It’s The Workload, Stupid

When James Carville said these words, he could not know his comment would go old school viral at the time or even echo in popular consciousness some thirty years later. Back then, his intention was to define and outline priorities during an election campaign, where any number of contested issues arise for debate and exploration in the hope of plotting a way ahead. 

With a minor adjustment, these words apply equally well to education. While lacking such election cycle drivers to raise topics, issues and debates, we still wrestle with inherent tensions within discussions, arguments and debates about where we are, why we are and where we should go next when educating students.

Right now, one can point to issues in education globally and specifically in Australia. The trifecta of wars – reading, culture, curriculum; diversity in schools, technology in schools, the rise in student anxiety and depression, student behaviour, NAPLAN…

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The long term decline in Australia’s performance in international benchmark tests like PISA and TIMSS has also long been a discussion point, so much so that the Australian Federal Senate launched an inquiry into this very issue and framed terms of reference to explore possible factors influencing this decline.

Behaviour in schools has become a prominent issue since the pandemic. The associated disruption and fragmentation of learning during this time and its wider implications is still working itself out, which may very well prove a net good as it offers an opportunity to challenge old scripts and update our thinking.

Yet, the most pressing issue amongst teachers, in my experience, is workload.

Which is very much the story of the modern world, isn’t it? We have reached a point where issues surrounding work, productivity and finding a reasonable balance are very much on the minds and lips of workers across many industries, particularly ‘knowledge’ workers.

Mid 2021, fresh out of 14 day isolation as a potential close COVID contact and on the cusp of another lockdown, which would prove the longest one, I reached a state I had never experienced before and really struggled to make sense of. In the end, after asking for help and support, it emerged that I had burned out.

With time and space to reflect, one understands why burnout found me at that time, but the pandemic cannot really explain how there was an overwhelming sense that this had been coming for a long time and in was in no small way related to the way I worked and, if something did not change, it would not end well.

“Work is what horses die of. Everybody should know that.”

― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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Stark Russian sentiment aside, it seems useful at this point to divide the concept of work from that of workload, as they aren’t really the same thing. 

Any conversation about ‘work’ is actually a pretty universal discussion about desire, requirement and fit. It is in essence, the ‘what’.

Workload is a very different beast, relating to the dosage, or how much is reasonable before you begin diluting quality or, in the worst cases, endanger the practitioner.

Experience tells me that the largest factor in this issue of teacher workload is driven by the growing negative ratio of actual teaching or teaching related activities compared to administrative, compliance or operational tasks.

It is also the consequential mission creep at the heart of our well-intentioned desire to do everything, all at once. Often, in the best case, it means making a millimetre progress in a thousand different directions. In the worst case, it means poor teacher morale, retention and a lack of good will, the invisible force that fuels any great school.

This brings us to the concept of shadow work, outlined in the 2015 book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, by former Harvard magazine editor Craig Lambert, who spoke of the ‘many tasks that used to be done by other people, which most of us now do for ourselves, usually with the help of digital devices. This includes everything from banking to travel bookings, ordering food in restaurants to bagging groceries, not to mention downloading and navigating the apps we need to pay parking tickets or track our children’s school assignments or even troubleshoot our own tech problems’.

This ‘shadow work’ not only impacts the real world (where teachers don’t live, of course) but … but goes a good way to explaining the additional workload pressure of the things we do in schools, especially with the help of technology.

All of it is good and worthy in principle – differentiated learning, feedback, continuous reporting, parent communications, assessment, meetings, curriculum planning, curriculum review, external testing, student tracking, data collection and analysis, clubs, fundraisers, excursions, professional learning, professional registration compliance, and so on, and so on, and so on…

When added to the core business of teaching classes and supervising students, The gradual increase in working hours, especially since we now have the ability to be connected all the time, looks more taxing and burdensome with each passing term.


It means teachers can’t easily vanish into leisure time without guilt or workplace norms tempting us to check in with email or other connection tools, like MS teams or Slack, just in case.

It is a tricky problem, but one solution may come from the French, often at the pointy end of the spear with setting boundaries on work, who somewhat recently went to court to enshrine in law their right to disconnect when outside nominated work hours, something Australian unions are now advocating for. 

If we are being completely honest, there are very few issues that happen out of hours in schools that could not be dealt with the next morning, but it is not that easy, since many schools fall into the very human trap of romanticising the urgent and important, which Dwight Eisenhower defined in 1954 .

To add a layer of complexity to this already wicked conversation, there is also the inherent truth that many teachers enjoy the dynamic complexity of the profession we have chosen.

Tom Bennett, in his book Running the Room, a treatise on behaviour in schools, actually captured the complexity of teaching exceptionally well.

“Teaching is a testing profession, and its demands can break you, especially if you care about doing it well. It is a job based on repetition, the metronomes of the timetable, the curriculum and the tidal rhythm of the school year breathing in and out; but also one that surprises you everyday. It offers you a front-row seat to the wonders of human imagination, while exposing you to every act of petty malice you can imagine. It is a thankless task and a cornucopia of eternal reward.” (p.341)

I like this because it captures the paradoxes and competing tensions in this job that many teachers find alluring, albeit frustrating. The work is seasonal and predictable, no doubt, but also wicked and dynamic. The line I like most in his definition is ‘especially if you care about doing it well’.  

This is where the true professionals live. This is where you find people who are perhaps committed to a calling much more than a job. Schools are broad churches accommodating both the involved and the committed – which reminds one of that old joke about bacon and eggs. The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed…

Crunchy sunny side up with bacon by Jakub Kapusnak is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Yet we should not kid ourselves about the reality that this commitment is under real threat from workload pressures that are within our control to address. It is not just a threat to the chickens, but also the pigs, as the ledger tilts towards many teachers not seeing a long term future in continuing this important work.

Yes, the short term may show a settling or a return to something like normal as we move further away from the pandemic.

Yet workload is still a huge issue for the long term, because it has a very real impact on both the ability to attract quality teachers and also grow and retain them. It is an issue for schools because they rely on and survive based mainly on those who do it for intrinsic reward, not financial gain.

The work of teaching is not the issue, but the amount of it, which seems to grow and renew like a magic pudding or Prometheus’ liver, meaning the seasons of rest and renewal are not sufficient to head back into the fray and do what we do best.

In the end, if we cannot confront this uncomfortable truth and restore balance to workloads by taking things off plates, by defining what is really important, then everybody loses.

Published by charliehynes76

Learner. Teacher. Writer. My aim is to nourish and share a curious mind so that we might honour the gift.

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