285 - Is teaching worth it?

 MG 8118

I have, of late, been wondering about this very topic. I wrote in the past about the value of gardening as a process that produces food but that for this to have an economic value the time spent in gardening must been written off as enjoyment, leisure or some-such, since the produce harvested is not so extremely much better than can be purchased for a lesser cost.

In a similar way I am beginning to question employment, and teaching in particular. I have claimed in the past that teaching is not the stressful environment complained about by so many, but have learned that I was in a privileged position. I have also said that workplace stress can be exceeded elsewhere—and I hold to that—but it would remain true that there is employment which is relatively less stressful than teaching, even in a 'nice' school.

Now, some of the stress is self-imposed. Teachers are largely self-motivated, which is why it is known as a calling, a vocation. This means that many in academia will do a lot of work 'for the students', quite possibly beyond that which is necessary and that which is sufficient. Kids are not perfect learning machines by any measure, so one would expect even the most hardened workplace critic to expect a high level of redundancy in delivery of content. For me, it is way too high throughout most of the twelve to fifteen years we have of education, but that is a personal opinion based on very limited observation.

Those outside teaching understandably point to "all those holidays".  Let's have a little look at that. Schools in England are supposed to run for 380 'sessions', so children should attend 190 days and teachers should expect to do 195 days [1]. That's 39 weeks a year, leaving, apparently, 13 weeks not at school — which sounds absolutely brilliant, doesn't it?  That doesn't tell you how long a 'day' is; it doesn't tell you about lesson preparation, time spent on the phone to parents, time in meetings, time marking, doing activities. Nor does it tell you about the trips with kids outside those working weeks and the additional work attached to them. If you're any sort of senior teacher, you'll be in school for the second half of August worrying over results — but I suggest that these days are in lieu of some of the trips that other staff will have made.

What would be acceptable as a working week in return for 39 weeks of work? Simply taking a 40 hour week for 49 weeks a year suggests 2450 hours, and therefore suggests that a teacher, if paid at a similar rate per hour to an equivalently qualified person, might deliver some [48/39*40 =] 50 hours per week. And if you like the idea of a 35 hour week, a 48-week year, (1680 hours a year) would suggest 43 hours a week.

I have reported on other pages that across my teaching career I averaged 55 hours a week on 39 weeks a year.  That's 2145 hours a year. On top of that I was often included in school trips (mostly for being a Mountain Leader); I often had CCF Camp and I often had CCF courses — many years I exceeded the 50 CCF days per year, very few of which would simultaneously be 'school' days, so we can easily call that 44 weeks, often filling weekends, equivalent to perhaps 49 out of 52. So not in any sense part-time. A typical office worker does 1600 hours per year; the Working Time Directive, WTD, [2] conflicts with this school experience and the let-out, I think is in the exceptions: where 24-hour staffing is required (in boarding, on any trip away); as a domestic servant (boarding again, but maybe this is a stretch too far); where working time is not measured and you're in control. This last is, presumably, where independent schools score, but 'in control' is not how I would describe very much of teaching, though that would very much depend on your manager. [2] makes it clear that 48 hours is the maximum in any week. Many teachers will scoff at this. Across a year of 50 weeks that suggests 2400 hours a year is a maximum. I doubt that I ever fell to this level and have recorded several years exceeding 3000 hours, once over 3500. 2  Okay, I kept on doing it, so I accept that a lot of these hours were from choice and I certainly enjoyed many of the years in the job. But I was mostly lucky in my employer and colleagues and I don't stress as easily as many — or perhaps I actually enjoy a level of stress that others would find abhorrent. I apologise to my family for those years spent at work and not at home. 

Was it worth it? In money terms those weeks 'away' were a net financial benefit, since CCF pays by the day and many if not all of the activities would have been pursued by me outside any non-teaching employment. So, in a sense much of my leisure time was spent as part of my work; that is a net benefit if you get on well with the kids; if you don't, or if the kids make the time away really stressful, then this is not fun at all and probably the net effect is negative. So you drop the activity or the offending kids — or you fix the problem some other, better, way. That's also a part of the job, really. So I think one should compare the 2400 hours per year rather than any larger figure, and also accept that some teachers will successfully reduce their year to more like 2100 hours per year. Which is still more than the stereotypical 'office-worker'. 

