Tired teachers can’t teach

Teachers should teach. That should be the main thing they do. They should ‘make kids cleverer’ – to quote David Didau. They should make sure the learners in their charge build the knowledge and skills associated with their subject area. The best learning happens in the classroom, under the supervision of the subject expert who is able to carefully build students’ schemata.

Tired teachers can’t teach

The teacher needs to be energised, enthusiastic, positive and alert. The teacher needs to be able to explain with clarity and concision – and to repeat and rephrase as often as is necessary. The teacher needs to be able to circulate ceaselessly and have eyes on every student. The teacher needs to have the mental dexterity to spot errors and misconceptions and then quickly respond with clarifications, corrections and the ability to disabuse misguided notions.

“The teacher needs to be able to circulate ceaselessly and have eyes on every student.”

The lesson is to the teacher what the big match is to the sportsperson. The magic happens there. The fighter leaves everything in the ring. The teacher leaves everything in the lesson. No athlete would over exert themselves in training the night before a big game. Clearly, their performance would be diminished by such overtraining the night before. Far too often, teachers still do far too much work the night before the big game. When every evening features marking, planning, resource preparation and other tasks, the teacher can never be at their best in the lessons the next day. Worse still, all this uncertainty about what lessons should contain leaves teachers feeling anxious.

For teachers, all the other ‘stuff’ that is not actually classroom teaching saps mental and physical energy. An obvious example would be a long parents evening followed by a full day at school. Every teacher knows this long night takes its toll and lessons are not as good as they might have been the following day. Worse than one off events like parents evening are wasteful routines. As an English teacher, at the early stages of my career, I was expected to closely mark everything students wrote in my lessons, and their homework, and their coursework, and their controlled assessments, and their mock exams. This was an exhausting Sisyphean (and pointless) task. There was a time when I was expected to have a full lesson plan for every lesson. There was a time when I was expected to differentiate every lesson at three different levels, producing multiple versions of every lesson resource. There was a time when all teachers were expected to produce all their own lesson resources from scratch.

“The relentless treadmill of planning, resourcing, differentiating, marking, remarking, data entry, reporting and so on very nearly drove me to leave the profession.”

At times, this meant sitting up late at night and wondering what on Earth I would teach the next day. By the time I was actually teaching the lesson, I was too exhausted to do a good job. I had spent the night before searching for subject knowledge, creating resources and planning my lesson. Mentally fatigued, I often spent 20 minutes deciding which image went best with my PPT slide, for example. The relentless treadmill of planning, resourcing, differentiating, marking, remarking, data entry, reporting and so on very nearly drove me to leave the profession. I still remember the queue for the photocopier every morning…. Any school that still does not centralise its resource production, leaving it up to individual teachers, is getting it wrong. There’s no excuse for it. It is not ‘maintaining teacher autonomy’. It is hamstringing teachers with unnecessary anxiety and workload. Take the plunge and centralise your curriculum.

“The most valuable and the most expensive resource in the classroom is the teacher.”

The point is a simple one. The most valuable and the most expensive resource in the classroom is the teacher. The teacher needs to be well-rested and in good physical and mental condition to be able to perform at their best. Everything that leaders ask teachers to do outside of their core purpose – teaching – detracts from the effectiveness of their teaching. In the most extreme cases, all this extraneous workload drives teachers out of the profession (or makes them perpetually tired and miserable within it). If you are in a school where you have to produce your own resources, complete hours of traditional exercise book marking or complete more than 3 data drops per class per year… leave. The leadership team at your school are misguided and out of date. As a teacher, you deserve the same work-life balance as everyone else in the country. I still meet teachers who take home shopping bags full of exercise books after a full day’s work. Leadership teams who do nothing to prevent this are, in my view, failing in their duty of care to their staff. Teachers do not need to be martyrs who sacrifice their family time, leisure time, sleep and mental well-being in order to educate students properly. It is high quality first teaching that makes the difference – it certainly isn’t traditional marking. Assessment for learning has its place, but one does not fatten the pig by endlessly weighing it.

