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Time and Teachers' Work: An Analysis of the Intensification Thesis

by Andy Hargreaves - 1992

The intensification thesis of change in teachers' workload and responsibilities suggests teachers' work is increasingly intensified, with teachers expected to respond to greater pressures and multiplying innovations under stable or deteriorating conditions. The article presents data from a study of how elementary teachers used newly provided preparation time at school. (Source: ERIC)

Whatever else might be said about teaching, few would disagree that the nature and demands of the job have changed profoundly over the years. For better or worse, teaching is not what it was. There are the needs of special-education students in ordinary classes to be met. Curriculum programs are constantly changing as innovations multiply and the pressures for reform increase. Assessment strategies are more diverse. There is increasing consultation with parents and more communication with colleagues. Teachers’ responsibilities are more extensive. Their roles are more diffuse. What do these changes mean? How do we understand them? For those who perform the work of teaching, is the job getting better, or is it getting worse?

While there is wide agreement about the extent of change in teachers’ work, there are differences regarding the meaning and significance of this change. Two contending explanations are professionalization and intensification. Arguments organized around the principle of professionalization have emphasized the struggle for and, in some cases, the realization of greater teacher professionalism through extensions of the teacher’s role. Teachers, especially those in elementary schools, are portrayed as having more experience of whole school curriculum development, involvement in collaborative cultures of mutual support and professional growth, experience of teacher leadership, commitment to continuous improvement, and engagement with processes of extensive schoolwide change.1 In these accounts, teaching is becoming more complex and more skilled. What Hoyle calls extended teacher professionalism, and Nias more cautiously terms bounded professionality, is, in this perspective, both an emerging reality and a point of aspiration.2

A second line of argument is broadly derived from Marxist theories of the labor process. This highlights major trends toward deterioration and deprofessionalization in teachers’ work. In these accounts, teachers’ work is portrayed as becoming more routinized and deskilled, more and more like the degraded work of manual workers and less and less like that of autonomous professionals trusted to exercise the power and expertise of discretionary judgment with the children.3 Teachers are depicted as being increasingly controlled by prescribed programs, mandated curricula, and step-by-step methods of instruction.4 More than this, it is claimed teachers’ work has become increasingly intensified, with teachers expected to respond to greater pressures and to comply with multiplying innovations under conditions that are at best stable and at worst deteriorating. Under this view, extended professionalism is a rhetorical ruse, a strategy for getting teachers to collaborate willingly in their own exploitation as more and more effort is extracted from them.

This article takes a critical look at the second of these competing perspectives: the intensification thesis. It does so through the voices of teachers themselves—through their own words about their world and their work. This is important because the evidence for the intensification thesis has so far rested on a rather small number of single- or two-teacher case studies. Empirical support for the thesis, while mounting, can still be regarded as no more than slender. The time is ripe, therefore, to open the intensification thesis to more detailed empirical scrutiny. Drawing on a recent study of how elementary teachers use newly provided preparation time in the school day, this article examines the implications of what appears to be a critical case for the intensification of teaching—the scheduling of additional statutory release time for elementary teachers from classroom responsibilities. First, though, it is important to identify the propositions and claimed empirical generalizations that make up the intensification thesis, so that when we listen to teachers’ voices, the standard of comparison will be clear.

The concept of intensification is drawn from general theories of the labor process, particularly as outlined by Larson: “Intensification . . . represents one of the most tangible ways in which the-work privileges of educated workers are eroded.” It “represents a break, often sharp, with the leisurely direction that privileged non-manual workers expect” as it “compels the reduction of time within the working day when no surplus is produced.“5 This discussion contains the following claims:

Intensification leads to reduced time for relaxation during the working day, including “no time at all” for lunch.

Intensification leads to lack of time to retool one’s skills and keep up with one’s field.

Intensification creates chronic and persistent overload (as compared with the temporary overload that is sometimes experienced in meeting deadlines), which reduces areas of personal discretion, inhibits involvement in and control over longer-term planning, and fosters dependency on externally produced materials and expertise.

Intensification leads to reductions in the quality of service, as corners are cut to save time.

Intensification leads to enforced diversification of expertise and responsibility to cover personnel shortages, which can in turn create excessive dependency on outside expertise and further reductions in the quality of service.

Discussion of the intensification of teachers’ work draws extensively and often directly on Larson’s broader analysis of the labor process.

In works by Michael Apple, intensification is particularly evidenced in teachers’ work in the growing dependence on an externally produced and imposed apparatus of behavioral objectives, in-class assessments and accountability instruments, and classroom management technologies. This, he says, has led to a proliferation of administrative assessment tasks, lengthening of the teacher’s working day, and elimination of opportunities for more creative and imaginative work—a development that has occasioned complaints among teachers.6 In his analysis with Susan Jungck of the implementation of computerized instruction, Apple points to one particular effect of intensification on the meaning and quality of teachers’ work—reduction of time and opportunity for elementary teachers to show care for and connectedness with their students, because of their scheduled preoccupation with administrative and assessment tasks.7 In addition to the insights they draw from labor process theory, Apple and others point to two additional aspects of intensification that are specifically grounded in education and teaching.

