This week, teachers in New South Wales learned they were going to get a “helping hand” preparing lessons from the start of term 4.
The state’s education minister, Sarah Mitchell, announced teachers will be given curriculum lesson plans, texts and learning materials to ease the pressure on their workloads. This will come via a “bank” of “high-quality, sequenced curriculum resources”.
Mitchell said this “game changer” has been developed off the back of teachers’ concerns. A 2021 Grattan Institute survey found 88% of teachers said they could save time each week by having access to high-quality curriculum and lesson planning materials.
As education researchers who have been surveying teachers about their heavy and increasing workload, we can understand why they are angry.
In 2018, we surveyed more than 18,000 NSW teachers to get a better understanding of workloads in schools.
Noting this was done well before COVID and the new pressures that increased teachers workloads, classroom teachers in our survey reported working 55 hours a week. Nearly 90% of respondents said teaching and learning were hindered by their heavy workload.
Teachers said they wanted more time for their core work, which included lesson planning. Developing strategies to meet the needs of students and planning new lessons and programs were the top-ranked work activities needing more time and resources. About 97% said administrative demands, including data work, reporting and compliance paperwork, had increased in recent years, causing their excessive workload.
It is important to note that wanting more time for lesson planning is not the same as wanting lesson plans to be provided.
In fact, teachers ranked “planning and preparation of lessons” as their most important, necessary and desired work activity. This was echoed by one teacher on Facebook this week, responding to the NSW government announcement:
“This is like banging our heads against the wall. We don’t need lesson plans made for us. We like doing this, planning awesome lessons is one of my favourite things to do.”
What teachers want
When we asked teachers what strategies they wanted to ease their workloads, the provision of lesson plans did not rate a mention. Instead, they said they wanted more time to collaborate with each other and less time on unnecessary paperwork. They also wanted their professional judgement to be acknowledged.
Or, as another frustrated Facebook commenter interpreted this week’s change:
Teachers: “We want to spend less time doing admin tasks and more time planning our classes”
NSW gov: “Here. Have some lessons. Now go do some more admin”
Who will plan lessons now?
The plan, according to the NSW government, is for “qualified organisations to partner with” the Department of Education to create this online curriculum content. There is already a competitive tender process to find external providers for the lesson plans. The resources need to be ready by the start of next term, in early October.
This taps into existing concerns about the commercialisation of schools, and teachers having less autonomy over what to teach and how to teach it. It also strikes at the heart of teachers’ core professional identity.
This is not helped by Mitchell’s comment that the new curriculum resources bank is “about providing teachers with a basic recipe for student success, while allowing them to contextualise how they use the ingredients to get the best outcomes for their students.”
This “basic recipe” concept undermines the complexity of teaching and the lesson planning process. Lessons need be planned and tailored to individual classes and individual students within them.
As another teacher noted on Facebook:
“Having access to high quality resources is great. But we’ve all used the same resource with two different classes and had different levels of success. What works for one class or even one student, doesn’t necessarily work for another.”
What should be happening instead
In education circles, there has been discussion of the need for national libraries for online teaching resources and assessments for more than a decade. The national Scootle database is one such example, with a wide range of resources and lesson ideas that can be developed into lesson plans.
There is potential for repositories to strengthen the profession, but surely that is only if they are produced and quality-assured by teachers.
We know Australian teachers have an unreasonable and unsustainable workload. But we can’t fix this issue by diminishing their professional standing.
Teachers want less time on administration and more time to do their actual jobs. They also deserve better pay.
Ultimately, they want their skills and profession to be acknowledged and respected.