Teaching part-time can have its advantages and disadvantages. In this piece, Hannah Pinkham explores an alternative viewpoint to the one presented in the May 2022 edition of HWRK Magazine. Would this model of part-time work for you though? Let’s take a look…

Like Sherish Osman (Is Teaching Part-Time Really Such A Good Idea? – May 2022), when I first qualified as a teacher, I had no children.  During this stage of my career, I stayed at work until around 6pm and when I got home, Id do a Joe Wicks workout and my partner would cook dinner. My colleagues were my friends and life was all about work, which was fine with me.

Fast forward to the present: I am still living with the same partner; we have a toddler and I work 4 days per week.

Unlike Sherish, my decision to go part-time wasnt based on a desire to find work-life balance. After maternity leave, I went back to work on 3 days per week. The decision to reduce my working days was based on a combination of exorbitant childcare costs in Londons Zone 2 and a desire to spend time with our son while he was very small. I am fully aware of how privileged I am to have been able to make that decision and I am enormously grateful to my partner for shouldering the household financial burden (and cooking).

I read Sherishs excellent article with excitement. I wish I had read it when I was trying to figure out my own part-time working arrangements. Back then, I struggled to know where to look for advice and ended up mirroring the model provided by other part-time teachers in my school.

However, I wanted to address the representation of part-time working in the article. Initially, Sherish presents part-time working as a positive step. She says, to try to balance work and life, I decided to go part-time”. But she later says: Mothers all over the country are having to compromise their jobs in order to have a better work-life balance”. I am worried that this is framing the decision to work part-time as an inherently negative one. As part-time workers I believe we need to rigorously interrogate our own biases towards part-time work if we are ever to change the way it is perceived by others.

Some examples:

In my current role, I am surrounded by exceptional female leaders working part-time at all levels, from executive to novice teachers. Nobody could say any of these impressive women have compromised their careers by reducing their working hours.

When I initially returned to work after maternity leave, I was a Head of Department working Wednesday to Friday. Since then, I have been promoted to an SLT role in a new organisation, now working Tuesday-Friday. Again, I would challenge anybody to say that I have compromised my career by working part-time.

Despite these experiences, the view that part-time workers are only partially invested in their jobs pervades the teaching profession. Recently, I was participating in some training on the GROW coaching model. I was role-playing a coaching conversation with a woman who was due to return to work full-time after having her first child. She was very worried about having to leave early” for childcare pickups. Over the course of the conversation, she came to the realisation that a lot of her anxiety about this came from how she had perceived other women doing the same before she became a parent herself. In this scenario, she was her own worst enemy.

Again, we need to rigorously interrogate our own biases to ensure we are not perpetuating an unsatisfactory status quo for all teachers. Policies that reduce workload and encourage flexible working benefit everyone whether you have children or not. We shouldnt begrudge those who are successfully making use of the arrangements available to them.

A while ago I was discussing with a Headteacher the profile of teachers in a department that I was due to support. He said, well, two of them are part-time so… not great”.  I took huge delight later in our conversation when I had to decline the invitation to visit on a Monday as I too was part-time. His genuinely surprised response was very telling; I dont think hed ever considered that someone in my role would fit into his preconceived ideas of part-time working.

So, if part-time working can help us achieve greater work-life balance, how do we go about it?

Throughout my teaching career, I have been able to find work-life balance using a variety of approaches. Before having my son, Id worked in the same school for many years. I was at a point where my life was as balanced as I wanted it to be. I think this is essential: my life conformed to my idea of balance.

If you are seeking work-life balance, it is important to have a clear understanding of what balance” means for you and what is realistic. I arrived at 7.30am, I left by 6pm, I did all of my work in school and I had sensible systems in place for prioritising tasks. I rarely hung out in the staffroom and I didnt make whizzy PowerPoints as I wanted to be efficient as possible. For some, those working hours are too long and its true that they left little time for cleaning our flat or ironing. But it did mean that I did no school work on weekends or in the evening, which suited me perfectly.

To be clear on what work-life balance means for you, you need to know yourself, your school and your role really well.

For example, although I know I would find a pastoral role very rewarding I have always avoided such positions. I like to be able to control my time as much as possible but seeing incredible colleagues in these roles tells me that it is unlikely Id be able to keep all my work tasks to within the school day.  The nature of pastoral roles is that you need to be responsive to pupilsneeds throughout the day. Therefore, being realistic about the work youll need to take home is crucial.

In my new role, I work 4 days per week. I know I will never be able to do nursery or school drop-offs, and that is a reality I have had to accept. Luckily, I have a highly competent partner who is fully capable of getting our son ready in the morning before starting work at 9am. I arrive in school at 7.15am and I leave by 5pm to collect my son. Joe Wicks has been replaced by cycling to work, which also reduces the demands on my time at home. My partner still does all the cooking. Cleaning is ad-hoc at best.

It also helps to be strict with yourself: I always want to run out the door as early as possible on a Friday, but I sit at my desk ensuring all planning and printing is ready for the coming week before leaving at 5pm. This has meant accepting that some things cant be done the way I originally planned, but it is worth it for my and my familys happiness.

Now that I am in a leadership position, it is the managing of emails and peoples communication expectations that has become central to maintaining balance in my two worlds. I am always very upfront that I dont work Mondays or over weekends. I ensure that any colleagues know that; though they are welcome to email me on those days, I will neither read nor respond until I am at work on Tuesday. This has led to some awkward conversations but setting your stall out clearly at the start makes these less likely over time.

When I do need to read emails on non-working days, I make liberal use of the send later” function to maintain control over my own time and to avoid sending confusing messages about my availability. Unfortunately, if you are the first part-time worker in your school, you are likely to have to fight harder to protect your non-working time. But if this is done in a firm but professional manner it can ensure expectations are clear for all parties. Good communication and assuming the best of all involved has generally been useful for me.

I completely understand Sherish when she says mentally, Im always at work”, but experience tells me this gets easier as you get used to a new way of working. I definitely recommend blocking your working days together (e.g. Monday-Wednesday) where possible to give yourself a clearer disconnect between work and school.

Id also avoid compressed timetables”.  This was something I considered when I first returned from maternity leave but after putting together a possible timetable of doing four daysworth of responsibilities over 3 days, I realised Id be spending a lot of time at home doing the work I wouldnt be able to complete during my jam-packed working days. Just thinking about it made me feel anxious and this wasnt something I was happy to do.

In both experiences of part-time working, I have benefitted hugely from working for family-friendly organisations with centralised and sensible behaviour, feedback and planning policies, whose leaders are constantly striving to reduce workload. If your work-life balance isnt what you want it to be and your school isnt focusing on ways to reduce workload, it may be time to look for a different organisation.

In summary, its true that part-time working is not a silver bullet for achieving work-life balance. But that doesnt mean it is bad. If you find it hard to prioritise all the tasks in your week on 5 days a week, working fewer days is unlikely to make this more manageable. And the stress caused by the gap between what you thought part-time life would be and the reality may simply add to your stress levels.

Be honest with yourself about when you are your own worst enemy when it comes to workload and interrogate your own biases about part-time working. There is no need to handcraft charming badges for your Year 11 leavers: its nice but it’s only adding to your workload. Your lessons dont need 1000 animations or that specific picture you spent 15 minutes looking for. Finally, lower your standards. Our house is messy, and we would rather spend money on things other than a cleaner.  Weve just had to accept that as the price we pay for balance.

Author

Hannah was formerly Curriculum Director of Languages at Reach Academy Feltham in West London where she worked for 7 years. She is now Trust Assistant Principal for Research & Development in Languages with Dixons Academies Trust based in Leeds.

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