Teaching is a deeply rewarding profession.
It is also stressful.
You will know the statistics. You probably have friends who are the statistics. Study after study reports high rates of turnover, absenteeism and teacher shortages. In the US, about 260,000 teachers leave the profession annually, most for reasons other than retirement. In the UK, nearly a third of new teachers leave the profession within three years, often citing poor wellbeing as the reason. Teaching is tough; so is school leadership.
Despite the metronomic routines of a career lived to timetable, you can never guarantee what each day will bring. So much cannot be anticipated. Addressing unforeseen problems, numerous crisis, and perpetual student (and staff) disagreements seems to accelerate time — ‘free’ periods disappear, like tears in rain. The very nature of schooling works against a sense of achievement and lengthens to-do lists. Evenings and weekends spent marking, report-writing, doing paperwork and, these days, managing emails, eat into your home life and your social life.
I talk to teachers and school leaders every day. They share their thoughts publicly and privately; some in my classes or in the comments sections on group forums, some in private emails. Many are struggling. Some are engaged in a healthy struggle, the ‘good stress’ of working at a challenging job. Others are frazzled. They leave school each day, and when the marking is done, their own kids fed and put to bed, they collapse. They survive school days fuelled by coffee and desperation. Many are thinking seriously about leaving the profession.
When we rush through our days, we miss the numerous joys of teaching: the boundless variety of young people; the passion that we feel and share for our subjects; the gratitude for colleagues who fuel our spirits every day.
We forget to smile and gather perspective.
We forget that teaching is the best job in the world.
To offer some help I asked whether the school leaders I surveyed had any tips for maintaining (some degree of) work-life balance?
Let’s get the depressing responses out of the way first:
“The only way I’ve been able to manage work-life balance, is to accept that there isn’t a work-life balance.”
“No — I want to exhaust myself in the work.”
“There’s a life, and work takes up a huge portion of it.”
“No tips I am afraid; I have never found a way of getting a balance!”
“Mmm. Please can you let me have the answers to this!”
Now, to the more positive:
“Get a dog.”
“Don’t battle against unrealistic expectations of a work-life balance: work hard during term time, relax in the holidays. Have other outlets for when you are not working: writing, music, fitness, whatever relaxes you.”
“Get up early.”
“Triage everything — does it need to be done now and by me?”
“Don’t run around trying to solve every single small problem in a school. Empower others. Your time is important and if you are spending all of it fixing other people’s problems you are implicitly suggesting that your work/time is less important.”
“It’s only a job and should remain as such.”
On having a social life:
“Foster relationships outside-of-school, with people who have nothing to do with education!”
“Regular walks to clear the mind.”
“Try to find time every day to exercise. This need only be 20 minutes and is difficult to discipline yourself. However, exercise first thing in the morning sets you up for the day. Exercise after work, refreshes you before you tackle your next task; better than automatically reaching for a gin and tonic after work!”
“For me, exercising first thing in the morning helps.”
“Exercise three times a week.”
On protecting personal time:
“Learn to say no — and mean it.”
“Draw the line — work is work (including the evening events) and home is home. Period.”
“Establish a time at which you will not ever (ever, ever) check school emails.”
“Have a cut-off for school work. Separate work apps from leisure devices.”
“Work hard throughout the day, through your breaks if necessary and into the early evening, but do not take work with you when you leave the threshold of the school grounds.”
“I don’t send work related e-mails after work (I do draft them though).”
“Take an invisible bag. Put all your worries inside it when you enter your house. Completely switch off your phone when sitting for dinner with family.”
“No electronic devices during meals, no correspondence or work after 8pm. An educational emergency is an extreme rarity — it can wait until tomorrow.”
“I try to do something for ‘me’ every day. That could be exercise, getting a haircut, watching some sports highlights. I find that just labelling it as my time, whether long or short, makes me feel I have put myself first at least once in the day.”
“You can have family, friends life and a senior management position. When my son is playing football or my daughter is playing her sax in a concert, this is a priority above all others!”
“I try to keep Sundays free for the family. However, if there is work needed doing, and there undoubtedly is, I’ll spread the load over the mornings, keeping the afternoons and evenings free.”
“It doesn’t always work but I aim to have the weekend free of meetings, email and such. Of course, there are weekend events but if you are passionate about education they shouldn’t feel like work.”
“Make time to get out and live life every weekend. Otherwise the job will consume you.”
“Allow weekends for family time.”
WELLBEING & WORK-LIFE
If you want a little more balance and a little less work in your life, try this:
Challenge yourself to go on a social media detox. Don’t try to go cold turkey, but do try (and stick to) one of these:
- Delete all of the social media apps from your phone. Or, if this is a giant leap too far, move them from your home screen. The key is to make checking your social media a conscious act. Rather than being an unconscious habit, putting barriers in your way encourages you to reflect on and make an active decision about your social media usage. Do I really need to check Instagram, again, now?
- Set a curfew for phone use. Pick an appropriate time in the evening commit to setting your phone aside at this time— in another room, well out of reach, in a locked safe…
- If you use your phone as an alarm clock, stop. Buy yourself an actual alarm clock and put your phone someplace well away from your bed overnight. Whether or not you believe that having a phone near to you as you sleep is harmful, it is certainly damaging to your wellbeing — the last thing you look at before you sleep and the first thing you see on waking up should not be your phone!
- Sign off for a weekend. A two-day respite isn’t enough to cure your habit. You’ll still be anxious when you return to the onslaught of electronic messages. But, a little time away from the screen reminds you how nice life is sans status updates.
As with many tools, it’s not an all or nothing, good-versus-bad conversation. Social media has its uses, professionally and personally. But, the pattern disrupt caused by limiting your access for a week will/should, hopefully, encourage you to reflect on how much of your usage is productive and how much is wasteful — and you might just get some of your life back.