Tag Archives: workload

The Little Book of Tycche: The Finnish Art of Wellbeing in Teaching

So, you’ve read all about hygge, lykkelagom and ikagai, and followed all of the guidance but none of these things have made a dent on improving your work/life balance in teaching, right?




That’s because they are all fads. Now if you want to make a real change in your life, the principles of tycche are what you need.

Tycche is a Finnish word that is used when one has achieved the perfect work/life balance. It is simultaneously an art, a practice, a feeling and state of being. It is something that you achieve, you do, you feel and you are. You can’t buy it. But you can buy a book about it, priced at £14.99. In fact, you need to buy the book to have even a vague idea of what it is. You probably still won’t be entirely sure after you’ve read the book, though, such is its nebulous quality. This means we can probably whack out a few more volumes to sell to you before you get bored of it.

There is no literal English translation for the concept of tycche (pronounced tee-chuh), but it is often used to represent a combination of various ideas – ideas such as: surviving, coping, getting by, feeling a fleeting sense of confidence or achievement before it ebbs away, balancing on a tightrope, not giving up just yet, marking, and cake. It’s widely believed that the word comes from the old Sami phrase tycco lek che – literally “sod this, I’m having a sit down”.

Tycche can be achieved through a set of simple daily rituals, both in and out of the classroom. Here, we’ll take you through some of the things that you can do to feel, achieve, do and be tycche.


The key to drinking your way to tycche is in embracing tepid as an acceptable temperature for drinks that other (normal) people might call ‘hot drinks’. Once you see lukewarm tea and coffee as not only acceptable but actually desirable, you will no longer feel that deep melancholy that you currently feel whilst tossing back unpalatable gulps from the mug on your desk. You will instead feel a sense of satisfaction. That feeling is tycche.


So you’ve been teaching all day, been on duty, had a meeting, and now you have planning and marking to do. But before you do that, you think you’ll just check your emails and spend a couple of minutes dealing with replies. And then you see it: 42 unread emails. How can you possibly deal with this much information? The replies alone will take about half an hour. Half an hour which you haven’t got. This is where the principles of tycche can help.

According to the laws of tycche, rather than spending time replying to your emails now, you should flag the most important emails for reply later. You must promise yourself that you will definitely reply when you get some time. Don’t worry, you won’t actually reply later, as there will be another 42 emails in your inbox by then and these first emails will have magically (that’s the power of tycche) disappeared onto the second page to be forgotten about until someone sends you a reminder at some point. But the key is in truly believing that you will reply: your good intentions are important here. Tycche will take care of the rest.


In order to achieve tycche you need to ensure that you have hobbies – that is to say, pursuits that you undertake in your spare time. However, the problem that many teachers have is that it is difficult to find that spare time when snowed under with excessive workload. But that’s no excuse because: as it is a central tenet of the practice of tycche, one must undertake hobbies. The balance is easily met though, by simply making marking your hobby. By taking on marking as a pastime, you are able to enjoy your hobby every single day and complete your work. The perfect work/life balance.


The key to finding true balance is for you to visualise all the sources of your current stress sitting on one side of a set of weighing scales. Go ahead, do it now. On the pan, you place every repetitive email, every piece of marking using excessive criteria, every data dump, every exhaustive spreadsheet, every lunchtime detention… put it all on.

Now, you just balance out the other side of the scales with cake. Lots of it. Fill the other pan with chocolate brownies, Battenberg, Viennese whirls, jam tarts,  millionaire’s shortcake, sponge cake, cream cake, red velvet cake… then drizzle it all with salted caramel until the scales are perfectly balanced.

This isn’t just an act of visualisation, though. To truly find tycche, you must eat actual cake every time your workload increases, every time someone dumps some extra work on you. Have to reply to some emails? Eat a Jaffa cake. Need to mark a load of mock exams? Eat some iced buns. Need to go to the photocopier? Take a chocolate Swiss roll with you. You must keep workload and cake in perfect balance with each other: that’s tycche.


If you are struggling to make the work/life balance of tycche through  any of these practices, simply open a bottle of wine. About half a bottle in, you’ll feel it: tycche.

