Showing posts with label work life balance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label work life balance. Show all posts

Monday, 10 December 2018

On the @TES Blog: Saying No To The Non-Essentials (or Why Tweeting and Blogging is Bad for Me)


Perhaps the phrase "work-life balance" is a misnomer. Or at least it was rather too simple a term to help me to get things in check.

I’d always been very careful to attempt to preserve a good balance between work and life. Naturally, some weeks are fuller with work than others, but then the balance can instead be found longer term; when a quieter week presented itself, I made the most of it. But what I had been less cautious about was the "life" category.

Read the rest: https://www.tes.com/news/how-i-learned-say-no-non-essentials

Friday, 9 February 2018

Book Review: 'How To Survive In Teaching Without Imploding, Exploding Or Walking Away' by Dr. Emma Kell

For a book based around the responses to a survey of around 4000 teachers which revealed that 57% wouldn't recommend teaching to a family member or friend, this is a brilliantly positive and optimistic book. In reporting on her findings Dr. Kell might have focused heavily on the negative outcomes of her research (42% are not happy at work, 82% have experienced work-related anxiety) but what she has produced is actually a rousing, reassuring manifesto for how we as a profession move forwards in tackling the issues revealed.

Dr. Kell skilfully presents her findings alongside advice aimed at all strata of education right from where system-wide change is needed down to what teachers can do on a day-to-day basis to not only survive, but to flourish. There are messages here for policy makers, school leaders, teachers and other school staff members; there are even implications for family members of the above.

'How To Survive In Teaching...' is packed full of little nuggets: little gems of advice and acknowledgement. Some of them provide comforting reassurance that the reader is not alone in the difficulties they are experiencing. Others gently encourage the reader that they aren't powerless in the situation they have found themselves in and give practical advice about what to do.

A constant thread that runs through the book provides a reminder that, in amongst the difficulties and the hardships, teaching is actually a brilliant job (even if it is just a job). It manages to remind the reader every so often why they came into the job in the first place, and what is so special about it. If none of the other advice in the book has an impact, chances are this seam of hope will be what encourages teachers on to find a way to tackle the issues they are facing.

The input from Dr. Kell's interviewees brings the advice fairly and squarely into the realities of everyday school life meaning that this book is not divorced from what is actually going on in staff rooms and classrooms across the country. At no point does the author come across as an idealistic opiner who is out of touch with what's really happening in education - she is as realistic and pragmatic as it gets and the whole tone of the book flows out of this.

If you're looking for some advice for how improving your experience as a teacher, then this is the perfect starting place. If you want to be reminded of what the job should be about then this easy and quick read is also for you. Published by Bloomsbury, it's available to buy now: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/how-to-survive-in-teaching-9781472941688/

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Four Tendencies and Teacher Wellbeing

In her book 'The Four Tendencies' author Gretchen Rubin outlines four ways in which people respond to expectations. According to her findings everyone fits into one of the following categories:
  • Upholder - readily meet external and internal expectations
  • Questioner - question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified
  • Obliger - readily meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet inner expectations
  • Rebel - resist both outer and inner expectations
It is worth noting that Rubin believes that we each fall into one single category and that this is not likely to change. However, the Venn diagram below demonstrates that we may 'tip' into a neighbouring category.

Information taken from the free-to-download The Nutshell Guide To The Four Tendencies (a read-through of this will be useful before you proceed)

In a recent Twitter poll I asked educators to complete The Four Tendencies online quiz and to then vote as to which tendency they were. 696 educators responded and the results were as follows:
  • Upholder - 12%
  • Questioner - 47%
  • Obliger - 25%
  • Rebel - 16%
However, according to a survey done by the author (not just of educators), the biggest percentage of people in general were Obligers (41%) followed by Questioners (24%), Upholders (19%), and Rebels (17%). There are some possible reasons for the differences between my poll and the author's (much larger) poll:

I asked on Twitter. According to Rubin Questioners have the following traits:  Data-driven; interested in creating systems that are efficient and effective; willing to play devil’s advocate or buck the system if warranted; strong-willed; enjoy sharing their findings. Which sounds to me exactly like the sort of teachers who sign up for Twitter. It may be that there are many more Obliger teachers who haven't joined Twitter (which is commonly seen by twitter-using teachers as a place to find new and better ways of doing things).

