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The myth of the average teacher



I have the controversial opinion among my colleagues that teachers, on average, actually get paid pretty well. Averaging, however, is the crux of debate on teacher workload. Yes, if a teacher's job is averaged over the year, their pay is reasonable and their workload is manageable.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows time lapse of a teacher being worn down by various responsibilities.Alas, teachers are mere mortals; they aren't Time Lords who can redistribute their work to a time of year when they are less busy. With teaching's high attrition rate, we have to seriously start asking how schools can work to alleviate the work intensification teachers are experiencing.

Federal MP Andrew Laming has a knack for putting his foot in his mouth and earning the ire of educators. A recent faux pas — coming after the government's 'Gonski 2.0' review — was an insinuation that teachers need to work longer hours and have fewer holidays. His statements were quickly and humorously rebutted, leading to a clarification of his inelegantly-phrased remarks.

While there are many admirable observations in his clarification, the doctor-cum-politician's conclusions still rely on common misunderstandings about the nature of teaching. Tacking extra hours onto the end of the school day and removing the flexibility of teachers to choose work hours during the holidays will not solve the difficulties teachers face.

That said, work spilling over into home time is a real problem for teachers. I have taught with people from all walks of life — former lawyers, builders, pharmacists — and nearly all of them comment on the insidious and unique work-creep that happens in this profession. Yet the solution is not, as Laming suggests, to force teachers to spend longer at school; many who already arrive early and stay late still have work-life balance issues.

The problem is that spillover is literally built into the job; it is expected that teachers take work home. A teacher's job entails much more than simply teaching, but teachers receive only a small fraction of their day as 'non-contact time'.

In most of Queensland's schools, for example, high school teachers get less than an hour a day of non-contact time, and primary teachers receive a measly two hours a week. This is not a lot of time, particularly when you consider the fact that non-contact time is frequently lost to meetings, extra-curricular activities, or finally getting a chance to eat and go to the bathroom (because a lunch 'break' was taken up by a playground duty).


"When a job regularly requires you to ignore basic physical necessities, something needs to change."


On top of this, it's worth noting that non-contact time is given as an average; it isn't spread evenly over the week. This means that some days a teacher will have no spares, whereas other days they might have more than half a day to do work out of the classroom. Subsequently, even if a teacher were to efficiently use every single minute of their non-contact time, there is no way they could get everything done, every day at school.

This lack of an average work day is particularly pronounced around assessment and reporting. The crunch that takes place multiple times a term is, for many, unsustainable. It's not unusual that teachers are working well past midnight — doing drafting or marking that cannot wait until the holidays — getting sub-optimal sleep, and then going back to work to manage children all day. When a job regularly (as the rule rather than the exception) requires you to ignore basic physical necessities, something needs to change.

One simple solution is that teachers need to be given more time in school to deal with the demands of their job. This means less contact time with students, not just more time tacked onto the end of the day and during the holidays. Such a feat could be achieved in several ways.

The most straightforward would be to provide teachers lighter teaching loads. Another could be more frequent pupil-free days strategically placed around the term. Less contact time will not only ease the pressure on teachers whose jobs spill over into their personal lives, but will enable more time for teachers to engage in the vital act of collaboration.

Another of Laming's suggestions worth considering is the need to seriously investigate outsourcing non-teaching tasks. Teachers lose literally hours every week to jobs like data entry, playground duties, sport, music, drama, and other extra-curriculars. In most systems around the country, teachers receive no extra pay for this extra work. Yet, in many schools, these additional hours are expected parts of the job (even if this expectation is officially unspoken). The generosity of teachers is taken advantage of, and schools save tens of thousands of dollars because of it.

Unfortunately, providing this kind of extra time requires a radical rethinking of school funding. Small tweaks to current formulas will not do; we need to rebuild our concept of schooling from the ground up.

In recent years teachers unions have done a good job at preventing working conditions from degrading but have only managed to scratch around the edges of any real improvement. Small concessions here and there, usually around money rather than workload, are what unions are forced to settle for in enterprise agreements.

This is not a criticism of unions or any specific education system, but a critique of the politics of education. Government at all levels gives education funding only begrudgingly. Education must be treated not as a necessary evil, but as an investment in our future. Currently, 'efficiency' is valued over quality. Student results on standardised tests are the main measure of success and teacher wellbeing is not a metric worth considering.

Instead of giving teachers less flexibility, as Laming suggests, we need to figure out ways to significantly reduce their workload. This comes back to a core problem: unpaid overtime is built into the profession. Teaching needs to be decoupled from the idea that work not done at school should be done at home. That is, at least, until teachers are given enough time at school to do their jobs.



Tim HuttonTim Hutton is a high school teacher and occasional freelance writer. His ramblings can be found over at www.mrhutton.com.

Topic tags: Tim Hutton, teachers, school funding



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Existing comments

One way schools can alleviate debilitating and unproductive pressure from staff is by incorporating professional development requirements into term time ( rather than insisting these activities be done in out-of-school hours, including holiday time).