First, there is the implementation of simplified technological solutions to curriculum change that compensate “teachers for their lack of time by providing them with prepackaged curricula rather than changing the basic conditions under which inadequate preparation time exists.“8 Scarce preparation time, that is, is said to be a chronic and persistent feature of intensification in teachers’ work. Solutions to change and improvement focus on the simplified translation of externally imposed expertise rather than complex evolution of internally developed and shared improvements, along with the time needed for their creation.

Second, Apple reports that the employment of technical criteria and tests makes teachers feel more professional and encourages them to accept the longer hours and intensification of their work that accompany their introduction: “The increasing technicization and intensification of the teaching act . . . [is] misrecognized as a symbol of their increased professionalism.“9 In an analysis of two elementary teachers and the place of intensification in their work, Densmore notes that “out of a sense of professional dedication, teachers often volunteered for additional responsibilities,” including after school and evening activities. One teacher is described as working “quickly and efficiently so that she could include creative supplementary lessons once required lessons were finished. Her own sense of professionalism together with parental pressures for additional effort, propelled her to increase the quantity of lessons taught.” The way that such teachers voluntarily consort with the imperatives of intensification, it seems means that “the ideology of professionalism for teachers legitimates and reinforces . . . intensification.“10

There are therefore two additional claims about intensification in teaching to add to the earlier list:

Intensification creates and reinforces scarcities of preparation time. Intensification is voluntarily supported by many teachers and misrecognized as professionalism.

Let us now listen to some-teachers’ voices and compare them with these claims. What do these voices say about teachers’ work? And how might they serve as more than echoes for preferred theories, instead leading us to question these theories, however uncomfortably, by having authenticity and authority of their own?


In September 1987, elementary teachers in Metropolitan Toronto school districts took strike action in support of their claim for a guaranteed minimum of 180 minutes per week of preparation time. Throughout the province of Ontario, contract negotiations before, during, and after this time centered around increased preparation time as a key bargaining issue. At the time of writing, elementary teachers in most Ontario school districts now have a guaranteed minimum of 120 minutes or more of preparation time per week.

Such guaranteed time for elementary teachers away from class is unusual in Western schooling systems, yet this has long been advocated as a desirable—indeed, necessary—condition for increased collegiality among teachers, for opportunity to commit to and get involved in change, and, more recently, for restricting the process of intensification in teachers’ work. A study of the uses of increased preparation time therefore constitutes a critical case for examining the nature and conditions of teachers’ work. Does scheduled preparation time lead to fundamental changes in the nature of teachers’ work and in the relationship teachers have with their colleagues? Does it generate closer and more extensive collaborative relationships between teachers and their colleagues? Or are the uses of preparation time defined and absorbed by prevailing patterns of work within the teacher culture of a more individualized, classroom-focused nature? Moreover, does the provision of increased preparation time halt or restrict the encroaching intensification of teachers’ work? If only in this one geographical region, does it constitute an important empirical and theoretical challenge to the intensification thesis?

In 1988 and 1989, my colleague Rouleen Wignall and I interviewed twelve principals and twenty-eight teachers in a total of twelve schools in two school boards (six schools per board). Using a semi-structured schedule, we collected data on the uses and perceptions of preparation time among these teachers, and also on their broader understandings of their work as elementary school teachers outside their scheduled class responsibilities. We asked questions about teachers’ working relationships with their colleagues and about perceived changes in their work and their working environment over the years. Thus, while at the outset we were more interested in exploring propositions concerning the relationship of time to the culture of teaching than we were in testing the intensification thesis, the nature of our questions and of teachers’ responses to them yielded data that were highly pertinent to that thesis.11


The first set of issues arising from our data concerned the changes, the pressures, the increased expectations that many teachers had experienced in recent years—changes that in a broad quantitative sense would seem to offer some support for the intensification thesis.

One teacher described some of the ways that teaching had changed for her:

Teaching is changing so much. There’s so much more social worker involved in your job now than there ever was before. So many problems, behavioral and social problems, that are sitting in your classroom that have to be dealt with before you can ever attempt to start teaching. I don’t think a lot of people realize that . . . it’s really a changing job. This is my fifteenth year, and since I started teaching, you can really see horrendous changes . . . and I don’t think a lot of people who’ve never been in a school and seen a school run know exactly what a person puts up with in a day. Then they say: “What do you need two months off for?”

The effects of special-education legislation and the mainstreaming of special-education students into regular classes were areas of concern for several teachers—in terms of both their implications for classroom discipline and their demands on the teacher to provide more diversified programs.

T: I know in the beginning, during prep time, there were more teachers who at least had time to take a break, which is sometimes necessary. And now you rarely find a teacher taking a break.

I: So how do you explain that?

T: I find my workload now is much heavier than it used to be. I just think that although there are times that I know I need to stop, I can’t. I have to get things done. So I think that part of it is the changing expectations of teachers. Large class sizes—I have 29—and when you figure that goes from a Special Ed kid, to enrichment, to ESL, it’s a lot of kids that you always seem to be on the tear. I think there’s more and more social work going on. If we were to write teachers’ descriptions ten years ago, twenty years ago and now, they’re vastly different. I think there just isn’t the time now for us to sometimes sit down and recuperate.

