The School Doctor: Coloured Pens and Work-Life Balance

In the latest column for Schools Improvement, The School Doctor addresses the issue of teachers’ work-life balance.

There was much unhelpful fallout from the comment by Nick Gibb, Schools Standards Minister, that when teachers are marking, ‘it’s not required for there to be this dialogue on paper in different-coloured pens, this to and fro between the child and the teacher’. Part of this came from the conflation of marking in different-coloured pens and a dialogue between pupil and teacher. The latter is often productive; the former has yet to be proven more effective than marking in one colour that stands out from the rest of the work (even, gasp, red).

A concise yet productive dialogue can be achieved when marking, when that marking is economical and to the point about future development: more than a cursory grade, but less than an essay. It is not necessarily reliant on a teacher reaching for a pink pen for a third of their marking, a green pen for another third, and a purple pen for another.

Gibb was addressing the issue of teacher workload, and work-life balance. I have seen first-hand the excessive amount of time some teachers spend annotating exercise books in a kind of paint-by-numbers exercise, when their time would be better spent writing to-the-point (in one colour) then going home to watch TV or sleep. The fundamental question that arises is: is it possible, when teachers are working like this, to strike a work-life balance? The short answer, I suspect, is ‘probably not’. But it is worth addressing the debate.

There are few issues more contentious in teaching than the extent to which teachers should be expected to devote time and energy to their jobs outside the set working hours (however those are defined). This has even got to the point that some teachers and their union representatives advocate the withdrawal of work that might be argued to be additional to teachers’ contracted term-time hours.

In my first week of teaching, I flicked through a book which gave some bullet-point advice to people in my fledgling scenario. ‘Try to have one evening a week without any schoolwork’, it said. ‘Try to take one day off per weekend’, it said. ‘Ho, ho, ho’, I thought, ‘I shan’t be needing that advice. I’ll have a few evenings off and full weekends, thank you very much’. It took about a day for me to be disabused of my naïve notion.

Fast forward a number of years to last weekend when I decided to set aside Sunday as the first day in two months with no schoolwork in it at all. I lasted an hour, before doing another couple of hours’ schoolwork. This is not a sob story and I am not asking for sympathy: I love my job and (usually) don’t resent devoting so-called ‘leisure time’ to making sure it gets done properly.

There are some outside the teaching profession who think teachers should stop whining because we get such long vacations, so we can allegedly put our feet up and watch Jeremy Kyle while the rest of the working world keeps on with their daily slog. On the other hand, there are those teachers who speak of being driven to tears by the relentless time- and energy-demands placed on them during term, which do not always disappear once the so-called vacation arrives.

If teachers are not to take a pro-rata pay-cut, it is not unreasonable to suggest that some of the vacation time hours be transplanted into the term. Here are some rough back-of-a-receipt (literally) calculations. In 2016, most full-time teachers are contracted to work 195 full days. Taking into account annual leave and bank holidays, those outside the teaching profession are expected to work 225 full days.

Taking a full day to be 9-5 (or 8-4), that is an extra 240 hours of work over the year by non-teachers. Assuming that teachers do no school work at all during the vacation (which is, for the majority, patently untrue), we can redeploy those 240 hours for teachers over their term-time days. This would mean roughly an hour and a quarter’s extra work per term-time day, to ensure equity of hours with non-teachers.

Few teachers would consider that to be unreasonable; equally, few teachers could claim to be doing an hour and a quarter, or less, in addition to their contracted hours – they are actually doing much more. Plus they are working on weekends and during the school vacations that are eyed enviously by some non-teachers.

This is very crude mathematics, I admit. It also does not take into account those many non-teaching careers that also demand extra hours during the evenings, on weekends, and during annual leave. Nor does it take into account disparities of pay, so the statistics should be viewed in comparison to other professions that do not (for most) pay amazingly well or particularly terribly. Nor, I admit, does it take into account the physical and emotional demands of different types of jobs: some jobs will be easier than teaching a raucous Year 9 set on a Friday afternoon; some will be harder and more dangerous than teaching a lovely Year 13 set on a Monday morning.

I suspect that most of us look quizzically at that small minority of teachers who went into the profession expecting to zoom off when the bell rings, leaving their books in the corner of the room, or who drop everything the second half-term, Christmas, Easter or Summer vacations come around. No one ever lied to us about the workload.

Within reason, it is not unreasonable to expect teachers to add that little bit extra in the evenings, on weekends, or during the vacations. This is partly to ensure parity with non-teaching professions who are paid similar amounts to work more days. But it is also because teaching is the kind of profession – and many, many teachers understand this – that should not be based on counting minutes or pennies. If we truly believe in education, in making our pupils’ lives better, then some of our work will almost certainly go unpaid.

But this does not mean that teachers’ good nature should be exploited. It does not mean that they should have cripplingly low energy and impaired home-lives. Senior leaders (and governments) should be committed to helping teachers find the right balance. We really don’t, many of us, mind working that extra hour and a quarter (at least) per day to make up for our extra vacation.

But both sides of the debate need to be sensitive here. Many (most?) teachers are going way over that hour and a quarter extra. Equally, threatening to take away all extra time beyond 4 o’clock does not necessarily help the teachers’ case when it comes to rational debate about workload. Chipping away at that workload in such a way can help to avoid it becoming overwhelming in the long-run. But good-natured extra commitment should not be taken for granted and turned into arduous, arguably pointless slog, like kaleidoscopic marking.

The School Doctor is a practising teacher at a UK school, using a pseudonym to allow more freedom in his/her regular columns for Schools Improvement.

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  1. Nairb1

    I think you’re being generous to Gibb. While his comments about multi-coloured marking were largely anecdotal … that passes for strong evidence in government policy making if it suits the agenda … he followed it up with ‘a simple grade is sufficient.’ That, as anyone who works in or with schools knows, is palpable nonsense.

  2. northernteacher

    Great article, oh if only it were an hour and a quarter, I’d even settle for 2 hours and a quarter.  Don’t get me wrong I knew what I was getting into 20 years ago, but now I probably spend equal amounts of hours on teaching and paperwork.  It gets my goat that there are certain sectors of society that still think teachers have an easy life.  I would truly love for the opportunity to be provided for someone in government to come and work in a school for a year and maybe, just maybe they could see and appreciate the turmoil they have created.

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