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March 13, 2010

Workload… A Timeless Conversation

by Chris Lindholm

I found myself in the first meeting of a new district task force this week focused on identifying and prioritizing the factors that play into a perceived increase in teacher workload.  This perception is certainly not unique to our Minnesota district nor is it unique to education.  The 21st century has ushered in a high level of urgency to increase student achievement, constant connectivity to everyone, and a much higher level of accountability to… well… the whole world it seems.  This was the first of what will be many work sessions to address this issue, and it started with introductions and a brief conversation to start defining the issue and the process we will follow.  How do you tackle and issue as enormous as "teacher workload?"

One of the core value statements at our school includes making decisions based upon research, rigorous debate, and doing what is right (not what is easy or concensus).  Workload is an issue that has been researched, debated, and decided upon over and over again since… the birth of humanity.  The history of this issue swings the spectrum from slavery and child labor law to research on work weeks in the industrialized countries of the world.  The issue is woven even more complicated by cultural patterns, technology changes, the history of leisure in America, and debates about pay for performance.  The unmentioned reality in the room during this meeting is that some people deliver excellent performance putting in 40-45 hours each week while others put in 50-60 hours each week delivering mediocre performance.  So… how do we land on doing what is right when the water we are swimming in is as clear as mud?  More important- what is the root of this issue, and what are the other influencing variables?  I am hopeful that the process we engage in welcomes the necessary debate and lthe necessary ook at research to avoid "stalling out" on the surface.  There is potential to simply list our initiatives and whine about having to do things we don't want to do – and then cross a few of them out.  If we really want to address the perceptions that people have, we will need to dig into how connected staff feel to the core meaning of their work.  Those who feel real meaning work many extra hours voluntarily, dig retainers out of trash cans, volunteer for bus duty, sweep floors, schedule curriculum writing sessions on the weekends, and jump into most any mess to help make it better.  Those disconnected from meaning often whine about doing some of the core elements of their work – the very ones they signed up to do in the first place!  So… 

Drive book coverWhat are the real reasons some believe teaching has become significantly harder over time?  What is controllable and what isn't?  How do we ensure real meaning for staff?  What drives real motivation?  How do we ensure staff have the autonomy necessary to be engaged?  How do we realign our system to embrace 21st century realities for the work place? 

One recommendation:  The task force should read Daniel Pink's new book Drive to build common language on the topic of motivation in the 21st century – and to look at some research outside of our own classrooms.    

One caution:  Real conversations take time, energy, guts, and a willingness to listen and learn.  Are we up for it?  

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