This teacher went on to describe a number of children in her class who might previously have been retained in a segregated unit. “You’ve got all these kids that you never used to have,” she said. Nor is it simply a matter of containing them, of maintaining discipline. “We’re to meet the individual needs of the kids. Kids don’t fail today, really, so we have to keep adjusting the program.”

An additional problem for some teachers was what they perceived to be scarce and possibly declining in-class specialist-support and assistance to help them cope with and prepare programs for the new special-needs students. One teacher commented that he had “a very large class,” “a low-average class” with two students who were repeating grades, which was “very tough, very demanding” for him. The reason for this Concentration of ten to twelve “needy” children in his class, he believed, was that “it’s easier for the people in the resource department to schedule time into . . . one-class, as opposed to three separate classes.” Another teacher pointed out that her para-professional in-class support had been removed because of budget cuts. Therefore she now devotes most of her preparation time to working with individual special-needs students to give them the support they need and help them “catch up.”

The changing composition of teachers’ classes over the years, then, has had implications not only for discipline and stress but for the complexity of programming and preparation too.

You’re always being told that you’re constantly responsible for the children. You need to know where they are and what they’re doing. You have to be able to program for all the different abilities in your classroom. It’s not a simple matter of saying—“Today, we’re going to read this story!” It’s who can read this story and what am I going to do with the kids who can’t? And how do I go about getting these kids to answer in complete sentences while I’m getting this child who’s sitting in my Grade 4 and can only read at Grade 1—what am I going to give this person to read, because I have to be there to read-with her, but I also have to be there to help these children learn how to do-this better than what they’re doing.

Accountability to parents and administrators increased the sense of pressure for a number of teachers.

Especially at this school, we have parents who are very demanding as to what kind of program their children are getting, how its being delivered, how the paper was marked, how the test was marked that you sent home—all kinds of things like that. So I find that you have to be very accountable to them as well as to the kids and to the administration too. So therefore it takes a lot of thinking through ahead of time too, as to how you’re going to mark a paper or present something.

Accountability has also brought with it more paperwork-more accounting for what is being done, what has been done, and what is intended to be done, for the benefit of parents, administrators, and other audiences, as seen in the following statements of teachers:

Fifteen years ago I didn’t have paper work. Fifteen years ago the paper work I had, I created for myself . . .

The paper work we’re getting I’d almost like to give it up. If I didn’t enjoy it with the kids so much, I would. . . . What the administration has asked us to do I don’t think they have much choice in that either. . . . We have to make plans for everything that we do. . . . We spend so much time sitting and writing out. Maybe that’s the way we don’t get ourselves into difficulty, I don’t know. We have to do a lot of accounting for everything we do.

It’s a lot different than 25 years ago. Paper work has increased . . . the board’s gone out with these pink forms in triplicate, class lists. . . . I must spend 10 minutes each day.

I’m close to 20 years now and I find from the first year to now, the paper work has increased.

They’re forever—this year we’ve all said the same thing—this year seems to have been particularly bad for conferences and workshops. And they want you to attend this and they want you to attend that; there’s this new program and that new program. At one point, we had so many things on our plate for the Grade 5s, we finally said “Call a halt! Forget it!!! . . . There was one week, I was out of the school more than I was in it!

There are people who love meetings. They live for those meetings. I live for a meeting if it’s purposeful for me and if it’s not, then the meeting is useless and I just cut them right off, which I have done.

These rising demands on and expectations of teachers certainly offer strong support for the intensification thesis, as does the combination of high expectations (e.g., individualized programming) with reduced support (e.g., reductions of in-class assistance).


The high expectations and stringent demands that accompany elementary school teaching do not always clearly emanate from external sources. We observed that working hard was not simply a question of bowing reluctantly to outside pressure. Many of the demands and expectations in teaching seemed to come from within teachers themselves, and teachers appeared to drive themselves with almost merciless commitment in an attempt to meet the virtually unattainable standards of pedagogical perfection they set themselves. They did not appear to need direction or pressure from above to motivate them in their quest. They drove themselves quite hard enough.

Part of the reason for this phenomenon is to be found in the diffuse definitions and expectations that attach to teaching in Ontario and similar systems. Comparative studies of the teacher’s role by Broadfoot and Osborn have indicated that in France, for instance, the teacher’s role is defined tightly and clearly as being specifically concerned with academic learning and performance in school. Teachers there are consequently more certain about their role and more satisfied with their performance.12 In other places, such as Great Britain and North America, the role is defined and perhaps increasingly being defined ever more widely, encompassing social and emotional goals as well as academic ones, concerns for the child’s welfare at home as well as performance in school, and so on. Goals and expectations defined and understood in such diffuse terms become difficult, indeed impossible to meet with any certainty, yet dedicated elementary teachers strive hard to meet them. As Flinders puts it:

More so than other occupations, teaching is an open-ended activity. If time and energy allowed, lesson plans could always be revised and improved, readings could always be reviewed again, more text material could always be covered before the end of the term students could always be given more individual attention, and homework could always be graded with greater care.13

The teachers we interviewed talked a lot about their work in these terms. When describing their use of preparation time, they reeled off activity after activity, giving an urgent, frenetic sense of how densely packed, how compressed that time was. “The time goes really fast,” said one. Others remarked that the list of what they do and what they can do “just goes on and on!” “Its endless.” “You can always do more." "There are never enough hours in the day.” “There’s always something I could be doing because I am never finished.” In some cases, work became almost an obsession, threatening to overwhelm them. Some stayed late, until after 5:00, so they would not need to take their work and therefore their problems home with them. One had been counseled by his principal to ease up on the work and give more time to his personal life, to his leisure. Many, particularly women with families, spoke wistfully about having more time to themselves—“time for me,” as they put it.

