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Creating coherence to manage workload and wellbeing in ITT

Written by: Henry Sauntson
10 min read
Henry Sauntson, Director, Teach East SCITT, UK

Teaching might be a profession in trouble. Recent statistics indicate that more than 10 per cent of those who attained QTS in 2019 left teaching before the end of July 2020, and nearly 40 per cent leave in their first five years (DfE, 2021); research cited by Gorard et al. (2021) shows that premature departure from the profession can be attributed to the lack of adequate preparation for dealing with and managing the workload and the associated stresses that come with teaching. If this is the case, we must ensure that, from the outset of their career, a teacher is prepared for the challenges that they may face – a form of pre-mortem, if you will.

Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1980) tell us that ‘anyone who wishes to acquire a new skill is immediately faced with two options’: imitation and ‘floundering trial and error’ or ‘seek[ing] the aid of an instructor’ (p. 1). We must acknowledge that, within teaching, the management of workload, and therefore wellbeing, is paramount to success; the best teachers are not only effective in the classroom but also efficient in their working practices, and efficiency is drawn from clear understanding of their working domain. Dreyfus and Dreyfus go on to tell us that ‘a detailed understanding of the stages through which skillful performance develops is essential’ (p. 6), particularly for those who design the programmes in which new skills are acquired; workload management is a skill.

A key is to establish definitions: ‘workload’ has acquired status as a pejorative term, when in fact it is nothing more than an umbrella for those tasks that must be completed in order to maintain self-efficacy. Much of our positive wellbeing can be drawn from our own job satisfaction and sense of autonomy – it’s not just how much we do but what we do and how useful we feel that it is. Wellbeing, after all, is an outcome, and not an action. In their NFER report, Worth and Van den Brande (2020) found that ‘Teacher autonomy is lower among early career teachers and higher among senior leaders’ (p. 4) but also that ‘Teacher autonomy is strongly associated with improved job satisfaction and a greater intention to stay in teaching’ (p. 4). It goes without saying, then, that we must instil ideas of autonomy and worth at an early stage by giving greater time to – and focus on – management of workload for wellbeing. Worth and Van den Brande go on to state that ‘Autonomy plays an important role in teachers’ motivation and professionalism’ (p. 6), and that ‘Autonomy is strongly associated with higher teacher job satisfaction and retention’ (p. 14). The report goes further: ‘Autonomy is associated with workload manageability, but not with working hours.’ (p. 15). It is about, as stated, not how much we work but how well we work, which can need supporting as we get to grips with a new profession. The paper indicates that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors contribute to performance, but only intrinsic motivation aligns with job satisfaction, and extrinsic motivation is related to possibilities of burnout and stress.  Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1980) define the novice’s approach as firstly ‘decomposing the task environment into context-free features’ (p. 7), and then call on the need for teachers to be given ‘rules for determining an action’ (p. 7); in essence, the management of workload, and therefore aspects of wellbeing, can and should be taught. They then call for the novice to be monitored to bring their behaviour ‘more and more completely into conformity’ (p. 7); only then can the next stage of competence be achieved, when there has been ‘considerable experience actually coping with real situations’, with identifiable ‘recurrent, meaningful component patterns’ (p. 8) – they become situational, grounded in the realities of the working environment. In order to be the efficient and effective practitioner outlined above, the trainee teacher must understand the need to be taught how to manage themselves in their new domain. Management of workload is not necessarily synonymous with saving time; it is about appropriate distribution of available time and resources – and this takes planning and foresight, built on previous experience. As trainees have no bank of experience within the teaching domain on which to call, it falls to us as the provider to ensure that they are given appropriate support and guidance.

The DfE report ‘Addressing teacher workload in ITT’ (2018) cites four main areas for focus: changing the culture of burdensome practice; workload of trainees on placement; the wider partnership; and mental health and wellbeing. There are many shared aspects, all of which can be addressed through a streamlined and efficient set of working practices where the focus is on the ‘why’ before the ‘what’. Culture in itself is a complex beast. The key to transforming any culture is bringing into the open the connection between what people believe and who believes it, in order to enable examination and impact; ‘culture is affected by the conditions and contexts in which it operates’ (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012, p. 103). In order to make the changes, we have to look at the conditions, the settings and the situations; in ITE, these are many and varied, and often conflicting – a trainee may have their own ethos, their provider may have a set of values that they promote and their placement school may operate under a differing manifesto again. Such conflicting cultures between the training room and classroom practice can be hard to overcome. 

Timperley and Robinson (2000) made the claim that ‘the increased workload and stress associated with a self-managing environment can be attributed, in part, to the ways in which teachers organize themselves’, and that ‘teachers not only suffer from workload problems but also create them’ (p. 47). They suggest ‘the possibility of reverse causation, that is, that the way in which the teachers set about their work might contribute to problems of workload’ (p. 60), and from this we can draw our conclusions; we need to help our novice trainees to understand how to work smartly and efficiently and above all to know why they are doing what they are doing, instead of simply stating the age-old unsound defence of ‘compliance’. A key to this is our expectations – trainees don’t have the reservoir of strategies and resources of experienced teachers, and as such we must set our expectations for written reflections at an appropriate level. 

