teachers who enjoy teaching how they dealt with the expectations put on them. Here are a few choice answers:

"Making sure I stop when I've had enough and give myself time to eat with colleagues or have a chat with someone. If I'm at home working I do the same, I'm far less productive when I'm fed up with it than when I still feel positive. I don't work weekends at all unless absolutely necessary and then it's Sunday evening. I think part of tackling it is realising that it'll never all be done and if you feel like it is, the goalposts will move again tomorrow."

"I never get everything done! I set out my limit I will work each week - two evenings and Sunday afternoon and in school 8-5 then I think to myself 'if it's not done it's not done - don't worry you've done enough work!'In desperate times I have also paid siblings to mark tests which are a case of just ticking and I can then just analyse the data."

"I refuse to do things I don't deem necessary, regardless of what the head might think!"

"I had certain days and times that I had for working; I always stayed very late on a Friday because (weirdly) it suited me! I generally had one day each weekend that was work free. I was honest and asked for help - like after I went back from maternity leave I asked someone to share in running choir because realistically I couldn't do that hour every week if I was going to keep up. Also delegating a bit. The thing I think that helps most is keeping in mind that there's always more to do (so you will always have a long to do list) but having these as 'must do soon' and 'to do...' (I got better at this with experience).

"Don't take work home."

"I have one night a week when I catch up on school work at home and I now stay late on Friday to get everything sorted for the following week then I try not to work at the weekend if at all possible. I've started working through lunch too. I think planning your week so you don't have a load of marking from the same day helps. Also just give in to the fact that you'll never get to the end of the 'to do' list!

"I do as much as I can at work. I arrive as early as I can and stay late. I'm much more focused when I'm at school. Make good use of playtime/assembly/lunchtimes. Obviously I do work at home but only what I can't get done in school."

"I work until a set time each evening (it's not very late!) and I don't work weekends. Managing your time well is paramount I think. I work in a small school and wear lots of different hats, so have to prioritise time and tasks. It is possible. Also, prayer and don't compare yourself to others. We're all different and work in different ways.

"Just 'chill out'! My job is not the most important thing. Especially not more important than faith, health and sanity!"


To qualify, most of these answers came from teachers who have been in the profession for ten years or fewer and they have varying family commitments. The overall message I think is this: find what suits you and what fits in with the life side of the work/life balance. There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to managing your time but in these snippets of advice it seems clear that teachers who enjoy their job also recognise that there is a never-ending pile of work to be done and that you just can't spend all of your time doing it.

Photo Credit: jobporter via Compfight cc

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Dear SLT (on workload)

This is the third time I've started this post totally afresh. As I've written each one, my thoughts have changed so that the audience and purpose of the piece have also had to change. In previous posts I have covered my thoughts on how a positive attitude coupled with a few strategies can help with the en vogue issue of workload and I stand by what I wrote then, but there are further issues to be addressed.

I was well on my way to finishing a piece (complete with surfing analogy) about how essentially teachers just need to chill out a bit more and stop worrying so much about getting everything done. But as I've thought about, and talked to, teachers I know who are in situations where trying to take such trite advice just would not help, I've realised the focus had to change.

I feel very privileged to be a fully-functioning teacher who is also a member of the senior leadership team. I am timetabled to teach 60% of the school day, focusing on maths and English; our main areas for school improvement. As well as having the opportunity to teach the children, the privilege is in the form of the respect I get as someone who fights on the frontline at the same time as making orders from HQ. It also gives me the responsibility to speak to the rest of SLT on behalf of the teaching staff. It means I really have to practise what I preach. As a result, our SLT is in touch with how our decisions work out in practise, meaning we can adjust accordingly.

So my advice today is for SLTs. It seems silly having to say these things but, from what I can gather, many SLTs are getting it wrong.

Invest
Your members of staff are your most expensive and most valuable asset. You need to look after them. The success of your school depends on their health. Think PSHCE, but for the teachers. One of your primary aims is to reduce stress - if you don't, you won't have an effective team. In order to do this every new initiative needs to be fed through the 'reduce workload' filter. The old initiatives will need to go through it too. It is possible for all the latest demands to be met in a way that doesn't leave teachers pulling their hair out - I've seen it done. But there is no hard and fast rule for how to do this - you must evaluate everything in the context of your school and ask the question: 'How can we make this easier for our teachers?' Not easy, mind you, but easier. Teaching is not easy. Where a teacher needs to improve, you need to give them bespoke provision (intervention - like we'd want them to do for the kids!) - this is the investment they deserve and it will profit you in the long run.

Interact
You need some sort of 'open door policy'. The SLT needs to be approachable. Teachers need to feel that you have their best interests at heart and that you care for them. I'm not advocating touchy-feely leadership but an environment where views are spoken open and honestly, in both directions, but with some tact. You want your frontline soldiers to be able to report back - this way you will hear the positives along with the criticism and suggestions for change. They are the ones who know what it's like to work every day trying to carry out everything you're expecting them to do - if they feel they can bring their concerns about work/life balance to you then you are better placed to address those issues. You need to know how they are feeling and how things are really going when they're not being observed (the 'open door policy' can work two ways; I'd advocate drop-ins and not organised observations). The people I know who struggle with workload work in schools where the SLT are virtually absent.

Involve
Following on from the previous two points it is so useful to have an SLT who are all engaged in the action. Sitting high in ivory towers does not give an impression of leadership, rather of tyranny; dictatorship at best. SLT members need to roll their sleeves up, take up their weapons and lead by example. Julius Caesar saw this as such a necessity that he would fight in the ranks - many other great military leaders are said to have done the same. No doubt troop morale was high in these cases. This strategy will probably open more doors than an 'open door policy' would, making relationships far more natural and parallel. I always used to wonder if my swimming coach could swim as he never got in the pool (we found out he could, even fully clothed, when I pushed him in). Put your money where your mouth is and dive on in, the water's pretty hot right now and you need to feel it for yourself. If you experience a week in the life of a classroom teacher in the current climate then you'll be better informed when it comes to planning to make teachers' workload lighter.

A quick glance at the 2015 Ofsted guidance for effective leadership and management shows that the three approaches outlined above, done right and consistently, can be the basis for covering most of their descriptors for 'Outstanding'.

Why aren't all SLTs doing these things already? There are probably a cocktail of reasons but one major culprit at the moment seems to be panic. Leaders are overwhelmed by the pressure on them and are passing on their stress rather than doing the strategic thinking that they are in the job to do. As leaders it is our role to stem the tide of anxiety (we're paid more because it's a more difficult and stressful role) by implementing time-saving strategies. This is our duty. 

Expecting teachers to do their job properly without your investment, interaction and involvement will hinder their output with disastrous outcomes for the school you're trying to lead and manage.