The myth of the average teacher

Jun 25, 2018 by

Tim Hutton –

I have the controversial opinion among my colleagues that teachers, on average, actually get paid pretty well. Averaging, however, is the crux of debate on teacher workload. Yes, if a teacher’s job is averaged over the year, their pay is reasonable and their workload is manageable.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows time lapse of a teacher being worn down by various responsibilities.

Alas, teachers are mere mortals; they aren’t Time Lords who can redistribute their work to a time of year when they are less busy. With teaching’s high attrition rate, we have to seriously start asking how schools can work to alleviate the work intensification teachers are experiencing.

Federal MP Andrew Laming has a knack for putting his foot in his mouth and earning the ire of educators. A recent faux pas — coming after the government’s ‘Gonski 2.0’ review — was an insinuation that teachers need to work longer hours and have fewer holidays. His statements were quickly and humorously rebutted, leading to a clarification of his inelegantly-phrased remarks.

While there are many admirable observations in his clarification, the doctor-cum-politician’s conclusions still rely on common misunderstandings about the nature of teaching. Tacking extra hours onto the end of the school day and removing the flexibility of teachers to choose work hours during the holidays will not solve the difficulties teachers face.

That said, work spilling over into home time is a real problem for teachers. I have taught with people from all walks of life — former lawyers, builders, pharmacists — and nearly all of them comment on the insidious and unique work-creep that happens in this profession. Yet the solution is not, as Laming suggests, to force teachers to spend longer at school; many who already arrive early and stay late still have work-life balance issues.

The problem is that spillover is literally built into the job; it is expected that teachers take work home. A teacher’s job entails much more than simply teaching, but teachers receive only a small fraction of their day as ‘non-contact time’.

In most of Queensland’s schools, for example, high school teachers get less than an hour a day of non-contact time, and primary teachers receive a measly two hours a week. This is not a lot of time, particularly when you consider the fact that non-contact time is frequently lost to meetings, extra-curricular activities, or finally getting a chance to eat and go to the bathroom (because a lunch ‘break’ was taken up by a playground duty).

“When a job regularly requires you to ignore basic physical necessities, something needs to change.”

On top of this, it’s worth noting that non-contact time is given as an average; it isn’t spread evenly over the week. This means that some days a teacher will have no spares, whereas other days they might have more than half a day to do work out of the classroom. Subsequently, even if a teacher were to efficiently use every single minute of their non-contact time, there is no way they could get everything done, every day at school.

This lack of an average work day is particularly pronounced around assessment and reporting. The crunch that takes place multiple times a term is, for many, unsustainable. It’s not unusual that teachers are working well past midnight — doing drafting or marking that cannot wait until the holidays — getting sub-optimal sleep, and then going back to work to manage children all day. When a job regularly (as the rule rather than the exception) requires you to ignore basic physical necessities, something needs to change.

One simple solution is that teachers need to be given more time in school to deal with the demands of their job. This means less contact time with students, not just more time tacked onto the end of the day and during the holidays. Such a feat could be achieved in several ways.

The most straightforward would be to provide teachers lighter teaching loads. Another could be more frequent pupil-free days strategically placed around the term. Less contact time will not only ease the pressure on teachers whose jobs spill over into their personal lives, but will enable more time for teachers to engage in the vital act of collaboration.

Another of Laming’s suggestions worth considering is the need to seriously investigate outsourcing non-teaching tasks. Teachers lose literally hours every week to jobs like data entry, playground duties, sport, music, drama, and other extra-curriculars. In most systems around the country, teachers receive no extra pay for this extra work. Yet, in many schools, these additional hours are expected parts of the job (even if this expectation is officially unspoken). The generosity of teachers is taken advantage of, and schools save tens of thousands of dollars because of it.

Unfortunately, providing this kind of extra time requires a radical rethinking of school funding. Small tweaks to current formulas will not do; we need to rebuild our concept of schooling from the ground up.

In recent years teachers unions have done a good job at preventing working conditions from degrading but have only managed to scratch around the edges of any real improvement. Small concessions here and there, usually around money rather than workload, are what unions are forced to settle for in enterprise agreements.

This is not a criticism of unions or any specific education system, but a critique of the politics of education. Government at all levels gives education funding only begrudgingly. Education must be treated not as a necessary evil, but as an investment in our future. Currently, ‘efficiency’ is valued over quality. Student results on standardised tests are the main measure of success and teacher wellbeing is not a metric worth considering.

Instead of giving teachers less flexibility, as Laming suggests, we need to figure out ways to significantly reduce their workload. This comes back to a core problem: unpaid overtime is built into the profession. Teaching needs to be decoupled from the idea that work not done at school should be done at home. That is, at least, until teachers are given enough time at school to do their jobs.



Tim HuttonTim Hutton is a high school teacher and occasional freelance writer. His ramblings can be found over at

Source: The myth of the average teacher

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