Many dedicated teachers gave generously of their time and effort to their work, to the students in their charge. The majority took work home in the evenings. The extraordinary lengths to which their commitment stretched stands out in many individual cases. One teacher regularly stayed until six or seven o’clock, even in winter after the heat had been turned off. There was the teacher who spent over a $1,000 of her own money on materials and resources for her class. There was the teacher who came to work in his temporary classroom every Sunday and the teacher who came in on Saturday for several hours a month to sort out the staffroom bulletin boards. There was the single-parent teacher with a handicapped child who dashed home at the close of school, two days a week, to take her child for specialist help and then returned to cook supper, to read to both her children and put them to bed—finally taking out her schoolbooks to start all over again after eight or nine o’clock at night. There was the teacher who had been widowed young, had brought up her children alone, and had commonly worked from 9:00 until 11:00 or midnight after they were asleep—and who was only now, in her middle age, choosing to ease off a little, reduce her commitments somewhat as she felt she had “paid her dues” in the past and now deserved the opportunity to develop a life with her new husband. There was the teacher who had shelves and bookcases at home packed with materials and resources that she had made and accumulated over the years. There was the teacher who spent his Sunday mornings compiling tests, quizzes, and worksheets on his word processor. There were the teachers who were taking additional qualifications in computers or visual arts or teacher librarianship; the teachers who coached sports teams and refereed House Leagues; the teachers who involved themselves with the choir or organized school charities. The list, as one of the teachers said, is endless.

The time and effort these teachers commit to their preparation and teaching comes not so much from grudging compliance with external demands as from dedication to doing a good job and providing effective care within a work context that is diffusely defined and has no clear criteria for successful completion.14 This internally generated dedication in the context of a diffusely defined occupation seems to be grounded in what both Woods and Nias call professional and vocational commitments, commitments that are grounded in the kinds of meanings and purposes that teachers attach to their work.15 It is churlish, and perhaps also theoretically imperialist, to dismiss these deeply held commitments and their consequences as merely belonging to a pattern of “professionalism” that misrecognizes and legitimates the intensification of teachers’ work.

In these patterns of commitment and care are to be found important modifications to the intensification thesis. The same cautions apply to the data reported here. In certain respects, intensification may be an important feature of the work of the teachers we studied, but this does not mean that all that passes for professionalism is but a ruse or a myth. Teachers’ commitments and skills cannot be explained away quite that easily.


Against these tendencies toward increased workload and pressure to which intensification has contributed significantly, the advent of preparation time has introduced a measure of compensation and easement.

Some teachers remarked that perhaps the public does not understand what teachers do with their preparation time, or how important it is to them, given the changing nature of the job. When asked if there was anything he would like to add at the end of the interview, one teacher ventured:

The only thing that I was going to say was that—how much better it is for me now than it was. Receiving that prep time is really important. I know a lot of people—I think my mother-in-law for one of them—sort of wonder what I do during that time. . . . I just think she really doesn’t have any idea, because she’s never in—(I don’t say that meanly. because . . . she knows that I have a lot of work to do)—but I think she wouldn’t understand, and a lot of people wouldn’t understand that it is really nice to have that time when they’ve been in the situation or know somebody who is.

Airing similar concerns about not being fully understood, another teacher commented: “I just think it is very important for people to understand that . . . the job does not start at 8:40 in the morning and end at 3:30. . . . We have a lot of parent volunteers and they all say to us—but we had no idea how much you do!”

Teachers reported that increases in preparation time had conferred important benefits on the quality of their work in general and their instruction in particular. First, they pointed out that increased preparation time had been important in reducing stress. Second, it helped restore something to their lives outside teaching, enabling them to give a little more time to their families, to leisure, to themselves. Together, these two things helped improve teachers’ temperament in the classroom, they argued, improving the quality of interaction they had with their classes. The following quotations give some sense of this commonly noticed relationship between stress, wider life circumstances, and classroom temperament.

It [preparation time] eases the stresses of the job, because all of that planning or duplication would have to be done after school time when you have everybody in the school after the same machines, so you’re not waiting your turn for something to become available to you.

I feel that this year, I’m very much more relaxed. I don’t get that same feeling of stress. For instance, having them first thing in the morning, if I’ve got something I particularly want for that day even, I have time to do it instead of coming in at 7:30, which for me is a real bonus not being an early morning person.

I think [preparation time] is very vital, because if a teacher is too tired out, too tired and too overworked with homework you are not at your best when you are in contact with the children. Your nerves get a little short. Your children soon pick that up and it’s not a good learning atmosphere. I think it’s crucial to keep your mental and physical health, and having sufficient time to do the work that you have is a large component.