In order to ensure efficiency, we start with communication: the need for a shared language of mutually understood terms and concepts that allows for effective discussion, feedback and target-setting. Many trainees suffer early on from the sheer weight of ‘advice’ and instruction that they encounter; if the language for such things is not clearly established from the outset, then we risk creating a Tower of Babel – myriad different voices shouting many different things in a range of different ways, and nothing ever truly making sense. Before our trainees begin their course they undergo the induction phase, which begins at interview; we address the need to be realistic, manage time and have outlets. We need to be sure that trainees are aware of this before we go too far down the line.

For us, the analogy is balloons. Each balloon is a stakeholder – a trainee, a mentor, a subject lead – and unless they are safely and securely tethered to a weight, they will float away. The weight is our curriculum – the heart of what we do and the heart of our communication and workload-management model. Efficiency comes from coherence: we must ensure coherence across both our internal curriculum – the content that we teach and its connections – and our external curriculum, which is the relationship between the taught curriculum and its multitudinous implementers and enactors across our settings. Trainees and early career teachers will hear many different voices of perceived wisdom and experience during that early phase of exponential ability growth, and the way in which those voices are tuned must be carefully managed to ensure that teachers feel supported and empowered to remain in our profession. 

We encourage curriculum coherence through the sharing of information across dedicated blocks of study, tying all aspects to the ‘weight’. All mentors receive weekly ‘learning spotlights’ that summarise the taught content from core training and allow them to set a meaningful contextual target for their trainee, to complement the central target that we set as a provider – we trust our mentors to exemplify their domain expertise. There are always practical considerations; trainees and their mentors probably get one hour a week of dedicated time together in which to cover a multitude of possible topics. In order for this to be a beneficial hour, it must be a streamlined and efficient one, with a clearly defined focus and a shared language – a glossary of shared terminology and the theory that sits behind it. We must also consider that the trainee, through their more structured exposure to it, may be more informed about aspects of research and evidence than their mentor; this can be a cause of tension and also, therefore, additional workload – the pointless rote repetition of fundamental ideas or the unravelling of poorly presented misconceptions.

There is a need to coach and align all those who give input to ensure formative, positive dialogue. The way in which to offset the pressure of continued and persistent observation is to ensure that it is framed around appropriate and meaningful feedback of mutual benefit; performing in itself is an additional workload burden, certainly from a cognitive standpoint. If mentors make the performance harder than the student audience already does, then the pressures are massive. As Timperley tells us, ‘professional learning requires different approaches depending on whether or not new ideas are consistent with the assumptions that currently underpin practice’ (2008, p. 17); we need our mentors to understand and be capable of articulating our provider approach, and that means alignment of language from the outset.

It is not enough for a provider such as us to assume that because we wrote it down, it happens; the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place, to paraphrase GB Shaw. We don’t hide behind the cloak of ‘collaboration’; we promote autonomy through structured support. We manage expectations by being realistic; we use an ‘on track’ model with increasingly challenging criteria to formatively assess trainees as they move towards meeting standards, to help them see their ‘journey’. We focus on the quality of evidence, and not its quantity – so much of teacher improvement is identified through regular observation, and not a seating plan or resource made in October and presented in a final folder in June, by which point it is so irrelevant as to be pointless. The trainee portfolio is an ever-changing, organic representation of trainee development, and not a ring-binder archive. We are paperless where we can be, and no document is saved in more than one place – we know where to look for it if we need to see it, and we can always ask! All evidence gathered in any form helps us to formulate the inferences that we need to make to ensure that trainees are appropriately supported – as with all assessments, if we don’t intend to use the data, then we don’t need to gather it.

We care about quality; some trainees embark on their pursuit of QTS with limited relevant understanding of what education looks like ‘on the ground’, and we have to ensure that we adequately prepare them for the realities of the profession and what it expects of us as practitioners. We build our curriculum around the ITT Core Content Framework (DfE, 2019) but add an extra layer of contextual gloss; we know that no one teacher is the same, and all our settings have their own challenges – one size fits very few and therefore we must look after the individual and not the generic framework of standards to which they must adhere. By focusing on communication and clarity through the efficiencies of shared language and culture, we enable trainee progress towards common goals, but with the naturally fluctuating pathways of individual development. As in classrooms where no one strategy or pedagogical mechanism works in isolation, so must we in teacher education acknowledge that no one succeeds on their own – clearly aligned support is essential. Dylan Wiliam (2010, p. 6) argues that we need a culture change: an understanding that teaching is ‘such a complex craft that one lifetime is not enough to master it’; a need to commit to continuous improvement. That commitment brings with it pressures but also a realistic understanding of those pressures; workload becomes problematic when there is no purpose behind the action, and no obvious goal or destination towards which to work.

Trainee teachers face multiple pressures around establishing themselves and their role; our goal is the creation and incubation of trainees with a clear professional identity and sense of autonomy, rooted in structured and pragmatic reflection and aligned to the true pressures and expectations of the profession. Trainees are novices in all areas relating to QTS, and must therefore be guided until they can manage on their own. Like Dylan Wiliam (2010, p. 6) stressed, we must make efforts to raise the status of the profession while acknowledging that the job is hard – ‘a job so difficult that one’s daily experience is of failure, but one where, each day, to quote Samuel Beckett, one can “fail better”’.

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