I asked educators. One trait of Questioners is that they ask questions and then enjoy sharing their findings - most teachers like imparting knowledge in one way or another. Questioners also ask a lot of questions, as do teachers. Perhaps teaching is just a natural career choice for many Questioners. Having said this, the traits of Obligers would seem to make great teachers too: Reliable; responsible; team player; good boss, responsive leader; feel great obligation to meet others’ expectations; willing to go the extra mile; highly committed.

People didn't take the quiz. Twitter polls are usually used to gauge a very quick off-the-top-of-the-head reaction, usually based on opinion. My poll was completely the opposite. Some folk contacted me to say they'd voted before doing the quiz (some of them had picked the right option) but there are bound to be others who voted based on their own opinion without understanding the four tendencies framework. Questioner is probably the easiest category to believe you belong to as it is seemingly most self-explanatory, and after all, all people ask questions.

It's also interesting to note that so many Questioners responded to the poll (and indeed that Rebels did too) - they responded to an outer expectation (from me) with only a brief explanation of why they should do it. Perhaps I have some very dedicated followers who felt like my asking for help with something I was writing was a good enough reason.

Implications of The Four Tendencies for Teacher Wellbeing

In Dr Emma Kell's book 'How To Survive In Teaching' she cites that respondents to her questionnaire identified unreasonable working hours for the reason why they left teaching. She also outlines that the LKMco's 'Why Teach?' report found that workload was the top reason for teachers leaving the profession and that the ATL's survey had 76% of teachers cite workload as their reason for considering leaving the profession. There are plenty of other studies and reports that say the same, not to mention the personal experience of many teachers. Heavy workload is the main reason for poor teacher wellbeing.

After reading 'The Four Tendencies' I believe it might be the case that teachers struggle with workload and therefore wellbeing in different ways, depending on their tendency.

Upholders - they will readily meet the expectations of the government, their school policies, their leaders and their students and will do their best to do what is asked of them but will also respond to their own inner expectations, for example, if they know they need to get rest, or to not work so much. Upholders might struggle to delegate because they believe others aren't dependable enough. This puts this group in a fairly good position when it comes to workload and wellbeing, although they still have the potential to uphold unmanageable expectations and want to do everything themselves. Their reliability also might mean that more is asked of them.

Obligers - they will readily meet the expectations of the government, their school policies, their leaders and their students, potentially regardless of difficult it is to meet those expectations. In addition to this, they won't find it easy to priorities their own needs without some external accountability. This puts this group (a large group) at risk of being over-worked, and therefore of having low levels of wellbeing. If an Obliger feels resentful about the expectations they are meeting then they are prone to falling into Obliger-rebellion. Most Obligers are also known to others to be obliging meaning that this group can often find themselves being asked to do more and more, thus adding to their workload and the possibility of them burning out.

Questioners - they will meet their own expectations and if they can see a good reason for doing what they are expected to do, will find this relatively easy. If the policies they are expected to adhere to are not, in their opinion, based on sound reasoning, they will find it difficult to meet those outer expectations. However, in a school system where teachers are held to accountable for meeting the school's expectations, a Questioner could get into trouble - they may end up missing deadlines, doing last minute work, or becoming subject to the school's accountability processes. Questioners also may dislike delegating, especially where decision-making is involved as they believe others won't make the best-informed decisions - this could lead to an obvious increase in workload. If this is the case, then wellbeing levels could be low for a Questioner.

Rebels - they prefer to do things their way, and will often feel the need to do things contrary to expectations (including to their own expectations). Just as with Questioners, in a school system where teachers are held to accountable for meeting the school's expectations, a Rebel could get into trouble - they may end up missing deadlines, doing last minute work, or becoming subject to the school's accountability processes. If this is the case, then wellbeing levels could be low for a Rebel, particularly if they are frustrated at themselves for not meeting any expectations even if they want to.

Providing Wellbeing Advice To The Four Tendencies

Having read Rubin's work with interest, I came to realise that all the advice being given about wellbeing and managing workload (my own advice included) might not be having the desired impact on particular teachers because of their tendency. Perhaps I only give advice as a Questioner that would have an impact on other Questioners.

Rubin outlines that to persuade someone to follow a certain course, remember:
  • Upholders want to know what should be done
  • Obligers need accountability
  • Questioners want justifications
  • Rebels want freedom to do something their own way
If we want teachers of all tendencies to look after themselves, then the advice we give needs to appeal to all. In the book Rubin writes, "because the tendencies see the world in such different ways, there are no magic, one-size-fits-all solutions for how to influence ourselves or other people" but does suggest that "the winning formula is indeed information-consequences-choice... and best of all, humour".

How then can we help each of the four tendencies when it comes to workload and wellbeing issues?

