For whom the bells toll

Branch Secretary Adam Lampe clears up misconceptions about teachers’ work hours. 

Because of the nature of teaching work, teachers' working hours are not standard. Erroneous ideas about expected working hours are often used to keep teachers in line. Too often we still hear stories of teachers being required to remain at school until arbitrary times such as 3.21pm or even 4.21.

It seems astonishing that this Neolithic view of a teacher’s working day is still viewed as standard by some senior departmental officers. Not only is it incorrect in law, it simply doesn’t reflect the nature of teachers’ work.

The most comprehensive legal document we currently have in defining teachers’ hours in the Northern Territory is the Teacher Responsibilities Guide (TRG), which has been given added legal weight by being referenced in clause 52 of the current enterprise agreement. Yet that document itself contains such regressive statements as, “the normal work hours are 36 hours and 45 minutes and it is expected that a teacher’s work will usually be able to be done in that amount of time” (TRG, p.5), which of course is nonsense, but is also just one example of why the TRG is badly in need of revision.

Read a little deeper and you will find a clause in the NTPS Modern Enterprise Award 2016 which crushes any idea that the normal public service span of hours applies to teachers. Clause 8 states that the span of the ordinary hours of work, from Monday to Friday, “does not apply to Assistant Teachers, Classroom Teachers and Senior Teachers.

Public servants who work outside the ordinary span of hours during the working week (i.e. Mon-Fri. 7.30am-5.30pm) get things like overtime pay or penalty rates. Teachers do not. But it begs the question: where does a teacher’s day begin and where does it end?

The TRG provides some boundaries: NT public schools have to provide a minimum instruction time of five hours and 20 minutes per day; in addition, students (not necessarily teachers) get recess and lunch breaks; there is one compulsory meeting of one hour per week, after classes have finished; there is one parent-teacher night per semester (though how long they actually run is open to debate); and teachers are required to be at school 10 minutes before the start of lessons. 

Within all that are classes, student supervisions, yard duties, meetings, marking, reports, lesson preparation, professional learning – there are not a lot of dead spots in the day. The TRG deals with all these things to a degree. It even acknowledges, ironically, that while breaks are required (under the award), they can’t, in reality, be delivered within schools’ normal operational requirements (TRG, p.8). However, the Guide is careful to delineate between non-contact time and breaks, a thing some principals seem to conflate by mistake. 

What the Guide leaves largely unsaid, apart from its asinine comment about the time in which “a teacher’s work will usually be able to be done”, is the work which happens when schools are closed: late into the night, on weekends, during stand down. None of this logged or accounted for. But it is expected, because in the end what most teachers do is work to facilitate good results for their students; and resources and time are essential elements in allowing teachers to do that. 

Also, it is why over-structuring teachers’ days in what are already (and necessarily) heavily timetabled environments is a frequent mistake made by school leaders. 

Indeed, that is why it is called the Responsibilities Guide, not the Teacher Hours’ Guide. Unnecessarily requiring teachers to stay at school after classes have ended misses the point about what they are getting paid for. Equally, expecting teachers to submit to extra meetings on a consistent basis or to use their non-contact time to meet imposed local school managerial initiatives devalues and puts obstacles in the way of teachers’ core business: quality educational outcomes.

This advice column was originally published in the Term 3, 2019 edition of the Territory Educator.

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© Authorised by Rachael Metcalfe, Branch Secretary, Australian Education Union Northern Territory Branch, Darwin (2023)

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