The Little Book of Tycche by Skinni Lahti is available from all good bookshops for £14.99.*

*Spending fifteen quid of your hard-earned money on this book, plus spending 6 hours reading it are actually both in contradiction of the rules of tycche and will throw your life back out of balance. Luckily, that can be remedied with the The Second Little Book of Tycche, which will be out in hardback in time for Christmas at £20.99.


Teaching: if you aren’t dead yet, you aren’t doing it well enough

So another World Teachers Day has come and gone. All the build-up, all the excitement, and it just seems to go by in a flash. One minute we’re all hanging our stockings up in the classroom ready to be filled with gifts from our generous pupils, the next minute we’re all sick of spending the week eating leftovers from the big World Teachers Day feasts laid on for us by our families and friends.

I love all of the traditions of World Teachers Day: chugging a yard of tea, the enormous full-sized teacher-shaped chocolate cake (bagsy the heart – it’s the biggest bit!), marking under the mistletoe, pinning the grade on the lesson observation (blindfolded, of course), being allowed to go the toilet, the Airing of Grievances, the singing of teacher carols (“Mark! The Herald Angels Sing”), the Returning of the Glue Sticks, and – the best bit – all the inspirational memes.

The memes range from the uplifting to the banal via the truthy, just the way we all love them. But some memes tap into a well-worn trope that does more damage than good: that of the teacher as self-immolating martyr. See exhibit A:

Quite often promoted by non-teachers, this trope says one thing: good teachers kill themselves for their jobs.

The valorisation of teaching as a form of ritual suicide is subtle but pervasive. Once you realise it, you begin to notice it all around. It appears when the Chartered College of Teaching platforms speakers telling us that “teaching is a way of being, not just a job.” And it’s in motivational posters telling us that we should “give meaningful feedback on students’ work even if [our] pile of books seems endless”.

What of those teachers who aren’t prepared to give their whole self over for their job? Those teachers who put their family first or who want to have energy left at the end of the day for other interests? Maybe they should just accept the fact that they aren’t good teachers? If they simply won’t consume themselves to light the way for others, should they feel guilty? Why aren’t they prepared to throw themselves on the funeral pyre like all the other good teachers around them?

The thing is that people don’t share these sorts of ideas because they want to attack teachers. The intentions are actually good; it’s just that such ideas are also completely unthinking. People assume that it flatters teachers: “anyone who is prepared to self-destruct just so that every child understands quadratic equations/oxbow lakes/pointillism is truly an angel.” But this kind of hagiography actually damages teachers. It allows the system to tell teachers they should always be doing more. It allows the system to say: this is what teaching is; this is what you have to live up to if you want to feel you are doing enough.

We really need to shift this narrative that teaching should be all-consuming and that self-destruction is part and parcel of our job. We can’t complain of workload issues at the same time as promoting this harmful shibboleth.

Perhaps years ago I might have seen the ‘candle’ meme above and not noticed the deleterious subtext. I might have seen it as a celebration of our job. But after years of full time teaching, I realise how unsustainable this attitude is, how damaging it is.

And this realisation means that I should probably throw away all of these old memes I made years ago when I thought I was celebrating teaching too. Silly, silly old me.

Is the DfE employing the Chewbacca defence over the retention crisis?

Originally posted on Labour Teachers, March 6th, 2016. If you haven’t read the posts on Labour Teachers, you really should. Even if you aren’t a Labour supporter, or even a UK teacher. The blog – contributed to by a variety of educators – articulates many of the concerns and hopes of people working in education today.


As reported by Schools Week today, the DfE have announced a new strategy “in an attempt improve teacher retention”.

Are they going to actively reduce the workload of teachers? Nope.

Are they going to reduce contact time for classroom teachers in order for teachers to keep up with workload then? Nah.

Are they going to improve pay and benefits for classroom teachers? Of course not.

No, what they are going to do is spend more money on professional development.

Okay, that doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, that might allow classroom teachers more agency and it could be quite motivational for many thinking of leaving.

Well, that might be true if they were actually going to spend the money on classroom teachers. The reality is that they aren’t. No. They will be spending more money on courses for leaders. To be precise, they will be doubling support for the Teaching Leaders programme.

This seems to me an example of ignoratio elenchi: it fundamentally misses the point of the retention issue. Excessive managerialism seems to be one of the causes of the issue, so spending more money on more leaders would appear a daft response. In fact, it may seem such an irrelevant response to the issues of workload and retention affecting classroom teachers, that any who are currently bogged down by these issues and who are considering leaving the profession might just conclude that the DfE are employing the Chewbacca defense.

