As the days draw shorter and the dark nights set in earlier, every teacher’s yearning to get home at a decent hour grows that little stronger. Unfortunately we often still have books to mark and lessons to plan. This is where there is a big difference between schools. Whilst at some schools the lights are only turned off well into the night, at others – like mine – we are kindly ushered out by caretakers as early as 5:30 pm. So who has it right?
It’s for your own good!
There are two standard arguments used to defend an early closing time. The first is that a school should close at a sensible time to make it clear to its teachers that they should keep sensible work hours.
Wouldn’t we all be tempted to mark just a bit more or plan just a bit better, and exhaust ourselves on this never-ending hamster wheel, staying at school until 7 or 8 every night? By insisting that teachers are home earlier, the school is acting as a protector of our precious work-life balance. This is for our own good.
This appears to be a strong argument, but I think it falls down. A school leader saying “we don’t want you to work long hours” seems to be taking a position of either denial or downright duplicity. If one minute they are telling staff they must mark 100 books and write 90 reports and plan 4 outstanding lessons a day, while the next minute they are telling them it’ll be fine to wrap things up by 5:30, then it’s hard to see how the two can match up.
If teachers do have excess workload then, yes, closing early means you won’t see them struggling away in their classrooms, but the work must be done somewhere. Have you seen more teachers recently taking home actual suitcases full of books? This is not them proudly saying, “Great, the end of the working day!” We should be wary of a system which simply outsources a serious workload problem to people’s homes – to their evenings and weekends they would rather spend with their family.
There is also something very paternalistic and patronising about this “we will kick you out for your own good” argument. Can’t we trust that teachers can decide for themselves when and how to work? Some teachers would prefer to get home early to work in the comfort of their own home; others might prefer to leave their heavy books at school by staying a few late nights in their classroom.
In my view, a school opening late simply gives teachers more freedom and flexibility in how they approach their tasks. Some groups of teachers might be crying out for a late opening school more than others. New teachers, often working hard to establish themselves and get to grips with new systems, might be the most reluctant to cause a fuss. And there will be teachers whose working conditions at home are, unfortunately, far from ideal.
Won’t they expect us to stay?
This is where the second defence of an early closing time comes in: we can’t leave teachers to decide for themselves when to leave work as they will feel forced to stay at school until whatever the closing time is. School leaders might keep tabs on who works the latest, and punish those who they see skipping merrily out of the school gates at 4:30.
I think that these are legitimate concerns, and teachers should be wary of their leadership fostering a culture of long-hours and excessive monitoring. However, this seems an independent issue to whether the school opens late. A school can open late without checking up on its teachers.
All of the leaders I’ve spoken to have said they are well aware that some teachers have families they need to get back to, and that all teachers have their own preference for working at this time or that. They are interested in whether the teacher is doing a good job, not whether they’re winning some bizarre endurance game.
But the pressure to stay late might not come from up high, but instead from colleagues simply looking down the corridor at who still has their light on. I think this is what it ultimately comes down to, and where most disagreement will actually lie.
Is it possible for a school to open late without having a culture of soft pressure on teachers to compare their work hours to others, ultimately leading to them working a couple more hours a night? I personally think it is possible and should be something a school strives for.
Have the conversation
So this is my opinion on the issue. I know lots of teachers at my school who think the opposite. I hope all will agree that at a time when workload is driving so many teachers from the profession, we need open and honest discussions about issues like these, and all school leaders should consult their staff on their views.
I also believe that if we increase the quality of the conversation between teachers inside schools, and those outside who are considering working there, then we can ensure that teachers find the right schools for them. Perhaps some teachers will always prefer a late-opening school, while others will prefer to have this decision taken out of their hands.
The vision of Happy Teacher is one where teachers can find the right school for them, and school leaders have more feedback at their fingertips which’ll allow them to assess what work patterns will suit their staff.
I want to end on a few caveats. My personal preference would be for schools to open late, but obviously this is only possible if finances allow and if staffing (of caretakers) can accommodate it. And as school budgets get cut, it may simply be the case that this option isn’t even available to a lot of schools. Also, there is less need for late opening as more services are available off-site, such as remote access to network drives and SIMs.
And is it a good thing that teachers are increasingly able to access all of their work from wherever they are? Let’s leave that for another blog post…
Photo credit: Ales Krivic