Four tips to help teachers resist overworking and prioritise their wellbeing.

By Melanie Ralph

As much as politicians would like to believe that education is about ‘teaching the basics’, the truth is that not only has the profession become more complex, but as a result, teacher workloads have increased.

In a survey by the Queensland College of Teachers about attrition rates of graduate teachers, respondents who had taught in Queensland schools, but were no longer teaching, stated they were “working six days a week” to produce the “best” lessons for students, or that they could “have a happier, easier life doing other work” because in “normal jobs you get to walk away at the end of the day,” whereas “teaching follows you home” with a “constant pressure to plan for tomorrow.” 

Evidently, disillusionment and workload pressure are key factors in teachers wanting to leave.

According to The Independent Education Union of Australia, teacher workload includes, but is not limited to, “the number of worked hours, the quantity of work not related to teaching (eg administrative work) and in general the feeling of being overwhelmed by work.”  As a response to “snowballing” workloads, the Queensland Teachers’ Union has devised a workload reduction campaign across six levels; national, state, regional, community, school and individual. They encourage teachers to “start small and put in place measures that reclaim your own work-life balance.”

The truth is that many teachers overwork due to a fear of being judged.  I know from experience that this fear is often underpinned by the idea that all of our choices as teachers are being watched.  By our colleagues, our students, parents, the media, politicians, even sometimes most harshly by ourselves. 

The fear of judgement that can lead many teachers to overwork is a symptom of the wider surveillance in schools that has become normalised due to increased datafication.  Jarke & Breiter (2019) define datafication as “the ways in which new technological and computational techniques introduces new means to measure, capture, describe and represent social life in numbers.”

Juliane Jarke explains, “The education sector is one of the most noticeable domains affected by datafication, because it transforms…the ways in which teaching and learning are organised.”   Sure, data can be used to “improve school development” but it has also increased teachers’ “associated fears with respect to surveillance and control.” 

Surveillance of teachers has, as Dr. Damien Page of Leeds Beckett Univeristy suggests, become more “sophisticated, penetrative, and ubiquitous” – think learning walks, parent satisfaction surveys, published test results and ‘League Tables’ – and is driven by “neoliberal notions of quality and competition.”

These notions are often rebranded as ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ and as Nan Bahr asserts, the “disrespect for the complexity of teaching has given rise to an environment where teachers are regarded as ‘naughty children’ (Hargreaves).  The sense is that these naughty teachers need a firm hand, guidelines, rules, clear expectations and evaluative ‘shocks’ to keep them on track.”

For a humorous take on ubiquitous surveillance in schools, check out the parody Twitter account known as “SLT (Senior Leadership Team) Newbie” whose bio reads: “I don’t exist but you’ve worked with me at your previous, current, or next school.”

In all seriousness:  my intention is not to suggest that teachers lack the capability to make informed choices about their work life balance.  What I do doubt is whether teachers feel empowered to do so, or whether some of the habits of overwork are driven by a desire to not be seen – by others or by themselves – as ‘naughty.’

Page reminds us: “The fact that schools can be seen as surveillant assemblages does not mean that teachers necessarily become ‘dupes’… there is always room for agency and, perhaps more importantly, resistance.”

Here are four tips that have helped me find room for agency in my career.

  1. Ditch PowerPoint

Elisabeth Bumiller’s New York Times article, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint, highlights the overuse of PowerPoint, not just in schools but in business and defence, and how it “stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.” 

I know that teachers have a special relationship with PowerPoint – I get it.  PowerPoint is safe.  It works.  In a profession where anything can go wrong at any second, it’s heartening to know that at the very least you have your slides.  But, as Rick Penciner, of the Universtiy of Toronto, asserts, “We have come to rely on PowerPoint use in situations that are merely conversations or discussions,” and that “not all presentations require visual support… Participants are there to hear and see you speak, not watch slides.” 

In describing his own journey away from PowerPoint use, Yiannis Gabriel, Professor of Organizational Theory University of London, arrived at a similar view finding that “PowerPoint inevitably leads to comfortable, incontestable, uncritical, visually seductive and intellectually dulling communication.”