For any who don’t know, the Chewbacca defense is a concept born of the satirical cartoon South Park. It is a strategy in which a party will counter an argument with an irrelevant response in order to confuse those they wish to persuade. In South Park, they satirised O.J. Simpson’s defence counsel Johnny Cochran’s closing argument in the infamous trial:

Cochran …ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, I have one final thing I want you to consider. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!
Gerald Broflovski Damn it! … He’s using the Chewbacca defense!
Cochran Why would a Wookiee, an 8-foot-tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor, with a bunch of 2-foot-tall Ewoks? That does not make sense! But more important, you have to ask yourself: What does this have to do with this case? Nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case! It does not make sense! Look at me. I’m a lawyer defending a major record company, and I’m talkin’ about Chewbacca! Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense! None of this makes sense! And so you have to remember, when you’re in that jury room deliberatin’ and conjugatin’ the Emancipation Proclamation, does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make sense! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests.

Tackling the teacher retention issue by spending more money on leadership seems as nonsensical to me as Cochran’s argument here. I’d argue that leadership already gets the largest slice of the professional development pie as it stands, so it seems such a mistake to spend more money on this and hope to improve the situation.

The most pressing issue of the retention crisis is having teachers in classrooms. Trying to do this by taking them out of the classroom to be leaders is like a doctor trying to fix a headache by hitting someone on the head. Does that make sense?

The Jellyfish Effect: why bad ideas hang around

We all want to know ‘what works’.

But sometimes when we say “this works”, we do so under the influence of our many (perfectly human) biases.  When we apply ideas and approaches in the classroom, we know that the list of biases in play is extensive. Whether we have been influenced by garden variety confirmation bias or sunk cost fallacy; or disposed to effects: Hawthorne, Pygmalion or golem; or whether we have fallen foul of the all-too-common Texas sharpshooter fallacy; or indeed affected by any number of the many cognitive biases in operation, caution is always needed when we are told “this works” – particularly when there is little replicable evidence to support it.

But such caution doesn’t always exist which means that bad ideas can often get foisted upon teachers, often at the whim of one or two people who believe in that idea. Such bad ideas may come from the DfE, or from Ofsted (previously by implied decree; more recently by misinterpretation of inspections requirements in schools), or they may be imposed at school or department level. It can even happen at new teacher mentoring level. When I mentored an NQT some years ago, I suggested she try some things out with narratives and QR codes. I still feel shame at the thought of imposing this bad idea on her. It gave her huge amounts of work to do with no discernible outcome. (Incidentally, she is an absolutely brilliant teacher now – an outcome that has literally nothing to do with my mentoring.)

As suggested in my example (*shudders*), by ‘bad ideas’ I mean things that have little or no (or sometimes even detrimental) impact on pupil outcomes, but do impact on teachers’ practice, time or workload.

I’ve written before about how teachers, in the face of a curriculum that doesn’t support high pupil outcomes, will often create their own ‘desire paths’ – deviations away from the prescribed route.

I think that teachers often do similar things with bad ideas – they deviate from them in order to have greater impact. The problem is that much of this is done surreptitiously. On the surface, the bad ideas are still seen to be accepted practice – often showcased in observations in order to find favour with the observer or line manager. (If you think that is just me being cynical, see these pieces of advice on observations by a seasoned teacher and a middle manager.)

The problem here is that such practice perpetuates the bad idea, feeding its flames with oxygen so that it may live longer. And while the bad idea lives on, it continues to be detrimental to teachers (and so it must follow: students).

I call this the jellyfish effect.

Bad ideas can damage teachers. They impact on practice, time and workload. It may mean that focusing on the bad ideas takes time away from other, more important stuff (planning, marking, teaching, etc.) Or it may mean that teachers have to work harder to counter for the lack of impact of bad ideas. This kind of damage takes its toll.

For some jellyfish, when they are damaged they can regenerate. When a predator decides to have a jellyfish tentacle for lunch, some species can simply grow back the lost limb. Cut a hydra in half and each half will grow back its missing parts: the lower half will grow a new head and the upper half will grow a new foot.

