POSTED ORIGINALLY IN JANUARY 2020
Emma Kell asked today about how you maintain well-being during term time. Once upon a time, I used to work 14-16 hour days. I’d get up at 4am, work for an hour before catching a bus. The bus journey was an hour and a half and I would sit with my laptop and work. I would then get to school between half seven and quarter to eight. I’d leave school most days at 5 – as HOD and extended SLT, I was in meetings most nights after school and get home around 7-7.30pm. I’d warm my ready meal and then sit down to do a couple more hours of work before going to bed and pressing reset the following morning.
For four and a half years out of six, I didn’t really consider these hours. We were turning a failing school round and that requires a lot of hard work. The fruits of our labours were evident to see and it felt as though I was doing something really worthwhile. However, the last year and a half didn’t have the same sense of direction and I started to tire and I began to resent how much of my life was given over to the school. I sat down one day and realized I was existing rather than living and that enough was enough.
Fast forward, a year and a bit and life couldn’t be more different. I work in an incredible school, doing a job I adore but also being able to have a life away from school. I’ve achieved the balance I was missing and I am far, far happier as a result. So how do I manage it? This is how I responded to Emma’s tweet earlier
- Set limits and cut off points. Someone has tweeted recently about what the acceptable hours for a teacher is. I worked out that I get into school at 7.30-7.45 and leave most days by four. I probably do a couple of hours across the week in the evenings at most and maybe a couple of hours on a Sunday. This means I work around 45 hours a week which I think is reasonable.
I never work Friday evenings and always take at least 1 day at the weekend. The thing is teaching is a pit of never-ending possibilities when it comes to work. There will always be more to do or more that could be done. It is an easy default to pull a laptop out and do some work because you can think of a hundred things to do. However, teachers need to have the strength to say enough is enough and, instead find something to do to relax instead – watch a film, read a book, go for a drink and watch the world go by or go for a walk.
My main worry with teachers is their own inability to set limits and I wonder whether work, therefore, become a default. I didn’t impose limits before and work became my life which, in turn, made me miserable. Affording ourselves time, carving out that time and making that distinction between work and life is so unbelieveably important to our well-being, our energy levels and our overall happiness. Yes, it can be difficult to begin with but setting an hour or two or three in the evening for something that is not related to school can make such a difference and is something we are all entitled to do.
- Tagged into this is the idea that perfection is a false entity. I’ve really enjoyed conversations recently about curriculum design and peoples’ incredibly pragmatic approach that a good curriculum is 3-5 years in the making. Teachers need to adopt the mantra that good is good enough. I’m teaching a lot of units for the first time this year. Some things I have got right and some things I need to improve. And that’s ok. I didn’t want to front load my planning and have a term’s worth written before the term started – which I used to do. It’s sooooo much work. Instead I planned as I went knowing that whilst the plans might not be perfect this year, they are one step closer to being perfect in the future.
Sometimes teachers are their own worst enemies in trying to do everything perfectly all at once. It is much healthier to step back, to do your best but also switch off when you get home from work and doing something for fun instead. A focus on year on year improvement is a much happier way to approach things and keeping a note of what has worked well and what needs to be improved across the year can help for healthy consistent improvements instead.
3. Sleep is critical. Regardless of what I have to do and how pressing deadlines might seem, I always prioritise sleep. I go to bed about 9.30 and wake up at 5.30 and so get a good eight hours. Experience has taught me I do far better by myself and my pupils when I have slept rather than staying up all night to plan a lesson or mark a few more assessments.
4. Be strategic in your working patterns. I am really energetic in the mornings. I’ve always been a morning person and therefore I am most productive in the morning. I focus on getting a lot of work done in the morning as a result. Finding when you are at your most productive and working then is far better than working when you are not at your peak and finding jobs take twice as long. Similarly, I much prefer planning to marking. I will, therefore, try and do my marking during the school day because there is very little chance of me doing it in an evening when I’m more tired. That, for me, is better used to plan if I need to. Time is wasted when you are fighting against your own energy levels and rarely is anything achieved well. Knowing when you are at your best really helps to maximize productivity.
5. Use PPA time to its max! I see a lot of wastage when it comes to PPA. Now, guaranteed, we have more than most. But I work with the mantra of the more that is done at school, the less I have to do at home. I will work hard during my PPA and will avoid social conversations and chit chat. If need be, I will find somewhere quieter to work – like our library – or put my headphones in. Avoid all distractions and politely tell people you need to crack on.
6. Sticky notes. I use sticky notes on my desktop to generate lists of what I need to do across a week. These have been brilliant in organizing myself. I will list all the lessons for a day and a rough summary of what we are doing. When I know that lesson is planned, I will turn the font to bold so I know I don’t need to worry about it. At the end of the each day, I will also create my list of essentials and desirables. My essentials are often for the next day. If I do, do any work at home, I will only allow myself to do one big thing from my essential list (or this will be done first thing the following morning when I get into school). Desirables are done when I fancy doing a bit of extra work or when I have completed my essential list. In addition, I think teachers are good at making desirables seem essential when in fact they are not. Differentiating between the two helps to maintain focus, ensure the key jobs are the one done and allow you time to switch off. Once jobs are done, they are deleted from my sticky notes and a sense of accomplishment is felt.
7. Work strategically. One way in which this is achievable is through collaborative planning. This isn’t something we have mastered at our place yet but one day! However, one strategy I swear by is green penning. It’s my favourite all time strategy from Michaela (aside from the faithful workbook). Pupils green pen their work – once a piece of work has been done – say retrieval questions at the start of a lesson, we will correct them. Pupils green pen by ticking what they have got correct, adding to their notes through discussion and filling in any completed work. Green penning, therefore, shows immediate feedback and progress. I then mark for core literacy only and to check work overall with a WCF mentality. I also have a separate workbook and assessment book and only mark the assessment book in depth using marking grids which I highlight to show where they have met the criteria. These time-saving tricks are an absolute god-send.
8. Emails. My school doesn’t have an email overload. I rarely get emails in the week and never across the weekend. This has been a game changer in terms of helping to switch off. I used to incessantly check my email in case I missed something or someone needed my help urgently or there was something I needed to do straight away. I was always on edge. Now, I know there will be no emails from when I leave school to the next morning and none at the weekend and so i can switch off without worrying that I’ve missed something. This has, of course, made me conscious of when I send emails (I was equally as guilty) and I make great use of the scheduler on google so that if I do think of something I need to send, I will write the email and schedule when it should drop in someone’s email box – always during school hours.
9. Plan ahead. It is easy for work to seep into your weekends because the job is never done. To counteract that, I plan my weekends in advance. I’ve just sat down and planned my weekends up until half term to involve trips to gardens – fresh air does me good, trips to the theatre, a weekend away to somewhere new and a half term break. I’ve also paid for these so am committed to attending these, making sure I don’t let work become an excuse for not doing anything. Having weekends to myself is such a joyful restoration and means I have lots of things to look forward to.
Of course, all of this is possible because I have a wonderful Head of Department and SLT who positively support and encourage our healthy work-life balance and trust us to do the best job we possibly can. Having come out from the other side, I can only reflect on how much healthier, happier and more balanced I am. I would be really interested to hear how you tackle workload and maintain a healthy work-life balance during term time.