A third point is that in addition to relieving stress and creating space in other parts of the teacher’s life—in addition to making existing work easier, that is—preparation time for many teachers also enables them to do things better. It enables them to be more organized, to be better prepared. For instance:

I think I’m more organized, and the fact that if there is something that’s coming up, I know that I have that time tomorrow to do it in, so that I can do it at that time, rather than staying after school or putting that time in after school, or doing it at a lunch time. I can do it during my prep. time. It’s nice.

It’s most invaluable. Phone calls. For example, you get busy lines and so on. If you’re just trying to do it quickly in between classes, it’s impossible. And little things like looking over your notes and seeing—looking through my files and seeing what activities I can use to help this group of kids who are having difficulty. Those are invaluable. You just don’t have the classroom time to sit down and say “Wait” to the kids while you try to find a file for somebody that evening. You just cannot use the time enough.

Preparation time, according to some teachers, also allowed them to do more things, to take on a wider range of activities than they had before. Before preparation time, said one, “I didn’t do as much. I didn’t run as many House Leagues. I wasn’t involved with as many activities after school because I was just so busy doing all these other things. So I think the preparation time made me a more efficient person during the day. I can get more done between 8:00 and 4:00 than I could before.”

For a number of teachers, the benefits of preparation time were to be found not in time for extracurricular activities, but in the extra investments they could make in the business of instruction within their own classes. For these teachers, preparation time helped them improve the inventiveness and appropriateness of their pedagogy. They were more able to make games to teach an idea rather than “give a child a piece of paper to write, push a pencil around on.” Many teachers also talked about marking, about how preparation time helped them evaluate students’ work more effectively.

I don’t feel I have to do quite as much rushing at lunch hour to get materials ready and get work marked. I like to mark my work at school so I don’t carry big bundles of books home, for one thing. And it’s nice to mark it as soon after the kids have done it as possible, so they can see what their mistakes are. If it hangs on for a day or two, it ‘is not as effective.

I feel it’s crucial to have the children’s work marked as soon as it’s done. I get it back to them as soon as possible, because if you leave it two or three days—“what’s this?” It’s like a week old to children.

Preparation time can be seen as a way of providing teachers with working conditions that are designed to help them catch up with the diversification and changing requirements of the job. Certainly, many teachers spoke vividly about the changes in their work and were unequivocal in their praise of preparation time as a way of helping them cope more effectively with these changes. Preparation time here seems like a clear gain for teachers—a counter to the process of intensification. This is certainly how Ontario teachers’ organizations involved in collective bargaining viewed the issue of preparation time when it was in dispute. According to the president of the Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation, “quality education for our children and teachers is what is at issue and, without guarantees of adequate preparation time, that can’t be obtained.“16 The president of the Federation of Women Teachers of Ontario affirmed this view when she said: “Until we have a serious proposal [on preparation time] that addresses these needs of children, we’re at a state of impasse because we as teachers care about the students we teach and we’re not about to throw in the towel and give up on the students.“17


Preparation time, it seems, can alleviate stress and Increase the opportunities for relaxation. It helps reduce chronic work overload and leads to opportunities for the planning and preparation of more creative work. In these respects, preparation time helps counter the effects of intensification. It may even help reverse the spiral. The very existence of preparation time, in fact, constitutes a major challenge to the intensification process. Still, the long-called-for introduction of increased preparation time for elementary teachers does not reverse all the effects of intensification and can to some-extent be absorbed by them. The preparation-time study revealed four ways in which such additional time did not always lead to restrictions of the intensification process.

First, increased preparation time did not necessarily enhance the processes of association, community, and collegiality among teachers. Time itself was not a sufficient condition for collegiality and community. As I have documented elsewhere, unless there was a commitment to collaborative working relationships at the level of school or school district leadership, preparation time became absorbed by the deep-seated culture of individualism and classroom-centeredness that has become historically and institutionally ingrained in the prevailing patterns of teachers’ work.18

The immediacy of the classroom, its centrality within the teacher’s world and the multiple demands it placed upon the teacher for diversified programming and preparation that would be rationally accountable to others, made most teachers predominantly classroom-focused and classroom-centered in their actions, their thoughts, and their preferences. They were practical and classroom-focused inside their own classrooms, but in many respects outside their classrooms too, concentrating their energies on what would best and most immediately benefit their own students: preparing materials, ordering resources, marking promptly, and so forth.

Flinders remarks that “isolation is an adaptive strategy because it protects the time and energy required to meet immediate instructional demands.“19 The same can be said of teachers’ individualistic uses of preparation time. Indeed, even within one of the boards where there was a systemwide commitment to collaborative planning, a number of teachers referred to preparation time not scheduled for consultation with colleagues as “my time,” as time they could use directly for the benefit of their own students. Preparation time was considered too precious and too scarce to fritter away on activities like relaxation or casual conversation with colleagues. These things were more likely to take place at recess. Hardly any teachers stated that they used preparation time for relaxation. There was simply no time for this. There were too many things to do. As one teacher put it: “If you make the mistake of getting into a conversation with somebody, then [the prep time is] done.” Preparation time, therefore, did not automatically assist the process of association between teachers and their colleagues.