If you are a school leader, take workload seriously. Remind yourself of how you felt as a main scale teacher teaching a full timetable. Consider this every time you add an additional responsibility, and you explain in staff briefing that ‘it only takes two minutes’. Realise it or not, eyes are rolling, and eyebrows are raised every time you spout this ridiculous phrase. It may well only ‘take two minutes’ to click through the sub-menus of SIMs or Arbor or whatever software you use at your school and then add a note that you have made a call home for the student for whom you issued a detention today. Fine. But it won’t just be two minutes, will it? Have you added the ten reward points you gave out today on the system? Have you added the seven behaviour points? Have you awarded your student of the week prize? Have made at least three positive phone calls home? And then recorded them in the correct area on Arbor? No not that area on Arbor – go and see the AHT in charge of data so he can show you how to do it properly. Ahem. It is really nice that you sent those postcards home, but I’ve noticed you didn’t record them on the system. Can you add them after school? Why are you asking for pastoral help with that student in your class? You have never recorded a single behaviour point so they must be behaving in your lesson? Right?

It is the cumulative nature of all of these little routines that saps teachers’ energy. It is the cognitive load caused by trying to remember all of these administrative tasks, multiplied by the time cost of actioning them all. When the teacher does all that is asked of them and, exhausted, sees no impact, resentment grows.

“It is so easy to be wrong-and to persist in being wrong-when the costs of being wrong are paid by others.”

Thomas Sowell

The mental clutter – the cognitive load – created by the necessity for all this record keeping discourages teachers from wanting to take actions. You can send a postcard home… but make sure you record it. It’s great that you are calling home to discuss this issue… make sure you write a record of the phone call on Arbor. Setting a detention? Remember you need to have the restorative conversation the next day and complete the proforma to show you have done this. The new and well intentioned idea that ‘will only take two minutes’ joins an army of other administrative tasks that ‘will only take two minutes’. SLT should not burden teachers with administrative record keeping tasks, simply for the sake of proving what they have done.

When I was a main scale teacher, the assistant headteacher in charge of KS4 requires everyone to complete an action log for every Year 11 student. This was an additional spreadsheet that recorded every action of support and intervention for every student in the class. The purpose of this mountain of school wide record keeping was to provide written evidence that we had done everything we could. In other words, in anticipation of failure, we were asked to have our excuses ready. The stupidity, pessimism and cowardice of this Sisyphean task left me absolutely stupefied. One day, in the English office, I asked him, “How long do you think it would take me to clear this desk?” It was a messy desk, littered with marking, dirty plates, coffee mugs and pens. Bemused, he suggested it would take a couple of minutes. So, I tested this. I moved one coffee cup to the sink, then I went to the whiteboard and wrote “moved coffee cup to the sink”. I went back and tidied one of the piles of marking into a pigeonhole, then I went back to the whiteboard and wrote “put marking into pigeonhole”. He understood my point, but duly ignored it. As Thomas Sowell put it: “It is so easy to be wrong-and to persist in being wrong-when the costs of being wrong are paid by others”.

Recording that you have done something makes no difference to the efficacy of the thing that was done. Making teachers record everything they do is a counterproductive disincentive. As a leader, are you so pessimistic that you want everyone in the school to get their excuses in order because you anticipate failure? “This student failed? Well we made them go to 17 intervention sessions – look it’s on the action log so it must be true…” This approach to accountability makes me think of the terrible impact of social media on actual social lives. People spend more time evidencing their happiness on their virtual timelines than they spend being happy in reality.

Teachers should not be forced to spend time evidencing their effectiveness – they should be allowed (and trusted) to use their time efficiently. They will have far more time, energy and inclination to work with students if they are not perpetually recording every step they take and every move they make.


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