Take it from me, teaching is tough.
In one of my Year 11 English classes, I had to teach basic grammar to one student who had recently arrived from overseas, while also pushing other students to craft essays that really wrestled with the complexities of our text. It felt like an impossible task to do both at once.
Preparation is key. Effective teaching doesn’t ‘just happen’. To be effective, teachers need substantial time to prepare to meet the needs of their students.
But with all the things on a teacher’s plate, this time is often squeezed.
When I was a teacher, I struggled to find the time to do everything that was expected of me. There were so many items on my ‘to do’ list outside of the classroom that went beyond preparation: calling parents, counselling students, following up on permission slips, and being on time and in the right place for whichever bus or yard duty I was rostered onto.
I taught high school English – a subject that is notorious for its heavy load of marking and very few shared resources or textbooks to draw upon. In my second year teaching part-time, I had four separate English courses to teach, which meant I had four separate curriculums to prepare for. While one class was studying a memoir from a Holocaust survivor, another was studying a book set on a Virginian slave plantation before the American Civil War. My other classes were tackling equally challenging texts.
It was a lot of effort just to make sure I was sufficiently across the historical context, let alone prepared to teach it effectively to my students and meet their needs. And as a beginning teacher, I was still bedding down my practice and becoming more comfortable in the classroom.
One of the valuable tasks I struggled to find time for was reviewing student work. Closely reading my students’ essays told me all manner of things about them – I’d know that several students struggled with the basic mechanics of writing a sentence, another needed help to logically order their arguments, and another needed me to push them to think beyond the obvious evidence in our text.
But across the working week, I struggled to find time for this. Working part-time with four classes, I taught around 90 students in total. To spend just 10 minutes a week reviewing each of their work, I’d need to find 15 hours in my week – almost half my total rostered working hours.
I would have loved to have this time for my students each week, but I couldn’t fit it in. Something had to give and often it was effective preparation for the classroom.
Challenges like teachers’ workloads are what motivated me to take time out from teaching. I didn’t lose my love of the job, but I kept asking myself how we could design a system that better supported teachers to do their job effectively.
Nowadays I get the chance to answer these questions as part of a research team at the Grattan Institute. We just surveyed 5,000 of my former teaching colleagues about their workloads. The results are deeply worrying – and for me, completely unsurprising.
More than 90 per cent of teachers told us that they don’t have enough time to prepare effectively for classroom teaching – the core of their job. And it doesn’t get better with experience: teachers with more than 10 years in the classroom are struggling just as much as I did when I was a beginner.
But this problem is about more than just teachers, it’s about students too. While many teachers are trying to achieve the impossible, it is our students who lose out. When teachers aren’t supported to do their jobs well, teaching quality and student progress suffers.
We need to make it achievable for teachers to do their job well in the time they have. This will require all of us – including governments and school leaders and teachers – to think seriously about the challenges of teacher workloads and to ask hard questions about what we’re expecting teachers to do, what we can take off their plates, and what support they need.
It’s a challenge we have to meet – for the sake of my former colleagues, and for the sake of our children.
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