A second, somewhat perverse consequence of preparation time was that an important minority of the teachers interviewed stated that, while they appreciated the preparation time they now received, they probably did not want the further amounts for which their federations were fighting in order to move closer to the working conditions of high school teachers. What was at stake for these teachers was the continuity of the relationship they felt they needed with their classes and the quality of care that relationship would enable them to provide. The ethic of care was a powerful source of motivation and direction for these teachers—not surprisingly, given the importance of care as a key reason among elementary teachers for entering teaching, and given its pervasiveness as a central moral principle among women more generally.20

Ironically, while preparation time to a certain extent assisted a process of disintensification in elementary teachers’ work, there appeared, for some teachers, to be a point where the law of diminishing returns set in—where further additions to preparation time reduced rather than enhanced the quality of classroom service provided, because this drew teachers away from their classrooms too much. The data supporting these observations have been reported extensively elsewhere,21 but the words of two teachers capture the prevailing sentiments here:

I don’t think I would like to be away from them too much more, unless it’s the same teacher. Even the one teacher that does come in, unless I specifically state what I want, the children don’t work as well for her as they do for me.

I think when they’re talking about prep time—I had a letter put in my mailbox the other day and apparently there’s some elementary teachers that are in quite a flap, because they are teaching ten minutes longer than the senior school teachers who are teaching [Grades] 7 and 8. And they want this justified. They want that time. And I’m thinking: “What are you here for? Teaching the kids, or trying to find out how much time they don’t have to teach them?”

A third teacher summed up the fundamental dilemma and the way she chose to resolve it: “I wonder if I had much time away if I would feel I was losing something with the kids.”

These remarks reveal a classroom commitment to quality of care, a professional and vocational commitment that cannot be summarily dismissed as a “misrecognition” of trends toward intensification in the labor process of teaching. On the contrary, these teachers recognize that there is a point at which it is not so much intensification as disintensification that threatens the quality of service they can provide. For these teachers, concerns about the quality of care superseded ones about the costs of time even when opportunities to improve the latter were available.

A third perversity of preparation time is to be found in the preferred arrangements for preparation-time cover. Teachers we interviewed preferred what can be called segregated cover arrangements, in which a colleague comes in and teaches a self-contained specialty for which he or she holds complete responsibility. Integrated cover, in which what is taught in preparation time forms part of a wider class program for which responsibility is shared to some degree between the class teacher and the covering teacher, was viewed much less positively. There were several reasons for this.

First, segregated cover saved time. A self-contained program required no prior preparation by the classroom teacher and no consultation with the covering teacher. It was the covering teacher’s sole responsibility. In these conditions, there was no need to prepare for preparation time itself.

Second, some teachers had concerns about shared rather than personal accountability. They were worried they might not be able to provide a good or a reliable account if they shared responsibility for an “important” subject with a covering colleague. As one teacher put it, “One of my things that is a pet peeve is that when I talk to a parent I want to know that what I’m telling them is something I’ve seen with my own eyes, that I know is a truth and I’ve seen it. If I’m not there, I don’t feel that I can comment on that, even though I’ve had feedback from the person [the covering teacher].”

Closely related to these concerns about accountability were those about expertise, which preparation time exposed. One principal put it like this: “Primary teachers feel OK about handing their kids . . . across to somebody who they know can teach particular things better than they can. But what they already know they themselves can teach well, then it’s trickier. . . . We will all be better served,” he said, if we can provide teachers “with a sense of comfort and satisfaction that what’s going on back there (in their classes) is good and valuable.” “We don’t feel discomfort,” he went on, “sending somebody off to French. It’s just not there because its assumed competence. And it’s assumed incompetence on my part if I send my kids to you.” Therefore, he argued, preparation time is best covered through specialist subjects like music, which are “highly visible, highly valuable.”

This was certainly the preferred arrangement for preparation-time cover among teachers. They readily acknowledged the specialist expertise of particular colleagues who could teach a specialty better than they could, and they recognized the value of giving students access to this greater competence. Through exchanges of expertise, the clumsy could ensure their students had access to good quality physical education. Groaning male baritones could secure better quality teaching in singing and in music more generally. The teacher trying to improve her own visual arts expertise by upgrading her qualifications in the area could meanwhile have this part of the curriculum taught by another specialist during preparation time. Sharing classes where both teachers’ expertise in the chosen subject was adequate or strong, however, exposed differences, and raised doubts about whose expertise might be weaker—doubts that teachers preferred to keep suppressed.

These problems of accountability and expertise that were exposed by the administration of preparation time sometimes led to a situation in which covering teachers who were responsible for sharing “important” subjects like mathematics with the class teacher were assigned routine drills of a safe, self contained nature. This did little for the quality of classroom instruction. More usually, as I noted earlier, teachers searched hard for subjects they disliked or in which they were weak, which colleagues could cover. Where expertise in the covering subject was strong, this arrangement appeared to work well. The separation of powers between the classroom teacher and the covering teacher was counterbalanced by a collegial respect for complementary subject expertise. But where expertise in the covering subject was weak, the segregated pattern of cover appeared to undermine rather than enhance the quality of instruction. In some cases, this was not perceived as a problem. Of a teacher covering for physical education, for example, it was said that the program guidelines were clear, “It was all set up” and needed no extra preparation. Yet one wonders how such apparently slavish following of written guidelines would affect the quality of instruction. Interestingly, Apple22 attributes such patterns of teacher dependency and technical control to the processes of intensification in teachers’ work. In the context of preparation time, however, such patterns, and the shortfalls in quality that result from them, appear to come from seemingly contrary processes of disintensification.

