Teaching truly is a job like no other – being responsible for the education of young people, interacting on a meaningful level with up to 200 individual people a day, planning engaging lessons, meeting deadlines from a variety of stakeholders, the list of responsibilities goes on and on. And it gets to be utterly overwhelming at times. During those times, telling a teacher to take a night off, focus on themselves, or stop putting so much pressure on themselves is not helpful.
Planning lessons is often, and supposed to be, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the teaching profession. Back in uni, spending hours planning the perfect lesson brought so much joy and anticipation for the successful lesson that would result from it. Exploring pedagogical approaches, creating resources, finding and altering existing ones, all that is so much fun.
Once the real world sets in though, the amount of time we get to plan for each lesson is getting less and less each year. I have five 70min lessons a day to prepare for. And it’s not easy.
A colleague likened it to preparing for five hour-long presentations or client meetings each day.
Except the presentations/meetings must be interactive and engaging, you have to differentiate and make adjustments for all of the individual people you are presenting to, and you have to make sure you’re assessing how much of the presentation/meeting they’ve taken on board.
And your clients are anywhere from 5-18 years old.
And there’s anywhere from 15-35 of them sitting in, about half of whom would rather be anywhere else, but you have to get them engaged.
Your only time to prepare for those presentations is after you’ve completed the ones for today, or perhaps during your lunch break (if you don’t have playground duty or other work to attend to).
As a high school teacher, I get 4 lessons per week as spare lessons for planning, marking, organising, meeting with colleagues, and doing administration tasks. 4 hours to plan for the remaining 20 hours of class time (one lesson a week is dedicated to assembly time), as well as to do my marking, replying to parent emails, etc. Of course it doesn’t all fit in that time, and I’m pretty quick at planning lessons now. So, as you probably know, we use after school time and weekend to plan the remainder of the lessons. Take out one afternoon/evening a week for staff meetings, and another for extra curricular activities, and that leaves 3 evenings a week, plus weekends, to plan probably 15 or more lessons. But of course that’s not all we have to do in that time, it’s also the remainder of the marking, emailing, data collection and analysis, colleague meeting, administration tasks, and curriculum and assessment planning that needs to occur then too.
On top of the lessons, we need to plan curriculum outlines and assessment pieces, and ensure they are in line with the national standards and are meaningful for the students. This takes a very long time to do if you want to get it right. These are of course set to deadlines so that all associated parties can get the information in a timely manner, but we are never given any extra time to do so. To effectively plan a curriculum outline for a term (because they need to be a term at a time really), you need a full day or more in one sitting to be able to dedicate to it. But we are rarely given that day, we are expected to tackle it in pieces over many days or give up our own time on the weekend. And no, planning in advance is rarely ever an option.
With school timetables coming out in some cases the weekend before lessons begin, there is no possible way for teachers to plan in advance of the school year. Even if you have an idea of what you’ll be teaching, there is no guarantee. You can go through the entire Christmas holidays planning for and expecting to teach a particular subject, only to get your timetable and realise you are teaching something else now. Sometimes it seems like senior leadership have forgotten what it’s like to be in the shoes of a teacher with a full load having to deal with an uncertain timetable – they only teach a couple of classes at most (and as it should be, they have too many other responsibilities to have a full load).
It means we are starting the year planning today for what we are teaching tomorrow, and never have the opportunity to catch up or get ahead. Then, as the term goes on and we’re supposed to be ‘settled in’, we are given more tasks to complete. But we don’t have time to plan our lessons effectively, so adding more work on top just compounds the issue.
And by gosh do we want to plan our lessons effectively. The entire reason why most of us get into, and stay in, teaching in the first place is because we love teaching young people. Having fun, engaging, inspiring lessons is so very important. It’s an absolutely awful feeling to go into a lesson knowing it isn’t a great one because you haven’t had enough time to plan it. Even having time to put pictures into a powerpoint is a luxury sometimes, let alone organising hands-on activities.
We simply don’t have the option of just leaving something until tomorrow. If a lesson doesn’t get planned, it could be an absolute disaster. Imagine walking into a high-stakes client meeting as the person in charge with no preparation! If a curriculum document isn’t finalised on time, it disadvantages everyone even further. If a parent email isn’t responded to in a timely manner, we get a complaint. If a student doesn’t get extra help with their work today, they are already behind for tomorrow.
For many of us, this illusion of a fantastic work-life balance as a teacher is enough to make us either laugh or cry. One colleague mentioned how she’d only spent 3 hours with her children over the course of the week because the rest of the time was spent working. Yes we get school holidays, but do you really think planning stops then? No, we use that time to try and get a bit ahead for the next term in the vain hopes of adjusting that work-life balance a little. If we can, we try to use that time to catch up on sleep, catch up with family and friends, catch up on hobbies that have disappeared throughout the term. If it weren’t for school holiday time, the job would be actually unsustainable. Besides, if we spend the entire holidays working in preparation for the term to come, there would still be many tasks to complete throughout the term, and we would end up with no annual holidays like every other job gets.
Teaching isn’t a job that can wait, so please don’t tell a tired or stressed teacher to just take a night off. While it is a lovely idea, often it just isn’t an option. Instead, find ways to be helpful to the teacher. If you are a partner at home, cook dinner while they work. If you are senior leadership, look at giving subject coordinators a day off timetable each term to get the unit/curriculum plan sorted. Share the planning load of lessons with colleagues who are teaching the same subjects.