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Teacher Workload: a Question of Meaning?

One thing the holidays brings to bear is the extent to which the intensity of our job can turn us into Jekyll and Hyde characters, with our term-time selves often a poor reflection of the person we are and aim to be during our holidays. Whilst we focus so intently on our intended goals during term-time, often to the exclusion of all else, the holidays bring with them the opportunity to do those really small things, but also really vital things, which are often sidelined during the sheer toil of term-time: reading a book; spending time in the garden; visiting an old church or castle; visiting the theatre; spending time playing games with the children; writing; exploring the places where we live.

 

In other words, the holidays offer a chance to reconnect. It only takes a couple of days, but after a while, you begin to feel human again.
Which brings into sharp relief the other side of that particular coin, that being how it can feel during term-time. Because oftentimes we are pale shadows of our true selves. We become, in many ways, zombies – fixated on the immediate and short-term demands of the job, we become numb to the outside world, and the meaning and value therein. Those things that define us, that add beauty and worth to our lives, that constitute our understanding of the Good Life, are effectively suspended, save for those snatched moments where we find a way to assert them, perhaps through a renegade ‘off-topic’ lesson or perhaps an after-school club.

 

But this is rarely the norm. Even where our ‘outside interests’ (an odd concept in education) lie squarely within the theoretical realms of the subjects we teach. And it leads to an obvious observation: is this really best for the education of our children?

 

To this end, one wonders if there are insights here to help explain why workload is such an issue in teaching: could it actually be about the zombified life our job leads us toward? When so much of what we do is unrelated to where our skills or passions lie, being things in which we find little value, but the completion of which become the defining characteristic of our jobs, then could this sense of endless value-less tasks be the problem, especially when they are simultaneously obstacles to us using those same hours, and that same energy, doing those things which we really think are of value?

 
 In a recent book of essays entitled ‘Blue Labour’, Ruth Yeoman explores the concept of meaningfulness in work. The essay is rich and nuanced and I could not hope to do it justice here. Nonetheless, as part of setting out her argument for the importance of meaningful work, Yeoman puts her finger on something important:

‘the ideal of meaningful work, of activity which aims at worthwhile purposes, uses the full range of a person’s distinctive capabilities, and commands our emotional engagement retains a strong hold upon our imagination, motivating us to seek work which adds to the personal meaning of our lives – and even to aspire to a society transformed by each person being able to do work which he or she finds to be worth doing.’

This meaningfulness, or meaning-making, is vital for identity, but also our worth and even our health – indeed for Yeoman, this makes it a legitimate area for public, and thereby political, concern. To press home the point, Yeoman explores ways in which we react when meaningfulness is absent from our work:

‘When we work, we are not motivated purely by external goods, such as pay or profit – we act also out of a fundamental need for living a worthwhile life. In the absence of a politics of meaningfulness, people will seek some outlet for their frustrated will to meaning: for example, denied the experience of autonomy, workers will invent simulations of self-determination in the form of games, or even make deliberate mistakes.’

 Of course this links with the old adage that teaching is more of a vocation than a profession – something which recent reforms seem to have been designed to undermine – but the teaching equivalent of rebelling and attempting to re-insert meaning might lie in those occasional renegade lessons cited above, or perhaps in the subversive practices undertaken against SLT/OFSTED instruction in a bid to retain an element of identity and fidelity to our particular visions of what is meaningful in the classroom and our philosophies of how we go about pursuing it.

 
 To illustrate this point, Yeoman recounts the story of a factory line worker who, in an attempt to assert some sort of agency, some sort of value-making, into the monotony and low-control nature of their job, said the following : ‘Yes, I want my signature on ’em too. Sometimes, out of pure meanness, when I make something, I put a little dent in it. I like to do something to make it really unique. Hit it with a hammer. I deliberately [ . . . ] it up to see if it’ll get by, just so I can say I did it’. 

 Yeoman describes this as a need, that of ‘expressive self-determination’, though the term can happily be applied in education.

Or can it? To the outside world, it would surely seem odd to do so. Surely, education is a sea of precisely this meaning and value-making, this free agency? 

