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Primary Teachers: At what point do our hours and workload stop being reasonable?

The Primary Teachers’ Collective Agreement is full of interesting and bemusing information. Take clause 2.10 1, for example…

“2.10 1   The normal hours of work hours of work for employees should as far as practicable not exceed 40 hours per week Monday to Friday”

40 hours“?
Monday to Friday“?
That would be lovely, but – oh my sides – it’s just not happening. No teacher is working 40 hours a week – unless they are employed part time.
Which all begs the question, how much effort goes into ensuring these requirements are kept to “as far  as practicable”?  And what can we do if they aren’t?
You might think that anyone regularly doing way over 40 hours per week could argue that their employer is in breach of the contract.  However, the clause goes on…

“Employees shall work such hours as may be reasonably required of them… whether or not such hours exceed 40 hours per week.” 

Oh.

Thanks.

Full-time primary school teachers generally have 25 hours a week contact time in the classroom,  plus lunch and break duties, staff meetings, professional development meetings, planning and preparation to do.  For most, that’s feasible within 40 or so hours… but what about the rest?

What about planning? Marking? Making resources? Meetings with support staff? Parent/teacher conferences?  Report writing? Planning trips?

What about meeting with RTLBs, speech therapists, Child and Adolescent Mental Health teams, or other specialists?

Or attending overnight camp? Running extra-curricular clubs? Setting up and running exhibitions of students’ work Production evenings?

Putting up and taking down displays? Fundraising events? Compliance stuff for the Education Council?

So which bit of clause 2:10 1 takes precedent? The “40 hours” bit or the such hours as may be reasonably required of them” bit?

At what point does the workload stop being reasonable?

~ Dianne

 

For the Secondary Teachers’ Collective Agreement 2015-2018, see here.

Secret Teacher NZ: Why I left teaching?

I sat down to write this and had to start over many times. I’m not sure how to go about explaining why I left teaching in a way that doesn’t come off as judgy, or blamey or a woe-is-me tale. I suppose many educators feel like this.

Teaching seems to be the one profession everyone feels qualified to have an opinion on, seeing as we all went through a school at some point. When I first started teaching, I had creative license and freedom to plan my days with my class. If a kid turned up with a story about how the cat had had kittens that weekend, we could embrace that teachable moment and spend 20 minutes talking about mammals and pets. If I had a few chapters left of the shared novel, we could shift something else and finish it off if we liked. As time went on, this freedom of professional judgement was eroded.

Classrooms now are full of swaps for different subjects, children leaving for extra curricular activities during the day, or specific times to access valuable resources (like computers, libraries or sports equipment.) I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because I love that children have new ways to learn and new environments to do it in; I just wish it hadn’t come at a cost to teacher’s time and our ability to use our judgement on what works for our children.

I worked in a school where we had a large space for co-operative teaching, where the syndicate swapped children around based on their levels. I can imagine some people’s eyes glazing over, so I will try to paint a picture instead.

Imagine a large hall-like space with three teachers in different areas, each reading with a small group of children. Scattered around are more groups of children, some on laptops, some on tablets, some with board and card games, some sitting in corners together working in their exercise books. You might imagine its harmonious, a buzz of children learning, both independently and supported by teachers. Unfortunately, for the majority, this is not the case.

The teachers with those groups have about 15 minutes to get through their reading, before swapping to another group in order to meet and assess them, meeting them all over a week period. Questioning, checking, hearing children read, explaining and clarifying, and all that intense learning that happens in a guided reading situation. But one of those kids forgot their book in the other class, so they have to run and get it. That’s 2 minutes gone. You can’t really start without them, or you’ll be repeating yourself. You look over and see the group that have an ipad activity to do are actually on maths games – you get up to intercept and move them back on task. Over in the library corner a group of children who are meant to be reading and working in their exercise books are clearly off task, but that first child has returned with their book- and now you’ve only got about 10 minutes left before you need to change the rotation, so you call out to one of the other teachers (also trying to get through the guided reading) to check on those off task students, well aware that you are cutting into their time too. You sit back down and go over the learning intentions and begin to get into it, when a group playing with the games has a disagreement and an incident breaks out – so again you are forced to stop, to sort that out.

Rinse and repeat.

I could go on, but the point I’m trying to make is that this is JUST reading. You have maths interchange next, and then topic interchange. And you are on duty at lunch, and then there’s a staff meeting after school… Some days I would arrive at school before 7am and not get home till after 6:30pm, and that’s with a box of marking to do.