Sometimes in my daydreams I imagine a useful educational experiment would be to disable PowerPoint for a week across all schools to see how differently teachers would teach.  Would classrooms suddenly become more active, interesting, dynamic places? I believe they would.  Or would teachers crumble like the Springfield Elementary teachers in The Simpsons episode when Lisa steals all the Teacher’s Edition textbooks? 

In his hilarious sketch titled “Why PowerPoint Sucks”, Belgian comedian Arnout Van den Bossche warns that PowerPoint can “suck the life out of your presentation” and laments that “in the sixties we knew how to make a speech.”  See below.

I’m not suggesting that teachers must be as transformative as Martin Luther Kind Jr. every lesson, but instead of allowing PowerPoint to position us as a sage on the stage, consider the ‘guide on the side’ role of a teacher and wherever possible, ask: is PowerPoint the best way to engage students?  Or does it perpetuate the ‘transmittal’ model of teaching, which assumes that student minds are like empty containers into which teachers pour knowledge?

We know that contemporary careers require students to collaborate, wrestle with open-ended problems and think critically and creatively, so it seems absurd that we would rely so heavily on  PowerPoint slides that “lock the thinking process along a single linear path, blocking impromptu variations and digressions; in short, improvisation and exploration” (Yiannis Gabriel).

About 6 years ago I challenged myself to not use PowerPoint for an entire term.  I do of course still project information or images on the big screen, but I am no longer spending my planning time creating long PowerPoint presentations that do the heavy lifting for students.  For instance, I used to make 20-slide PowerPoint’s about Mary Shelley’s life and family, or the context of a novel, and nowadays, this is information that my students will seek and organise themselves. I no longer tweak and polish lengthy slideshows when I know that students could – or should – be learning how to seek out information with my guidance.   

My term-long challenge became a career-long one that has not only freed up my planning time but has changed the way I teach.  I invite you to take up the challenge.

2. Bypass collegial commiseration

Research has established that the interpersonal relationships we develop in staffrooms help to set the tone for our emotional wellbeing. One way to maintain wellbeing is to actively avoid negatively commiserating with colleagues.  This does not mean being unsupportive towards co-workers, or exerting a kind of phony optimism, it just means being strategic and mindful about the way in which conversations can shape the culture of the space and impact wellbeing.

Anat Kainan coined the term ‘grumblings’ to describe the various types of complaints in school staffrooms.  Typical topics to be grumbled about include work hours, competing to prove how hard we work (“I was here till 5:15pm!”  “You think that’s bad?  I was on the Year 7 sport bus that broke down!”), difficult classes or students, or educational institutions as a whole, what Kainan calls ‘the establishment’.  This could be the school management, its staff, or the head of a department.  She did note that in her research, grumblings about ‘the establishment’ always referred to someone “up there” (be it in the school or on a national level) who “does not understand, or does not help, or demands the impossible.” 

The truth is that grumblings can be a slippery slope into what Lauren Vargas describes as a Misery Olympics, and a key event to skip is mocking students or their work.  She argues that this practice not only reinforces low expectations of students, but it can also create a toxic work culture. 

Now more than ever, students deserve our respect and kindness, both in the classroom and behind closed doors, too.  I agree with Vargas: “When kindness replaces complaining about kids, it can transform our expectations of our students as well as our workplace culture.

3. Strategic individualism – finding zen moments in the chaos

In a society that consistently privileges extroversion, it’s easy to feel judged as antisocial when we take physical time out in our day.  But taking time out for yourself is actually an important expression of what Andy Hargreaves calls “strategic individualism” – a teacher’s effort to “reflect, retreat and re-group.” He believes it is sometimes integral to sustain ones “professional, social and personal productivity.” 

But it can be very difficult to physically ‘retreat’ in teaching, particularly in staffrooms, which can be a place of emotionally re-energising and connecting, or at other times, overwhelming.  Margaret Clare Parks in her research on teacher relationships in high school staffrooms aptly describes staffrooms as “important, but imperfect” spaces. 

