The Workload Challenge: An Unwinnable Trial

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley7 Comments

Sometimes a mythic tale stays with you and lingers in your mind years after the first reading. For some reason, the trials of Thor have stayed with me since their first telling at Primary School. There were three trials: drinking from a mead horn, lifting a cat and wrestling an old lady, with each trial proving was a magical deception. One trial stands out for me as worthy of an analogy with the life of a modern teacher burdened by workload issues: Thor’s drinking from the horn of plenty.

Thor grasped the long mead horn and supped and swigged tremendously. He drank and drank, but much to his annoyance the level of the drink barely dropped. Desperate to not be defeated, Thor tried drinking more, again and again. The giants bellowed with laughter at his failure. Thor’s arrogance was clipped and he was beaten – before moving onto his cat lifting and old lady wrangling, which also proved an ego-crushing failure.

After losing his trials, an embarrassed Thor was relieved to eventually hear that he was not powerless, but the subject of bewitching magic. The mead horn he drank was steeped in the oceans. His drinking efforts had been monumental – more than any other god or giant – but, of course, he could never drink the oceans.

Read the findings from the government report from the ‘Workload Challenge‘, released today, and you may, like me, bring to mind Thor’s unwinnable trial.

When recently, Nicky Morgan, spoke about the excesses of teacher workload (the cynic in me cannot help but question whether it is merely an attempt to detoxify the Conservative party with teachers in an election year) there was a huge response of over 43,000 teachers. The answers have been released by the DfE today – see here. Sadly, as expected, the ‘solutions’ from the government workload report are rather underwhelming:

  • a new Ofsted clarification document, which brings together a set of statements confirming facts and dispelling myths about what inspectors expect to see in schools;
  • additional departmental advice designed to support schools with the appropriate use of evidence and reducing unnecessary bureaucracy when making appraisal and pay decisions;
  • a small qualitative study looking at how schools respond to the current accountability system and the impact on workload; and
  • a two-year review which started in October 2014, looking at the health and deployment implications of teachers working to the age of 68, and how these could be mitigated where necessary.

Government Response to the Workload Challenge, February 2015

My view: workload is a serious issue; teacher well-being is a serious issue…and that Nicky Morgan cannot hope to make much of a real difference to either. At least not when slashing school budgets, with the attendant reduction of staff will inevitably increase workload. The report recommendations will make little difference in real terms, whether there was genuine political will beyond just electioneering or not.

You see, so much of our workload issues are, in my view, related to our modern workplace. Recently, whilst procrastinating in the nether-reaches of the web, I watched a short video on the Guardian website called: ‘I’m too busy! How can we get out of this busy-ness trap?‘ by Oliver Burkeman. He captured the issues with the ‘busyness‘ epidemic of the modern workplace. He summed up for me much of the modern trial of the teacher.

In the distant past there were clearer thresholds at the ends of the working day, even when sets of students’ books toured their way home and back. In our modern jobs, the pervasive presence of technology means that we are never far away from work. Its tentacles reach into every nook of our lives. Our capacity to work is now seemingly endless: our to-do list can plumb depths as deep as an ocean!

The moral of the trial of teaching is in many ways like that of Thor in the ancient myth: consider your emotions at taking on an unwinnable task. Don’t feel guilty that you cannot do all the work; reassure yourself that no-one truly can. Don’t aim to be a perfectionist; you will only torture yourself with hitting such heights and simply do what you can.

Crucially, don’t wait for government surveys to offer near-mythic solutions and do it for yourself. Begin it in your school, today.

Prioritise what you can do. Do your best in the time that your have, whilst retaining a semblance of a life, and it will prove good enough. And, of course,  if you are struggling, grab a epically long mead horn and swig away!



  1. Great myth and metaphor, Alex – I’ll toast your good health with a sip of more literal mead in front of the rugby now!

  2. Great post, Alex.

    No one is going to wave a wand and solve this problem for the profession, though I’m pleased that awareness is being raised and some consideration is being given to how policy can try to help rather than hinder.

    We do have to consider what is within our control. So, yes, “the pervasive presence of technology means that we are never far away from work. Its tentacles reach into every nook of our lives”, but we do have some choices about when/how we disconnect.

    We have to keep talking about this, and not just get angry:

    Thanks again.

  3. And get your students in on it! We students see it when our teachers are spread thin, even though they try so hard to hide it! On a broader note; students learn from teachers that it’s OK to forget about personal health and work all hours to exhaustion; so we do this when we leave school in our jobs, at the cost of our own well-being. Please consider, for example, that if it means our teacher gets to be joyful and have-a-life, then we can manage without grades and teacher comments, promise! What if work went online instead? Or was peer reviewed: ‘I like that…’ and ‘I wonder why…?’ discussions might work well? In summary: I don’t want teachers to feel like student’s aren’t on their side with this; we really are! I’m sharing more from a student perspective on schooling here:

  4. Couldn’t agree more with this. We cannot possibly do it all and need to ease the pressure we put on ourselves.
    Thank you *swig*

  5. Pingback: ORRsome blog posts February 2015 | high heels and high notes

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