Teacher workload vs. student learning

As teachers, our jobs are about supporting students in their learning and development. Teachers are constantly in service of their students, their students’ families, and their school community. But we are also human beings who have bodies, families, and relationships.

On Friday I missed my self-imposed weekly blogging deadline because I was up past my eyeballs in English exam papers. As I marked, I was wrestling with a dilemma: increasing my marking  workload with a view to student learning, or protecting my wellbeing by streamlining the marking process.

When you have 120 papers to mark in a short time, the easiest way to do that is to put a mark only on each paper, and publish a markers’ report that synthesises comments and feedback to the group. The long, hard way to do it is to annotate and write a comment on every paper. My dilemma was that, while a marker’s report is useful for students, I believe that annotations and comments on papers will help students to understand why they got the mark they did and how to improve for next time. That annotating and commenting on every paper takes much longer and results in more time and more pressure, while taking time away from other work streams and from my family. The other nagging feeling I had was that many students may not engage with the comments I was taking so long to formulate, making the whole lengthy exercise a waste of time. My experience with handing back exam papers, however, tells me that students can’t often make the connections between their work and a marker’s report; the annotations and comments can help them make sense of where they can improve.

In the end, I couldn’t stop myself from annotating and commenting. I decided to carve out more time (day, evening, and weekend) so that I could provide students with information they could use to help them do better next time. Students will have a number of assessments, plus their end of year exams and their tertiary entrance exams, still to come. As a teacher, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do what I hoped would be helpful for students in preparing them for the learning that comes next.

But it has meant that I’ve spent less time with my kids, less time looking after myself (I tend to find less time to make meals for myself and to exercise while under a heavy marking deadline), my neck has seized up (probably thanks to hours spent cocking my head as I read and write on papers), and have come down with a cold (it’s winter here so perhaps that is coincidence rather than evidence of compromised immunity).

While exams are a summative assessment, when my students receive their exams back, they will be led through a formative process of reflection, action, conferencing with me, and target setting. This process is based on the UK’s Assessment Reform Group’s summary of the characteristics of assessment that promotes learning. According to the ARG, assessment that promotes learning:

  • is embedded in a view of teaching and learning of which it is an essential part;
  • involves sharing learning goals with students;
  • aims to help students to know and to recognise the standards they are aiming for;
  • involves students in self-assessment;
  • provides feedback which leads to students recognising their next steps and how to take them;
  • is underpinned by confidence that every student can improve; and
  • involves both teacher and students reviewing and reflecting on assessment data.

Student engagement with their own work, its feedback, the marker’s report, and subsequent setting of next steps and how to take them, can help summative assessments like exams become learning opportunities. My students will be required to act on the feedback, as recommended by much feedback literature. My annotations and comments on students’ papers will form part of this process of engagement, reflection, and action.

As teachers, we often find it impossible to compromise our desire to help students, even if it means sacrificing our own time and wellbeing to do so. It’s why we need to make good decisions about where to expend our efforts. We also need to carve out time for self-care when we can, and find ways to nourish ourselves during the peaks of our workload. I’m looking forward to an overseas family holiday in the next holidays!

3 thoughts on “Teacher workload vs. student learning

  1. Hi Deborah, nice post!

    I’ll be honest, I am new to the “blogging world” but as I work to complete a masters in educational leadership I have been assigned to get involved with technology, and well, blogs, so here I go… As I browsed multiple educational blogs I struggled to find something that grabbed my interest, and then I saw your blog and this specific post on managing time between teaching and life. It stood out to me for the same, yet different reasons that you mentioned in the post.

    As a high school PE teacher and coach I do not spend countless hours grading papers, rather countless hours at the school where I coach. Morning practices before school, afternoon practices and games after school, and the weekly Saturday tournament that take up most of my day (and weekend). If you asked my wife she would tell you she hates that I over commit myself to the sports and the high school athletes, but if you asked me I would tell you that I make a difference and give these kids a similar experience to one that I had when I was their age. An experience that shaped me into the person I am today.

    Although there have been times where my alarm clock goes off at 5am on a Saturday and I dread the thought of spending the day away from my wife, family, and friends; there are more times when I am rewarded by the time and effort that I put into my profession. I believe that life is what you put into it. If you take the easy way out of anything you will lack a feeling of worth. If you invest yourself completely you will be rewarded with improvement, success, praise, and (hopefully) the gratitude of a student. Yes our profession can be hard work, but that is why we get the holidays and extended breaks. All things considered, I feel lucky and honored to be able to teach and coach kids knowing that they will look back on their high school experience positively.

    I look forward to following your blog going forward!



  2. Firstly, thanks for your blog! In less than half an hour, I’m finding myself drawn I to thinking about and reacting to what you’ve said, so thanks!
    I just wondered to what extent you thought the dichotomy between student learning and teacher workload was false? For many, there isn’t a choice in the short term. It’s either do the marking and planning the school requires or lose a job. In the long term, teachers can vote with our feet. More immediately though, if we want to be able to influence student learning (i.e have a teaching job) we have to acquiesce. I can’t help by little feel that, to some extent, teachers have created the workload crisis by putting a dichotomy there in the first place.
    Again, thanks for the brain food!


  3. Hi Deborah
    Like Mark I am also completing a Master in Education and becoming more involved in technology for education. I have actually followed your blogs since listening to you present for an ACEL symposium ‘Positive Psychology in Education’ in Sydney In 2016 – a very positive experience! I also find your blogs to be very engaging and thought provoking, and hope that one day I will be writing blogs just as engaging.

    The importance of formative assessment, learning goals, success criteria and feedback are areas I am currently reflecting on, particularly in the context of teaching and learning in rural schools. Student achievement in rural and remote and even regional schools as a collective, is lower when compared to metropolitan schools through a summtive assessment such as NAPLAN.

    There are many reason for this of course and we are trying to find ways to close the gap. Your comment regarding ‘acting on the feedback’ has created another ‘question’ I can be asking in the schools I work with, to explore ‘what works best’.

    I hope all teachers engage with the feedback rather than just the mark (in red pen or otherwise), despite the added time it takes. The workload of teachers and principals in school greatly concerns me, however We need to find other ways to create time so as not to lose the truely meaningful aspects of our role (or impact on our own wellbeing).

    Thanks for your great thoughts!



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