(originally published in Professionally Speaking, March 2007)
In 2004, the Work and Lifelong Learning (WALL) network conducted a large-scale survey of over 9,000 members of the Canadian labour force concerning their working conditions and learning activities. The survey was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
While the number of teachers included in the survey is not large enough to allow for interprovincial comparisons of teachers, the responses of teachers across the country can be compared with those of other occupational groups and to the labour force as a whole.
Among full-time employed workers (over 30 hours per week), the demographic profile of teachers is distinctive. The teaching force is older than the labour force in general, with nearly half (47 per cent) over 45. Similarly, nearly half (46 per cent) of all teachers have been working in the same type of job for more than 16 years. Teachers are also more likely to be female (75 per cent) and white (95 per cent) than most other occupational groups. Canadian teachers comprise a relatively stable, older, female-dominant and not very racially diverse occupational group.
Discretion on the job
In a knowledge-based economy, workers need increasing discretion to perform their jobs. But what do workers themselves think about their discretionary control of their jobs? Teachers are the most likely occupational group to say their jobs require a great deal of thought (89 per cent) and that they have a great amount of choice in doing their jobs (61 per cent). Teachers are especially distinctive in their majority belief (57 per cent) that they can always plan their own work, compared to less than a third of most other groups in the general labour force. In terms of employees' involvement in their work, teachers are the prototypical “knowledge workers.”
The vast majority of Canadian workers think that work techniques and equipment, including computers and related software, have changed at least moderately over the past five years and about a third think they have changed a great deal. Canadian teachers are about as likely as other professional employees to acknowledge skill increases and changing work techniques in their jobs and more likely than either service workers or industrial workers. But they are somewhat more likely (45 per cent) than most occupational groups (less than 40 per cent) to express high levels of job stress. In response to questions concerning organizational change in employment conditions over the past five years, most workers state that they have witnessed significant organizational restructuring. Teachers are again distinctive in that the majority (64 per cent) report changes in terms of reduced numbers of employees within their workplaces, compared to only minorities (42 per cent or less) among other categories of workers.
This survey confirmed findings of other studies concerning a recent trend in the hours of work in the Canadian labour force. After gradual declines in the length of the normal workweek for most of the 20th century, a growing polarization of part-timers and over-timers has been evident during the last few decades. The proportion of those working a previously standard 40-hour week has continued to decline, while the proportion of those working over 50 hours per week and those working fewer than 30 hours per week – typically without non-wage benefits – continues to increase. Around 20 per cent of teachers are now employed part-time, a proportion similar to that found in the general labour force. Meanwhile, the normal workweek of those in full-time employment (that is, 30 or more hours per week) is now about 45 hours. In our survey, full-time teachers – in line with what has become the Canadian norm – reported working an average of at least 45 hours per week.
But a more detailed national survey sample of teachers (Smaller H. et al, 2005) found that they work an average of 49 hours, including time spent after school hours in preparation and marking, extracurricular activities, reporting to parents, etc. Many recent studies of teachers' working conditions in Canada and elsewhere have established that teachers remain among the most likely of workers to do unpaid overtime. When asked more generally about their normal work week in the WALL survey, they were quite likely to have taken some of their unassigned duties for granted.
Along with most occupational groups teachers also do substantial unpaid housework, an average of 15 hours per week. But teachers have an exceptionally high rate (69 per cent) of involvement in voluntary organizations, compared to a minority of the general labour force. Teachers' volunteer work plays a vital but often unrecognized role in community sustainability. Teachers' extensive unpaid overtime work, their relatively high levels of job stress, and the extent of their volunteer work should be better understood by the general public.
The WALL national survey asked a series of questions about ongoing learning – formal courses or workshops and informal study, whether self-directed or with a mentor. Teachers reported exceptionally high course participation rates – among the highest of all professional employees. The general survey found rates of over 80 per cent. With more in-depth probing 90 per cent of the teachers surveyed reported in-service training activities. These rates compare to about two-thirds of professionals and managers and less than 60 per cent among the general labour force.
In addition, over 90 per cent of teachers reported active engagement in informal on-the-job learning, marginally higher than other workers (about 80 per cent). Teachers are more likely (56 per cent) than most workers (42 per cent) to seek mentoring from colleagues, but their estimates of time spent in informal job-related learning and informal learning generally were similar to other occupational groups. Overall, teachers are more involved in combinations of formal and informal learning and spend more time in learning activities than most other general occupational groups.
The WALL survey findings offer some preliminary benchmarks for assessing the changing nature of adult work and learning in Canada. The comparisons of teachers to other Canadian workers could help the teaching profession in steering its future policies.
The WALL survey raises some immediate challenges:
We [teachers] need to make greater efforts to achieve a teaching force more demographically representative of the Canadian population.
We need to use the relatively high levels of discretionary control we have in our jobs and our very high rates of continuing education to exemplify and promote the kinds of high-involvement organizations required by a well-developed knowledge-based
But we should sound alarm bells because of relatively high staffing cutbacks in our schools, long hours and high levels of stress.
For complete questions and results see the full report, available at the Research Network on Work & Lifelong Learning, OISE/UT.
David W. Livingstone is Canada Research Chair in Lifelong Learning and head of the Centre for the Study of Education and Work at OISE/UT.
Fab Antonelli is a member of the College and a doctoral student in sociology and equity studies at OISE/UT.