“Hey general public, teaching isn’t an episode of Waterloo Road!”
I want to be clear from the outset – this is not a blog about how teachers work harder than everyone else, but it is a blog to state some facts about the work teachers actually do.
I think there is a huge public vacuum in terms of the knowledge and understanding people have about what teachers do and why it is a very challenging job.
Media, coupled with adult memories of their own schooling (often negative) has led to much of the public, even those supportive of teachers, to harbour an idea of what teachers do that I like to call “Waterloo Road Teaching”.
"Waterloo Road Teaching" typically consists of:
Teachers and Students bantering
Teachers gossiping with other teachers between lessons, during lessons and at lunchtime, usually with coffee cups in hand
Technology always working, including photocopiers
Teachers setting work and then reading newspapers in classrooms
Teachers leaving work at 3.30 with a single briefcase ready to go to the pub
Teachers rarely, if ever, seen planning, marking or engaging in a large part of the job.
While shows like Casualty showcase doctors and nurses rushing around, performing high stress operations and saving lives and while the various court room dramas show lawyers delivering consummate, professional performances, hinting at high levels of academic prep and rigour, teachers get something much more comic book.
Even the “Educating” series fails to really deliver a more wholesome interpretation of teacher life (in my opinion). And that's a documentary!
What teaching actually is:
Face to face (or online teaching) – 60 minute sessions.
You CAN NOT pop out of the lesson, close your eyes for 30 seconds, have a minute out to check your social media. You HAVE TO be constantly watching, anticipating, responding to the individual behaviours and interactions of (usually) between 25 and 35. If you switch off, students will. You have to be “on it”.
Also, whether you are on screen or stood at the front of the classroom, you always have LOTS of eyes on you. In the past, I’ve compared this to being a West End performer, but doing 5 shows a day. Any slip ups will probably be picked up on by students, and could derail an entire “show”. Concentration has to be optimum.
Not only that, but teachers need to have guts! You are going to speak in front of hundreds of young people every day, probably trying to explain things they have no knowledge of, or interest in. You know that you’ll be challenged at some point, directly or indirectly. If you are lucky, it might be some “low level disruption”, if you are unlucky it might be a “Miss, this is boring” or “Sir, fuck off”. Then there are the interested ones, who don’t get what you’ve tried to explain. You’ll need to respond to them quickly and effectively as you have 30 others waiting on you. The stress and pressure of this, if done on a daily basis, in terms of anticipation and delivery is exhausting, an exhaustion that can't be dismissed away as if it's "just teachers moaning". I challenge anyone to try this and say it's different for them.
“Work” for the average person, like my friend who works in HR, consists of being sat in front of a laptop, maybe slouched on the sofa (formally in an office), sending emails, attending zoom meetings and so on. There will be a chance to pop to the toilet, make a coffee, eat food whilst working, have music on in the background. Long hours, they are working hard, within their context. But I’m sorry, teaching is a completely different context requiring a completely different version of “work”. Teachers don't “work” like this when they are in the school, It’s far detached.
The classroom is your classroom, it’s all yours, the buck stops with you, and the children won’t be as forgiving as your fellow co-worker adults when your PowerPoint is dodgy or when you stutter your way through a presentation. And that presentation you did last month, the one you prepped for weeks, how about doing 5 similar, for tomorrow, to different audiences each time, get ready.
Again, every job has it’s moments of intensity – a lawyer in the courtroom, a doctor in a theatre. I just think these “parts” of these jobs are understood much more in terms of their requirements than teaching is, the act of being in the classroom isn’t seen in the same way. Perhaps people see it as less important, certainly less challenging and probably less “professional”?
Planning a Lesson:
Ok, I can only speak for myself here, but I don’t think that’s a bad starting point. I’m in my 14th year of teaching (10 years in 4 UK state schools, 3 in private international ones).
Some lessons can take me 5 minutes to plan (if I’ve taught them successfully before). Teaching new content to a GCSE or A Level group might take me 30-60 minutes to plan effectively. This might include locating or creating suitable resources. And this is now, after all these years! maybe there is something wrong with me!? but if I want to teach a lesson that I'm confident in, these are my time scales.
So, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that if you times that by 20 lessons a week, you might be spending anywhere between 90 minutes and infinite amounts of time planning lessons. For a newly qualified teacher, it's a huge undertaking. Of course, this can be variable as students might sit an exam one lesson (might not require planning but will still require resourcing) or if you teach a different class the same content that week (but it will usually need adapting in some way).
The misconception, of course, is that teachers walk into a room, deliver everything magically off the top of their heads, and get an apple on the desk at the end. Unfortunately, this is a misconception of many of the political class, probably brought about by their own education in elite private schools where lessons were much more of a lecture and actual teaching would take place in cosy one to one or small group break outs.
Many teachers are probably completing the same amount of “work” as other professionals are in a single week *outside of classroom contact time*. And yes, the probable response will be “all professionals do overtime”. Yes – they do, but they are usually paid for those additional hours. “But what about the holidays?”; teachers aren’t paid for those holidays, their wages are aggregated over a year. “But even if they aren’t paid holidays, at least they can chill?” Yes, they can, but all that marking, planning and admin still needs doing. There are things that have to be done, holiday or not.
At the end of 2018, I put out a poll asking how much marking teachers were doing a week on average? More than 2,000 people answered. 12 per cent said less than an hour, 50 per cent said two to four hours, 31 per cent said five to 10 hours and 7 per cent said more than 10 hours.
I conducted the same poll at the end of 2019:
So, once you've stood up and delivered your 5 top notch performance pieces, it might be time to bed in for some serious ticking, crossing and commenting.
Teaching is an incredibly rewarding and exhilarating job but if you think it's an easy ride or can be compared to a lot of jobs, you are wrong!
One last word on schools being closed, they aren't and haven't been.
I don't know any teachers who see the delivery of online learning as a joke. They are spending even more time planning it in than normal. Resources need to be adapted, new technologies need to be managed.
This isn't another teaching moaning, so many teachers feel blessed, proud and determined. I'm one of them. But this is about trying to explain, start to explain, what teachers actually do.