A case of cover in health education serves as a striking example. The classroom teacher was eager for this area of the program to be covered. It was self-contained, and in a French-immersion system, where she was involved with only half the program anyway (the other half being taught by the French teacher), finding such self-contained areas for cover was not easy.23

I wanted to give the Health, because that’s a whole subject in itself and it works very well into a short time period. Health lessons can be presented and completed in a 40 minute period.

Against the advantages of its being clearly bounded, though, problems arose with selecting this subject as one to be covered. For one thing, there was an apparent over reliance on published guidelines.

There is a Junior Health Course, and most topics such as dental health, disease, whatever, are presented in Grades 4, 5 and 6, but the objectives change somewhat for each age level, although there is a fair bit of overlap. I gave them [the covering teachers] sections out of the core and I asked them to be responsible in presenting it to the kids.

In a split-grade class, especially where the teacher was strongly dependent on published guidelines, there were also serious difficulties in programming appropriately for each part of the split.

She tries to cover it with one class. She takes the same core and she will take, depending on the unit and how delicate it is, she might take the objectives from the Grade 6 core or the Grade 5 core and try and blend them a bit. So that’s probably the hardest.

In particular, avoiding duplication of the program from one year to the next with split-grade students was something achieved-more by accident than design:

The topics are the same [between grades]. It would probably be a different teacher and . . . for example, there’s an objective at the top of the page and there are several different ways of attaining that objective. So the chances of them choosing those same activities to meet these same ends are quite low. So they might say to themselves—“sounds familiar”—but they won’t be doing the same thing, and they’ll be a year older and they’ll be looking at it from a different perspective.

This teacher concluded, “It’s not the ideal situation”—especially, one might add, where subjects like health education address important social and emotional goals and depend on close, continuous, open, and trusting relationships between teachers and their students. Again, the perversity of preparation time is that in some cases it can lead not to improvement but to deterioration in the quality of service offered to students, and to deskilling rather than reskilling of the teachers involved.

The fourth perversity of preparation time is that while its absence inhibits association among teachers, its presence by no means guarantees such association. More than this, the kinds of association that are created in the spaces afforded by preparation time may not always be those that enhance teacher development and empowerment. Elsewhere, I have provided extensive data to show that in terms of increased association among teachers, preparation time can help create or reinforce either collaborative cultures or contrived collegiality in the school community.24 Collaborative cultures are a relatively rare occurrence. They comprise more spontaneous, informal, and pervasive collaborative working relationships among teachers that are both social and task-centered in nature. They involve teachers’ having high responsibility to develop things themselves as a community, the outcomes of which may be relatively unpredictable from the point of view of school and system leadership. And they entail forms of leadership that support and facilitate these collaborations on an ongoing basis, rather than controlling and constraining them. In conditions of contrived collegiality, teachers are scheduled and required to meet with their colleagues for administratively determined purposes such as liaising regularly with the special-education resource teacher, or engaging in joint planning of new units of work with grade partners. The purpose of collaboration here is less that of evolutionary teacher development than of implementing system initiatives or the principal’s preferred programs. Contrived collegiality is more controlled, regulated, and predictable in its outcomes. In the study reviewed here, it constituted the dominant pattern of teacher collaboration in the context of preparation time.

More important than the existence of teacher collaboration and collegiality, then, is its meaning. From the point of view of preparation time, a particular concern is that many teachers and their federations may be at risk of becoming trapped in a Faustian bargain in which, for the worldly riches of “extra time,” they ultimately trade something of their professional souls their control and discretion over how such time is to be organized and used.25


What have we learned from this investigation of teacher preparation time and its relationship to the intensification thesis?

First, many of the recent changes that teachers described as occurring in their work are highly compatible with the intensification thesis and offer considerable support for it. Heightened expectations, broader demands, increased accountability, more “social work” responsibilities, more meetings, multiple innovations, increased amounts of administrative work—all are testimony to the problems of chronic work overload documented in the thesis. Pressure, stress, no time to relax, no time even to talk to colleagues-these are effects that teachers mentioned that again are highly consonant with those of the intensification process. Particularly before the advent of preparation time, many aspects of intensification appear to have been at work in the labor process of teaching, even in what was, at the time of the study, a materially favored provincial environment.