And yet, we know that very often it’s not. And we also know that it is a struggle to recruit enough teachers to keep up with the demand created by our poor retention rates. Workload is of course the most often cited reason for people leaving the profession, and so the crie de coeur has been getting teachers to do less, which is all very good and important. 

 

But I wonder if there is another aspect.
Perhaps this concept of meaningfulness, of value-making, offers another explanation, linking with the increased anxieties which have accompanied the bureaucratisation of teaching: the ways in which our potential contribution is squandered, our skills and knowledge under-used, as we slide toward zombie status, assiduously delivering processes – we deliver a curriculum and pore over the attendant data, with little time for deviation or dissent, and in so doing restrict both our students, but also ourselves, from the wider meaningfulness that generates value in our work and in our lives.

 
Instinctively, our job feels like it should consist of bringing the best of the outside world into the classroom, turning our students’ eyes and imagination toward (to employ the cliché) the ‘best of what has been thought and written.’ Yet if that is our goal, how many of us can truly say that that is what we do? And that that is what we feel we are given the opportunity to do? The vast majority of what I find to be important and valuable about the world struggles to find space in my classroom: I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Most of what teachers could offer students – those things that constitute our knowledge, our expertise, our interests and even our networks – are crowded out, so that the teaching moment is less one of flourishing or transferring wisdom and knowledge, and more one of delivering a process in which we are more distributor of product. And in places, the product is low value (I think here of widespread concerns amongst teachers as to the interest or rigour of their exam board qualifications), adding further to the meaning deficit.  

Or as I have written in the past, when reflecting on workload and the fashion for breeding teachers with a single-minded commitment to teaching and nothing else:

To pull the lens out a bit, workload issues, and the current fashion for teachers with a single-minded dedication to teaching, has meant that having outside interests is increasingly a luxury many cannot afford. It has become the norm to allow teaching to trump all other commitments one might have or wish to have.  Whilst such frenzied dedication might seem, on the face of it, to be A Good Thing, something essential is nonetheless lost: the ability of the teacher to bring the outside world into the classroom; to sniff out external opportunities for students that they might never come across whilst cloistered away in the teaching community; to develop their own knowledge through the pursuit of private interests and in so doing, become better teachers. On a personal level, opportunities that I could (and did) provide when I first entered teaching have disappeared with those networks which fell by the wayside precisely because of the all-consuming nature of the job – is this better?

As a result, teachers are perhaps most at danger of becoming passive in the classroom, even whilst we are a non-stop blur of activity – our only space to be expansive lies in the endless and largely fringe debates on pedagogy, or occasional tweaks to schemes of work (though still directed to examination demands), or experimentation with the manner in which we deliver our fayre. Whilst this issue of meaningfulness might ultimately sound indulgent, it must be remembered that the issue is not solely about the well-being of the teacher, but the quality of the education that it invariably delivers – if teachers are persistently demoralised and demotivated, we can reasonably assume their performance will be less than effective.

 
I’m not saying this is entirely avoidable – uniform public examinations systems will always tend toward this, and I’m not sure there is an alternative to uniform public examinations – but it might help explain why we have become so bogged down by that phrase ‘workload’. After all, workload need not be a decisive, career/health defining issue, even if in teaching it seems to be. Lots of professions have serious workload commitments – few have the retention problems that teaching has. And whilst studies show that control and self-agency can be useful determiners in improving resilience in the face of workload problems, one wonders if this concept of meaningfulness is also a vital component. 

 So what is the answer? Well, in the first instance I think reminding ourselves of what we do and why we do it, regularly, is an essential first-step – the impact of having an inspirational leader or speaker who can remind you of these things cannot be understated. Secondly, reconnecting with meaningfulness in our own lives, and trying to smuggle as much of it as possible into the classroom, also seems an obvious step, which might mean putting the teaching books down for a bit and spreading our intellectual, social and cultural nets a bit wider. Lastly, Yeoman offers numerous suggestions, though the process of collective meaning-making appears to be vital, both allowing space for self-expression and an element of self-agency, which would seem to suggest that some element of collaborative decision-making is vital.

But, spreading things out more widely, the question becomes how we keep hold of that which can become drained from us the minute we walk back through the school doors? I would be interested to know how others manage, or what potential strategies might realistically be employed to preserve a sense of value and meaningfulness in the everyday grind of being a teacher.

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