The moon jellyfish also regenerates. However, it can’t merely grow back the parts that it has lost. No, if a moon jellyfish loses a limb, it will focus on restoring anatomical symmetry. In short, it will shuffle its limbs around until it appears to be symmetrical. Even if a moon jellyfish has lost six tentacles, it will restore its symmetry.

In the same way, when teachers are damaged by bad ideas, they try to regenerate: they work harder to replace the losses. In many cases, the damage can’t be fixed, so teachers just try to restore symmetry. For any onlookers, things look fine. Bad ideas aren’t noticed because teachers work hard to counter them. And so the bad ideas linger.

This is the jellyfish effect: bad ideas hang around, because teachers work hard to repair the damage caused by them. This means that outcomes are good and policymakers assume this is down to their (bad) ideas.

But nobody notices the damage this has on teachers. We shuffle to restore symmetry. But each time, we do so with one less limb.

So what happens when we have nothing left to shuffle around?

I imagine that’s when we get a teacher recruitment crisis.

Conspicuous work: do we compound the workload issue ourselves?

Scene: Due to him locking his keys inside it, George Costanza’s car has been sat in the parking lot at his workplace for a number of days now. He has been working his regular hours, but commuting via other means. He has just returned from a meeting with his boss Mr, Wilhelm, who, in turn, reports to the owner George Steinbrenner. Costanza has come to Jerry’s apartment with good news about a possible promotion…
Costanza: Assistant to the general manager! Do you know what that means? He could be asking my advice on trades. Trades, Jerry! I’m a heart beat away!
Jerry: That’s a hell of an organisation they are running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.
Costanza: And it is all because of that car. See, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He sees my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil! Between the two of them, they think I’m working an 18-hour day!
Jerry: Locking your keys in the car is the best career move you ever made.
Seinfeld – ‘The Caddy’

Over 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century, sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe the way that the upper classes purchased luxury goods as a means of publicly displaying their wealth. In his book, Theory of the Leisure Class, he criticised such showing off: not only did he think it wasted resources, but he also noted that the lower classes then sought to emulate the upper classes with similar unnecessary conspicuous consumption.

It’s a plausible theory: that to confer status, people might act a certain way only to be seen doing so. As such, it has some common ground with the modern phenomenon of virtue signalling.

Seeing quite a few people posting pictures of displays on Twitter during this first week of the holidays, I wondered (out loud, on Twitter) if ‘conspicuous work’ had ever been forwarded as a concept.

A quick search showed a study from the Netherlands from this year which took that very term as it’s title. ‘Conspicuous Work’ looked at male workers over a period of 17 years and drew the following conclusions:

  • The workers imitated their peers working hours – the longer their peers worked, the longer they did
  • The workers derived status from matching their peers working hours
  • This ‘peer working time’ negatively affected their happiness

They further summarised that “These findings are consistent with a ‘conspicuous work’ model, in which individuals derive status from working time.”

It seems that conspicuous work really is a viable notion. Jonathan Simons (of Policy Exchange) shared this anecdote:

I wonder if posting pictures of displays we’ve just made or of the marking we’re doing during the holidays fits with the conspicuous work model? Is a picture of a display actually a teacher’s version of the jacket on the back of the chair, or the car left late in the car park? Well, the honest answer is that I’m not sure that it is as conscious as those examples.

But whether there is intention in this conspicuous work or not, the important issue is whether or not this creates a culture in which peers see this conspicuous work and then imitate it. Do we, like the Dutch workers, derive status – consciously or not – from matching (or even superseding) our peers working hours? Or is it that we see others working and we feel we need to match it in order to maintain parity?

Of course, I’m not standing in judgement over people sharing pictures of displays in the holidays. Posting photos on social media is a very useful way to share ideas. And we are so busy that this downtime is often the only time we get to festoon our shabby staple-flecked walls with colourful new compositions. I’m certain that I too have shared work – although obviously not as beautiful – during the holidays. Heck, even this blog post is about work, so I’m hardly setting an example here.

But I wonder if what we are doing here is creating a normative message about being a teacher? By tweeting pictures of work we are completing during the holidays, we are saying this is okay; this is what we do; this is acceptable behaviour; moreover, this is… expected behaviour? I’ve written before about how the messages we send out create behavioural norms and how this can be either damaging or useful when talking to pupils. Are we creating a message about how working in your holidays is normative behaviour for teachers? And if so, are we compounding the workload issue ourselves?

