Let’s talk about teachers’ holidays – the BIG elephant in the room: an opinion piece

As we go into the next round of Paid Union Meetings and make decisions about what we are going to do next in relation to our workload and conditions as teachers, I think it is time (Kua tae te wa!) to talk about the elephant in the room – the BIG elephant in the room. Education is so crowded with elephants that it is hard to move; and we are all so busy tiptoeing around them, trying not to bump into them or acknowledge that they exist, that I think it has left us with little hope of solving our problems. Unfortunately (unfortunate because now I feel compelled to wade in), I don’t believe we can move forward without at least acknowledging that these elephants exist, and engage in an open conversation about them.

However, I also acknowledge that the issues represented by these elephants are fraught and emotional (which is why they are elephants) and that when their presence is acknowledged some people may become upset. I am under no illusions about how this post is likely to be received. But at the end of the day, though it is not my intention to cause additional distress to teachers, I believe this matter needs to be explored. Having committed a life time to education, I think I am entitled to have my say.

Last year we began to look really closely at teacher workloads and, with our teachers, we mapped out what that workload looked like over time and what became very obvious to me, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought about it before, was that, as teachers, we are trying to fit in a year’s work (slightly more than a year, actually) in 42 - 43 (or so) weeks. The thing I realised is that teaching has very distinct phases and each of those phases is completely engaging and takes up all the space and time when we are in that part of the teaching cycle. It is because we are piling those parts on top of each other to fit them in during term time, all at the same time, that we finish the term completely exhausted and fall into the holidays. I began to wonder, for example, why on earth we would have teachers writing reports during term time when they are already carrying a full teaching workload during that time. The answer to that question is easy – because there is no other time we can require it to be done, or so it seems.

Let’s get real. Teaching has changed and the expectations of teachers are very different now from what they were a number of decades ago when I started teaching. The shift from the industrial model of teaching to the expectation that we will deliver personalised programmes that meet the needs of every student, has changed the role of teacher and requires some very different things from us. Genuinely personalising learning requires us to know our students deeply as learners. If we are committed to not wasting students’ time (and we should be), then we need to carefully track what they know (in an evidenced-based way) and ensure they are getting the teaching and learning programmes they need, when they need it, in the way they need it, to keep their learning moving forward. This also means that as teachers we need to be able to teach the whole curriculum. No longer can we teach what we know and not teach what we don’t know, or focus on the things that we value as teachers or that engage us. Students are entitled to coverage of the whole curriculum.

I know this approach is very different from what we have traditionally done and that these new requirements are why so many teachers are complaining about the increasing levels of administration work being required of them. However, while I agree that in an ideal world teachers would not be spending their time writing RAMs forms, as an example, I do look at much of the “admin” work that teachers are complaining about, and I think it is the stuff of teaching and learning and central to the role of a 21st century teacher. Teachers should be carefully tracking students’ learning. They should be engaging with achievement data and mining it for the learning stories of their students, and using it to evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching and learning programmes for each and every student.

The expectation that we will meet the needs of every student does require more “paperwork” and planning from us. It does require us to know the curriculum better than we have ever known it. It does require us to spend more time outside of the actual delivery of teaching and learning programmes, on the design of learning. Hence we now have the “Design for Learning” dimension in the Standards for the Teaching Profession which expects teachers to design learning based on curriculum and pedagogical knowledge, assessment information and an understanding of each learner’s strengths, interests, needs, identities, languages and cultures. Some of the “administration” work often complained about, I think, is central to the role of teacher if we are committed to ensuring equitable outcomes for each and every student.

