Teacher talking to two primary school students at their desk

Better workload management can help schools focus on what matters

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When schools across Australia moved to remote learning during COVID-19, the workload for most teachers remained intense. From rapidly adjusting to virtual classrooms, to checking in on the welfare of students and cooperating with supervising parents, teachers were compelled to take on many tasks.

The COVID-19 experience shone a spotlight on what many in the education sector had long suspected: that teacher workloads have intensified in recent years, and not always in ways that deliver better outcomes. As schools return to normal, the need for improved workload management will remain urgent.

The consequences of high workload can be substantial. Physical and mental wellbeing are endangered, early career teachers are leaving the profession due to a lack of support and potential new entrants may be dissuaded from pursuing careers as teachers. This also contributes to a broader debate around the extent the profession needs to be better valued and supported.

Despite many teachers working longer and harder, Australian students have slipped in global rankings. This is not inevitable. While there is no silver bullet, a lot can be done to better manage workloads in schools and, by extension, student outcomes.

Over the past two years Nous has worked with schools and system administrators on this major challenge. We have engaged with nearly 4,000 school leaders and teachers across more than 100 schools to measure workload, to understand the factors that drive workload and to develop better strategies to manage it.

Our findings highlight that many teachers and school leaders report high job satisfaction but feel their workload was rarely manageable and often interfered with their personal life. Across several reviews conducted by Nous, more than 75 per cent of teachers and school leader’s perceived that their workloads had increased in the past three years. These findings match results from similar reviews in school systems in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

But this trend can be stopped. Our work revealed workload management strategies that are successfully improving performance and wellbeing – and can be applied in other schools and systems. Approaching the challenge as a culture change is benefiting many schools.

The Nous School Workload Model offers a holistic view

To manage workload you first need to measure it. To do this, we used the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership’s professional standards as a starting point to define the work activities that teachers and school leaders undertake (such as teaching, lesson planning, engaging with parents and leadership activities). We then sought to understand the factors that drive these activities.

We also drew on the Jobs-Demands-Resources Model, which is used to assess the experience of work in many sectors. This model suggests feelings of overwhelm or high strain are due to an imbalance between the demands on an individual, and their resources to deal with those demands.

The Nous School Workload Model identifies drivers that increase job demands, and enablers that enhance personal and job resources. It identifies the workload management strategies that can be implemented at a system, school or individual level to reduce burden, focus energy and boost productivity.

We need to understand what drives school workloads

To improve workloads and refocus energies on enhancing student outcomes, we must understand what is driving increases in workload. Our extensive engagement with teachers and school leaders has revealed that environmental and organisational factors influence the type and volume of work activities undertaken.

External drivers of workload that are outside the control of a school or individual include:

  • Compliance: Changes in policy or legislation, including continuous reporting regimes, can increase administrative work.
  • Learning expectations: Increased assessment, new curriculum and lesson planning requirements increase preparation and administrative work that often needs to be done outside of teaching hours.
  • Student needs: Expectations of the school to deliver on a wide range of student needs are increasing. A greater focus on student wellbeing and targeted instruction adds to student-oriented work, especially in schools in disadvantaged areas. The greater need for emotional support at an individual student level also adds to pastoral care work and the emotional energy demands.
  • Online communications: Many parents, thinking of themselves as clients, expect immediate and personal communication with teachers and school leaders, even after hours. Social media commentary by parents can place teachers and school leaders under significant personal scrutiny. The COVID-19 experience has emphasised the need for strong boundaries for school leaders and teachers.

Despite the increased communication channels, many teachers believe the quality of engagement with parents has decreased in recent years. In some cases, parents are less supportive of teachers in managing often-unrealistic student expectations, contribute less to school communities (increased compliance requirements have also adversely impacted this), and exhibit less trust. Our consultations also found increasing prevalence of antisocial behaviours directed at teachers by students and parents.

