Private schools across the UAE are taking steps to reduce the workload of teachers faced with an "increased burden" during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The outbreak prompted teachers to get to grips with new technology while juggling both in-person and remote learning.
Even before the pandemic, The National reported that long hours and heavy workloads were pushing UAE teachers into abandoning the private sector for government schools.
Some private school teachers told The National that they often worked up to 70 hours a week, especially ahead of annual inspections.
The unique demands of education in the Covid-19 age has led school leaders to strip away administrative duties and enforce cut-off points for work correspondence to ease the strain on staff.
David Cook, chief education officer at Repton schools and headmaster at Repton Dubai, said the group had worked to reduce or remove any unnecessary administrative work for teachers.
“Teacher workload was a key area as they were teaching both audiences," said Mr Cook.
“We have worked really hard to strip away anything that is excessive, which was unnecessary, which was not about teaching and learning. For instance, anything administrative.
“We carried out detailed surveys on how teachers were coping with the pandemic. Staff requested access to specialist help as they wanted to know more about how to protect their mental health.
“Some staff were worried about the health crisis turning into a financial crisis, so job security was a concern. We were able to reassure them that their jobs were secure.”
Teachers were supported to use technology to provide verbal feedback to pupils, which is faster than written feedback.
The Repton group of schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi instituted a policy of no emails after 5pm, to help teachers separate work and home life.
Teachers who required support from specialists were provided with this.
Many teachers in the UAE are residents who move here for work and do not have a family network in the country.
Schools turn to technology to ease pressures
Rashmi Nandkeolyar, principal of Delhi Private School Dubai, said they had started using technology to help with marking papers, freeing up teachers' evenings.
"For teachers, one of the biggest banes is correction. We have introduced a lot of multiple choice questions which are automatically corrected, saving teachers' time," said Ms Nandkeolyar.
Teachers only have to grade long answers and the data is analysed by a system.
The school invested in DigiPen, a technological tool that helps teachers assess assignments.
Teachers at the school cannot be sent emails after 8pm.
Parents are informed of a particular hour in the evening during which they may ask teachers questions.
Ms Nandkeolyar said paperwork had been considerably reduced during the pandemic.
Taaleem, one of UAE's largest school developers, cut meeting schedules and limited emails sent to teachers, while also introducing counselling support.
"At the outset of the pandemic we believe that our decision to retain all staff on current salaries brought immediate stress relief," said Alan Williamson, chief executive of Taaleem.
“Since then we have reduced our meeting schedules, as we are aware of the increased burden on teachers from blended learning where, in some of our schools, pupils in classes are working at home and in school.”
Parent information evenings are held online across all Taaleem Schools now. They intend to continue this post-pandemic, as the decision has proven popular with families.
"Most teachers would comment on the burden of marking and planning, both of which were traditionally onerous and paper-based. Taaleem have pushed innovation in this area using technology which has been welcomed by our teachers," Mr Williamson said.
A good start but teachers need more support
Schools can still do more to help teachers reduce their work load, said Robert Welsh, founder of Teachers Social, a teacher support group in Dubai.
“For a lot of teachers, their workload has doubled but salaries are the same and some teachers are not receiving their full salaries. It’s very unfair,” said Mr Welsh.
Mr Welsh said government school teachers in the Emirates typically do not get emails or calls after 3.30pm.
“In private schools, the official timing is till 3.30pm, but teachers receive calls till 9pm," he said.
"I have seen teachers leave events in the evening because they had to prepare something immediately."
However, Mr Welsh said he was glad to hear that teacher wellbeing was high on the agenda.
“It is nice to see that schools are starting to look at teacher wellbeing," he said.
“A lot of schools don’t know what direction they should be taking. They should listen to what the teachers need."
Mr Welsh said online digital marking tools helped teachers.
Retaining teachers is a global issue, with four in 10 teachers planning to quit the profession, according to a 2019 international survey by the National Education Union in the UK.