Pay? I rarely exceeded £35k per year, so that makes for an hourly rate of £10 to £15. At current pay rates a teacher might expect to receive £25-40k depending on years in post, so £10 to £15 per hour.  When working in China, and the boss, I was quite well aware that my hourly rate was the least of the foreign staff, simply because my hours were so high. Living costs were very low, so this was net gain by comparison with living in Britain; certainly I made capital gains across that time (i.e., earnings exceeded spending, so there was income that became capital).  Median pay is £27k implying between £11 and £12 per hour. My wife, when only recently qualified, was paid too little to meet the minimum requirements for residency (60% of median, £16800 after tax) which made her pay around the statutory minimum. I say this rather invalidates the years put into qualifying.

Is this good pay? Well, that would depend very much on what you think is fair return for work proffered  It depends too on whether you think teaching is a worthwhile career and whether you are prepared to accept lower income in return for the privilege and enjoyment of being in some sense allowed to be a teacher. This is what a vocation is, and this is how our society rewards vocational work. For comparison look at nursing pay grades and you'll see a similar pattern. Is it adequate pay? Well, it should be. Yet I worry at the number of past colleagues for whom retirement is anything but comfortable — that seems to me to send a message that the pay was not adequate. Particularly, I suggest that teachers are relatively well educated so that you might reasonably expect them to have made sensible provision for later life. 

Is teaching worthwhile now? Sitting on the other side of the spousal relationship, I am no longer of the same opinion I was when the one enjoying teaching. My wife sleeps at home, but I see her very little since it seems that every waking moment is spent onsite or at her desk. Work is continuous when onsite (lunch is quite clearly not downtime and too often lunch simply doesn't happen); her return from work gives us some interaction, almost entirely filled with moaning about school, release of suppressed temper - I am not enjoying being married to a teacher. The working day runs from 0800 to 17:30, but usually 18:00. Every evening includes at least three hours work and weekends include usually six to ten more. There is a weekly duty night and across a year there are probably ten weekends with a day or partial day at school. Taking Friday night off (I disagree with her, but it is what she does) leaves us with an apparent working week of 70 hours. I thought this was high, so I looked again, to find a range; I see the fewest hours as 55 and the most as 75, but observation says that a week of 55 is bracketed by heavier weeks.


It would be unfair to say we two teachers are equivalent. We are similarly qualified. Our subjects are very different and this is, a little to my surprise, relevant. Maths lends itself to black & white, binary thinking. Stuff, especially lower down the school is right or wrong. This makes a lot of marking very swift. Actually that is true while the work is right. This would seem to not translate to language, but it might be that I am simply far more ruthless in opinion, which could be down to age or gender quite as much as subject. Another factor that occurs to me is that maths for me was always streamed, while language classes seem not to be. I see that as a difficulty, but have been told that this is so common it simply becomes part of the teaching landscape, so one adapts lessons to use this as a positive. I accept that.

Where the subjects are decidedly not equal is the time given per week per class. For KS3 maths would have a lesson a day, 3 to 4 hours a week, just like English. Modern Foreign Languages, MFL, do not; in a 'good' environment there just might be the same timetabled time for all MFL as for English, but usually less. That means that for the competent student they have less than half as much teaching time on any language as they do for Maths or English. Is Maths bigger, somehow? If so, how is this justified? What seems to have happened is that subjects are not equal; some are more important than others, as is seen by the time devoted to them. Among the consequences, students with widely separated lessons take correspondingly longer to 'remember' what happened in the previous lesson. From a timetabling point of view, then, it would be far more effective for two-language students to run languages in different halves of the year, pushing lessons closer and reducing the memory drag. That would also require exams to be on offer, would it would be more efficient in the short term. What works against this, of course, is the memory loss around to the next academic year. Another consequence is on the teacher's side ;for two equivalent teachers of Maths and MFL, the linguist has twice as many classes as the STEM specialist. So more reports to write, less opportunity to engage with the students so less rapport and further consequences follow. Bad behaviour from the bottom set (or worst, the second-from-bottom set) may also be unequal, but I'll bet that both teachers think they have the worse of the matter; the linguist has twice as many 'bad' pupils while the mathematician has them for twice as long.