I’d be interested in responses to this. Social media is brilliant for sharing ideas and, as we spend our working hours actually teaching, most of the sharing has to happen outside of those hours. So I find it hard to argue against such sharing. I wonder if there is an answer to this or is it simply a paradox we have to put up with?

Schools: the egg-laying, wool and milk-giving sow

Originally posted on Labour Teachers, June 1st, 2015. If you haven’t read the posts on Labour Teachers, you really should. Even if you aren’t a Labour supporter, or even a UK teacher. The blog – contributed to by a variety of educators (not all Labourites) – articulates many of the concerns and hopes of people working in education today.

Einst fiel einem Züchter ein,
Wie die Tierwelt würde sein,
Wenn man durch geschicktes Paaren
Fische schüf’ mit krausen Haaren.
Die könnt’ man wie Pudel scheren
Und die Arten sonst vermehren…

…Was wir brauchen, ist ein Schwein,
Das Merinowolle trägt
Und dazu noch Eier legt.
Das soll Ihre Züchtung sein!

(One day a breeder thought he’d see,
Imagining how the world might be,
If you carefully chose the pair,
Fish could be made with curly hair,
Which could be sheared and bred for more…

…What we need is a pig,
that grows merino wool and lays eggs
That is what you should breed!)

A German poem, ‘Der Kampf um das eierlegende Wollschwein’ (‘The Fight for the Egg-laying, Wool-Pig’), translation from this site.

When I was eleven, I got a Swiss Army knife for Christmas.

I’d wanted one for what seemed like my whole life, though in reality it was probably only a few months. But during those few months, I dreamt of how, with this compact gizmo in my pocket, I would be able to do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING. With that little red Sampo, I would conquer worlds, defeat fearsome beasts and build fortresses. And when I’d finished all of these things, I could give myself a manicure and kick back with a freshly opened tin of baked beans.

The thought that I wouldn’t need to have separate utensils for everything was enticing. No longer would I need a set of screwdrivers or an individual pair of scissors. Gone would be the necessity to own a corkscrew (to be honest, I hadn’t needed one up until that point in my life, but I knew it would come in handy for the post-battle toasts during all of the world-conquering). And never again would I have to wield a cumbersome full-size wood saw.

Except the reality of a Swiss Army knife is that it performs none of the roles it purports to anywhere nearly as adequately as the individual tools it mimics. When I received the gift, I showed it off as much as I could. But when it came to performing functions such as sawing, cutting, tightening screws and opening tins, I shunned the various limbs of that little MacGuffin in favour of proper tools – tools that were designed to do their one job well.

Policymakers seem to want to turn schools into Swiss Army knives. Rather than wanting schools to be charged with doing the one thing they need to do well – educate young people across a range of subjects, politicians from all sides seem to want schools to do everything from babysitting to building character to teaching Britishness. The problem is, like the Swiss Army knife, if schools are spread too thinly on what they are asked to do, they will do all of those things badly.

It seems that, whenever society is presented with a problem, it is down to schools to solve it. In the eyes of politicians, schools have become what the Germans would call die eierlegende Wollmilchsau: the egg-laying, wool and milk-giving sow. Plainly put, this is the name given to an all-in-one entity that can – or at least attempts to – do the work of several specialised tools.

The idea of a single animal that lays eggs, produces milk, gives wool and then provides you with a side of bacon when it’s done is indeed an enticing one. But, of course, it is a mythical beast. Nobody believes in it. Nobody except politicians, that is.

For when society throws up a concern, politicians know that schools can add the solving of that concern to their ever-burgeoning to-do-lists. They think that schools will give society milk, eggs, wool and bacon on demand. The problem is that schools won’t be able to do that, but what they will do is try. And in trying to feed and clothe everyone, they’ll end up falling short on all counts.

What politicians needs to realise is that anything they scrawl on the schools to-do-list will diminish our ability to do everything else well. Just like the Swiss Army knife, when given lots of things to do, schools will do most of those things badly.

What we need right now is the direction to do one thing well – teach our subjects. Anything else is making an egg-laying, wool and milk-giving pig’s ear of education.

The bearable discomfort of being… a teacher

“The aim of this project is to avoid as much as possible stationary postures and promote mobility. My will is to introduce a “bearable discomfort” for our well-being.”