Now add into this those children with high learning and/or behavioural needs that can’t organise themselves, can’t cope with having a different teacher, or can’t manage being a “self directed learner”.  And those who had a bad morning (or weekend) at home and are wound so tight that they might explode at any time. And the child who isn’t coping with social things and is isolated, and the mean kid who’s been hassling the outsider. All that social stuff is still happening… But somehow you have to set up the classroom for the next lesson AND find a minute or two to cram something vaguely nutritious into your gob.

As an educator 10 years ago you had the time to actually teach. Eventually I felt more like a person whose job it was to keep things running – even if that running wasn’t beneficial to the learning of the majority of the children.

Before I left teaching I was stressed, anxious and feeling like a failure every day. I had been assaulted by a special needs child multiple times, and was managing two volatile children with aggressive and violent behaviours, all while maintaining this modern idea of what learning should “look like” and spending so much of my time making sure I was collecting all the data for the children and planning their next learning steps, too.

There was no fun or fulfillment anymore. It was like failing every day.

I saw children who just wanted to be with the teacher, who wanted to learn, but who were being swept along in this seemingly never ending rotation of ‘new ideas’ and ‘innovative learning strategies’. Everything was measured and monitored because we also had data to be collecting for assessment and reporting.

I’m not for teachers becoming the facilitators of busy work to serve some ideal that is the current flavour of the month.  I spent three years studying education, children, reading, writing, maths and everything else only to find my days as a teacher filled with behaviour management and making sure children are in the right place at the right time. And that’s not to mention teachers who are struggling with learning new technology and navigating these spaces themselves, all while still doing their regular job!

My personal experience was one that made me physically and mentally sick.

I continued to give 100% of myself because, like most teachers in New Zealand, I am passionate about children getting the best education and reaching their potential.  But the system as it is, that actually destroyed me. I burnt out. I would wake up crying in the night for no particular reason. I would dread going to work again as soon as I left. Thinking about the unending cycle of planning, implementing, and hoping I got through what needed to get through – and that the children held up their end and did the work, and that there were no breakdowns in behaviour that would derail the sessions and cause me to have to cut out something else to ‘catch up’.

I burnt out. I damaged myself to the point where I will live with that for the rest of my life.

Our teachers are a resource. You can’t replace our care, knowledge and ability to teach with fancy spaces and new technology. Piling these expectations on teachers and children isn’t improving our system- it’s creating another rod for our backs.

When I studied post grad with a group of young people in their 20s, I was amazed at how poorly they managed themselves, and I wonder why we expect school-aged children to be able to do it?

There are so many complexities to the things eroding our teachers’ spirits and well-being- this is just a tiny glimpse, and not even the full picture. I could talk about disenchanted staff, apathetic senior management, poor resourcing, the social issues in school communities, negative and punitive assessments, and an obese curriculum. And, of course, under-funding of our schools and support staff. But I won’t, because we all have other things to do today.

Teachers want to teach. That’s why we became teachers! We want to have meaningful relationships with your child to help them achieve their potential. The education system in this country has moved away from allowing us to do that and morphed into something very different. 

~ end~

For more on a teacher’s daily work life, read this great post by Melulater.

Teacher Stress & Anxiety in New Zealand Schools


This is a further summary of findings from the SOSNZ survey undertaken by Dianne Khan and Ursula Edgington. We ran the survey for 3 months from March – June 2016 when it was closed with a total of 684 participants.

Previous analyses of the survey data can be found herehere and here.

Summary of the survey respondents

Most of the respondents to our survey worked in the Primary sector (79%), with relatively equal numbers from intermediate and secondary (5% and 6.5% respectively).

A small number of respondents (2.6%) were from Early Childhood and 3% worked in ‘Other’ schools which were mainly connected to provision of Special Educational Need, with some defined as ‘Area’ provision.

The survey did not separate private school from public provision, although this would be an interesting area for further research on the subject.

Stress and Anxiety in NZ schools

Probably the most significant question of our survey was Question 5, which asked ‘Whether medically diagnosed or not, have you ever taken time off due to stress and anxiety?’

