Well before COVID-19 started blurring the boundaries between work and home life for teachers, with new hybrid ways of teaching putting extra pressures, the Education 2030 Framework for Action had recognized teachers’ right to decent working conditions. Work time is an important aspect of this, with potential implications for reward and support mechanisms, but comparative evidence across countries is hard to come by. Conflicting accounts between official, actual and perceived hours of work or between self-reported and observed hours of work further complicate such comparisons.
Instruction is the main teaching task, of course, but others, including professional development, collaboration and outreach, take substantial time. Head teachers may be primarily involved in school management but also take on teaching responsibilities and other tasks.
It is safe to say that teachers are working harder and longer hours than ever before… and I didn’t think that was even possible. Thank you.
— Nicholas Ferroni (@NicholasFerroni) April 8, 2020
The OECD collects data on the statutory number of hours full-time teachers are expected to work according to national policy. Teaching time is converted into 60-minute periods, excluding breaks of 10 minutes or longer, except at the pre-primary and primary education levels, for which short breaks are included if teachers are responsible for classes during breaks. The OECD differentiates between teaching and non-teaching time. A full-time teacher teaching for 60% of the average teaching time is counted as one full-time teacher for headcount indicators and as 0.6 of a full-time equivalent.
Direct surveys are another means of collecting information. The 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) asked teachers and head teachers in 48 education systems in middle- and high-income countries to report their total work time. It included questions about time spent per week on non-instruction tasks, e.g. class preparation, parent visits and marking, including over the weekend and in other non-school-regulated time. Head teachers indicated time spent developing curriculum, teaching, observing classrooms, evaluating students, and mentoring and professionally developing teachers.
Estimating actual work time is not straightforward. With few exceptions, when teachers estimated time spent on specific tasks during the previous week, the number of working hours was greater than estimates of total working hours as the below graph shows. The discrepancy may reflect cognitive errors in estimating time, especially for past tasks.
More than half of OECD countries specify statutory working time per year, allowing comparison with TALIS self-reported weekly estimates. Statutory hours, as reported by the OECD Education at a Glance report, and self-reported estimates, as reported in TALIS, are at odds in many countries. Discrepancies may reflect differences in teachers’ daily work relative to system regulations but also different reference periods. Statutory teaching time reflects an average week; surveys, such as TALIS, often ask teachers to report on the previous week, which may not be representative.
To add another dimension, the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Status Index has collected data on public perceptions of teachers’ working hours. In 2018, these tended to be lower than teacher-reported estimates as you can see in this graph.
The year 2020 was particularly challenging for teachers, and at least the first half of 2021 doesn’t look like it will be much easier. Shifting pedagogy to distance learning, being more aware than ever of students’ diverse needs and being tasked with making up for learning loss under these challenging circumstances takes up a lot of time – more than just the hours teachers might be putting in on Zoom. Already, before the pandemic, teachers were underpaid in comparison to many other professionals. A trade union analysis of official UK data suggests that teachers work, on average, over 12 unpaid hours per week, more than workers in any other sector. Comparative analysis of the working hours they are doing is critical so that they can be rewarded for their time. Any parent who has had to take on the home-schooling responsibility will agree.