I have taught English in the UK for nearly 2 decades and am now at the point where I rarely take work home with me. Workload has always been a significant factor in colleagues leaving the profession and almost saw me leave under my previous Multi Academy Trust. It doesn’t have to be this way. I have always been a keen technology enthusiast in education but firmly believe the technology should be the best supporting actor not the star of the show. In fact, if you were to call in to one of my lessons, you would be forgiven for missing it entirely with the exception of my visualiser which is extremely prominent. The way I employ technology to support my workload has however made massive reductions to my working day and actually permeates every single thing I do. You won’t see it flashing and garishly showing off its jazz hands but look closely under the hood and you will see, hear and feel its powerful engine purring away in support of my teaching in hugely significant ways.
Planning lessons is one of the biggest workload contributors and quite rightly so. When we stop and think about how much time we are actually planning the learning our students will do however we can gain an invaluable insight into where the time goes. How much time is spent writing out plans, tweaking a presentation slide deck or searching for resources online? There are better ways to work if way cut through to what is absolutely essential and tweak our working practices.
I have blogged previously about how I use Google Calendar as a central planning hub. Please check that blog out for advice about how I do this. The time this saves me over writing in a paper planner is significant but more importantly makes my teaching more streamlined and efficient since I can access the documents I need from right there in the event listing. No searching through folders or rummaging in filing cabinets needed. I have everything I need only a few clicks away.
All of my planning is stored centrally in Google Drive. This gives me access to it from any device anywhere. It also makes it really easy to share this work with other colleagues. I can share folders with individuals, subject teams and even the whole Trust if I need to with a few simple clicks. It is this ability to access the planning from anywhere and from any device that really cuts my planning time. I don’t have to carry large files around and don’t have to worry about losing those insecure USB drives we all used to rely on so heavily.
Across our department (and across the Trust) we share collaborative planning documents so that all our resources are of the best quality possible. We have subject specialist Directors overseeing a number of schools each and they do an amazing job of ensuring that we have access to the best resources available which in turn allows me to focus on teaching and learning. Our planning time is therefore shared across a large number of colleagues and as a result my day to day planning only entails tweaking resources to fit my style and students’ needs. If your department, School or Trust/District are not planning and working collaboratively the first improvement and suggest in order to cut workload is to start doing so. A workload shared is a workload halved.
Marking and Feedback
Now this has become something of a behemoth in the last 7 or 8 years. An obsession with triple marked, multicoloured, mega stamped feedback practices with pages of individualised comments and completion tasks became a monster that threatened to implode the profession. But again, cutting through the faff and fiddle to find what works and ditching the rest has been revolutionary for me. Technology has transformed the way I work here more than anywhere else with massive workload gains.
As I set students a practice task, I circulate the room with a marking pen in hand constantly checking the quality of what they are producing and giving verbal feedback along the way. In my experience, the best feedback we give is the feedback that is given directly to the student for them to act on immediately. Live marking is not the same as documenting verbal feedback which would be a waste of time. Live marking for me is about catching misconceptions and fixing errors prior to a piece of work being completed and before those misconceptions become embedded. I have found it cumbersome to try to mark work in the same way I would do when sat with a set of books so I don’t bother trying. I use Live Marking as error and misconception fixing time. This way, when a student hands in a piece of work, I’m spending less time catching editing their work and more time judging the quality of what they produced and setting actionable feedback accordingly. When I sit down to mark a class set of books, part of my job is already done and I save massive amounts of time.
In English, judging a grade is notoriously difficult and will often divide a group of colleagues when we sit down to standardise a piece of work. I use a wide range of peer and self assessment strategies but prior to a deep marking session self and peer assessment in my classroom is more about catching errors prior to submission of the assessment. If I miss it during live marking, a plenary of peer or self assessment where students catch each other’s errors ensures I don’t become their proof reader or editor when marking. This not only saves a great deal of marking time but also focuses my feedback on actionable improvements as opposed to error spotting corrections.
Success Criteria Based Teaching and Feedback
When I plan which pieces of work I’m going to deep mark and offer detailed feedback on, I always share the success criteria for that task prior to students completing it. I have them displayed on the board via Google Docs during task completion and can even add to them using Voice Typing during my live marking tours. If I notice several students forgetting to return to their planning during writing for example I can add a success criteria point for them all to refer to. By then turning the success criteria in to “Can you add…?” statements I can pre-populate my feedback sheets accordingly. When I mark a student’s work and spot that they failed to include one of the success criteria I can set feedback accordingly. If several students fail to include the same success criteria I know that that element needs to inform my next steps teaching and I add some appropriate instruction prior to them responding to the feedback. This has been the focus of a research project I’ve been completing this year and will be covered in much more detail in an upcoming blog towards the end of the year.
