Three teachers from Raroa Intermediate School.

Workload: the problem is the problem (not you)  

[g1_block] Giveaway Win a Workplace Survey from NZCER, worth up to $500. Teachers fill in an anonymous, online survey. NZCER provides a report that indicates, among other things, the state…



Win a Workplace Survey from NZCER, worth up to $500. Teachers fill in an anonymous, online survey. NZCER provides a report that indicates, among other things, the state of staff morale and pressure points. Use it to build a better workplace culture. To enter, visit the Giveaways page.


“We don’t want exhausted teachers,” says Team Leader Shane Lavery from Raroa Normal Intermediate. “We don’t want people coming in more than two or three days in the holidays. We don’t want them going home on evenings to do marking.

“We want them to recharge and to come in each day fresh.”

But that’s a far-off dream for many in the sector. From high contact hours in ECE, to Novopay for support staff, to endless paperwork for everyone – the conversation is more often about “my two jobs”: the one you love – working with children – and the other one of endless assessment, data entry, meetings. At recent primary teacher meetings a groundswell of frustration at workload issues was clear.

Now it looks as if the government would like to unleash a new round of disruption on schools and ECE with radical changes to funding. Will this be the tipping point where educators simply say, “No more”?


In an ideal world, all schools and centres would be in a position to tackle workload as Raroa Normal Intermediate does in Wellington. Lavery says, “We address it in terms of workplace culture. You have to be prepared to act.”

Recently he had started to hear a few negative comments. “There were indicators that people were tired, a bit stressed. The team leaders got together. We want people to enjoy what they do, rather than just try to get through the day.”

Team work

As a result, changes were made to the school programme. A before-school fitness class for staff has started, with circuit training and personal goals. An evening cooking class will tie into design and production (the old technology stream) but will also support young teachers who can’t cook and remind others to eat well.

Libby Morris, another team leader, says her MLE (modern learning environment) helps keep a lid on the pressure. “We are four together – and we do all our planning, assessment and appraisal as a team before and after school so we don’t work in the evenings or at weekends. It’s organic.

“For sure, we work harder at school than we did before in a single cell, but it’s done by the end of the day.”

Lavery chips in with, “There’s plenty of research to show that appraisal works best when you’re talking with the child. It’s timely, on the spot, and with the child.”

Both are actively supported by Deputy Principal Jason Ataera. “We don’t have all the answers. Workload issues never go away but we aim to keep at it.”

In 2013, the school won a “Great Spaces for Teachers” award from the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), because of good results in a Teacher Workplace survey (see giveaways).

“We were on a bit of a high,” says Ataera. “We had new leadership and there was a lot of change. Teacher-only days were introduced. Management met with individual staff. Aspirational goals, personal and professional, were set. We had a twoday, overnight, offsite camp for staff.”

The survey is a perennial, and it’s now supplemented by “snapshots” each term. “These help us set a focus for the term,” says Ataera. Currently he’s helping put together a resource pack for staff on wellbeing.

Principals under pressure: working an adverage 56-60 hours a week. Meanwhile, NZ primary teachers' contact hours are over 900 hours/year - more than OECD countries Canda, Australia, Finland, Korea and Japan, as well as the OECD average,

Horror stories

Being a large school, with a relatively affluent community and a supportive, pro-active board of trustees, helps Raroa in its quest for sustainable workload. Other schools may face bigger challenges in meeting students’ needs, and burnt out educators all too often become less efficient.

“We hear the horror stories,” says Ray Farnsworth, who runs the NZEI Te Riu Roa Member Support Centre. “The staff meeting that goes on until 9pm once a week, then the syndicate meeting and the sub-syndicate meeting.”

Workload and related stress is a frequent cause of calls to the MSC, which offers a mix of supports, ranging from the practical to the interrogative. “We try and find out what is going on behind the immediate issue.” NZEI branches and area councils can also offer support and be a vehicle for change.

Educators, says Farnsworth, are committed and passionate about what they do, but this can also mean they develop tunnel vision in their singleminded drive to see children succeed. “Then there’s all the media and political commentary about kids failing, and that impacts on teachers because they feel they’re not succeeding no matter what they do.”

Some of the worst cases end up with NZEI’s legal officer David Martin. “Teachers can be efficient in their workload but it’s generally not the individual who determines workload – it’s the workplace culture and systems.”

It’s not personal

What a school or centre has to do, in terms of accountability and reporting, is immutable, but how efficiently it does this is critical, he says. Is planning disciplined and focussed? Good prioritisation? Can data be easily used to fit different reporting requirements – for parents, the board, the ministry? Are IT systems in place?

At one school, it might take a teacher two hours to upload the data, but at another, 12 hours.

And this can be extremely stressful, says Dr Maria Kecskemeti, whose book Better Classroom Relationships sets out a framework to help lighten the load. “Personal responsibility comes from a liberal humanistic tradition of the autonomous individual but if you take the individualistic approach then people end up being crushed under the pressures of being responsible for everything.

“Instead you have to look at relationship practices, the collective approach to problems. It’s a very practical approach and it helps deal with the stress.”

Kecskemeti has spent decades working with schools, as a counsellor both for students and practitioners. “Teachers get stressed when they don’t have support for managing problems that are beyond their control – organisational structures, time and resource allocation.

“You might have 10 high-needs students in your class so your job is unmanageable – but you are not incompetent. Teachers need collegial support. A collective response is better.”

She advises educators to watch out for warning signs that they’re not coping. “If people constantly feel resistance. If they don’t want to do what is being asked, then it’s best to listen to that.”

