Returning to school should be a term of celebration for teachers, yet all too often it’s filled with dread as its back to those long, long stretches of time spent at school. On the treadmill. We often don’t even realise we are on a treadmill or that achieving a work-life balance is something that we can realistically accomplish.
It sometimes feels like it’s expected and accepted that we will always be knackered and overworked, underpaid and sometimes undervalued. Take myself as a case study. One that will be all too familiar to many teachers out there.
I used to work in an inner city school. You know the type. High levels of deprivation, huge social problems, an estate with a city-wide reputation for drugs and drinking, thievery and violence. I’d be at school by 6:30am telling myself and anyone else that would listen that this was when I’m most efficient. I’d work through my break and eat my lunch at my desk (marking or prepping or reading an Edu-book).
Okay, I was out the door at 4:30pm, but I justified that by telling myself it took two buses to get home with a door-to-door time of about 90 minutes. Then it was cook dinner, get the kids to bed, read the bedtime stories and do the brushing of the teeth etc. Then it was back down to the kitchen table, laptop out, a stack of literacy and numeracy books piled up next to me. I’d be at this until around 11:30pm before calling time.
Add to this a break-time duty, one dinnertime detention duty, a staff briefing Monday and Tuesday mornings, staff meeting on Wednesdays after school and a Key Stage meeting on Thursday lunchtime. Emails were sent out on an hourly basis, and at weekends, which most staff accessed by either their personal phones or via the iPad that we were all given to help us be more productive and mobile in our work habits.
Books were collected every Friday (a random sample chosen by the HT) planning collected Friday afternoon and subject learning walks took place regularly with every member of staff having an area to monitor and show impact in.
Writing this now, it seems crazy to think how this could ever have been sustainable, but I did this for 10 years! And I know I wasn’t the only one. It’s not that we were encouraged to work like this, but weren’t discouraged either. I was crazy ambitious. I had to have the best presented books. The shiniest of all shiny Smart Notebook presentations for each lesson, with every lesson resourced to the max.
My L.O.’s and S.C.’s were works of art. I was spending more time thinking about and prepping for a lesson than actually delivering it. I used to be asked by my mum, in a way very reminiscent of sixth-form, if I had done all my work. The answer was invariably no. There was always more to do. More to read. More to analyse. More to prep.
To add to this craziness I was convinced this work-life imbalance was making me a better teacher. But I know now that it wasn’t. What it was doing was making me a lousy dad and husband. What’s strange is that at the time I didn’t feel it was excessive. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t even know if I enjoyed what I did.
People would ask me and I’d answer that I didn’t spare the time to think about it. I was always on the go. Always a meetings to attend, training to complete, schools to visit and collaborations to be established. The stupid hours, the ridiculous number of meetings with no clear purpose, the then never ending cycle and merry-go-round of triple marking. Add into the mix being Year 6 lead, an OLEVI teacher trainer and a SAT marker. Something had to give.
It did. My wife’s job did. NHS funding disappeared and probably saved my life and career. Fast forward three years and a move of houses, schools and country – and things could not be more different. Emails at home? Can’t be accessed. We only get one or two a day anyway.
Staff meetings are once a month. I’m in school at 7:45am (still before most others). And I’m home by 5:30pm, with all the kids in tow. By 6:45pm dinner is done and we are away to the beach. Those beach walks recharge the batteries for me like nothing else. The air. The sea.
I’m not suggesting everyone may need such a radical move as we did, but even a small change can make all the difference. I know now the problem lay not with the job (which I love still) but my school and with me. I needed to change.
Stepping out of the system enabled me to do that. It’s like what Ferris Bueller once famously declared to the screen; ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.’