It is also unequal for me to claim to be equal to my spouse as a teacher, since I have 30 years of service and she has a small fraction of that. What I say applies or does not is coloured by more years (experience, compromise, opportunity, forgetting the bad, etc) and indeed by that experience we both have being neither current nor at the same school. These are not equivalent experiences even before we compare subject biases. 

Our teaching demands are more different still. I taught mostly sixth form, so I had more classes than most mathematicians (more than those at other schools, more than most of my colleagues). So I might well have 3 classes Y7-11 and maybe 7 classes Y12-13. This would push my report count high, especially if I picked up some additional class such as IT or Physics. My spouse teaches primary and secondary so she has had classes in every year group from 1 to 13; immediately she has more classes as a newly qualified teacher than I did when a long-established one. Worse, she has classes for half the time I would — as explained already. On top of that, the Y11-13 material might well be 1st language (the students already speak Chinese) but might easily mix A-level and two versions of the IB. Just the second condition, two versions of IB in the same room is equivalent to me having to teach Mechanics and Statistics to a combined class. The only thing we have in common Y12&13 is class size; my Further Maths students were the cream of the school, the 1st language Chinese, especially those entered for 2nd language Chinese, are at the other end of the spectrum.

So are our experiences of teaching the same? No.

Worse yet, outside the teaching timetable I was in demand (or allowed to move myself to places that suited me personally) to do things that others would call leisure activities. I was effectively paid to take exercise and, in other workplaces, these are things I would have paid to do (and now do so). Taking mostly boys for things deemed to be exercise is a lot less difficult than handling a reluctant class, especially at a school that offers enough alternatives for effectively everyone to be doing their preferred choice. This is not hard work in the same way as the classroom might be, and we should recognise that more lessons, when others are at play, is worse than more lessons when others are teaching.  But my wife has a different experience, despite being, relatively speaking, quite as physically ept (the opposite of inept) as myself. Her after-school activities turn out to be mostly extra lessons in disguise. Due to her gender, her CCF activity is clearly baby-sitting (where my CCF was active, involved and stimulating, hers is determinedly boring down-time). Sport has moved to a position where additional qualifications are a must, emphasised by her school offering a narrower selection than I became used to. Some of these differences of experience are quite clearly gender-related. On her behalf, I resent this. Just because I'm a pushy, aggressive male and she is a far slighter, much more pleasant and more passive (only relatively) personality, so she is pushed into positions she does not enjoy for reasoning that seems to me to be only underlining faults in the curriculum generally. 

Some further differences follow, which are more personal still. I'm quite happy to allocate time for a task and then make the task fit into that time. My spouse takes almost the opposite approach—she says it follows from the primary training—and the job goes on until it meets the suitable standard. Which in effect means that she has no standard in mind (I'd suggest 'good enough') and so the work, whatever it is, follows Parkinson's Law and fills the time available. Plus some.

End result, even if we had the same job, I'd get it done in fewer hours. I'd get away with this from being a bloke, from not putting up with non-essential nonsense, by being a bit more self-disciplined and by drawing 'good enough' at a lower standard than she would. Plus some bluster to help matters along. I'm not the nice person she is. Is she overloaded? By the measure that says the stress experience is too much for her, then quite definitely overloaded. Is there recognition of overload? You're kidding. I am most unimpressed with the management, in style, competence and ability. But then I have no issues with use of English, as a bloke I'm expected to use temper as a weapon, I don't take prisoners and I'm openly intolerant. Of many things; I'm not a nice person and I'm a frequently difficult employee. My missus is nice and not difficult, so she tends to roll over when pushed to do more; she has difficulty expressing herself precisely in English and she doesn't think as fast as I do (a mixed blessing; faster thinking doesn't mean better thinking). In short, she is easily bullied.