Work intensification

In some cases, the cause may be cultural – a teacher who prefers restorative practices (talking, negotiating, mediating after an event) will be stressed if they work in a punitive school and they’re expected to dish out punishment. A person who is strict might find restorative practices weak.

“Stress can be a mismatch between professional identity and school or centre practices. If you constantly feel angst or anger, then you need to be looking at it.”

Or it might simply be about working too many hours.

Teachers work, on average, 18 hours a week in addition to the 32.5 classroom hours.

According to surveys by the New Council of Educational Research, the extra hours peaked at 18 in 2007 and stayed there in the 2010 and 2013 surveys.

NZCER Chief Researcher Dr Cathy Wylie wonders if a threshold has been reached and teachers can’t physically sustain working more hours, week in, week out, and manage other commitments such as study and family. “Teaching is very intensive work.”

Primary principals work an average 56-60 hours a week, which plateaued in 2013, at the same time as morale fell and stress levels rose (see p12). The 2016 NZCER survey of primary schools is underway this term, and Wylie urges schools to fill out the online survey. “It gives us vital information.”

But response rates to the survey have been falling and this may also be a sign of “intensifying” workload.

As for the myth about teachers getting all those long holidays, it’s well and truly over.

The most recent survey on this, from 2003, found that even then New Zealand teachers worked, on average, 22 days of the holidays. Given the long hours worked in term time, this means teachers and principals are giving hundreds of hours a year to the job, over and above the 40 hours a week that is considered “a reasonable week” in the teachers’ collective agreement.

Some release

An informal survey of around 100 NZEI Te Riu Roa member leaders (ECE, support staff, principals, teachers and special education) found most had experienced increasing workload in the last three years, related to more compliance reporting, more assessment, more payroll issues, more students with complex needs, and new initiatives and programmes being added on top of existing programmes.

A frequent comment was that the extra tasks often did not help children, and could hinder teaching and learning.

Methods used to deal with workload included: planning ahead, shared delegation and leadership, saying “No”, prioritisation, clear communication and timeframes, seeking support from BoTs, making job lists, working longer hours, employing a time management coach, triaging, actioning “the small things as soon as they hit my desk”, sharing fun and laughter with colleagues – and being active in NZEI Te Riu Roa to work for change.

Last term member negotiators held out for more release time as part of bargaining for a new primary teacher collective agreement. This claim met strong resistance from ministry negotiators but eventually an extra day of release was secured for 2017.

As one negotiator described the one-day of release time, “It’s like putting a band aid on the Titanic. We’ve had years and years of change being done to us. You have to ask how much power educators actually have now over what goes on in the classroom. It is complex, and there are many factors. Some are in our control but a lot aren’t. We have to find ways to fight back.”

In the UK , a growing teacher shortage has focussed attention on unpopular data-driven reforms that have led to plummeting morale and an exodus from the profession. In July, UK teachers held a one-day strike that closed schools, in a heightening row over funding and workload.

Alison Gray

“We want to be compliant but we don’t want to be exploited. We’re looking for a valid career pathway.” – Support staff leader Alison Gray


Much of this awareness and research is focussed on teachers and principals in schools, but it is clear the same issues are prevalent in ECE and are faced by support staff.

“Underfunding has a huge effect,” says kindergarten head teacher Sally Wooller. “Employers have less flexibility to support teachers to provide the best learning they can.”

Fifty-hour weeks might have been sustainable when broken up by term holidays, but kindergarten restructuring means many are now open in the holidays or running holiday programmes. Of particular concern is the reduced time available for teachers to meet as teams, says Wooller.

In the for-profit ECE sector, low wages and very high contact hours are widely seen as detrimental to both teachers and children.

For support staff, there is pressure to work unpaid hours because of the threat of losing paid hours in the next term or not being considered for extra paid hours.

“We try to encourage support staff to be confident in saying, ‘I’m out of my paid hours, I’d love to do it, and I’ll put it on my worksheet for tomorrow’, but a lot feel uncomfortable,” says NZEI support staff leader Alison Gray. “We do want to be compliant but we don’t want to be exploited.”

“We are looking for a valid career pathway in schools that will progress the many roles we carry out.”

“I never feel like I’ve done enough”

Mihingarangi Forbes and her son

Mihingarangi Forbes and her son

Someone who appreciates the demands on educators is broadcaster Mihingarangi Forbes.

The daughter of a teacher, she juggles being a parent of four children with a high-profile media career, currently as Māori Issues Correspondent for Radio New Zealand. Her hard hitting stories for Campbell Live and Māori Television have seen her at the centre of controversy.

Her advice is “not to overcommit, work hard as a couple to parent together (easier said than done), and try and enjoy things as they are happening.”

Forbes recently joined her daughter’s school board of trustees and “the work our teachers’ representative and principal put into the job is extraordinary”.

“I can imagine the role is similar to any other busy job so time management is important. These days not many of us have a nine to five job. My job requires a lot of reading and research and I never feel like I’ve done enough.”

All her children have gone through immersion and bilingual education. “I’ve been part of the te reo Māori education family and one of the things I’ve learnt is that when it isn’t working, leave and start again.”

Her working day varies enormously, and she thrives on the excitement and challenge.

“I’m a fairly motivated person but my last tip is – marry a good partner who enjoys being around family and having fun!”

Perhaps her most telling comment though is a comment from a teacher at her child’s school. The teacher said the requirements of national standards reporting were getting in the way of her teaching. She is teaching year 1.