It’s in the dog.

It’s the one reason you can’t give why something didn’t get done – the teacherly equivalent of claiming that a ravenous canine had your homework. Saying you didn’t have time is practically an admission that you’re a failure as a teacher. Or at least that you have been failing on the self-flagellation recently. Shortage of time is such a huge pandemic of an issue that it has effectively become a Given.

And yet I suspect that dealing with the time issue would make the single greatest difference to the quality of education in this country. Individually differentiated lesson plans? Certainly. Meticulously marked books? No problem. Every data drop reflected on and easily met? Of course. Just halve my teaching load for me and give me an hour’s scheduled support time for each lesson you want me to teach.

This might sound outlandish – but consider for a moment the possibility that you did have half the teaching load; that the powers that be understood that you weren’t going to sit around drinking coffee or texting your friends; that you really were professional enough to spend that time reflecting on how your work with each class was going, finding suitable resources to develop last lesson’s learning into next lesson, preparing those five-way-differentiated resources, re-appraising your seating plans or SEN pupils’ needs, maybe even spending  time networking with colleagues. Even that you might choose to do some of that work at home where there were fewer interruptions, or that you might balance your evening work by going to the bank while it was actually open.

I know it is fashionable to claim that only poor time-managers are short of time – but it is nonetheless true that more time creates more flexibility.  The single greatest cause of people using time badly is overload; we all know the signs of displacement activity – that rabbit-in-the-headlights moment when you have so much to do that you don’t know where to start – so you don’t, and have another coffee instead. The additional flexibility generated by a balanced schedule allows individuals more scope to suit their work to their own body-clocks, commitments and inclinations. The immediate gain from this is the ability to manage one’s workload more effectively: if you actually have time to stop and catch your breath, you can plan your next move, rather than operating on auto-pilot. Reflective thought is not a process that can be done to order: whether it be the most suitable next step with a particular class, or how to tackle a pastoral issue with a particular pupil, the space to step back and consider the issue until it is ripe often leads to better decision-making.

The secondary impacts relate to the implicit messages that teachers send, for example by having more time to spend with individual pupils, and even simply by appearing less rushed. The Slow Movement – of which there is an educational offshoot – knows about this. It’s not about being slow in a ponderous sense, simply allowing tasks the due time they need to be done properly. What’s more, it isn’t always a direct relationship. Occasionally I do make a drink during a non-contact period – but what is wrong with keeping body and soul together when needs must? And anyway, work rate is a bit like isostacy – remove excess pressure and things are bound to ease up a bit until the equilibrium is restored. So even if management do occasionally find a member of staff having a five-minute breather, it is not evidence that more non-teaching time would simply be wasted.

As well as the teacherly experience, I suspect that we could gain from this in our lessons too. I have never been convinced by the argument that lessons should be about constant (hyper?)-activity, non-stop buzz, with ne’er a slack moment. A slower pace, with moments of downtime if needs be, may be exactly what is required to allow new material to embed in some pupils’ minds. The pauses may actually be the sign of a pupil registering something new – or simply catching their breath before pressing on. After all, what’s the rush? You can’t hurry real learning.

How did we get to this situation – where the only good teacher is an overworked one? For a sector that supposedly models the importance of Thought, where is the thinking in that? I suspect it derives from the time-is-money mindset that also views sweatshops as the optimum form of industry. It’s added to by overcrowded curricula and the inevitable view that more equals better equals higher grades.

Why do we have to continue with this macho charade that the lack of a life balance shows just how good you are? As far as I’m aware, education isn’t meant to exist in order to prove how stoical the teacher is. What’s more, I know that I am far better with the pupils when I am properly rested, up-to-date with my sleep and have had time to restore my good humour with a dash of relaxation. Is that really so surprising?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m fortunate to have formed a lasting connection with a school in Basel, Switzerland. It is a high-achieving school, and the Swiss education system fully lives up to the quality for which the country is reputed. It does it partly by removing any sense of hurry. Swiss teachers clearly have sizeable workloads – but I have never seen one looking unduly stressed, or rushed off their feet. In fact, the majority exude a calm confidence of being firmly in control of their lives and work. Staff have time to reflect on their practice, to develop considered strategies, and to give quality time to their students.  This is enhanced by smaller class-sizes in smaller schools; the Basel school has around 1000 students to our 1800, yet almost the same number of staff on its roll.