Upholders - when giving wellbeing advice they want to know what they should do. But, any advice given might clash with other internal and external expectations. For example, you might advise someone to only spend a certain amount of time on marking books, but this might not fit with an inner expectation of marking books to a certain standard.

It's also worth noting that telling an Upholder what to do when you have no power to remove other expectations (such as their school's marking policy) might put them in a difficult situation - whose expectation should they uphold? When giving advice to an Upholder is might also be necessary to be someone who they respect - they're likely not to meet the expectations of someone who doesn't matter and are more likely to meet their own expectations, or those of someone with higher standing.

Obligers - when giving wellbeing advice they need to be held accountable for making necessary changes. Much wellbeing advice hinges around the importance of doing things for one's own sake but Obligers are unlikely to meet such inner expectations - they may want to take action to improve their wellbeing, but will feel bound to meeting the expectations of others, no matter how ridiculous (although Obligers can experience Obliger rebellion, where after time, they rebel against constantly meeting unfair expectations).

It is important for Obligers to have someone to hold them accountable - thus making an inner expectation into an outer expectation which they find easier to meet. So, if you are in a position to give an Obliger some wellbeing advice, follow it up by providing deadlines, oversight and monitoring (which to people of other tendencies sounds like too much) - giving advice without this ongoing support will probably lead to very little change in an Obliger.

Questioners - want justifications, and for them, they might need further justification as to why they should meet certain expectations, such as why they should spend time planning lessons thoroughly or providing feedback to children about their work. As discussed before, their wellbeing might be suffering as a result of begrudgingly meeting enforced outer expectations in a last-minute manner - they need to buy into the reasons behind particular work-heavy policies in order to use their time more wisely to complete these tasks.

Where Questioners have inner expectations which have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing (they could, for example, really believe that triple marking is absolutely the best way to mark and thus spend hours each evening providing this) it will take reasoning, provision of research findings, and plenty of information to help them change - they will also need trust the expertise of the advice-giver as they probably won't take advice from someone they think doesn't know what they're talking about.

Rebels - want to feel like they are doing things their way. Advice to the Rebel is best given as a series of recommendations from which they can choose. If only one way is provided then the chances are they will decide to reject that way, preferring to do something their way, or no way at all. However, Rebels may choose to act out of love, a sense of mission or belief in a cause so if the advice-giver can tap into that feeling, as long as they don't specify what they should do.

Rubin also points out that Rebels "may be easy to manipulate by using their spirit of resistance: “I’ll show you,” “Watch me,” “You can’t make me,” “You’re not the boss of me”". This essentially means that in some situations counterproductive advice might drive Rebels to take productive steps or that telling a Rebel that they probably won't be able to solve their workload and wellbeing issues might be the catalyst they need. However they dealt with, they still might defy convention, finding their own ways of doing things to make improvements to their wellbeing.

Other Implications of The Four Tendencies for Teacher Wellbeing

What I haven't gone into in this blog post is how schools might manage teachers of all four tendencies when it comes to getting them to meet expectations. Clearly, the same principles as above apply, but where wellbeing is concerned schools need to ensure that their own policies and systems aren't demanding too much of teachers before thinking about how to get teachers to meet those expectations. Once a school's leaders are content that what they are expecting is manageable, then they should think about applying Rubin's theory to persuading teachers to follow a certain course of action.

Another implication of the above is that one-size-fits-all approaches to wellbeing won't be very effective. Questioners will never see the point in whole-staff Yoga sessions if they think they could be doing something better; Rebels will just walk out. Obligers might go along with your initiative for a while but if they resent it then they might rebel too and even if they don't, it could just add to the pressure that too many expectations puts on. Upholders would most likely get so annoyed at everyone else for not meeting the expectations that they too would feel unhappy.

The four tendencies framework does not intend to label someone's whole personality. Within each group there are hundreds of other factors - nature and nurture - that makes each one of us unique. Having an idea of someone's tendency is helpful, but their other characteristics, traits and experiences must be taken into account too, when thinking about giving them advice about wellbeing. For example, I'm a Questioner but I'm also very loyal so I am more likely to make someone else's expectations into internal expectations because I believe that if I've committed to something then I should follow through on that commitment come what may. If someone were to give me advice, they'd also have to navigate the fact that I find it very hard not to do what I consider to be loyal, even if it is to the detriment of my own wellbeing.

