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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

Is full-time teaching hazardous?

by Anne Jardine

Is full-time teaching hazardous to one’s health? Is the job just too demanding, time consuming and stressful?

Some teachers—the 1.0 FTE casualties—leave the profession, or they try unsuccessfully to adapt, sometimes by sacrificing family stability or personal health. Exhaustion disorders, depression, and addictions are a few examples of unsuccessful adaptations.

Other teachers—the 1.0 FTE survivors—adapt to these time demands within their full-time assignment by changing their teaching strategies, perhaps by lowering their standards, by simplifying their marking or planning, by using shortcuts, by not following up on all student behavioural concerns, by reducing abstract or complex learning outcomes, by teaching to the test, by dumbing down their courses, or by dropping their extracurricular activities.

Recently a Golden teacher requested a .15 FTE reduction in her assignment. Here is an excerpt from her letter to the board (used with permission).

"In my first three months of a full-time teaching assignment in BC I have struggled greatly with the demands on my time. The difference is simply this: in Ontario, New Zealand, and Australia, teachers are allotted five to six periods a week to prepare in comparison to BC’s three. This is largely insufficient. I now produce lessons well below the standard of which I am capable. I am suffering professionally. My students are suffering in the classroom.

"Since I refuse to lower my standards, I have had to request a reduction in workload. I do so reluctantly, but my commitment to educate students to a high standard leaves me two choices: teach at less than full-time or leave the profession.

"I wonder how many excellent teachers in my position will choose the latter.

"I appreciate your time and effort in reconsidering the definition of full-time teaching in BC."

This teacher is unwilling to even consider any of these workload-coping strategies. She is going to buy herself a block of preparation time by reducing her FTE.

For several years now, teachers have had to resort to seeking personal relief, making personal adaptations, and personal financial sacrifices in order to accommodate their workload. This Golden teacher is not alone. Many have requested reduced assignments. The move to part-time has become a trend.

Although the board has always been supportive and sympathetic in granting requests for reduced assignments, this conscientious Golden teacher does not really want to drop to part-time. Her letter is a passionate plea for more reasonable preparation time and workload.

In the 2006–07 WTA Working and Learning Conditions Report released in November, a whole section was included that examined the trend to part-time from the David Thompson Secondary School experience. The conclusion to that section states:

"It seems each year a greater number of teachers move to part-time. There are many reasons for this trend, but it is not unreasonable to question whether the demands of a full-time teacher’s workload are taking a toll on people’s health."

After reading the letter of our Golden colleague, and hearing her desperate call for a broader discussion of workload, it became clear that this is not a problem particular to one school.

In the whole of Rocky Mountain District, there are 231 teachers on assignment this year; 40 of them, or 15%, have requested reduced assignments.

In approaching this trend from a broader professional perspective, as our Golden colleague has requested, there are a number of interrelated issues that deserve further consideration. Thoughtful discussion is needed in school staff rooms, amongst teachers themselves and with administrators. More analysis is needed. Why is workload so excessive?

These are just three of the most immediate ways in which teacher workload has become more complex and intense as more district and ministry expectations are added to our work:

  1. Standardized testing and the associated marking, and other local assessment initiatives connected with needs for data and accountability, have put increased demands on teacher time.  
  2. More complex and time-consuming report card procedures have recently been imposed.  
  3. The increase of IEP work resulting from the mainstreaming of students with special needs, as well as the advocacy and complex nurturing required by many of these special needs students have become a major part of the average teacher’s day.

New demands are added, yet none of the traditional teaching duties are subtracted. Class sizes are often very large, considering the diversity and special needs of the pupils. This intensification of workload has put enormous stress on teachers. This stress has also affected the overall operations of schools.

These are some of the negative effects on school operation resulting from the trend to part-time as a personal workload adaptation:

  • School departments are fragmented. Finding a time that works for a department meeting is very complex. Some teachers have to attend two or three different department meetings, sometimes on the same day, and have to be in two or more places at once. Some actually try to do this, and even succeed to some extent!
  • Specialist teachers who still manage to devote their whole attention to one discipline are providing mentorship and support for their fragmented colleagues as much as they can, without any time in which to do so. Generalist teachers are often too fragmented to develop depth of content confidence.
  • A teacher who is not on a full-time FTE will not necessarily be contributing his or her full mind and heart to the school and its community of concerns.
  • Part-time teachers do not necessarily attend all staff meetings or professional development activities. Many with health or family concerns cannot always attend. They are only required to be there to the proportional FTE of their assignment.
  • The loss of coaches for sports teams and teacher sponsors for other extracurricular activities has been evident for several years as teachers adapt to the intensification of their workloads. Even among those who still manage the demands of 1.0 FTE, a great many teachers do not have time to coach or run clubs anymore.
  • Many teachers leave the school premises as soon as their actual assigned time is finished, so they are not available for students informally seeking extra help or colleagues informally seeking collaborative planning opportunities.
  • Although working part-time may help individuals to cope with their workloads, the trend to part-time has not always been a good solution for schools. The dilemma is that chronic- and stress-related illnesses continue to rise among teachers. More and more of them are driven to seek personal accommodations. Perfectly healthy teachers are requesting part-time assignments as a means of limiting their workload, preserving their health, and meeting the needs of their families.

Concerns and questions abound. Are the expectations of full-time teachers making people sick? (7) Are teachers who request reduced assignments trying to protect themselves from unreasonable pressures on their personal health and family time? Are these part-time adaptations creating a retreat from professionalism? Is a daily preparation block for BC teachers an impossible dream? Can the definition of a full-time teacher be reconsidered, as our Golden colleague hopes?

Healthy, highly motivated and highly professional teachers are essential to effective schools, and healthy, successful students. It is time to take a humane look at the whole picture of teacher workload. Rebalancing is needed.

Anne Jardine is president of the Windermere Teachers’ Association.

References available on request.

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