This may be a cultural issue, but it is nonetheless the way that Switzerland approaches all of its undertakings – calmly, with poise and patience. It’s even subliminal: at lesson changes, a gentle chime encourages you to be on your way – in stark contrast to the urgency of the average British school bell; lunchtimes are often staggered, but long enough for good digestion. Management structures are very flat in Swiss schools, so there are few people breathing down your neck – it is assumed that you will do the right thing, and the vast majority rise to the expectation. Teachers can negotiate their timetables (and pretty much everything else), and many choose to work only an 80% week, some even less, so as to create more preparation time; pay is good enough that this trade-off is viable.  And schools accept that the partnership with their staff is closer to being one of equals, respecting teachers as people who legitimately have wider lives to lead, rather than the top-down condescension of the normal British hierarchy.

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Sufficient capacity of good-quality staff work space helps too. Part of the Swiss school’s work area.

There is more generally a different relationship between work and non-work in Switzerland – they don’t have the stark demarcation that we do in the U.K. This means on the one hand that you need only be in school when you are teaching, the rest of the day being at your discretion, but on the other than you will be expected to work as and when needed, albeit via low-key negotiation rather than diktat. The school day runs from 07:45 until 17:30 but it’s generally not full, either for staff or students. Meetings may be after that, but only very occasionally. Where other demands are made on teachers, time is created for them to be completed; again this is largely by negotiation within the broad framework of expectations.

The passage of time of a different nature is recognised by the fact that over-55’s are entitled to a reduced teaching load on account of their age, and long service brings additional holiday entitlements, naturally to be booked well in advance.

This will sound like Heaven to the average British teacher, but it doesn’t seem to impair educational standards – in fact quite the opposite. It is, of course, all part of the despised continental model of capitalism that works on a very different philosophy from the Anglo-American one – the same model that also ensures, for example,  that all German companies have worker representation on their boards. In my view, it is a more equitable and humane way of ordering society.

Is there any reasons why this could not be implemented in the U.K.? Schools would not need to be larger to accommodate more staff if those not teaching were allowed to be off-site; it would require a significant investment by the nation to fund those additional teachers – but what price high-quality education? Equally, how much could be saved by cutting all that is not essential to the direct educational process? By doing, in Dylan William’s words “less, really good stuff”? I wonder how many newly-liberated Academies are intending to use that freedom to increase staffing levels.

And if such an approach meant that I didn’t need to work every evening and five or six hours on Sundays, would that really be so bad, either for the pupils, or indeed us teachers? For a start, it would remove one of the main disincentives for people to become teachers, and the quality of people’s work would probably reflect their greater contentment and better life-balance.

I suspect the biggest obstacle would not be the money, but the sweat-shop mindset that the Anglo-American model sees as the optimal way to maximise productivity (even where little evidence exists). As far as I can see, every other successful educational system acknowledges the need for teachers to have plenty of time to prepare and plan; only short-termist, rip-off Britain and its Big Uncle seem to think it is reasonable to eat ever-further into people’s personal lives to deliver that which the state is not prepared to pay for adequately. A little-known feature of the intensive East-Asian education model is that even there, levels of teacher non-contact time are significantly higher than they are in the U.K.

How much longer can we continue to believe that we can achieve significant gains simply by the cheapskate sweating of the assets?

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3 thoughts on “It’s in the dog.

  1. So true. One of the things that shouldn’t surprise me (but usually does) is how much better it is possible to teach when one year group goes on exam leave, work experience or whatever. Even if it is just a couple of hours a week, it tips the ratio of contact time to non-contact just enough that an hour of marking or planning for each hour of teaching becomes doable without cheating on things like families, eating or sleep.

    I’m sure that you’re right that a lot of the issues are about lack of trust and a temptation to asset sweating. One other thought though; is there an element of the Beeblebrox thing? As a community, teachers have convinced themselves (or let themselves be convinced) that our active intervention is essential pretty much all the time, or almost nobody will learn anything. Nice for self-image, but it plays into the message that time that is not being spent visibly active is wasted, and that is effectively stealing bread out of the mouths of the children in the future.

  2. Yes, I think you’re right about the Beeblebrox part. The best way to guarantee your continued importance is to make grandiose claims for your potency tell everyone how indispensable you are. That also justifies your intrusion into almost any aspect of people’s lives in the interest of doing good things for them that they didn’t even know they needed. The (normally restrained) cynic in me worries that some people in teaching either like doing that for its own busy-body sake, or else the person whom they really need to build up is themselves.

    Trouble is, we’ve become victims of our own success – now everyone believes us, there are no limits to how much they’ll demand. And like ‘customers’ everywhere, they really aren’t concerned about the hidden costs, so long as the goods are on the table.

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