Benoit Malta

The above quote could very easily be a mission statement for a school. Certainly it would fit any school that follows what Keven Bartle calls a ‘deficit model’.

In schools up and down the country, a combination of the weight of accountability with the relentless and endless stream of (what we are told are) education’s aims and objectives means that teachers are in a permanent state of motion.

We are unable to adopt “stationary postures” –  the essential states for completing many staples of teaching, such as reflection and planning. As such, we are in a constant state of “bearable discomfort”: as a collective entity, we just about endure despite the crippling workload, constant changes, regularly updated directives, scope creep, regenerating to-do-lists and time theft; however, as individuals many of us don’t survive: this is when the bearable discomfort becomes unbearable and teachers become headline-grabbing statistics.

In the quote that opens this post, however, Benoit Malta isn’t talking about teaching. As far as I know, he doesn’t have any influence on education policy. He is actually a designer from France. The quote is actually about this:

As you can see, the Inactivité is a two-legged chair. The thinking behind the design is that it forces the user to constantly make slight movements in order to maintain balance. One cannot simply sit back for a moment and relax in this chair – it is necessary to be in a perpetual state of response to external forces in order not to fall. This is the bearable discomfort of which Malta speaks.

I think the chair seems perfectly symbolic of what it is to be a teacher today.

The principles of the Inactivité are like the lot of the teacher: we must constantly respond to the forces around us to achieve stability. Of course, some of the forces we face are to be expected: those that come from direction of the students. This is because learning and behaviour are often unpredictable and so cause a disequilibrium that it is our job to stabilise.

However, I’d argue that the majority of the forces that cause teachers bearable discomfort come from other sources. This is a result of the endless accountability measures and extensive managerialism of the education sector.

What is the answer to this? Well, to continue the analogy of Benoit Malta’s chair… in order to be balanced, teachers need to be supported. To resist the forces from above, we need more stability at ground level. Teachers need to feel bearable comfort in the shape of a genuine focus on teacher wellbeing.

Nicky Morgan, Nick Clegg and Tristram Hunt have all taken up the issue of teacher workload in the run-in to May’s General Election. However, whilst this issue is in the hands of politicians, it is conveniently taken out of the hands of schools. Politicians aren’t going to provide the stability that teachers need for bearable comfort. That stability comes from the schools themselves. The best thing that politicians can do is to incentivise teacher wellbeing and retention and put the responsibility into the hands of schools. From here, we might begin to see some change in the manner in which schools respond to directives and trends.

Like many of these directives and trends in education from recent years, the two-legged chair seems eye-catching and innovative. But, of course, like many of those directives it could equally turn out to be counterproductive and harmful.

One of the questions we often ask when considering introducing something new into schools is: “Has this idea got legs?”

But perhaps we should be asking, “How many legs has this idea got?”

Now, how many times do I need to tell you – sit on that chair properly or there’s going to be an accident.

Workload: “And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint…”

Maître-D’: Today we have for appetisers: moules marinières, pâté de foie gras, Beluga caviar, eggs Benedictine, tart de poireau — that’s leek tart — frogs’ legs amandine, or oeufs de caille Richard Shepherd — c’est-à-dire, little quails’ eggs on a bed of puréed mushroom. It’s very delicate, very subtle.

Mr Creosote: I’ll have the lot.


Maître-D’: A wise choice, monsieur. And now, how would you like it served? All mixed up together in a bucket?

Mr Creosote: With eggs on top.

Maître-D: But of course, avec les oeufs frites.

Mr Creosote: And don’t skimp on the pâté.

Maître-D: Monsieur, I can assure you, just because it is mixed up with all the other things we would not dream of giving you less than the full amount.

The bilious Mr. Creosote: undeniably one of the Monty Python team’s most indelible creations. I only have to look at an After Eight for me to feel the rising impulse to cry out, with mock-Gallic intonation, the words “wafer-thin mint” to any poor unfortunate who happens to be trying to escape my company at that moment. Yes, I’m that guy.

If you aren’t sure of who he is, here is a video (disclaimer: don’t click the link if you are sensitive to copious vomiting, swearing, mild gore or bad French accents).

