Worlds of Education

63 minutes in half an hour: the intensity of time in teaching

published 12 October 2023 updated 12 October 2023
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Education International’s 2021 Global Report on the Status of Teachers found that workload, and its impact on teachers and leaders, remains a key concern for all members. The OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) for 2018 found that on average across OECD countries, workload-related sources of stress for teachers included the following: “having too much administrative work to do” (49%); “having too much marking” (41%); “having too much lesson preparation” (33%); “having too many lessons to teach” (28%); and “having extra duties due to absent teachers” (25%)” (OECD, 2020, p. 94).

This shows us that workload pressures are experienced internationally. However, these response categories frame the work problem as one of quantum: having “too much” of particular kinds of work. But our project, in partnership with the Queensland Teachers’ Union (QTU), has found the issue is more complex than just ‘amounts’ of work, because what teachers and leaders are asked to do has different impacts across the working day. As such, policy solutions which tinker at the edges of, for example, particular forms of administrative work, are unlikely to meaningfully improve teachers’ experiences. Policy responses will therefore require a more nuanced understanding of how teachers’ working days, and the different kinds of activities undertaken therein, are experienced.

The Intensity of Time in Teaching

In our research, we are interested in developing a better understanding of what it is that can make teaching a tiring and overwhelming job. Frequently, analyses of this problem, such as the OECD’s TALIS, focus on describing the number of hours teachers work across different categories of activity, including work that is done at home.

“It is necessary to pay closer attention to how teachers experience the impact of their work. This requires attention to the intensity of the various, interrelated tasks that teachers do.”

This work is useful, but it is limited. Measures of the size of the ‘load’ in teacher workload only tell us that it is big; they do not tell us how it is experienced or how different aspects of ‘load’ have different implications for how work is being subjectively experienced. To explore this, we argue it is necessary to pay closer attention to how teachers experience the impact of their work. This requires attention to the intensity of the various, interrelated tasks that teachers do. To do this, we draw on Jaime L. Beck’s concept of “heavy hours”. Heavy hours refers to the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions at once, as well as the ‘residue’ that lingers when a ‘heavy hour’ is over. Sociologist Judy Wajcman describes such feelings as reflecting the subjective experience of time poverty, of feeling like there is never enough time, that you can never seem to ‘catch up’.

Time poverty

In our project, we understand there to be a relationship between workload and work intensity, and we think that this relationship may explain those feelings of being ‘time poor’. We have observed that an increase in one (load or intensity) can lead to a feeling of being ‘out of time’. This means that systems need to attend to both workload and work intensity if they are to improve the experience of teaching and address problems of worker dissatisfaction and attrition. This does not mean that we are arguing that teaching should be made less complex. Indeed, teachers often find the complex parts of their work to be some of the most enjoyable. Instead, it is about finding ways to more meaningfully recognise, support and enable this work.

Our project

Teaching is a highly variable occupation, and in the kinds of complex and ‘fast-paced’ moments that can make it its most challenging, it can be difficult to remember exactly how time was spent.

In this project, we made use of recent technological advances to develop a ‘time use app’ for teachers to report on short, 30m ‘slices’ of their working time. This random time sampling method reduces the burden for participants and has the benefit of increasing reliability as respondents only have to report on a relatively short amount of time.

What we found

Our app was piloted with 109 QTU members in Queensland in 2022, and we are now rolling out a further phase of the research with a fuller sample of Queensland teachers. Our findings thus far indicate that the app is useful in identifying more nuanced patterns in and experiences of teacher time use than larger retrospective surveys.

The first finding reflects the complexity of teachers’ work through what might colloquially be described as ‘multi-tasking’. When teachers reported on their allocated 30-minutes of time use, they reported spending chunks of time across multiple domains, often simultaneously. This meant that across the 280 30-minute timeslots recorded, teachers on average spent time on at least 9 different activities. In terms of time use, teachers estimated spending an average of 63.28 minutes of time in this half-hour period. This shows us some of the range of activities teachers were managing, and switching between, in their daily work. These teachers were seemingly having to ‘layer’ their work activities, which can help to explain why a 30-minute period of work can feel intense for many teachers.

This became clearer with analysis of teachers’ decision-making patterns throughout the day. Teachers were asked about how many decisions they made within the same 30m period. Teachers reported making more decisions, and experiencing more pressure to make decisions quickly, during face-to-face teaching. However, higher-stakes decisions were made when dealing with student wellbeing matters outside of lesson time. This highlights how different parts of teachers’ work can present different challenges, as well as how the experience of undertaking such work can differ.

We also asked participants to rate how rushed they felt during their day and how satisfied they felt with their workload that day. Participants identified three common factors that made them feel rushed: managing student needs/behaviour, communicating with parents/carers and the amount of work to be covered in lessons. Analysis of open-ended responses to questions about feeling rushed and how manageable workload had been that day produced a further list of categories, including administrative work and extra-curricular commitments. Interestingly, all of the activities mentioned in these open-ended questions were to do with arguably ‘non-core’ tasks for teachers, suggesting that it is these more extraneous aspects of teaching work, which are sometimes unpredictable and unexpected, which can lead to teachers feeling ‘time poor’.

Indeed, responses to a final question asking for general comments on participants’ workload that day produced two key themes: ‘the unusual’ and ‘the unexpected’. Yet although these were common themes, participants also reported that their days were fairly typical. This suggests that ‘the unusual’ is, in actuality, usual in teaching; and may be a key factor in experiences of time poverty.

Next steps

Based on the data we are collecting, we believe that there is much still to be understood about how the increasingly complex nature of teachers’ work relates to experiences of time poverty, and associated consequences of burnout and attrition. Currently, we are analysing responses from a wider sample of Queensland teachers, from which we will be able to apply more sophisticated statistical analyses and generate further insights into the problem of time poverty.

The app was developed in partnership with the QTU and can be applied in contexts including schools, TAFEs and universities. There is much still to learn. If you would like to find out more about our project, you can visit the project website or read our most recent paper here.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article was published in The Australian Educator, the journal of the Australian Education Union (AEU).

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.