It’s time to get serious about

Teacher workload

If we understand, value and wish to sustain the extraordinary skill set of the highly proficient teacher, we must reduce non classroom work. Leaders and teachers, it’s time to work together to do it now.

The classroom is the first place for student learning and assessment, and teacher professional learning, Rod Whelan, Principal, Kildare Catholic College Wagga Wagga writes.

Increasing teacher workloads (combined at times with a reluctance to jettison redundant non classroom work) prevents teachers and leaders from giving full attention to the growing skill and function demands of the contemporary classroom.

The premises argued here are simple. First, if we value the extraordinary classroom skill set of the highly proficient teacher and the professional growth demands on the becoming highly proficient teacher, we must place non classroom work second and reduce it to a rational minimum. Second, this won’t happen unless school leaders and teachers plan for it to happen, site by site.

Jumping ahead to provide a view of what this might look like, here are some practical steps and positions taken in a regional co-educational high school to allow teachers to focus on the right work of improving teacher and student classroom practice (apologies for the secondary school emphasis, though key ideas are transferable to the primary school):

Eliminate homework

Eliminate subject based homework in the junior school. Do a deal with students and parents and introduce 30 minutes of reading and numeracy homework for Year 7 and 8. Most homework doesn’t advance student learning: stop setting ineffective homework and watch teachers, students and students’ family life benefit.

Reduce assessments

Eliminate take home summative assessment in the junior school. Radically reduce the marking load for teachers, and the grief and inequity visited on many of our students (and their parents). Reduce classroom summative assessment in Years 7 to10 as far as teachers will allow. Some subject areas will eliminate it completely, others will resist, but at the very least a significant reduction is possible.

Assessment skills

Explicitly teach peer and self assessment skills. Relying on teacher centric models where the teacher is sole arbiter of the quality of student work robs students of the essential learning tools of recognising features of quality work, assessing their own work in the light of this proficient work and planning to close the gap between their own work and highly proficient work.

Trust teachers

Trust teacher professional judgement on where students are with their learning, particularly when they develop this judgement in co-labouring teams. Never collect data to defend a position or grade – collect it to assist students plan next steps in learning.

Data team

Develop a Data and Intervention Team to collect, process and publish student learning and wellbeing data to assist in the making of high impact instructional and intervention decisions and to build the data and assessment literacy of staff. Centralise this work.

Don’t work weekends

Don’t do schoolwork on the weekend or during the holidays, except for the inevitable crunch times. Talk to leaders about reducing these crunch times. An expert teacher, who school-day after school-day delivers in the classroom through the building of high impact learning pathways for individual students and groups of students, has done his or her main work.

Less planning

As teacher proficiency grows, reduce time spent planning lessons. Some teachers are reluctant to let go of their investment in an over planned lesson or series of lessons, despite direct evidence from students that it has missed the mark.

Focus on classrooms

Make the classroom the main site of teacher professional learning. Improve teacher practice and student learning by focusing on teacher function (see below). Identify exemplar practitioners and high impact strategies and take teachers to go and see. Use a learning walk or similar model and stop sending people away for professional learning. The best possible professional learning is usually just a short walk away and most schools ignore it.

Reduce compliance

Reduce compliance and registration tasks to the bare minimum. Many teachers do far more than the relevant registration and accreditation body recommends.

Team work

Work in teams always. A teacher’s first responsibility is to be an informed and generous coworker and collaborator. One way to gain a deeper appreciation of the primacy of classroom work is to think in terms of teacher function, and to name those functions. An expert teacher jumps between functions based on feedback from individual students, and groups of students, about what they need to do to plan and make their next step in learning. If teachers can do this successfully they have done their main work and students will have the maximum chance of achieving their justified entitlement of a year’s worth of learning in the calendar year. If teachers are developing proficiency, professional learning and coaching that focuses on mastering these functions, it will fast track them and save them from distracting and unnecessary work.

These functions include:

Those serving student ‘where am I going?’ questions: communicating a learning intention. Justifying a worthwhile lesson. Assisting in accessing previous learning. Constructing and communicating success criteria.

Those serving student ‘what am I learning now?’ questions: Direct instruction. Modelling and explaining. Generating effective questions (connecting students to learning intention and content, addressing a key understanding or skill, academically stretching). Leading guided practice. Initiating performance of understanding. Facilitating and sustaining student to student talk. Facilitating student self assessment and peer assessment. Modelling collaborative strategies and dispositions. Providing feedback (task, process, compared to criteria, compared to others, compared to past performance).

Those serving student ‘where to next?’ questions: Planning of opportunities for timely student use of feedback (while the student is still working towards the learning target). Setting up the ‘golden second chance’. Consideration of teacher feedback, student self-assessment and peer assessment. Facilitate student explanation of their feedback and what they will do about it. Assisting in planning next steps in learning.

The inestimable contribution of Ken Leithwood to the notion of teachers doing the right work and leaders leading the right work should impact thinking and practice in Australian schools in these overly busy times. Key Leithwood ideas include the leadership imperatives to:

increase academically engaged time for students

reduce distractions to teaching and learning priorities

reduce the time spent on things not directly linked to improving student learning and wellbeing, and

ensure students not learning or not progressing have disproportionate access to quality teachers and proven interventions.

Most schools would be well served by an audit to check if these premises, or similar, are driving the school improvement agenda. An optimistic orientation is certainly well advised here. This optimism springs from a belief in the individual and collective efficacy of teachers to change the lives of students through their work in classrooms and in teams. If teachers continue to report increases in hours worked and an increase in administration and data work, this collective efficacy will be compromised. It’s time to listen to the experts and take a leap.

References and resources

Dylan Wiliam on reducing teacher workload:

Hattie, J. (2016) Shifting away from distractions to improve Australia’s schools: Time for a Reboot

Malloy J & Leithwood K 2017 Effects of distributed leadership on school academic press and student achievement in Leithwood K, Jingping S, & Pollock K (eds)

How school leaders contribute to student success. Springer IP

Moss C & Brookhart S 2015 Formative Classroom Walkthroughs: How principals and teachers collaborate to raise student achievement. ASCD

Sharratt l & Planche, P 2016 Leading collaborative learning: Empowering excellence.

Corwin for a stripped down overview of key ideas