To my teenage self, the discovery of Mr. Creosote was joyful in all of its bad taste. But one thing about the sketch always struck me as jarring: this is clearly a gourmand, in what is obviously a restaurant of exceptional cuisine – so why does he choose to have all of the meals mixed together? Surely he’d want to taste them individually, enjoying the distinctive and distinguished flavours of each dish one by one? He’d still be a terrible glutton, but I’m certain he orders all of those gastronomic delicacies because of his absolute love of food?

And in actual fact, if he did consume the dishes individually rather than as a mushy bucket of pulp, he’d certainly struggle less in dispatching them. Because, in reality, whereas any individual would clearly find it difficult to eat those dishes “all mixed up together in a bucket”, if they were served individually – one after the other – they would actually be easier to eat, despite the volume of food being exactly the same. This is down to something called sensory specific satiety.

Sensory-specific satiety is the phenomenon of feeling full when eating one type of food, followed by a sudden renewal of appetite when exposed to another type of food. Put simply, it’s why you can feel full when you’ve had your dinner/tea* (*delete as geographically/socio-economically applicable), but conveniently regain your appetite when offered a dessert immediately afterward. It’s basically how Christmas works.

And its very similar to how work becomes workload. If, like Mr. Creosote and his lavish dinner, teachers had the excessive job requirements declared to them at once, we just wouldn’t accept it. We would be absolutely resolute in the impossibility of completing it all effectively and within the time frames required. And it would be quite obvious to those setting those requirements that they were asking too much. But workload isn’t delivered to us in one unpalatable bucket. It’s given to us piecemeal, over time. As such, it doesn’t seem so unappetising in such small chunks – a bit of marking, a phone call, a form to fill out, a detention to hold, a homework to follow up on, an email to respond to, a lesson to plan, a duty to complete: all of these things are perfectly digestible in the polite, slight servings in which they are presented to us.

Furthermore, they are not all presented to us by one person: the managerialism of schools means that workload is dished up by a variety of people – line managers, school leaders, middle managers, assistant middle managers, pastoral leaders, those with TLRs, those with SEN responsibilities, as well as by peers, mentees, ourselves and pupils: all of these people deliver us our workload in portions.

Yet, the demands of teaching are excessive when assimilated into the whole. The cognitive overload just from taking in the information from 10 emails alone must surely diminish our performances? Yet I’m sure the majority of teachers and leaders receive more emails than that in a day.


This week, the subject of workload has been taken up by politicians in the three main parties – Nicky Morgan launched the ‘Workload Challenge’, asking teachers for their views on the subject; Nick Clegg repeated the announcement of that very same coalition initiative, but with his Lib Dem hat on; and Tristram Hunt threw his thinking hat into the ring, declaring Labours intentions with some vague non-answers to the problem.

Whilst we might cynically see these as mere vote-grabbing acts in the advent of next year’s election, my concern is this: they are asking to hear about workload, yet it is not something that can be nailed down as one homogenous bucket of unsavoury gloop. In reality, it is a series of isolated and seemingly proportionate tasks which, when looked at individually, seem innocuous enough.

Indeed, I happened to mention to someone earlier in the week that I felt a paperwork task I’d been delegated had a rather short 48-hour turnaround. The immediate response was to defend it as a task that wouldn’t take very long. And I agreed that it wouldn’t. But it if I tossed it into the bucket with all of the other tasks I had to complete, it contributed to a workload that was difficult to manage. The problem is that those that contribute to workload often see the tasks that they set in isolation, as mere wafer-thin mints distinct from the main course. Yet we know the damage of a wafer-thin mint when added to an already burgeoning stomach.

So how does one go about ‘fixing’ the workload issue? The answer is: I’m not sure.

But maybe a step in the right direction lies in a word that we are all familiar with: plenary. I don’t mean the lesson plenary, that box to fill at the end of your planning pro forma. I refer to ‘plenary’ in the sense of plenary power: the conferring of authority to an individual to choose their actions. That is to say, should the government and school leaders and department leaders clearly set out their goals, values and parameters, and then allow teachers to be plenipotentiaries in delivering these? I think that workload has become excessive because it comes to us in portions, served up from a variety of sources. Maybe if teachers were given agency to create their own workload, based on very clear objectives and frameworks, and guided rather than directed, perhaps that workload would become more manageable?

I’m not saying this is a definitive answer – far from it – but it is a direction that I think the discussion might benefit from looking towards.

Now, where is that bucket of exercise books I brought home for the half term ‘break’?