At Amesbury School, we talk about the “front-end” and the “back-end” (and, yes, some do giggle!) of teaching and learning. Expectations on teachers today have hugely increased the “back-end” work of teaching, which is one of the reasons we are struggling with workload so much. However, the additional “back-end” work is for the purposes of ensuring that the “front-end” delivery of teaching and learning programmes is as targeted, personalised and as effective as possible. The problem as I see it, is not what we are expecting teachers to do, but that teachers are doing it all at the same time - and here comes the BIG elephant – because we still believe, as a profession, that we are entitled to up to ten weeks’ holiday a year. Now I know that there are teachers who do not take 10 weeks holiday a year. But there are definitely those who do see it as an entitlement. I see teachers in social media complaining when principals require call back days. And heaven forbid that they should require all ten of them! Even the variability in this view is a problem for the profession because there is no clear agreement around what it means to be a professional teacher.

Teachers are right, though, the back-end work required to meet the needs of every student is getting in the way of the front-end delivery of teaching and learning programmes, but only because we are trying to do it all at the same time – during term time. If we spread the full teacher workload across 52 weeks of the year, less a reasonable holiday allocation in line with other professions, then our term time workload would be significantly reduced. It is not that we would be doing less hours over the year, but, rather, that we would be spreading those hours across more weeks, making the workload more reasonable and manageable during term time and enabling a better quality of life. School holidays would not be so desperately needed. Burn out would be reduced.

I believe that the teaching profession would be better off if more of the back-end work that contributes to meeting the needs of every student is done during the school holidays and term time hours are reduced. But more than that, separating out when we do the different aspects of teaching and learning would enable us to do a better job, more efficiently and with greater enjoyment. Trying to do big picture design for learning to meet the needs of every student while also planning and delivering learning programmes (and for some, also carrying out leadership responsibilities) simply cannot be done. Each role is full time while it is being done and requires high levels of focus and cognitive capacity.

To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that spreading the workload in this way would solve all the workload issues. It wouldn’t. Machine learning and increasing automation of some processes is part of the solution, some redefinition of roles would help, and increased and more equitable resourcing must form part of the solution. As a primary principal, I am incensed that neither the Labour nor the National governments could/can see the injustice of the differential in the CRT allocation between the primary and secondary sectors. I am incensed that secondary school leaders get a time allocation for a management unit as well as the payment, while we, in primary, are expected to simply add the work on top of already big teaching loads and only receive a payment. It is possible (though I doubt it) that this may have once been justifiable. But with the expectations on all teachers today, it certainly isn’t now. I believe we need to keep going with our industrial action, but we also need to consider what working conditions we can change ourselves.

Further, I also think we need to ask ourselves whether we can justify asking for a competitive salary that recognises the increasing cognitive and other demands we face while teachers are also entitled to take up to 10 weeks holiday per year. This simply does not align with the rest of the NZ and global workforce and is no longer justifiable. Surely there should be a trade off in terms of salary if we want to maintain this holiday entitlement. We cannot have both. I read a great post by someone recently, but I felt embarrassed for our profession when it was said that we are lucky to have the “big perk” of the holidays that we have. We are being naïve if we believe we are entitled to this “perk” or more entitled to it than other professions. We are not. The job we do is really, really important but it is not more special than other jobs.

 One final thing in terms of holidays is that teachers also want more flexibility. In spite of all the weeks they have available to them for holidays, teachers are increasingly asking to take time off during term time. I understand that teachers also want to be able to go to midweek weddings, concerts, take advantage of cheap travel deals, or add a bit of term time to their travel to the other side of the world. I would like to see a holiday provision that allows teachers to take a certain amount of time off during term time (maybe up to two weeks per year which perhaps can be saved up over two years) giving us greater flexibility. But the entitlement would also reduce the time we can take off during school holidays so that our holiday entitlement overall becomes more in line with other professions. Thus enabling our workload to become more evenly spread.

 I do acknowledge that this could create a difficulty for a workforce that is significantly made up of women, who are often the primary caregivers and who have chosen the role to enable them to manage to work while also focusing on raising their families. This would need to be considered. In fact, there are many things that would have to be worked through. But I think that just acknowledging, and, at least, being willing to talk about, the BIG elephant in the room is a good place to start.