15 Aug '13

News Work vs life: how teachers can get the balance right

A selection of teachers share their coping strategies and stories on how to have a life outside of work

Rhian Williams, class teacher at Laugharne primary school, Wales

In the past I've had a bad work-life balance; school work and to-do lists dominated my life. After a while I realised that I wasn't being an effective teacher in class because I was always burnt out. You need energy and enthusiasm to be a truly effective teacher and this cannot be faked.

Previously I had planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time for half a day a week. Because I work in a small school with no full-time secretary, I also spent some time dealing with phone calls and admin. I discussed this with my head and we decided that I could have one day a fortnight and this is far more productive.

I'm very lucky because I have a supportive head who has her own family and understands the importance of work-life balance. I now use my PPA time effectively to sort out what I need to do that week and take the pressure off myself. I still have loads of to-do lists on the go, but it's important not to get bogged down by them. You could work 24/7 in teaching, but unless what you're doing has an impact on your pupils and the quality of their learning experiences then you have to ask yourself, "Do I really need to do this?"

During the week I am in school for 8am and rarely leave before 6pm. I try to get as much work as possible done so that I have less to do at home. I work on average for six hours at the weekend too, but I always make sure that Friday night and Sunday are mine. My husband and I will go out for a meal or to the cinema and I make sure I catch up with friends and family. I swim three mornings a week before school too as it gives me more energy; exercise helps my mind to totally switch off from work.

Graeme Thomson, English teacher at Woodfarm High school, East Renfrew, Scotland

I don't think many people outside of teaching quite appreciate what a demanding job it is – mentally, emotionally and physically. If you don't look after yourself, your health will inevitably suffer. I learned this the hard way in my NQT year when I would consistently sacrifice a night's sleep to do work, and was in an almost perpetual state of illness. I eventually fell so ill I had to take time off; I had to strike a better balance.

I'm lucky that my department is incredibly supportive. We have a collegiate environment where we ask each other for help and advice, and we value taking time together at the end of the day to off-load. On the advice of my principal teacher, I started organising my workload differently. Something as simple as bringing deadlines forward a week in your own mind can make a massive difference to stress levels.

There is always something more you could do, and the hardest part is letting go – especially for someone like me, who will gladly spend half an hour looking for one image or font to use in a resource. There is a sense of guilt about taking time for yourself, because you never truly switch off, and as a single man I don't have the incentive of family to justify drawing a line under work. But it's vital that you have a cut-off point. When I am working, I ask myself one question: what is the impact on my pupils or colleagues of doing this piece of work? That helps me prioritise and not get bogged down in work that won't directly benefit my pupils.

If I had to give one piece of advice, though, it would be to get your sleep. This is too demanding a job to attempt when you're exhausted; you just have to look at pupils who stay up too late to know that it affects your work.

Jenny Lewis, primary teacher at Recreation Road primary school, Norwich

I have a rich and separate home life to school, even though I am completely immersed in my job as a teacher. What makes the difference? Our amazing and inspirational headteacher. She doesn't ask us to do anything that's unnecessary. So when Assessing Pupils' Progress (APP) forms came in, our head decided we didn't have to do them as they aren't statutory. She doesn't want us spending all our time filling in unnecessary forms.

Certain things which make teachers' lives so difficult can be picked off by a strong head. Our head wants us to have full lives and be fully-rounded people. She doesn't want us marking all night – she protects her staff from that. You could go into a school, which demands you hand in complicated lesson plans, but a headteacher doesn't have to force that. Wellbeing is high on the agenda in our school both for children and staff. Of course there are times, such as report-writing time, when I will work every night. But as our school places such a big emphasis on imaginative inquiry, I actually want to do the work I undertake at home in the evenings and weekends.

José Picardo, head of languages at Nottingham High School

I'm not very good at work-life balance. In fact, I'm rubbish at it. I often find there's not enough time during the school day to plan lessons, teach, mark and then do whatever other responsibilities fall under my charge. As head of a large department at a fairly big school, I find much of my time is consumed by admin; I have no choice but to take work home. Yes, I know. Big no-no.

I'm an early riser so I like to be in school well in advance of the first bell to get stuff done. As an experienced teacher, I find lesson planning is very straight forward and what I call 'planning' really means getting resources ready for the lesson plans in my head. Morning is also a great time to fit in a coffee with colleagues and have a chat about what's going well or isn't, and even put the world to rights. This is important – sanity can be one of the first casualties of a busy teacher's life.

The after-school run is also my responsibility. A long commute, having a child in primary education and another still in nursery mean I can never stay too late. I find, however, that you can organise yourself very well using online tools such as Dropbox or Evernote to help you streamline marking or report writing; the work comes with you in the cloud, rather than physically having to carry it. This helps, as does keeping a digital calendar that syncs across devices reminding you of what needs to be done by when. Despite all this, however, sometimes you just can't help bringing home a fat pile of year 8 books.

All this means for me is that marking is often done at home. I try to do it as soon as I've bathed the children, prepared dinner and spent some time chatting to them about their day. Once my wife comes home from work, she takes over for bedtime stories. She and I then chill with a glass of something nice and chat about our day in a further effort to retain our sanity, which is much more easily done if, like me, you enjoy what you do.

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