Can you be bothered?

“David Beckham is one of the best free-kick taker ever and it not because of a talent sent by god. It’s because he trained with a tireless dedication that the vast majority of less gifted players would not even imagine.”

Sir Alex Ferguson on right—sided midfielder David Beckham.

“I don’t care. I was listening. It’s good enough. Why are you bothered? Leave me alone.”

Pupil to teacher.

The long hours teachers work is an often-cited reason for why teachers are tired and unhappy, and why schools have a recruitment and retention problem.

There is usually pushback with people pointing out many roles require lots of work, and that opening up a laptop in the evenings and weekends is hardly an affront to anyone’s human rights.

This is true. Teachers should be mindful of the offensive assumption other roles are all thirty-five-hours a week on comfortable salaries.

The most informed perspective comes from those who have worked in both demanding roles in teaching and outside it. Most seem to feel while the hours worked might be comparable, they’ve never felt more tired and stretched than they have done while working in schools.

This is because it’s is the type and intensity of work that’s most relevant – not how long it takes.

Teaching is tiring.

Those not engaged in it struggle to understand – or even remember if they once did it – just how intense it is.

A five-lesson day means five one-hour interactive presentations to a large group of young people, and many would prefer to be doing something else.

In each hour hundreds of tiny but important decisions are made. Getting just one wrong can cause a cascade of events that batter emotions and impede judgement.

Random factors and issues well beyond the control of an individual teacher can swing a wrecking ball through a carefully planned sequence and at the end of each hour – good or bad – the teacher has seconds to recentre themselves before it all begins again.

When things are going well this is exhilarating but when it doesn’t it can be dreadful.

Whether you’re on top of the wave or drowning in it it’s exhausting.

Matthew Hood now of Oak National worked this out a long time ago when he identified teachers – like athletes, actors and musicians – as being part of performance professions.   

Nobody goes to see a band and then complains on the way out they only played for two hours – we understand it isn’t easier than cooking for five hours with the radio on.

In teaching we have a performance profession without the support structures to facilitate elite performance; we don’t expect a footballer to play in the afternoon and then attend a long meeting afterwards, yet this is a common expectation of those who teach.

Teachers are also expected to keep on top of emails, track data, assess, contribute to extra-curricular activities, do duties – where they must performatively care about things like coats and tucked shirts – and a thousand other tasks before they leave work where most have other jobs to do before they can relax.

Or open up their laptop.

It’s very tough and teachers manage it all extraordinarily well in very difficult circumstances.

While our teaching might not always be elite we should be kind to ourselves and mindful we lack advantages elite performers enjoy.

I’ve been prompted to think about this by this outstanding blog post by Adam Boxer.

Adam identifies a foundational problem – many children simply don’t listen in lessons – and then proposes simple things teachers can do to fix this issue.

These things will work but teachers have to apply them consistently until they become habitual and then continue to apply them relentlessly if they are to prevent a regression to the mean.

What struck me most strongly was just how motivated teachers have to be.

Without Adam’s attention to detail and his iterative dogged botheredness his solutions can’t have much impact, and his suggestions -brilliant as they are – will make teachers more tired.

They mean working more intensively without strengthened systems to meet the increased effort.

It means the same long hours but properly looking not just being seen looking. It means circulating and intervening and holding to account and – to begin with – eye rolling and annoyance on the part of students not used to this level of intervention and feeling it unfair.

It means breaking an unspoken but powerful social contract which allows children not to give 100% so long as they don’t misbehave too much – a system which allows teachers to catch up on emails, take a micro-breather, or finish planning for P5 while kids answer a question.

Given this paradox – the virtues of having teachers constantly engaged in actively listening and ratio against the constraints teaching exists in – what’s best?

Firstly, we should reject simple binaries.

There isn’t a model ‘bad’ classroom in which nobody is listening and a model ‘good’ classroom in which everyone is.

Instead, there are times children listen well and times they don’t. There are times teachers have the energy and capacity to care more and times they find it hard to.

While there are some classrooms in which children generally listen and attend more than in others there is an ebb and flow in all.

And we can’t force teachers to make children listen. It requires an attention to detail that can’t be grafted onto someone else.

Instead, we should be clear about why we need all children to listen properly, build teaching expertise so they know how, then create conditions that make it more likely teachers can be as bothered as Adam is.

I know many are and I think most would be if they could.

I think some would like to be if they knew they could be but work in environments where there’s so much to do it’s too hard.

I think if they knew quite how wonderful it is to have a day with truly engaged active students for five lessons and then going home at a reasonable hour tired but happy they’d want it.

Where this isn’t common schools should think about how tired teachers are, what can be done about this and why staff feel they have to do admin, like getting on top of emails during their teaching hours. They should consider teacher energy as an opportunity cost to everything they do.

Data analysis might be important but if it takes hours and makes people tired is it worth it especially when balanced among something as high-leverage as impact in a classroom? Has the potential impact of outside hours interventions been considered alongside the effect it might have on the botherdnessof teaching in school?

Here school leaders should be really wary of just how hard it is to understand how busy full-time teachers are, how exhausting it is.

Having dipped in and out of full-time teaching over the last few years I know how fast memories of the intensity of fades once you’re on less than fifteen hours a week teaching time. This isn’t to say school leaders don’t work hard – I know they do – but it isn’t as tiring or exhausting hour to hour. Forgetting this is natural so it’s important to be conscious about it to avoid horrors like “no sitting at desk” policies or worse. It’s why school leaders are foolish if they tot up their hours, see they do more than a teacher and then make uncharitable judgements.

Finally schools shouldn’t aim for perfection.

As Adam points out children not listening is a common – perhaps even typical feature of most lessons.

Instead of making children listening all the time the sort of meaningless non-negotiable that does nothing at all we should aim to get children listening more – to push things on – to develop teachers who want children to listen, know how to and then have leaders cultivate environments in which teachers have enough energy to care about details in the way Adam inspires us to.

Can you be bothered? Are you able to be?


3 thoughts on “Can you be bothered?

  1. Pingback: Can you be bothered? | ramblingsofanelteacher

  2. mrskvale says:

    This article articulates this issues with teaching that I’ve not been able to vocalise! Well done.
    I’ve been teaching for 32 years now and can honestly say that I’ve never been so tired. It infuriates me that emails arrive during the school day that require attention that same day. Well, I’ve made the decision that if it’s that important someone will come and remind me!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Julian Selman says:

    Excellent thinking here Ben. These sorts of thoughts run through my head constantly during a busy 5 period day (which is what I do mostly) and it strikes me that without that listening from students there is not a lot of point having the lesson. I often make this point explicitly to students so that they know how important it is to their learning but it is hard to sustain and be consistent about. You and Adam have got to the heart of a crucial matter for teachers/schools.


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