The results clearly illustrate the extent of the problem of stress and anxiety in NZ schools today: the majority, 54% of respondents (365) answered Yes.  44% (296) answered No, and understandably, due to the sensitivity of the subject, a small number 1% (11 respondents) declined to answer. These results are extremely concerning because no matter how subjective, for a majority of teachers to feel it is necessary to take time off in order to recover from workplace stress and anxiety, there will inevitably be consequences for the health and well-being of staff and potentially for the quality of teaching and learning in NZ.

In line with existing research in this area, those respondents who confirmed they had received a formal medical diagnosis of stress and anxiety (Question 4), numbered roughly equal to those who had not (300 respondents, compared to 355), with 22 (3%) declining to answer.

What do NZ teachers do when suffering with stress and anxiety?

Responding to Question 3, which asked for examples of coping strategies, 87% of respondents said that when they suffered from stress or anxiety from the workplace, that they tried to ‘carry on regardless’. question-3-responses

This was reflected in the responses to Question 6, which asked how many days have you taken off work, as a result of stress and anxiety? Most respondents (519 or 77%) had only taken 0-3 days off over the past year. 15% had taken 4 – 7 days, with 3% taken 8-12 days and a small minority (5%) 34 respondents having taken more 13 days or more.

The finding that most respondents to the survey ‘tried to carry on regardless’ despite suffering stress and anxiety, is very concerning because knowing where to find and being able to seek out help in times of distress is crucial in order to prevent the situation from escalating. Worryingly (and confirming our findings from the preliminary data of the first 100 respondents) the main resource for public sector staff seeking help – the EAP – was largely unknown: Over 85% of respondents denied knowing anything about EAP. Of the 11% of respondents who DID know that their school subscribed to EAP, they had not used it (although reasons for this are unclear). Only 3% (25 respondents) had made use of the EAP service, either at their past or current school.

Further concerns about the health and well-being of NZ teachers can be seen in respondents’ descriptions of what they DID do when feeling stressed and anxious. In line with other studies on the coping strategies of individuals coping with stress, 39% find solace in comfort eating, 37% try to extend their sleep, 26% turn to drinking alcohol,  7% self-medicate and 6% find that smoking helps them cope. Only 8.5% book a GP appointment which hopefully in turn would help them find different resources of suitable support. Perhaps most worryingly, nearly 2% (11 respondents) admitted to taking drugs to help them cope.

Looking deeper at some of the qualitative data, for some staff, it seemed a culture of fear existed at their workplace, as additional comments included the following theme:

“Everyone is too afraid to take action, as they fear it can affect their future job prospects.”

Similarly, others described the challenge of feeling pressure to hide their emotions :

“Breaking down and having a good cry and then trying to pick myself up and carry on so that no one knows what is happening to me”.

Some of the comments were heart-breaking, for example those who described how they have taught for many years, but now did not have the strength to carry on in a profession who could not offer the support they needed:

“[I’m} Coming to the realisation that this is just how it is and if I didn’t like it then I should have chosen a different profession.”

“Gave up smoking [but] I did not realise how much of a strong coping mechanism it was. This term I pretty much broke down and am now being treated for severe depression. I am truly passionate about children’s wellbeing and education, but I now don’t know if I want to stay in the job.”

“I will be handing in my notice and will not be returning. I have decided to walk away from this career that I have loved for nearly 20 years and I will focus on helping small groups of children because I don’t think I can teach effectively in the current set up.”

Difficult and high levels of workload were common themes throughout the responses to our survey questions.  It followed then that sharing tips on how to best manage workload and what to prioritise formed a popular way of coping with stress.  

On a positive note, some teachers reported taking constructive steps to reduce levels of stress and anxiety and 40% reported taking exercise  – for instance in the gym, horse-riding or going tramping – as a strategic way to relieve their personal symptoms of stress.

Talking with colleagues, family and friends was the most common additional comment in this section of the survey, illustrating the importance of a community of practice and sharing experiences with those around us. This contrasts sharply with the responses from the first part of the survey, where teachers cited as some colleagues and managers as the source of stress and anxiety, rather than being supportive in trying to alleviate it. Similarly, engaging with trivia on social media platforms was also a popular way that many staff found relief from workplace stress. Reading – both academic and creative texts – were also a popular way that teachers coped with feelings of stress and anxiety.

