The school funding debate

There’s a lot of talk in Australia at the moment about school funding. It’s great to see some debate happening, and the status quo being challenged. There are figures being flung around about test results and whether more money actually makes a difference. Jessica Irvine wrote a great article about that in the Sydney Morning Herald, discussing where the money goes and what the figures actually mean.

But one thing shocks me. People talk about teacher salaries. About class sizes. About resources and the cost of technology. But I have not seen anyone mention teacher workload. As a high school teacher, I see this as by far the biggest constraint on teacher performance, and I suspect also on student performance and overall education quality.

This isn’t a complaint about being asked to work too hard. Everyone seems to work too hard these days. It’s about the workload being so high that it is impossible to do my job properly. Literally. Impossible. The only reason I can manage at all is that I am part time, and I use much of my personal time to fill in the gaps. You can talk all you want about school holidays, but you can’t use school holiday time to mark, to prepare a new lesson in response to your students’ current progress and needs, or to meet with students and their parents to deal with problems that arise during term. Not to mention the workload involved with trying to do real projects that provide high levels of motivation and engagement.

You also can’t use school holidays to catch up when you end every term shatteringly exhausted because you have given everything you have just to stay afloat.

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Let’s consider an average week. At my school we have 19 75 minute lessons per week. On Wednesday afternoons the students do co-curricular activities, and teachers have meetings and professional development. A full teaching load is 16 lessons per week. Which gives us 3 lessons free for marking and preparation. Not to mention report writing, exam writing, meeting with students, running lunchtime activities and extra help sessions. 3 75 minute lessons. 225 minutes to prepare for 16 lessons – which could easily be 16 different lessons, if there are no repeat classes. That’s 14 minutes preparation per class.

But wait. 16 lessons per week equates to 5 or 6 different subject classes per week, at 2 or 3 classes per subject. So I need to mark the work of up to 150 students. That’s 1.5 minutes of marking and feedback time per student per week. Except that now I’ve replaced my preparation time with marking time. Oh dear.

Don’t forget that for my performance review process, the government expects me to do action research and a whole lot of documentation of my teaching progress – because I need to prove that I am improving every year. It’s not that I need to improve every year, it’s that I need to prove that I have improved every year. The two are not as closely related as one might hope, but that’s a whole other rant.

So, ok, I have shown that I can’t do what I need to do in my 38 hour week. How much overtime would it take? Let’s leave the preparation time at 14 minutes per class, and continue to leave out all the extra things I do that make a difference to my students. Let’s bump up the marking and feedback time to 5 minutes per student per week. That’s still woefully inadequate. It’s also 750 minutes – 12.5 hours per week outside my working hours. Is 5 minutes per week all the marking and feedback time you want me to give your children?

Now let’s consider developing new curriculum. Planning excursions. Developing new activities to engage your kids. Keeping up with the latest in educational research. Developing plans for kids with learning difficulties or who need extension. Let’s think about trying to connect the curriculum in different subject areas, and meeting teachers from other disciplines to try to make a more integrated and connected experience for all kids.

That’s just a fraction of what we do. And we can’t physically do it in the time allowed. And now let’s consider that because schools are so budget stressed they can only hire the precise number of bodies as they have classes to cover. Which means that teachers routinely have to teach subjects they are not trained in. Without extra training or preparation time.

This is the elephant in the room. No-one is willing to talk about reducing workload because it requires hiring more teachers, and that’s expensive. But imagine what we could do if we had time to prepare our classes properly. To mark and give detailed feedback. To organise more activities and arrange more excursions. To collaborate with other teachers and design new and innovative courses. To implement the best teaching strategies, and to work with kids outside class time.

Imagine if this was the normal state of a teacher’s work.

I’m a scientist. And this is an experiment I’d really like to try.

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About lindamciver

Australian Freelance Writer, Teacher, & Computer Scientist
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