Teacher workload can prevent educators from creating effective learning environments

Teacher Workload: A Barrier to Innovation in Schools

For the first eight or nine years of my teaching career, I worked all the time. I had accepted that a never-ending teacher workload was just part of the job. After all, we did get summers off.

I worked nights and weekends. Once I pulled an all-nighter to get my grades in on time.

There was always a big pile of paperwork and a looming deadline. Grade that pile of essays. Enter the homework into the grade book. Call that parent again. Have my lessons planned two weeks out. 

I kept telling myself I just had to meet this one deadline. Then, I could relax. But deep down, I knew I was already behind on the next one.

Around year ten, I was starting to burn out. I knew I couldn’t keep up this pace for another ten years.

I began wondering if this was the only way to be a good teacher. Was I using my time efficiently? Did I need to grade so much student work? Was it actually helping them learn?

It was around this time that a flurry of events changed the whole way I thought about education, and about my career.

Rise of the Teaching Machines

I had just been admitted to an EdTech masters program at a top education school. I attended an open house, where the professors were presenting their research.

One project was a study on proximity. A video showed a robot lecturing to students seated at its feet. Then we watched it lecture to a group seated across the room. Apparently, the study had proven that the students at the robot’s feet learned more than those across the room.Some edtech experts are focused on replacing teachers with robots

The next presentation involved a smaller robot. This one stood on a desk, next to a student answering questions on a computer. If the student answered a really tough question, it would bounce up and down, clapping its hands.

I was dumbfounded. Is this where education technology was headed? Replacing teachers with robots?

EdTech and Teacher Workload

Around the same time, I had started using Khan Academy in my classes. 

This seemed like a revolutionary solution to the problem of teacher workload. Students got instant feedback on each question they answered. When they did well, it assigned more challenging content. When they struggled, it would give them extra practice. And it would tell me which topics students needed help in. 

No planning beforehand, no grading after the fact. This could save me ten hours a week. Time I could use to plan more engaging lessons. Besides, each student would have time to work at their own pace and on their own level.

During our first meeting, I told my advisor I wanted to study how to make personalized learning work in schools. There were certainly challenges — how to grade the work, how to align it with school schedules and pacing guides. (This would eventually provide the inspiration for The Three-Bridges Design for Learning).

Her response left me in shock. “That’s a complete waste of time. Programs like Khan Academy do nothing to reinvent learning.”

As a classroom teacher, I didn’t want software to “reinvent learning.” I wanted software that would make my life easier, so I could reinvent learning. 

But as an EdTech researcher, she had little interest in the day-to-day concerns of teachers. She wanted to be the innovator. And the plan was to innovate the teachers right out of the classroom.

I withdrew from the program the next day.

Why Teacher Workload Matters

Anyone who cares about education should care about teacher workload. 

According to Primary Sources (a study conducted by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation), the average teacher works 53 hours a week. Another found that 78% of teachers feel they don’t have enough planning time to properly teach Common Core standards.

Almost half of teachers report stress levels high enough to interfere with their health, their sleep, and the quality of their work. 

Aside from concern over teachers themselves, teacher workload presents a problem for our entire education system. When teachers don’t have time to plan properly, or are too stressed to be their best, children suffer

These high levels of stress are a key contributor to teacher turnover. Roughly one-third of educators leave the classroom after one year. This means more students learning from novice teachers. And there are real financial costs. Urban districts spend an average of $20,000 to onboard each new hire. This adds up to millions of tax dollars per year, even in small and medium-sized cities.

How Did The Teacher Workload Get So Heavy?

There is a simple reason why teacher workloads have become so overwhelming. We expect a lot more from teachers than we used to.

And other than mandates for increased performance, little has changed in the support and resources we provide teachers.

In a traditional classroom, a teacher had two roles: information provider and gatekeeper. They needed to know their content, present it to students, and determine who had learned it.

