Tuesday, January 6, 2015

3 big ideas about teacher workload

Andrea Sands wrote a great piece in the Edmonton Journal about Alberta teachers who are taking part in a massive workload study. (I've written about teacher workload here).

As a classroom teacher, I have 15 years of experience actually teaching in public schools. I don't just write and talk about teaching -- I'm actually teaching. I don't just have something to say, I'm doing the work and I have something to say about it.

During my interview with Andrea, I tried to emphasize that it is not simply the quantity of my work that is problematic -- the problems I face in my classroom can be best found in the complexity of teaching. Simply put, I am expected to teach too many children who have too many needs.

Let me explain.

This is my 15th year of teaching.

I've mostly taught middle school, but I've also taught some special education.

At home, I am a father where I have a class size of two: Kayley is 7 and Sawyer is 2. While Kayley wants to play a farming board game where we plant, harvest and sell crops for cash that involves adding and multiplying, Sawyer wants to run around and throw the game pieces. You can imagine how different their needs are.

At school, I teach 126 students every day. I have thirty-three grade 6 students that I teach language arts and social studies, and thirty-three grade 8 students that I teach social studies. I see the grade 6s twice a day and the grade 8s once a day. Each class is forty-nine minutes.

At home I get pulled in 2 different directions while at school there are over 30 different students every 49 minutes, 6 times a day.

To be clear, these are not 126 similar children.

Some of these children:
  • are living in poverty
  • are abused and neglected
  • have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • are reluctant learners
  • are learning English as a second language
  • are behaviourally challenged
  • suffer from mental health issues
  • come to school a couple times a month, or not at all
  • are academically challenged
  • are immature
  • are not loved
  • are uninspired
And yet some of these children:
  • love school
  • love to read
  • are loved
  • are curious
  • are inspired
  • attend regularly
Too many of my students draw from the first list -- not enough are described by the second. While all of my students are in middle school, some would fit well in elementary and some are ready for high school.

Individually, I feel confident and competent working with children from either list, but when faced with 30+ every class and 126 of them everyday, I am overwhelmed. 

Here are 3 big ideas I would like people to understand about teacher workload:

1. I meet all my students' needs only if some children don't show up. Many Albertans work hard, and some may work more hours in a week than teachers. My issue is not that I average 45 to 50 hours a week. My issue is that I'm expected to teach too many students with too many needs. My expectations for my students are only surpassed by the expectations I have for myself. Everyday I go to work hoping to get to every child only to go home knowing that I can't. Alberta parents should be upset about this as much as Alberta teachers are.

2. My working conditions are my students' learning conditions. Too many people want to frame this teacher workload discussion around how much teachers get paid and how much time they get off. I'm not asking for more pay or time off, although these are important, I am saying that because of the current deteriorating conditions in Alberta schools, quality and quantity of student learning is suffering. When we play politics with education by framing this as a labour debate (instead of an education debate), children lose. 

3. Teachers are so busy teaching they don't have time and effort to learn how to be better teachers. School has looked, tasted, smelled and felt like school for too long. In order for things to improve, things have to change, and sustainable change needs to be led by teachers who are supported through inspiring professional development. I know too many teachers who are so overwhelmed by their teaching assignment that they don't have the time or effort to learn how to change and improve their teaching.

In our cars, we have instruments that tell us when our fuel is low and engine temperature is high. 

In education, we have teachers who have their fingers on the pulse of their classrooms.

We ignore our car's instruments and teachers at our own peril. It should be no surprise that those who are comfortable with the way things are become angered by those who wish to influence change. Labelling these gauges as whiny allows us to criticize, distort or dismiss inconvenient information in favour of our existing beliefs while ensuring that things get worse for our children.


  1. Thanks for this Joe. Some striking (no pun intended) similarities to issues we face in BC as well. We tried to inform the public...hopefully through this interesting, to say the least, workload study you'll have more success in this regard. Similar class composition to many here at our high school on the Island.

  2. I teach in the California desert (Palm Springs area) and have taught in Sacramento, San Diego, and suburban Chicago--29 years total. I've often--as now--worked in alternative schools. I couldn't agree more with everything you say. Sadly, the work load is pushing me into early retirement; or at least, earlier than I'd planned. I'll miss the kids but the stress is taking a huge physical toll on me.

  3. I teach 201. Talk about a workload! Meeting needs!?

  4. I wish that we hada study like this in our state, North Carolia. The state of education in our state has gone down hill be aus of legislatures who are Illinois to dump all problems with poor test scores, drop out rates, budget cuts at the feet if teachers. I teach 120 students a day in middle school social studies. I have 32 students labeled special needs, 3 behavior interventions, 6 with other health impairments, a student with cerebral palsy and seizures, a hearing impaired student, 2 whom have tried to commit suicide this year, 1 that is homeless, 3 ESL students and a number from abused, foster, alcoholic households. This is teaching in a regular public school. These students have modifications on class assignments, tests, projects that makes my planning a nightmare at times because of the sheer numbers of one assignment I prepare. I love my job. I do my best to accommodate and teach to each students needs. No wonder my days a school are 7:20 am until 6pm

    1. Actually, next year, there will be a Teacher Working Conditions survey done. It is every 2 years. If you Google, NC Teacher Working Conditions Survey, you can find what the conditions are like in your school and county.

  5. American teachers are not only paid poorly, but they are treated worse by having their priceless work reduced to meaningless scores on bad tests.

    At some point, who is going to want to teach in the US?

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post. It's as if you read my mind! How can I possibly get to all the kids when some are so disruptive and angry when they first come to school?

  7. You have arrived at the same three conclusions that so many of us have. Now how do we persuade the 'powers that be' that we, as teachers, are the ones who know what students need?

  8. This is a wonderful article and I couldn't agree more with the content! I have been teaching 23 years in the public school system in Alabama. I totally relate to trying to meet the needs of, for me 160, middle school students every day. Thanks for putting my feelings into words!

  9. Well-said. Same in NYC elementary schools.. Been teaching 11 years but frustrated and don't know if I want to continue. :/

  10. From politicians to administrators to the tax-payer, everyone thinks they have the answers for improving education. Education is not an industry in the same way as all other industries are. It must not be treated as a "factory" where each student is a "blank" to be "stamped out" on an assembly line. There will be no real solution to the problems in our system. The student needs to be respected at all levels and the student-teacher relationship needs to be trusted. A system based on individualized instruction and the nurturing of each students strengths, abilities, and differences is necessary to get our students to the next level. People are not "one size fits all."

  11. Your article is very interesting. The list you gave in the article describes a lot of student and what they are faced with in day to day life. When you have students and they all have different situations you are not teaching just one student. You are teaching to different students who are facing something in life different from the student sitting next to him or her.


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