Following on from that list of what are in effect complaints then, from a spousal perspective, I actually think my wife might be better off stacking shelves in a supermarket—I pick that as a common choice for a job represented as needed and yet by assumption very low in skills or standing. I recognise that time spent not earning is very often includes spending; if no inflow, surprisingly increased outflow. It is difficult to spend money when you're at work and very easy to do so when not at work. This means that a shorter working week would likely, at least in the short term, result in more spending. Minimum wage of £8.21 per hour for a 36 hour week would be £14k — half the pay and no tax for half as many hours; so actually not half the pay at all. I can't say this is unattractive. The difference that ought to apply is that typical minimum wage work is also likely to be very variable, to be what I might call weak employment in the sense that the job can easily disappear. Yet the salaried work that is teaching doesn't feel—at the moment—to be the permanent post it should; she is threatened each week with 'failure' (not getting fantastic grades irrespective of the numpties in the class), with her subject language altogether being dropped (which you'd think was grounds for redundancy rather than unemployment (throw away Mandarin in preference for Latin, would you believe?) It doesn't matter whether she really is being bullied, though I have no good idea how to establish that; it matters that she feels bullied. It matters that I don't see my wife enough to call her such; I don't sleep as much as I used to, but we're still one  hour and usually two adrift every night and a lot more at the weekend, so the idea of 'time in the bedroom, together' is simply not happening, in term. I am in some despair at this situation. When we reach a moment of 'holiday', time not at school, she is too tired to  work at actually having a break and the age-old observation that downtime for teachers is much the same as deferred sick-days is uncomfortably true. Given that her mix of 'activities' includes no sport because these turn out to be hidden lessons, there is pitifully little gain (in the sense that 'leisure' might overlap with 'work').

This is not revealed as employment that fulfils psychologically, that makes one feel good about oneself.  While my rate of pay was perhaps low, much of the time was pleasurable and quite a lot was time I would have spent on a very similar activity; she is not in such a position, so many of the values that make teaching worthwhile (worth not being paid well) are rendered irrelevant. Thus I question whether it is a career, since there is no prospect of matters improving; a career surely is something that has a sensible progression in a desirable direction. If teaching is a vocation but not a career, that brings us yet again to the conflict between caring and being professional.     I do not see this version of teaching as rewarding.  I am likely to agree with her when she eventually wants to give up. From a purely accounting viewpoint, at such a moment we are significantly out of pocket. The cost of the UK qualifications and lacking of earning throughout that period plus the associated living costs amount s to a figure that the small excess of income over expenditure we currently enjoy will take more than a decade to cancel out. 

Add into the mix that one solution route is to go teach outside Britain but that this route is one we have negated by committing to Britain (Brexit was a significant factor in that set of decisions) and we are in a bad place, one that suggests that change is required. We could change the employee, the employer or the employment.


DJS 20190929

The employee can change on the inside by reconsidering attitudes and skills.

The employer can change its behaviour; the employer can be exchanged for another

The employment can change similarly; by changing the mix of tasks undertaken by the employee within teaching, by moving to a different field within education or, indeed, not in teaching at all.


[1] The School Day and Year (England) - Parliament.ukhttps://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk › documents  link to Briefing Paper 07148, 19/7/2019, HoC Library].

[2] https://www.gov.uk/maximum-weekly-working-hours

2 I've not done well at discovering how this is permitted in schools. I have never seen the required opt-out clause in a contract, yet at some point it must have been waived. I found an argument that, since the 48 hour limit is spread across a maximum 17 week period, there is always a holiday included (typically a 13 week cycle) which would, it is argued, bring the average down toward the EU WTD figures. Second, I suspect that many of the hours a teacher will claim as work falls under some other description for the purposes of the WTD, perhaps because this is time where you're 'in control' in the self-employed sense.

In my days past I'd have gone to ask a union rep about this. And I'd have received a good answer, as I would have done form the Head himself. She cannot do this in the environment of fear that pertains. Being female is a sub-issue, as is English not a 1st language. In turn one might look to a line manager for support, but that presupposes competence and courage and an environment that allows challenge. This is not so.

Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2018