How to solve the teacher workload problem
I originally wrote this to my students, but on reflection, it works just as well for teachers, or anyone else with a heavy workload of any kind. This week I’ve written about the Pareto Principle. Pareto was an Italian economist who noticed that 20% of the population owned 80% of the land. He also noticed that 20% of his peapods were responsible for 80% of the peas grown in his garden. It’s a principle also observed in other fields too, such as in sport (20% of your training is responsible for 80% of your gains) and in business (80% of your revenue is generated by 20% of your customers, etc). I intend to apply the Pareto Principle to solve the problem of teacher workload.
The 80/20 split isn’t perfectly accurate. In fact, it’s often anecdotal, sometimes misunderstood and in many cases, it’s difficult to measure at all. But the accuracy of the 80/20 split isn’t important. What IS important is the recognition that some activities are more likely to boost your success than others. The crucial “20%” tasks should be prioritised over the less crucial “80%” ones.
My workload experience
Observation of my own workload over the past year shows that 80% of my success is down to 20% of my workload. This seems like an easy thing to say and a difficult thing to measure, but just take stock of some of the tasks that you and I, as teachers, have completed over the past year:
- Planned and delivered lessons
- Marked work (Read my neat little hack to reduce marking time)
- Designed assessments
- Marked assessments
- Tracked student progress
- Organised and delivered extra-curricular activities
- Made phone calls home or met with students’ parents
- Attended meetings
- Filled in data tables
- Attended Open Evenings
- Held detentions
- Compiled student reports
- Written references
- Helped draft university applications
- Helped with students’ job applications
- Attended professional development sessions
All of these activities are valuable. They all have a place. However, the Pareto Principle asks which of these activities contributed MOST to the academic success of students (our main goal). This activity is where we should focus most of our attention. This activity is priority number one. Our other activities can often wait, or could perhaps even be removed from the list, without a decline in results.
So, where is the 80/20 in teaching workload?
When I’ve looked at the outcomes for my students, essentially in exam scores, they perform better on questions where I’ve spent more time planning detailed lessons which not only explore the main topic areas but also discuss the subtle nuances surrounding them. When I’ve taken extra time to cater for the range of students in the class, I pre-emptively ask myself questions about why they might struggle on a given task. Once I’ve identified this challenge, I’m able to implement strategies to deal with it before the problem occurs in the lesson. By the end, all students are able to demonstrate exceptional progress, regardless of their various starting points and personal barriers to learning.
Second to planning is feedback (but not always written feedback). I’ve posted about this before, so click here to find out more. After that, the other activities I listed above play only a relatively small part in raising achievement. These are all Marginal Gains areas that I’ve mentioned in a previous post. They are the extra things that you can do that may not make much difference on their own, but collectively can change an entire grade. I love the Marginal Gains theory, but it must be in balance with Pareto’s 80/20 Principle, otherwise teacher workload becomes unbearable and unrealistic.
My reason for implementing Pareto’s teacher workload solution?
I want to apply the Pareto Principle to the workload experienced by teachers, because, let’s face it, we need help.
Recruitment and retention of teaching staff, both in the UK and in many other countries is at an all-time low. A major reason for this is that heavy workload dominates teachers’ lives, often impacting upon physical and mental wellbeing. This cannot go on, it’s morally indefensible, lacks long-term strategy (just watch the increasing drop-out rate for newly qualified teachers) and is a completely unrealistic ideology.
I know this is controversial, perhaps even political. But my aim here is simply to ask an important question. Teachers only have a finite amount of time to deliver an outstanding education. Teachers also have families and children of their own. They also have limited levels of physical and mental endurance.
We are already stretched to breaking point by our existing workload and more work is being added.
What activities should we remove from our workload list?
We want the best for students. We want our schools to be successful. We want to enjoy our own lives too (even if that seems unreasonable to some policy-makers). But above all, if teachers suffer, then the standard of education does too. If education suffers, then communities, businesses and individual people suffer.
So, what next?
I’ll be focusing more and more of my attention on planning extremely high-quality sequences of lessons. I’ll let you know how I get on!
I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Also, please SHARE this article with any teacher you know.
Teacher workload is the biggest issue affecting teacher wellbeing, as well as teacher recruitment and retention. Only together can we fix it!
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