Key learnings from this section of the survey

  1. Those schools subscribing to EAP need to raise awareness of the benefits of the service and to promote its use more widely. Any potential negative attitudes and stigma attached to using the service needs to be addressed to improve the health and well-being of all staff.
  2. Those schools NOT subscribing to EAP could consider joining, or providing another similar source of help and support.
  3. Teachers at ALL stages of their career need access to help and support that is appropriate for their needs. The complex causes of stress and anxiety (discussed in the previous post) need to be addressed and symptoms of reported stress should be taken seriously and not be subjected to stigma or further bullying.
  4. Provision of healthy ways to relieve stress and anxiety – exercise opportunities and reading groups for example – could be more widely promoted in schools.
  5. Talking with others – colleagues and whānau and others – is an under-developed, under-researched but highly valued coping strategy for teachers in every sector, all over the world. In view of the causes of stress reported in the previous post, school managers could provide more open opportunities for sharing experiences, advice for managing workloads and encouraging ongoing professional dialogue between and within groups of teachers, students, parents and governors.

~ Ursula Edgington & Dianne Khan

Further Reading

What is really stressing NZ teachers?

Stress, anxiety and depression in the teaching profession – part 1

SOSNZ Teacher Stress Survey – Part 2

Survey reveals crisis in beginning teacher workforce – NZEI

What is really stressing NZ teachers?

This is the first of a series of posts looking at the data from the full Health and Wellbeing Survey conducted earlier in 2016. Our earlier posts looked at the survey’s first 100 responses, but this series considers all 684 responses and looks at the written feedback teachers shared in the open comments sections.*

How many teachers are suffering from stress & anxiety?

Teachers report high levels of stress, with over 80% of respondents saying they felt stressed or anxious at work half of the time or more.  Over 35% said they felt this way most of the time, and a staggering 7% said they felt like this always.

Only three respondents said they never felt stressed, representing 0.44 of respondents.

wellbeing survey q 1 graph

What causes teachers’ stress and anxiety?

Teachers were then asked what they judged to be the main causes of any stress, anxiety or depression they felt due to work. A comments box was included. There were 2028 box ticks and hundreds of comments from the 670 respondents to this question.

 

wellbeing survey q 2 graph

Summary of the findings of Question 2

Clearly workload is a key contributor to teachers’ workplace stress with 79.4% of people identifying it as a main contributor. Pressure from Management was identified by just over half of the respondents, and Students’ needs and students’ behaviour were identified by 44.8% and 45% of respondents respectively.

Lack of support in school was identified as a contributor to stress by just over 31% of respondents; Changes in educational policies stressed over 28% of respondents, and ERO/audit  almost 23%.

Interestingly, the comments were sometimes weighted quite differently.

Workload

Overwhelmingly, teachers identified workload as a key issue, with 532 respondents ticking that box and a 29 comments specifically mentioning it as a concern.Comments included:

“Not enough time in the day to complete everything that needs to be done. Increase[d] load of paperwork and assessment.”

“Too many meetings… 3 a week…”

“The requirements for tracking student progress; reporting to parents; and engaging family involvement in student learning (to name but a few)…”

“The paperwork (sometimes in duplicate) takes over.”

“Too many tasks to complete in an eight hour day.”

“I feel stressed that I cannot be both a good mum and a good teacher because of workload and being exhausted most of the time.”

“Paperwork, meetings, balance of work and family time”

“When a 55-60 hour week is the exception, not the norm”

Alongside these and other general comments on workload, some specific areas were mentioned:

Professional Development: Comments identified Professional Development as a specific source of pressure, either because of the volume of it (5 comments) or because it is done and then never implemented (3 comments) which staff said left them feeling that precious time was wasted.

“…so little time to create meaningful lessons because of professional development. Always navel gazing and not producing results…”

“we do what is asked of us then it kind of goes nowhere”

“…our school doing every initiative going…”

National Standards and Testing: Also mentioned were National Standards and the volume of testing (11 comments) and fast-changing education policies (3 comments).

“Seemingly back-to-back testing”

“having to assign a below OTJ [Overall Teacher Judgement] to children at 40 weeks, when I know that they will be totally fine by 80 or 120 weeks, they just need a little more time”

“too much assessment of 5 year olds”

Management and Colleagues

A large number of respondents commented on the negative impact of colleagues, mentioning staff bullying (25 comments), poor leaders (16 comments), pressure from management, poor teamwork and disrespectful behaviour (7 comments) and overly negative colleagues (3 comments) as causes of stress and anxiety.

