We hear much about teachers’ workload and how it is driving many teachers out of the profession and so I thought that I would reflect this week on how I have found it. The last two weeks have seen me working in school for four days each week and I must say I think I am too old for that long term and couldn’t cope with full-time teaching! In many ways it was easier to be able to establish some sort of continuity in the classroom but the physicality of the job was exhausting. I am 61 – my official retirement age is 66 and I have no idea how I would continue as a full time primary teacher if my circumstances forced me to. I work really hard in my university job but it is a very different sort of hard work.
In school there is a relentlessness to the focus and constant demands on your time and energy that 30 five year olds bring with them. There is absolutely no opportunity to switch off during the day for a few minutes and even the official break times frequently vanish into a cloud of rushing around looking for things, dealing with accidents or arranging things with colleagues. There is a constant sense of clock watching – let’s get the register done or we’ll be late in for assembly, you need to clear up now because it’s playtime, the dinner staff are ready for us so we can’t talk about that just now and we need to get everything into our bags so we have time for a story before we go home. It often feels like a constant rush to move from one thing to the other with no time to slow down and reflect.
And then the children go home and another layer of work starts! On some days it is a mad rushing round to tidy up before a meeting – CPD, SLT or staff meeting. I must admit meetings have to be brilliant to stop me sitting thinking of everything else I need to do when I get back to the classroom. Once back in the classroom the marking begins and that deserves a new paragraph all to itself!
I have come to realise that there are two aspects to marking and they serve two very distinct purposes. The first, and to me the most important, is the conversation I have with the children about their work. This can be brief or it can take a while. We talk it through and I ask them to explain to me what they have done and we discuss how they could make it better or why they got something wrong. This takes time and I can not do it with the whole class every time but I make sure that I have a conversation with every child regularly. Sometimes this happens when they are in the middle of their work, sometimes when they have finished and occasionally when they have just started. Often there is nothing recorded at the time but for me these are the most meaningful interactions I have with the children and they inform the records I keep of their progress.
The second aspect of marking is when I look at their books at the end of the day, armed with my pink and green pens! Here I look at what they have done in relation to the learning intention and indicate in pink what they have achieved and then in green what they need to focus on next. In many ways this is not marking, it is record keeping. The children can not read what I write and we do not refer to it again. It is more like record keeping and informs my assessment of them on our online system. It also provides evidence of progress / achievement when the ‘book scrutiny’ happens. This seems to be a feature of school life these days (grumpy old woman appearing again!) and Ofsted, when they came to the university, were talking about the ‘books’ being the source of evidence that the children were learning anything. No longer does it seem valid to say it is the process which matters more than the final product because it is the final product on which judgements are made about both the children as learners and me as a teacher.
Marking seems to have extended into two paragraphs which perhaps is an indication of its place in the workload of teachers. I spoke to an NQT at the weekend who was marking all the Year 1 English books for the whole of the past week because the week had been busy and there had not been time to do it. When I started teaching it was said that if you did not mark the books with the children there, it was deemed to be a waste of time. We have moved on from that view but the question still remains as to purpose of the marking and what it is for. If this sort of marking is for record keeping and evidence of learning, where is the marking (or as I prefer to call it – responding to children’s work) that is done with the children and helps them to reflect on their achievements?
Back to workload… it seems that much of the workload is to do with the accountability agenda. Planning is recorded, behaviour records are written up, provision plans are created which show how we will deal with individual needs, marking and sticking things into books is done, displays are created, parents are written to, web pages are updated, etc. etc. etc. There is so much to do and most of it is to do with recording what we do with the children – it is ABOUT the children not FOR the children. All those things are really important and happen – and have always happened in one way or another – but they have not always been recorded in such detail and in so many different ways. This is what is burdensome. Most teachers, I believe, come into the profession because they care deeply about children and want to make a difference in their lives; that happens best through getting to know children well, talking to them, working alongside them, responding to them as individuals and helping them to follow their interests and strengths while supporting their weaknesses. That’s what primary teaching has always meant to me – I don’t mind spending hours doing that and thinking about how I can encourage Johnny to write or help him to see why Mathematics will be important in his life. I resent when my time is taken away from those sort of things to record in triplicate things which provide evidence that I am doing my job. Teachers have been de-professionalised over the years – why don’t we trust them anymore to do the job they were trained for and to make professional judgements about the children in their care.