The perception of teachers as lazy, careless people who work as little as possible and just wait for the holidays to start, still exists in a lot of countries. However, a recent study by the Varkey Foundation has shown that the amount of time teachers work on a weekly basis is underestimated by the general public in many countries around the globe. Sometimes the average workload is underestimated by up to 10h per week. Moreover, the social status of European teachers is relatively low when compared to countries such as China and New Zealand. As the study shows, status and perceived workload of teachers have a big influence on the quality of education, which is why a more accurate perception of the workload is absolutely essential.
The way in which teachers are perceived plays a key role in determining who decides to become a teacher, how well teachers are respected and the level of financial compensation. These factors in turn affect quality of teaching, and ultimately influence how effective teachers are in getting the best out of their students. The study shows that countries in which teacher status is high have better student outcomes, as measured by PISA, than countries in which teacher status is low.
OECD data further show that there are major differences in the workload of teachers across different European countries. Here we’ll use the example of full and part time teachers in lower secondary education. Italian teachers work the least, with an average of 30h per week. They are followed by Finland (32h), Cyprus (33h), Iceland (35h) and the Netherlands (36h). The longest hours are performed by teachers in Denmark (40h), Sweden (42h), Portugal (45h) and England (46h)
How the teachers see it
According to interviews we did with teachers in different countries, there are big differences between individual teachers. Klaas from the Netherlands stated that motivated teachers work almost twice as much as their demoralized colleagues, despite receiving the same salary. His compatriot Robbert attributes this to the extra work and projects motivated teachers take on them, because they consider them as necessary and indispensable. Hanna from Austria pointed out that the amount of work is never actually checked, so a lot of people felt as if it just didn’t matter.
The difference between young and experienced teachers is similarly large. Sarah from Germany said it takes young teachers up to five years to create a good basis of lesson materials. Hanna from Austria added that the salary only reflected the performed work after 40 years, and that young families needed at least €400 more per month to raise their kids in a proper way. These huge differences in workload and salary are highly demoralizing for young teachers. Nick from Belgium mentioned them as one of the main reasons he is going to change jobs in one or two years.
An interesting solution to reduce the workload of young teachers is offered by the Netherlands. Our interviewee Robbert explained that starting teachers get a so called “work task reduction”. It is a two year trajectory, in which young teachers in their first year work 20% less than their experienced colleagues, and 10% less in their second year. From the third year on, they work as normal full time teachers. Apart from that, several schools offer a coaching trajectory within the school itself. In Robbert’s school, the trajectory consisted of a three-year working group, a mentor, workshops, lesson visits and feedback, and reflection on personal growth. These two practices (official work task reduction and a coaching trajectory during several years) are applicable in different countries. They can reduce the heavy workload of young motivated teachers, strengthen their abilities to face problems, and make them stay and love the educational field.
What teachers actually do
The total number of teachers’ working hours includes a broad range of activities (see diagram): from actual teaching and preparing classes to administration and student counselling. On average, teachers spend 50% of their working time on actual teaching. Finnish teachers spend 65% of their time in the classroom, while for Swedish and English teachers this takes up 41% and 43% of their weekly schedule. The latter spend a lot more time on administration, up to 4h30 per week.
People systematically underestimate the workload of teachers in all European countries, with the exception of Finland. Status-wise, teachers do not score very highly either: in 65% of the countries, teachers are tied with social workers in terms of public esteem, and in 25% of the countries with librarians. Only a minority of people ascribe teachers the same status as nurses. This is completely different in China, Malaysia and Russia, where the social status of teachers is similar to that of doctors.
In several European countries, there has been an ongoing debate regarding the workload of teachers. For example, recent studies in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands have shown that teachers on average work 48h per week. In the UK, one in five works 60 hours or more – 12 hours above the legal limit set by the EU. In Belgium, several articles and op-eds were published, and teachers all over the country have sounded alarm. However, Nick from Belgium told us that a fair number of people still considered teachers to be exaggerating, accusing them of simply wanting to continue their “lazy life filled with vacation”. Our other interviewees likewise regretted the bad reputation of teachers in their respective countries.
It is often claimed that long holidays make up for the hours teachers work during the school year. Officially, European teachers have an average of 15 weeks of vacation per year, with outliers of 19 weeks in Ireland and only 13 weeks in Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Italy. However, the hours that teachers work during the school year substantially exceeds the amount of extra holiday time they may receive, even if they do not work during the holidays, which most teachers would consider a luxury.
The workload of teachers is definitely very high in multiple European countries. However, social status, perceived workload and salary don’t correspond to one another. A significant number of countries is also coping with a teacher shortage. An obvious solution would be to make the profession more attractive by boosting its social status and making sure overworking becomes the exception instead of the rule. The work task reduction and coaching of young teachers (like in the Netherlands) is a start, but won’t cover all the issues. Sarah from Germany and Nick from Belgium mention some possible short-term actions, like reducing the number of teaching hours for first year teachers, organizing more co-teaching, and lowering teacher’s administrative burden. In the long term, specific solutions adapted to local contexts could ensure a healthy climate, in which competent and motivated people choose to join, love and stay in the field of education.
OECD, TALIS 2013 Database, Table 6.12 (2013) (http://www.oecd.org/education/school/talis-excel-figures-and-tables.htm)
The Global Teacher Status Index, a study by the Varkey Foundation (2018): https://www.varkeyfoundation.org/media/4867/gts-index-13-11-2018.pdf
How the job of a teacher compares around the world, article in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/sep/05/how-the-job-of-a-teacher-compares-around-the-world
Teachers in England work longer hours than almost anywhere else in the world, article in The Independent (2016): https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/teachers-england-longest-hour-pay-schools-education-a7353496.html
De werklast van de leraar nageteld: tot 49 uren per week, article in De Standaard (2018): BELGIUMhttp://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20180919_03761546
Tijdsbesteding leraren po en vo, study by the Algemene Onderwijsbond (2017): NETHERLANDS https://www.voion.nl/downloads/3c0fc381-20a4-4afd-875a-e421e857f903
Interviews with teachers: thanks to Hanna (Austria), Nick (Belgium), Sarah (Germany), Robbert (the Netherlands) and Klaas (the Netherlands)