I’ve blogged previously about my use of visualiser in the assessment and feedback in my classroom so please check this blog out for more information. This device has had one of the biggest impacts on my workload allowing me to quickly share a document with the class instead of having to create a presentation with the required element embedded. The ability to live demonstrate my thought processes during modelling is immensely powerful but also saves me the time I used to spend writing model paragraphs and colour coding features. I now write the model response live in the lesson and demonstrate colour coding the successful features with highlighters for students to practice the same. My workload is cut and the quality of my instruction has improved.
Voice Typing for Feedback
Again I have blogged previously about this but I cannot stress strongly enough how powerful this tool is. When I first made the switch from handwriting my feedback comments into books to dictating them using Voice Typing I saw my feedback time for 30 books slashed from over 2 hours and 30 minutes down to about an hour. I can still give specific actionable feedback and it can still be given in physical exercise books but the time taken is reduced significantly. When I paired up the input via Live Marking, the specific feedback dictated during a traditional marking session and the pre-sharing of success criteria I saw my workload tumble even further. I can now give feedback on a full set of 30 books in about 45 minutes and try to do one set of books per day. I leave them til my final job of the day so I know that when I am done, so is my day and I don’t have to take anything home.
The most burdensome and sometimes onerous aspect of any job is probably the paperwork that underpins it. Technology has the power to both create and cut workload here. Initiatives that are too cumbersome, too time consuming or come with too little training will add to the workload of teachers and impact negatively on the outcomes for students as a result. I have developed a few simple tweaks and handy tricks to keep it manageable for myself here.
Again, Voice Typing has made massive reductions to my workload in my admin time. I use it for everything that requires a written response from emails to reports. For example, we have a superb, bespoke digital system to record and track Praise, Consequences and Interventions. When I award my Star Students in a lesson, I can quickly open the software on my tablet and dictate the reason for awarding it with the student present so the whole class know the reasons. I add the Consequence records after the lesson for obvious reasons but again Voice Typing cuts the time significantly. Every phone call home, seating plan change and revision package distributed can be quickly added to our Interventions system via dictation.
Our school day starts with students coming straight in to Period One at 8.25 so I arrive at school between 7.30 and 7.45. The first thing I do is print and photocopy my resources for the day. Now this is one area that I will definitely be improving on very shortly by collecting my resources into booklets for the half term and photocopying en masse at the start of the term. Booklets of resources had a really bad reputation when I started my career but I am glad to see them making something of a resurgence. If I know what core documents I will need for the term then I can make huge workload gains by collecting them together and printing them in one batch.
I check my emails at several key points during the day and action them according to their content. Prior to Period One I check for any last minute alterations to the day (students called for meetings etc) and add them to my planner. At Break and Lunch I have another quick check for last minute updates and changes. After school, I make a point of clearing my inbox and actioning whatever has been called for that day even if this is setting a reminder to do something later in the week. I can then see at a glance in my Google Calendar what deadlines and important events are coming up without having to flip through pages of notes. I have my emails set up on my phone and tablet however I do not usually reply outside of these times and have them on those devices only to take advantage of the dictation tools.
By having our tracking tools saved in Google Sheets we can all access the tools simultaneously which saves time over saving them on a local shared drive where only one person could edit at once or in a printed mark book where I would have to then transfer them to the tracking tools anyway. Again it also means I can access the file from any device so can have it open as I mark ready to collect the marks/grades. It also means that the data is at my fingertips without having to dig out and through a mark book be it when a student, parent or whoever asks for something.
I enter school at between 7.30 and 7.45am. Our school day finishes at 2.30pm and I leave school between 4.30 and 5pm most days (with the obvious exception of parents/open evenings) and never take marking nor planning home with me. I work through my break and lunch, as I think most teachers do, but do so by choice. Half an hour of work at this time is half an hour extra with my family that evening. If I choose to create a new resource in the evening I do so because I want to, not because I need to, and there is a significant differentiation to make here. I could continue to teach consistently good or better lessons without creating anything new over and above my share within our collaborative planning load so any creation I do in the evenings and weekends is because I want to and enjoy doing so not out of requirement.
Additional responsibilities = Additional workload
I have remained a classroom teacher for the 19 years I have been in the profession and am often asked why I haven’t pursued career progression into middle and/or senior leadership. I look at my working day realistically as being this core block of working time. Any responsibility I add beyond what I do now would obviously come with additional workload which must be accommodated either within that block or in addition to it. At an average of 9-10 working hours per day I am looking at a 45-50 hour week. Additional responsibility would increase that so as a realist I know what I can take on and how much extra I can add before being personally overloaded.
The Bottom Line
Teaching is a profession that will consume every second you allow it to and still make you feel like there is more to be done. As a profession, we need to take control of our workload or risk burning out under an ever increasing load that has crushed colleagues (myself included) for years. By shifting certain working practices, and harnessing the power and potential of technology, we can truly transform the workload issues plaguing our profession without compromising the quality of education we deliver. The old cliche “work smarter not harder” springs to mind here but really is the key to rescuing a generation of colleagues that are in danger of burning out before they have really had a chance to begin.