11 February 2013

The Challenges of a Four-Term Year – How Can We Squeeze It All In?

We’re a funny lot, aren’t we? In the past, the cry was always ‘The school terms are too long. The students are so tired they become impossible; the teachers are exhausted; no-one can do their best work.’

Now, on all hands we hear people cry ‘Term has just started and before we can blink it’s finished. They should do something. We’ve too much to fit in, it makes life too difficult.’

What are we dealing with here? Seems to me it’s too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. Nothing new about that, surely. Teachers have been suffering with that since Tomorrow’s Schools became Today’s.

As a provocative thought-teaser from an outsider in the business world, let’s take a look at the time management principles involved, and how the commercial world would handle such a dilemma.

Perhaps everyone’s trying to do too much, trying to be all things to all people. Now there’s a radical thought. What can you let go of? Would a business model itself focus on this pattern? I suggest not. If this was a true commercial business, and there was commercial benefit in expanding, money would be allocated, a new division or department would be set up and new jobs and a support structure created. But first, serious consideration would be given to the core question, ‘What is our purpose, and how do we make our money? Is this proposed activity part of what we do, does it fit with our existing purpose, or will it unfocus the team from the ‘real’ work, the work which drives our profit?’

What is the ‘real’ work at a school? It may not be making a serious profit, but there are Key Performance Indicators. Is it teaching core subjects to our children so that they are equipped for the adult world in a few years? Is it becoming an extended summer camp, giving them experience in the world of nature with camping trips, so that they develop a deeper understanding of the wonderful world we live in? Is it a musical extension programme, developing their choral and musical skills with fantastic musical productions? Is it a training ground for future politicians through running powerful debating teams? Is it a worthy extension of the many sporting clubs now rapidly moving into the world of professionalism? Is it a breeding ground for business through the brilliant Young Enterprise programme and others like it? (And we’re not even touching on the extensive social problems teachers have to deal with today).

Don’t hear me wrong. All those activities are great, and I’m delighted my six children had opportunities at all of them. However, as a professional who teaches adults, and a specialist in time management, I believe teachers are asked to fulfil too many roles. People spread themselves too thin. The outcome is burnout, stress, poor job satisfaction, and even low self-esteem in many people, for they feel they’re not achieving the results they’d like. Look at the number of highly skilled teachers who leave the profession, well before the natural end of their careers. Our children and our country can’t afford such an attrition rate.

Let’s start with the end in mind. We all agree we want our children educated (and the definition of ‘educated’ could keep a government department happily arguing for ten years!). But let’s suppose it’s agreed that education begins with the core subjects. Then decide the number of hours needed to do the job properly and make sure they are in the annual school programme. Then, look at what’s left. Lastly, decide what can fit in, in terms of extra-curricular activities. I suspect it will be a lot less than what you’re all trying to squeeze in at the present. I’m not surprised that teachers feel overloaded.

Earlier on in my career I did a time-log on myself. My business was expanding, and I couldn’t work out why I was feeling tired, exhausted, and overwhelmed with too much to do and yet never seemed to have enough hours spent on ‘real’ income-generating. I made a list of the weekly tasks, and then the monthly activities. To this was added the estimated hours for each task. The outcome? Although my income was very low, I immediately employed a young part-time assistant. From that point I started to become more effective, my business took off, and of course made more money (which easily paid her salary).

Having observed New Zealand teachers for some years now, and worked with many of you around the country, I am quite convinced that you’re all trying to do too much. When will someone get sensible and stop expecting you to be all things to all people? You’re beating yourselves up for not doing a good enough job, when in fact you’re doing an absolutely amazing job. Very few of your parents, in their many and varied businesses, would try to achieve as high a skill level in as many diverse areas as most teachers and most schools are doing daily.

Some lateral-thinking suggestions: Farm out some of the extra-curricular activities to specialist groups to organise. The little darlings will still love you if someone else takes them on summer camps, teaches them music, runs the music extravaganzas, and organises their sporting activities. Perhaps schools could do their ‘stuff’ from 8 – 2, and then, whilst the children are on the premises, other bodies could take over for another hour – and run the ‘events’ which gobble up such a huge amount of professional teaching time.

This next suggestion could work in suburban areas. Have schools nominate an area of specialty, which they focus on. Don’t try and be all things to all people. Let students choose their schools according to their interests.

Someone will say, ‘But we can’t afford it’. I suggest that you can’t afford to go on as you are. Others will say, ‘But if we don’t do it many children will never get the experiences they’re currently getting.’ That’s true, but is that your problem? Are you social workers, or teachers? At the risk of being rather provocative, I say don’t let an over-active social conscience get in the way of being a top-grade teacher. If you want to be a social worker, join the Social Welfare Department. Don’t try and solve the world’s problems, or the problems of every under-advantaged child in the country. Focus on the areas that you have some influence in. When you do a good job it has a positive impact back into the community anyway, and someone else will pick up the baton. When you spread yourself too thin you help nobody, including yourself.

The suggestions above may be quite impractical. That’s not the point. All I want you to do is start thinking of other ways to do things. Get the priorities right, and the rest will follow. One of the most powerful forces in the world is the power of focus. It is not just a time management principle: it is behind every successful person, every successful business, every medal-winning athlete, and every successful teacher and school. What is the real issue? What needs to change to give good work satisfaction? How can we produce well-educated students at all levels?

Have fun thinking.





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