Comments on management:

“Not enough realistic support from management.”

“Principal blaming poor ERO report on teachers… Seeing colleagues depressed and talking of suicide”

“Unrealistic expectations from management that teachers say yes to because they are all scared to tell the truth.:

“We have a dysfunctional senior management…”

“Poor management … lack of communication, lack of follow up…”

“Bullying Principal who has systematically gotten rid of teachers who support the policies and work of the previous principal…”

“Bullied by Principal, DP and AP”

Comments on teams and colleagues:

“Leading a frustrating team…”

“Trying to work with adults who don’t want to change their practice.”

“Being made to feel inadequate by teaching colleagues”

“Workplace bullying”

“I am an experienced teacher… I have had derogatory comments… considered a ‘dinosaur'”

“Politics between staff.”

“… have an extremely difficult staff member in my team and am continually handling complaints from parents and other staff about [that person]”

Parents: Perhaps surprisingly, the factor most frequently mentioned in the comments as causing teacher stress was pressure from parents (35 comments), with only two mentions of the lack of parent support being an issue and 33 commenting on this. Comments included:

“unrealistic expectations from parents”

“pushy aggressive parents”

“…expectation from parents that teachers should be able to ‘fix’ students who are not meeting standards… that it’s not part of a parent’s role to assist students in their learning”

“parental gripes”

“Parents … not allowing their children to develop their key competencies”

“Parents not reading emails, paper newsletters or notice boards and then getting frustrated that they were not well informed.”

“Parent behaviour”

“Parent demands”

“Parent expectation/pressure/lack of support has also been a factor at times.”

“Overbearing parents”

Students: It is, perhaps, telling that student behaviour was very rarely identified in the comments as the cause of stress (3 respondents), with much more focus on concerns about meeting students’ educational, emotional and health needs adequately (over 20 respondents). Of these, eight specifically mentioned special educational needs, five mentioned lack of funding or resources to support students as being of concern, and three mentioned out-of-school factors such as poor housing and health concerns.

(This feedback should be considered alongside that relating to testing and National Standards (above), which also had at its heart concern regarding the impact on students.)

Comments included:

“It’s about the lack of adequate funding to resource the support systems we need.”

“We need a calm space in the school…that is manned by a counsellor for our students whose lives are just too challenging today.”

“5 students, 1 supported… others not diagnosed”

“…teachers are parenting, feeding, psychoanalysing children as well as getting the child to national standard”

“hugely diverse needs of my learners … never enough time to plan and deliver a fully differentiated programme…”

“No help for children who come from a terrible home life to school…”

“children with special needs or high learning needs taking ages to be diagnosed at CDC and even longer… before funding is available for extra assistance…”

“Social issues in families and the wider community”

“Having children with special needs who don’t get funding or a diagnosis quick enough to help support them.”

My thoughts on what needs to change?

Clearly there are many and diverse, often overlapping, causes of teacher stress and anxiety, but certain themes are evident. Workload is the most glaring issue, closely followed by internal and external pressures on teachers who do not always feel adequately equipped to deal with those pressures or supported in doing so.

Management, you should be querying your own practice and asking where you can make changes to limit stress and also build collegiality. make sure your staff are properly supported and not overloaded, and ensure PD is targeted to actual needs.

Parents, you must work with teachers. They cannot solve all of society’s ills, and it isn’t reasonable to expect them to do so. Also, bear in mind that they are at the mercy of systems and processes usually outside of their control. It’s easy to become frustrated with the messenger, but it isn’t productive. Most importantly, talk to your children’s teachers – form relationships, be present where you can – truly that is a huge step towards helping your child achieve the best they can.

Teachers, please support each other. Teaching can be the most collegial job in the world, and teamwork can be what makes a difficult work situation otherwise bearable. So actively build those relationships. Where you do have concerns, you can call your union’s helpline, contact EAP (if your school is a member), or call one of the other available helplines.

Whatever you do, please reach out for support. You are worth it.

~ Dianne

* Thank you to NZEI Wellington Council for providing financial support to allow us to access the full data set and undertake this analysis. 

Image of woman with red folders courtesy of marcolm at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Related Posts on this Survey:

https://saveourschoolsnz.com/2016/05/04/stress-anxiety-and-depression-in-the-teaching-profession-part-1/

https://saveourschoolsnz.com/2016/05/07/sosnz-teacher-stress-survey-part-2/

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