All the participants in her case study of a staffroom space expressed a desire for a personal space which was quiet.  While this may be achievable for private schools (who have the money to build world-class observatory’s or ‘rethink’ their uniforms in collaboration with fashion designers), accommodating such luxuries for staff as a ‘quiet space’ in public schools seems like wishful thinking, especially given that we are already so overcrowded that lunch times have to be staggered or “pop up” schools have to be urgently built.

If the continued presence of ‘temporary’ demountable classrooms across Australian public schools is anything to go by, it’s fair to say there’s nothing temporary about the lack of infrastructure that prioritises teacher wellbeing. 

So, how does one ‘reflect’ and ‘regroup’ in a crowded high school?  Well, taking a walk off campus or sitting outside to eat or stare at tress can be hugely beneficial.  Real trees are preferable of course, but research suggests that even looking at pictures of trees can reduce stress.  Likewise, wearing headphones when the staffroom becomes too noisy, or going to class early can help teachers reflect and re-group on the fly.

4. Challenge the sacrificial stereotype

For many people, teaching is what Michael Fullan and Hargreaves describe as a “calling of service and sacrifice to a community and its greater good” (quoted here).

Graham Moloney, General Secretary of the Queensland Teachers Union, notes the religious overtones of this ‘sacrifice’ in what he calls the ‘sacrificial stereotype’ of teaching; for instance, popular culture representations of teachers often portray them as obediently giving their all to the job – who are at risk of burning out; who don’t say ‘no’ and who lose sight of their own health and wellbeing. This sacrificial stereotype is one of the reasons Moloney argues that “the profession is becoming unattractive and untenable.”

A common manifestation of this stereotype is the phrase “teacher guilt”. This phrase encompasses the guilt many teachers feel when either taking a moment for themselves, or – shock horror – calling in sick.  In fact, a British study found that “48 per cent of teachers said they would always come into work when feeling unwell compared with an average of 26 per cent of workers in other sectors.” 

A quick search of #teacherguilt on social media sites reveals countless posts about teachers feeling guilty about “not working on lesson plans” or taking a sick day. This trend is an example of “teachers voluntarily participating in their own surveillance” (Page).  For instance, I’m unaware of any other workforce that so publicly shames itself for being human. 

Another online trend to ‘makeover’ classrooms to resemble IKEA catalogues or boho weddings, can leave some teachers feeling envious of the privilege of a clean, modern space, and contributes to teacher workload.  Misty Adoniou, former teacher and now Associate Professor at the University of Canberra, says that in hindsight, though some aspects of her weekends spent decorating her classroom were fun, it was nevertheless time-consuming: “It was a drain on my financial resources,” and given the research evidence, “there wasn’t much educational benefit to my students.”

Both the #teacherguilt and classroom makeover trends have nothing to do with systemic workload demands from ‘up there’ and everything to do with teachers willingly ascribing to the sacrificial stereotype. 

It is perhaps also teachers’ expectations of themselves that have become most untenable. As Jane Caro asserts, in a system that lauds “the exceptional teacher and/or school” whilst implying that “all the others are falling short,” is it any wonder that in many cases it is teachers who judge themselves most harshly? 

In a bid to improve the professionalism of teaching, Australia has continuously embraced reforms that seek to categorize and reward teachers with incentives. This has resulted in increased workload and burnout as teachers become cornered in a system that continuously pressures them to prove their efficacy.  Again, Page puts it aptly:  “Surveillance is the process, education as a product is the outcome.”

I’ve written about my own experience of squirrelling away evidence to prove my efficacy as a teacher here, and my subsequent return to my more self-assured, relaxed and joyful teacher identity when I began to challenge stereotypes such as these.   

Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Education Policy at the Gonski Institute, says, “Improving the education system is not rocket science – it’s more complicated than that.” Sacrificing our wellbeing while we wait for politicians to “wake up” and deliver on complicated promises, such as increased teacher salaries and non-contact time, may be as futile as waiting for those ‘temporary’ demountables to disappear. 

But in the meantime, there is nothing naughty about teachers making choices at an individual level to manage their workload and wellbeing. 

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