Workload: Are Teachers Just Too Greedy?

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is teaching a job with a consumption problem?

Teachers are greedy. Well, more precisely, teaching is ‘greedy work’. We are all stuffed and yet consume more and more. We just can’t seem to stop.

You might think this is unfair but I don’t know many lean teachers. They are all plump pedagogues gorging themselves stupid, taking on more tasks and doing more work. They all have an unhealthy Teaching Mass Index and that is threatening their wellbeing.

But teaching doesn’t really give us a chance. It is the job that is never finished and always work in progress. Teaching is just pure greed. ‘Greedy work’ is the work that demands you have to be constantly and fully ‘on’, fully ‘there’ and fully ‘available’. Then there are the sustained pressures that mean there is little or no downtime so it envelopes your existence.

Peter Gronn (2003) articulates this best in The New Work Of Educational Leaders. He says that greedy work is characterised by having to be “always attentive, alert, absorbed in and utterly committed to the particular task as a totally functioning, fully available, non-stop cognitive and emotional presence in the workplace.”

Teaching isn’t alone in being greedy and there are plenty of professions that consume their workers too. But teaching is different because it is a stage job too and demands performance after performance – morning, matinee and evening. Is there any actor out there that can keep this up?

Greed is good?

Karie Willyerd and Barbara Mistick (2016) point out in their book Stretch that the word “greedy” is almost never used in a positive context. They advise that we should be greedy for experiences as they help us to grow, develop and advance our careers. This is true to a point. There is certainly nothing wrong with being developmentally engaged and always on the look out for new opportunities. These are the ways in which we obtain knowledge and skills.

Burning the candle at both ends has a long list of casualties. We can be intentionally greedy and aim to get more experiences under our belts but not to the detriment of our health. But system pressures don’t always make this a neat choice. Most of the time we have no choice but to do what we do. Teaching is highly fragmentary and full of brevity whereby we are constantly task-switching and getting interrupted.

Be lazy

Maintaining a healthy workload is always in our minds but the system is stacked against us and greedy work eats into our wellbeing.

Jim Smith offers some great pointers about what we can do to trim back by adopting a lazy way of working. Being a lazy teacher sounds somehow irresponsible but this is a way of working that involves being a more strategic and effective teacher. It’s a way of being rich without being greedy. It’s also fighting back at the system and being subversive.

Hendrick (2017) says that we should sit up and listen to the research evidence by pruning back what we do and focus on a more streamlined approach in the classroom. He points to six principles of what really matters in the classroom and says, “So it’s less about spending hours cutting things up and putting them in envelopes, and more about creating conditions in which students can gain long-lasting knowledge that can be applied in a range of situations.”

For me, this ‘pruning’ is one the most important characteristics of great teaching although is seldom recognised as being in the top six. Although there are always things to be done, we can certainly waste an awful lot of time doing things that don’t work or are unnecessary.

Teachers working smarter and not harder has become a bit of edu-mantra in recent years and that message is still struggling to get through. We are good at starting teaching diets but hopeless at keeping them. So let’s say it again: do less, say ‘No’ and don’t dig yourself an early grave trying to please others. Prioritise and get technology doing the work.

Teachers give their all

Teachers are big consumers of work and they are also prolific givers with a generosity of spirit second to none. But giving and giving drains personal reservoirs and when you are clean out of discretionary effort the tentacles of bitterness take hold.

Teachers start their careers full of respair but end them drowning in despair because of a greedy system that demands too much of them. This is precisely why teachers have ‘long holidays’ (curb your rage!).

When the pressures get too much and the reservoir has run dry then greed wins and bloated teachers drop out of the system unable to keep up.

The life-cycle of a teacher can go from initiation, development and autonomy to disenchantment and withdrawal in less than five years.

Greed makes the system poor. We don’t have a recruitment problem but we do have a retention one. An army of teachers have left the trenches wounded and what a waste of talent that is. It’s good to be great but great to be good. We give enough and consume far too much. It’s time to be more punk.

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