This doesn’t mean that traditional teachers only did two things. I had many great teachers who inspired us and connected with us on a human level. But it wasn’t a requirement of the job.

For today’s teachers, the bar has risen. We are expected to meet each student’s unique academic and social-emotional needs. Make learning exciting. Analyze data. Integrate technology. The list goes on.

 These are certainly admirable goals. And they do improve the student experience.

But the general approach has been to do these things in addition to everything we were already doing.

To manage teacher workload, understand reources times efficiency equals outcomes

There are really only two ways to improve outcomes. Either increase available resources (time, money), or improve efficiency. 

As the expectations of teachers have risen, can anyone really claim that we’ve done either?

Five Ways for Teachers to Manage Their Workload

In theory, student-centered learning shouldn’t require that teachers work endless hours. But the way many schools use data and address social-emotional learning are terribly inefficient.

And I’m not holding my breath, expecting any of these things to change soon. In the meantime, teachers can take some simple steps to reduce their own workloads.

Assign Less Work

It’s an eternal law: Whatever you put into the world will eventually comes back to you.

Nowhere is this more true than when teachers assign work. 

Early in my teaching career, I thought I needed to keep my students busy. I assigned papers, problem sets, homework, classwork, projects, quizzes, tests, and more.

Being outnumbered twenty-five to one, it was a losing strategy. 

I eventually realized that everything I assigned my students eventually ended up back on my desk. 

Sure, some work is easier to grade than others. But there’s another eternal law: the easier something is, the less value it adds.

Multiple choice worksheets tend to bore students. They don’t teach them much. And they don’t tell us much about what they know.

Better to be selective about what you assign. Less is more. Stop assigning work because there’s a blank spot on the homework schedule. 

We should only assign work when we’re convinced it provides a valuable learning experience. And we should only grade it when the feedback will help students improve, and it will help us better understand and meet their learning needs.

Automate Grading 

A multiple choice question doesn’t tell us much about a student’s understanding. But many multiple choice questions do.

But in order to make use of the information, we need lots and lots of questions answered. And we need a way to aggregate (organize) the information.

This is why I never grade multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions by hand. It takes too long, and it’s impossible to make use of the information. I can add it all up and figure out that one student got 80% right and another got 95%. I could find out that the class average is 88%. 

Google form quiz results by question
Google form quiz results

 

When I use a google form, it shows me what percentage of students got each question right. This level of detail creates a much more effective formative assessment.

Adaptive platforms like IXL or NoRedInk are even more efficient. The software aggregates information by standard. Without even looking at individual questions, I can quickly make instructional decisions. I can see that most of my class needs more practice with nouns, or that three students need a small group lesson on adding fractions.

No Red Ink Skill View

 

Replace Lesson Plans with Unit Plans 

When I started teaching, I was told to “always plan two weeks out.” It was a real headache at first. But I came to appreciate the value of looking ahead.

One year, my department chair came to me a week before school. He wanted to see my unit plans for the entire year.

“Is he crazy!?” I thought. “I finally got used to two weeks out. How am I supposed to know what I’ll be teaching in May?”

As stressful as it was, I learned as much in that one week as any other in my career. 

My weekly lesson planning that year was a breeze. Before I created yearly plans, I would think “what am I going to do in my 4th period class on Wednesday.” Once I started making yearly and unit plans, I could focus on where I wanted students to “get to,” instead of what we needed to “get through.” 

The key is to think broadly about your goals for the year. Then, break the larger goals into units, and decide how many days you have for each. I divide my year into eight to ten units, with fifteen to twenty-five days in each.

If you know your content well, you can create a yearly overview in less than an hour. And you should be able to do two to four unit overviews in an hour. 

Taking a few hours for long-range planning can save you countless hours over the course of the school year. If you’re not comfortable making yearly plans on your own, consider working with a coach or attending a curriculum design workshop.

Delegate Tasks

Someone once told me I should never do for students what they can do for themselves.

This piece of advice has saved me countless hours over the years. And it has also helped with classroom management and student engagement.