There are also internal or school-level drivers of workload in schools:

  • School governance: Meeting structures, intraschool communication and informal leadership positions can create additional job requirements for teachers if processes are not clear and expectations and accountability are poorly defined.
  • Size: Staff of smaller schools often shoulder more responsibilities because the volume of work does not always scale with school size. Principals at small schools often have teaching duties as well as managerial and community engagement responsibilities.
  • Data: Digital technology is enhancing our ability to collect and analyse data, resulting in increased accountability and performance expectations for teachers and school leaders, without the corresponding systems and capability development to support them to deliver on these expectations.

Systems, schools and individuals can all change behaviours

Now we understand the main drivers of increased workload we can take steps to combat it. Improved workload management requires change at three levels: the education system, the school and the individual school leader or teacher.

At a system level, administrators can:

  • Foster collaboration: Interschool collaboration can enable schools and teachers to share resources and teaching materials. An example from our work include a scenario where a group of smaller schools hired a shared business manager to support administration and compliance. Schools that prioritise connections (such as small regional schools) can allow teachers greater access to colleagues that teach the same subject or year level to streamline lesson planning.
  • Reallocate resources: Supporting schools to provide extra support for non-teaching and administrative tasks allows teachers to spend more time teaching.
  • Support school leaders and teachers to deal with complex matters: Providing skilled people and resources that aid school leaders and teachers to deal with complex matters can lighten the emotional load and work associated with their role, which takes time off supporting students.
  • Develop consistent policies: Consistent policies and procedures across the system reduces the need for schools to develop their own. This can clarify the shared expectations for school staff, students, parents and the wider community – particularly regarding parent-staff communication. This approach has worked in Victoria as a result of the Victorian Principal Health and Wellbeing Strategy, where schools could access a central portal for school policies, so schools did not have to start from scratch and had the freedom to tailor.
  • Support professional development: Professional development is important to support early-career teachers as they develop their teaching capability, and also for existing teachers who need to adapt to changes to curriculum, pedagogy and professional requirements. This includes training for new systems and processes that teachers use and training for school support staff.

At a school level, leaders can:

  • Use purposeful communication: Teachers and school leaders want to be involved in decisions that affect their work. Staff and team meetings should be streamlined and restructured, if possible, so all meetings have a clear purpose, structured agenda and key outcomes. Online communications, including email, should be targeted to those who need the information and clear communications expectations are required for leaders, staff and those external to the school.
  • Strategically plan the school calendar: Schools can plan across the school year to reduce workload during peak periods, such as not scheduling school events when reports are due to be written. Some schools have implemented non-meeting weeks during peak periods to help teachers manage workload.
  • Empower teachers: Leaders demonstrating trust in teachers results in more engaged staff and better student outcomes due to better lesson planning and delivery, and greater student engagement.
  • Set boundaries: Technology has made school leaders and teachers more accessible to parents after hours, blurring the boundaries between work and personal life. Clear boundaries – including communication channels and response times – are needed to manage work demands. These boundaries need to be promoted and modelled by school leaders and adopted by individuals.

At an individual level, educators can:

  • Prioritise and forward plan: Individual strategies to manage workload include staggering assessment tasks to reduce surges in assessment marking and better understanding the priority of work tasks. Many staff noted the importance of prioritising daily and weekly tasks and recognised that planning helps them be proactive.
  • Uphold boundaries: Honouring clear boundaries set by a school or system can ensure the workload is sustainable. Work activities need to be balanced with family, friends and hobbies, while mechanisms to shut-off are essential (for example, applying a no-email rule between 6pm and 8am).
  • Seek support from others: A strong support network of people at school (leaders, colleagues and staff) and outside it (family, friends, health professionals and peers) is invaluable.

We observed a combination of these strategies in schools that succeeded in reducing excessive teacher workload.

There is a big benefit to getting this right

There are some glimmers of hope from the COVID-19 experience. In some schools, changes have reduced workload, such as more focused video meetings among staff and greater take-up of technological solutions. Part of the challenge is to keep the progress made when things return to something resembling normal.

Get this right, and teachers and school leaders can focus their energies on things that make a difference to the lives of students. But ignore the problem, and teachers and school leaders will be consumed by distractions from their main task – and some may choose to not stick around.

Get in touch to discuss how we can help you understand and manage school workload.

Connect with Tessa Dehring on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Tanya Smith and Jonathan Kingsley during his time at Nous Group.