Alex KendallBy Alex Kendall – Associate Dean of Faculty of Education, Law and Social Sciences

It is not unusual to hear students ask, when faced with a piece of writing, ‘how many words?’ or ‘how many references?’ my well-rehearsed response to those sorts of questions is that thoughtful engagement with the field of study is much more meaningful than the simplistic metrics of word and reference counting, it’s quality I repeat, year after year, not quantity that counts. And it is with the same feeling of déjà vu that I respond to this week’s news that school teachers in England are still battling for a limit on the number of hours teaching they do in a week to ensure they have sufficient contracted time for planning and marking. Why, I wonder, is the NUT position not a common sense one and when will we in England stop worrying about teachers playing ‘truant’ from the classroom and recognise that serious work in the classroom demands serious work outside the classroom. We don’t tend to get exercised about the amount of time a lawyer spends preparing for his/her hour in court and so it is with teachers, surely it’s time to get worrying about quality not quantity.

Teaching is an active, productive and essentially social (in that it’s about real people working together in live settings on common problems) activity and in the best classrooms teachers are pro-actively engaged, with their pupils, in dynamic processes of meaning-making and talking not only about what needs to be learned but how best to go about the business of learning. Most fair-minded commentators would I think agree that managing the curiosity, supporting the development and stimulating the creativity of thirty young people, all with different and sometimes competing, needs and priorities within the confining contexts of the national curriculum, the school calendar, the physical classroom and a very public (and at times aggressive) accountability regime is likely to be intellectually, emotionally and physically demanding work. As such it is not a great leap of faith to appreciate that if school is to be more than child-minding then teachers need sufficient quality time and space in the working week to ensure that the precious (and scarce) 15% of a child’s time that is spent in school is purposeful and productive.

At a time when everyone’s looking for value for money surely we, as parents and taxpayers, as well as academics and teachers need to be re-focusing the debate towards a consideration of how many hours teachers might need outside the classroom to ensure they are able to do the best possible job in the classroom? The answer to this question most certainly doesn’t lie in maximising teacher contact hours but in considering how we enable teachers to yield, to borrow for a moment the fiscal rhetoric of policymakers, the best profit from that time for the pupils they teach and by extension the wider communities within which our young people participate. If we begin to see work done outside the classroom as an essential component of the work of effective teaching then surely it’s simply too important that we rely on the vagaries of ‘good-will’, ‘commitment’ and ‘passion’ to ensure this bit of the job gets done (in a teachers own time).

We need to settle these debates once and for all, accept that out of class ‘work’ is as much the real deal of teachers ‘work’ as what they do in the classroom. This way we can allow teachers to move on to more vital and pressing conversations about what will help them to become even better teachers. Research undertaken at Birmingham City University, with teachers across 6 European countries, suggests that teachers place significant value on the opportunities they carve out for informal learning with peers in their everyday contexts, through discussion, observation, coaching and mentoring and that often these activities are more impactful on classroom practice than organised, management imposed professional development because they are contextualised, relevant and engaging. But this sort of ‘learning in communities’ needs, as the best leaders recognise, time and investment. So in an age of working smarter let’s stop tittering about the number of hours teacher spend in the classroom, support the NUT’s call for a cap on contact hours and start thinking about a more complex, sophisticated metrics for the popular understanding of teachers’ work. It really is time to stop counting the numbers and start feeling the quality.

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Alexandra Kendall

Alexandra Kendall

Associate Dean of Faculty of Education, Law and Social Sciences
Alexandra Kendall

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