As teachers, we are constantly handling tasks that students could do. Handing out papers, sharpening pencils, typing up notes and study guides. If your students ever email you to ask what the homework is, you know what I’m talking about.

This is ‘death by a thousand cuts’ when it comes to time management. Before completing a task, ask yourself, “Am I the only one who can do this?” If the answer is no, get your students involved.

I set up class jobs at the beginning of the year. One student is responsible for stocking the student center with paper, sharpened pencils, and so on. Someone else posts assignments in google classroom. Another organizes the laptop cart.

I teach students to rearrange our desks, based on the activity we’re doing that day. They also pick the vocabulary words they will be quizzed on, and they create their own study guides. (All in class, not as homework).

I’m amazed at how many teachers do all of these things for their students. If you are one of them, stop. Right away.

When we take on too much responsibility, everyone suffers. We get overwhelmed. We have less time for the things that only we can do. Creating engaging lessons, cultivating meaningful connections with students and parents, providing meaningful feedback, and so on. 

And when we do too much, students feel like passive participants in our classroom, instead of active agents in their classroom. As a result, they lose motivation, and they don’t develop the responsibility they need to be successful in school and in life.

Stop Reinventing the Wheel

“I make all my own materials,” — me, circa 2012.

Recently, I worked with a teacher who wanted an engaging way to teach fraction operations. I handed him a number sentence proof activity I had designed for exactly that purpose.

He said he liked it, but would have to redesign it before using it with his students. “I don’t give them anything I didn’t make myself.”

I remember saying the same thing years ago. Making all my own materials was a badge of honor. But it was a disaster in terms of time management. 

It’s important to strike a balance. We all know teachers who teach every lesson straight from the textbook. Or download worksheets and pass them out without even reading them. 

But it doesn’t mean we need to make every material from scratch. You can use materials you didn’t make, and still be a creative, caring teacher. Imagine if every baker had to grow their own ingredients, or every carpenter made their own tools.

Across the country, thousands of teachers are teaching the same lesson you’re teaching tomorrow. There may even be teachers in your school teaching the same subject and grade level.

Take the time to connect with other educators. Those you trust and who have a similar philosophy. By sharing materials and plans, you can free up your prep time to do the things that only you can do for your students.

How Schools Can Address Teacher Workload

When it comes to managing workloads, teachers can’t do it all alone.

Schools need to consider systemic changes that will allow teachers to give their best to their students.

Many schools have policies in place that can make it difficult for teachers to use their time wisely. Many school leaders tell me their teachers need to “work on time management.” These same school leaders require their teachers to submit lesson plans, maintain data binders, assign homework, and grade ‘exit tickets.’ 

Teachers can only manage their time insofar as they have the freedom to prioritize. Most teachers only have five to ten hours of prep time a week. It’s easy to spend all of it completing meaningless paperwork and fulfilling mandates that don’t actually help students.

Schools should carefully review all of their teaching mandates. Unless a policy has a measurable impact on student learning, let teachers make their own decisions. Teachers can easily spend all of their weekly prep time completing meaningless paperwork or fulfilling mandates that don’t really help students.

Reduce Your Workload

Good teaching shouldn’t hurt. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your teaching responsibilities, take a step back. Pick one of the five practices above, and try it out for a week.

For more ideas on managing your time, we’re here to help. Our Teacher’s Pay Teacher’s page has ready-made lesson plans, graphic organizers, and other materials.

The first step to meaningful growth is reflection. By thinking carefully about our teaching practices, we begin taking ownership of our own professional growth. Talking to an instructional coach can also help you apply these strategies to your teaching practice, your lessons, and your students.

Start by completing our free Guide to Reflective Teaching. It includes self-assessments, planning guides, and other helpful resources. Completing the guide will help ensure that you can manage your teaching workload and still give you best to your students.

GET YOUR FREE GUIDE TO REFLECTIVE TEACHING

 

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff

 

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