John | 25 June 2018  

Hi Tim, You have hit the nail right on the head! My wife is a High school/College Teacher (Year 7-12) . I am a retired Secondary Teacher. Between us we have 68 years of teaching. When I started in the job we had up to 38 children per classes, " full on" 6 period days, with a few non contact periods per week. That was in the days where lay staff started filling gaps left by a declining religious teacher cohort. It was seen as a "vocation", sacrifice was part of the job. I was a foundation member of the IEU ( The non government NSW/ACT teacher union). We fought long and hard to reduce class sizes ( down to 28 when I retired) and less face to face loads (we actually got it down a couple of periods a week!). My wife is still in the job. Class sizes have crept up, teaching loads have increased, but at least salary has increased,still well below the Commonwealth Public Service increases over the same period . The wife is preparing lessons and marking to past midnight most weeknights ; she works on schoolwork during weekends , just to keep on top of the load! There are after school meetings weekly,often two .They go until 5pm or later. She coordinates the Social Justice Group and the College Vinnies, now into her 30th year with that responsibility. She attends 'sleep overs' for fund raising and other extra curricular activities on weekends. In addition she is expected to attend Professional Development Courses/Seminars to keep her teaching accreditation up to date. No wonder the young, keen teachers soon fall out of the job with "burn out". It is imperative that we reduce the enormous non teaching work load of our teachers so they can do the job they are trained to do-TEACH!

Gavin O'Brien | 25 June 2018  

Innovative teaching practices. Key words banged around schools all the time. One innovation that would see this happen is to give staff the time to plan, prepare and mark for their classes. Staff when not teaching are NOT wasting time, they are desperately trying to keep their heads above water. We can all be creative but, time is needed. Having a vocation is great and most of us love what we do, but our families and us too need time.

Jenny | 25 June 2018  

All three of my daughters trained to be school teachers and only one of them still does it. I am angry on their behalf at the lousy politics under which they labour so mightily. It also affected me as a TAFE English teacher of refugee and other migrants. There is an inbuilt disregard for a teacher's professional autonomy - as if they are not supposed to have it - in contrast to any other profession one can think of. I find myself now volunteering in my retirement to help people learn my language. It involves just two hours a week of contact time in a completely informal arrangement. And yet I find my professional creativity and production of materials for my students is much improved: I am sure this is not merely due to accumulated experience. I have the time for informed dreaming - to be really much more creative. I think I'm doing something right because my students keep coming back.

John McKeon | 25 June 2018  

I taught for 25 years in three different states, and I agree with all you say. But the news is good. AI is coming to the rescue! Human teachers will be necessary only in infant schools, to soothe the little ones when they fall down and scrape their knees. (I don't mean actually touch them, of course). Programmed machines will teach, supervise all activities, and administer standardised tests. Only subjects which can be assessed by computerised tests will be taught. Neat, clean and a lot cheaper than paying more teachers.

Joan Seymour | 25 June 2018  

Teachers unions have not “done a good job at preventing working conditions from degrading”. On average, Victorian secondary schools, with a pupil-teacher ratio of 12.3:1, are 7.3 teachers short of the 1981 ratio (10.9:1) and 9.2 short of the 1990 ratio (10.6:1). The maximum teaching load was 18 hours plus an extra a fortnight. It is now 20 hours including extras. The maximum class size was a firm 25 in high schools and a firm 20 in technical schools. It is now a flexible 25. The minimum time allowance pool, deductions from teaching for leadership positions such as subject coordination, was 90 minutes per teacher deducted from the 18 hours. It is now zero. It was briefly re-instated in 2001 at 70 minutes, but in 2004, instead of insisting on the return of the stolen conditions, the AEU even agreed to an increase in average secondary teaching loads of 70 minutes, thus reducing the time allowance pool to zero minutes. It also agreed to a change in the default working conditions requirement that led to increased teaching loads at my school. Teacher unions are actually hopeless at protecting their members’ conditions.

Chris Curtis | 26 June 2018  

Tim makes some great points. I had 40 years of this and can remember near the end of my career keeping a close track of the hours I worked when I started working part-time at a 0.8 time fraction. I was shocked to see I was still averaging about 45 to 50 hours each week. Cutting down on the 'extra-curricular' stuff is not a good solution as it is often here that some great relationship building happens. I think only solutions are either lighter teaching loads or the elimination of unproductive administrative meetings. The type where one persons delivers a 'sermon' and everyone else listens; no decisions are made and no actions or changed procedures result. Something has to change as I thing teaching is getting much hard now.

Steve | 27 June 2018  

I'd just like to add some weight to Chris Curtis's comments below. It is also my opinion that conditions for Secondary Teachers eroded badly in the last 10 years or so.

Steve Hicks | 27 June 2018  

You will be cast out for suggesting that teachers might be properly paid. The problem is not average pay, but the fact that generally the way you get an increase, at least early in your career is by not dying. Increments for mere seniority have got to go. That way actually good teachers can be paid a lot more, while those that never progress can stay at their graduate rate.

Bob | 28 June 2018  

I suggest that English and HASS (Humanities and Social Sciences) teachers' loads are adjusted as the preparation and marking takes much longer than say a Physical Education teacher. So I recommend that these teachers have less classes as a full time load than other teachers to allow for this inequity. Literacy has declined due to multiple factors, even more of a reason to support our main literacy teachers in English and HASS.

Deanne Davies | 28 June 2018  

This article should be sent to every Education Office in Australia. In my 20 years of teaching, I have never felt as overworked as I am now teaching in an Australian Catholic school. The systemic requirements and obsession over data collection is unbelievable. At times, I wish we can just teach and do less admin tasks. I love the idea of outsourcing non-teaching jobs.

Mary | 28 June 2018  

Teacher attrition is hardly a problem while teacher oversupply remains such an issue: https://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2017/11/answer-teacher-supply-not-university-qualifications/ What difference does attrition make? Teachers who are lost to the system can easily be replaced by the tens of thousands of others across the country who are unemployed or underemployed. The oversupply, created courtesy of self-serving universities, has the flow-on effect of making it difficult for those working in teaching to aspire to better conditions. ... If they don't like the job, there are plenty more available to take their place!

BPLF | 29 June 2018