There are some qualifications to make to this finding, of course. First, the time scale over which teachers reported changes that were consonant with intensification is a relatively short one of only five or ten years. Evidence over longer time scales is not available in this study, and even when it is inferred from other historical work, it is not always convincingly supportive. For instance, many studies of teaching in the nineteenth century indicate that in quantitative terms, teaching may have been just as hard and demanding as it is now. In qualitative terms, it may also have been less rather than more skilled.26 Certainly, as Densmore acknowledges, claims and inferences that intensification is part of a long, linear process of degradation in teachers’ work are difficult to support through longer-term historical study. The appropriate time scale for intensification and its validity claims therefore remains a matter of open debate.27

Second, the data of this study are reported and retrospective evidence rather than evidence collected longitudinally. Given that such evidence comes from retrospective accounts of individuals, it is also difficult to disentangle historical changes in the labor process from biographical changes in the life and career cycles of teachers over time, when maturation may bring more responsibilities, or declining physical powers a sense of reduced capacity to cope.28

Third, intensification may not impact on all teachers in the same way. It may be felt particularly keenly by those teachers who are, because of their own commitments or work circumstances (e.g., full-time rather than part-time), rather more work-centered than their colleagues,29 and it may be felt less keenly by others.

Fourth, this evidence suggests that by no means all instances of broadened commitment and heightened professionalism can be explained in terms of the intensification of the labor process, or as misrecognition of that process.30 Professional commitments to improving the quality of service for clients are often real ones, pursued by teachers themselves in a social context of growing complexity and challenge. These commitments-extend far beyond processes structured to extract increased productivity from teachers’ work. They are not exclusively reducible to labor process factors.

These four qualifications do not disconfirm the intensification thesis, but they do raise doubts about its scope and singularity as an explanation of changes in teachers’ work, suggesting that further inquiry is needed in which other theories and perspectives in addition to those concerned with the nature of the labor process may need to be acknowledged as important for our understanding.

The second broad lesson we have learned concerns the potential of preparation time to alleviate many of the problems of intensification, and even to create some elements of disintensification. Preparation time has fulfilled some of its promise. Shortage of time to do and develop things that would enrich their work is a common complaint of teachers and is a key component of the intensification process. Teachers in the preparation-time study saw the provision of such time as relieving stress, giving them back a personal life, allowing them to “do more,” to contribute more to extracurricular activities, and to improve the quality of their planning and instruction. If only in the short term (for we have no longer-term evidence), increased preparation time really does appear to help disintensify teaching and to help improve some of the quality of service teachers provide. Its introduction is more than merely cosmetic. In both professional and collective-bargaining terms, the benefits it confers appear to be real and worth fighting for.

But preparation time is no panacea. It issues no guarantees. It offers only opportunities. Preparation time can be used for purposes other than those intended, and the organizational contingencies surrounding its implementation can yield a range of unintended consequences that cannot easily be explained within the parameters of labor process theory. Preparation time, that is, has its perversities as well as its potentials. This is the third lesson we have learned from the study.

Beyond a certain point, increases in preparation time reduced rather than improved the quality of service provided to students, as teachers were drawn more and more away from their own classes into other areas of work. Handing over compartmentalized pieces of the program to covering teachers could also create dependency on published guidelines and subject teachers to those very patterns of technical control that proponents of the intensification thesis ironically attribute to the absence of preparation time, not to its presence.

Last, when preparation time was used in the context of mandated or contrived collegiality and collaborative planning, this could create a proliferation of meetings and additional work that intensified teachers’ work still further and subjected them to administrative control instead of releasing them to develop things themselves.

These perversities point to the unanticipated ironies of complex bureaucratic systems that hold within them only yet more problems for every new solution that is offered. The unintended system consequences of French-immersion programming, split-grade responsibilities, local distributions of expertise, and the like are important, are not easily predicted, and are not reducible to labor process explanations. In addition to the unanticipated consequences of preparation time, we have seen that this promising if perverse innovation can also itself serve as new terrain for traditional struggles for control between administration and teachers and between bureaucracy land professionalism more generally. In this sense, struggles surrounding preparation time and the Faustian bargains that are at stake within them may not so much solve the problems of intensification as displace the conflicts over intensification and the control of teachers’ work to other levels and sites.

Preparation time can seem and has seemed an easy solution to the problems of intensification and change. Perhaps the confidence expressed in the solution of increased teacher time away from class has to some extent been a result of the perceived unlikelihood of its implementation. Sometimes, our problems really begin only when our wishes come true. This article has shown that intensification is a real and serious problem for teachers and their work. It explains many of the changes we are witnessing in teachers’ work. But intensification and labor process theories more generally do not fully explain what is happening in teachers’ work. Our understanding of such work cannot be reduced to labor process theory. While time as an antidote to intensification can provide some of the solutions to the problems of teacher development and teachers’ work, it can be a source of further problems as well. Reform is often guided by the belief that every problem has a solution. Perhaps the real challenge of reform as a continuous process, though, is acknowledging that every solution has a problem. In this sense, intensification is an important, but not the only, source of problems with teachers’ work, and preparation time is only partly a solution to it. Sincere commitments of a professional and vocational nature among teachers that amount to more than ideological misrecognition, the increasingly complex nature of society in the postmodern age and the necessarily widening demands it places on education and educators, the complexities and unanticipated consequences of large bureaucracies, and the displacement of struggles about intensification to new sites even when time has been provided as an antidote to it—these things too must be considered.

This article was first presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, April 1992.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 1, 1992, p. 87-108
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 179, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:07:58 PM

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