How hard do teachers work?

Let’s have a quick look at a teacher’s workload. It’s a well-known fact that teachers swan up at nine o’clock, sit reading the paper while children do sums until ten, cigarette and coffee in the staff room until eleven, shouting in the corridor, double Latin, down the pub at half twelve for lunch, snooze through a test and then home at three. Of course, every six weeks, there’s a couple of weeks off. Or at least anyone trying to score cheap points against teachers would have you believe.

What’s the reality? I was a teacher once. I think someone ought to stick up for them.

Granted, teachers get long holidays. It may be possible to do no work in the holidays but I’ve never known a teacher that managed. Still, for the sake of argument, suppose teachers spent every minute of the school holidays pissed in a skip.

School holidays, twelve weeks, encompassing all but one of the bank holidays.

Annual leave entitlement for a comparable profession (in terms of training and qualification) 20-25 days, usually not including bank holidays, so five or six weeks. Being uncharitable, one might accuse teachers of getting eight additional weeks of holiday. Let’s make those weeks up in term time. Eight weeks spread across the forty comprising a school year means that we have to add in an additional day for each week. Or, instead of the standard white collar, 37.5 hour a week contract it’s a 45 hour a week contract. Or a nine hour day.

So a teacher who does no work whatsoever in the holidays should work from, say 8.30 until 6pm with a reasonable break for lunch. Anything else is above and beyond.

A full time teacher will average around 22 hours of classroom teaching a week. It’s a demanding business, being a teacher, entailing a huge range of professional capabilities and making up to 3000 non-trivial decisions per day[1]. Non-teaching time in school includes registering and providing pastoral care to students, meetings with colleagues, parents and external agencies, supervision of lunch and break times, data entry and administration and a host of other activities that would never occur to anyone who’s never worked in a school, from putting up displays to confiscating radioactive materials inadvertently brought onto the site (personal experience).

In theory, non-contact time in the week is protected for lesson preparation. Even if this happened, if a quiet, comfortable, well-resourced space were provided for teachers to prepare lessons, this release time typically amounts to 2-3 hours per week.

Remaining preparation is done outside the timetable. I used to be a science teacher, so this included planning the content of lessons, ensuring that a coherent passage of learning was provided; preparing (and often creating from scratch) resources; trialling practical activities; reviewing data on students to ensure that lessons match their prior learning and ability; consulting safety documentation; ordering practical equipment; checking up on unfamiliar bits of science; looking for extension tasks. I’ve missed a few bits but also have to include thinking. To teach a good science lesson takes some thinking. You have to do all of that for 22 or so lessons. How much time would you like to think a teacher is putting into preparing a lesson for your kids? Twenty minutes enough? Half an hour? How long do you prepare for a fifteen minute presentation at work?

Then there’s marking. I could write about the current research on what constitutes good marking but let’s just look at the numbers.

Remember that we’re spending every day of every holiday in a gin-soaked haze. That gives me forty weeks or two hundred days a year to work. On average, a secondary school teacher will see anything between 200-400 students each year.

So on top of the teaching, pastoral care, admin, meetings, and lesson preparation, how much time in those nine-hour days is left for marking? If we’re starting at 8.30, students take up every second of time until the buses leave at 3.30. If you’ve got a relatively light, four lesson day to plan for and you’re a really quick planner, let’s say you can knock out a quality lesson in fifteen minutes, there’s an hour gone. Most evenings have a meeting or some admin. Call it another hour. You have an hour left until 6pm.

An hour. 200 days, 200 students. An hour each. That’s about the time that you can put into each students’ marking each year. What can you reasonably mark in an hour? End of unit tests, a couple of homework assignments, perhaps? One or two pieces of extended writing?

Most schools now ask teachers to mark every piece of work that students do, giving constructive written feedback, then asking students to respond to that feedback and checking said student response. Work done in class, homework, test papers. It can’t be done.

On top of that, schools still provide sports teams, orchestras, plays, all manner of other social and support activities, trips and events.

I work with teachers all over the South West. They are exhausted: working into the night, working through holidays, constantly thinking about the wellbeing of their students, put under pressure to achieve demanding targets from disenchanted students, in fear of inspection. Although the pay has gone up a typical teacher will be unable to buy a home in most of the UK, unlikely to be able to retire comfortably. Schools are facing real terms budget cuts, facing rising numbers, increased pension contributions and an unparalleled recruitment crisis.

If you know a teacher, ask them two questions. The first should be “Would you like a very large drink?”

Then ask them how they honestly feel about the profession. Then think about writing to your MP about the state of education in this country. If nothing changes, there will be no one to teach our nation’s youth in ten years.

[1] Danielson, Charlotte. Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. ASCD, 2011.

One thought on “How hard do teachers work?

  1. Excellent article and one from which, in my limited experience as a PGCE student, concours with my own view. The biggest problem for teachers is simply unrealistic expectations and short staffing. As I see it, they’re being asked to do a job which as it stands now is impossible to do properly. The numbers you present clearly don’t add up, and I saw this myself in my time in school – I left because I didn’t believe in what I was being asked to do, and wasn’t capable of doing what I wanted to do! I wish the profession could stand up and tell the truth, but many probably fear the consequences.

    In the present environment, I would say that in order to become a teacher, a love of knowledge, learning and young people is not particularly high on the list of pre-requisite attributes because, let’s face it, if these properties are married to any desire for a balanced life, successful relationship, kids and hobbies, everything will go unfulfilled. It seems to me that the now the only type of person suitable to becoming a school teacher is someone who has never had a personal life.

    I am full of admiration for the people who work in this insane environment!! Ultimately, I was far too selfish to do so.

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