Many teachers feel powerless to change their circumstances - they believe it is only policy makers at government or school level who can do that. They feel like however much they try to change themselves, it will never be enough to combat unmanageable expectations. But when they consider that the way they are (their tendency) will never change, and that (for the time being) policy won't change, but that how they deal with the expectations in light of their tendency can change, things might become more manageable. They might need to be shown how to set their sights lower than whole system change, but higher than no change at all, in order to identify what circumstances they might be able to change:

Obligers might realise they need to ask for more accountability when it comes to taking up a hobby or starting to exercise more regularly. Questioners might need to see that they can ask their questions constructively to people who can influence change rather than question in an unproductive way to their colleagues, friends and family who can't do anything to change policy. Upholders might just need to understand that they want to meet both inner and external expectations and that in order to do this they could plan their time to ensure this happens in balance. Rebels might need to find their own ways of achieving things.

Sometimes expectations  will need to be introduced - some teachers might have no expectation whatsoever that they can have a good work/life balance, and as such will not try to meet that expectation because it doesn't exist for them! Some will need this introducing as an internal expectation (telling themselves that they expect to have a good work/life balance), others as an external expectation (being told that they are expected to have a good work/life balance). The belief that teaching is a 24/7 job can become an external or internal expectation leading some teachers to put in a dangerous number of hours each week - this general expectation in the profession needs to be tackled, otherwise, regardless of tendency, teachers are going to struggle with being well as they try to meet unattainable expectations.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Why I Care So Much About Wellbeing


I have been known to write about, and comment upon, wellbeing (possible understatement). My interest in reducing workload - my own and that of others - is very much linked to my interest in the issue of wellbeing. In fact, so is my obsession with optimism and positivity as opposed to negativity; if you are optimistic about reducing your workload and improving your wellbeing you will look for, and indeed find, ways of doing it.

But why am I so bothered?

Two reasons:

One, it saddens me to see so many teachers struggling with what can be a really amazing job. I believe teachers can have a good work/life balance - I do - and I want to help them to have it. Why? Because if we are all well then our hard work will be more effective. And because no-one should have to work to the point where they are made ill - be that physically or mentally. Which leads me onto my second reason...

Two, as a teenager my dad took early retirement due to workplace-related stress. Diagnosed with depression, I saw him become a different person. When your big, strong, fun dad bursts into the kitchen struggling through tears to breath after battling for hours with a usually-simple task you are affected for life; that's not a point I want to get to. When the man who used to get down on the floor and build the best Lego castles with you retreats and becomes distant, you, even as a child, know that things aren't right - and you don't forget it.

I have seen first hand, and lived with the effects and consequences of, how a job can come close to killing a person. He was a successful doctor at a young age; it was a job that he once enjoyed - spending your days driving the scenic roads of the Yorkshire Dales visiting patients in a classic Daimler sounds idyllic, but this is no James Herriot story. It was a job which crept in and took control - I had an inkling at the time that his boss had rather a lot to so with his decline in health. I love and respect my dad but I know the depression and associated medication has changed him. He would not wish it on anyone - it's certainly something that, suffice to say, I'm fairly keen to avoid. If I can at all avoid it, I'd rather not be a dad who goes missing for hours at a time on a winter's evening, leaving his children at home fearing for daddy's life.

So if in future you read my blog or tweets and question why sometimes I come across as forthright and opinionated, you'll know why. It's fine for you to question my authority - who am I to make suggestions about how you live your life and approach your work? But instantly dismissing my advice, and that of others, as unworkable and unrealistic could be to your detriment. I don't claim to have all the answers but my experiences have hard-wired me to seek solutions to avoid becoming overworked, stressed and even depressed. My dad would not wish upon me that which he experienced (and still lives with today). He would not wish it upon anybody.

We teachers must speak up about these issues - not in the moany, ranty way that seems to have become commonplace, but in a way that secures support and seeks change. Friends, partners, colleagues, line managers and doctors are a good place to start - they will all be able to help you in different ways. The thought that taking such actions could actually begin to be of help is often poo-pooed; I've seen it so many times on social media when I've suggested that talking to the boss might help. The thing is, by not speaking out you are making a choice - you are choosing to subject yourself to something such as my dad experienced. You are choosing to subject your loved ones to something such as I experienced. Why is that the preferred option? I do understand the difficulties involved in talking about such delicate issues but I also understand the result of the alternative; it's really not worth it.

Please, if you are a teacher experiencing unacceptable levels of workplace-related stress, get the help you need. If you are a teacher who believes you are working more than you should have to (yes, we all do some overtime, I get that), then reassess and try to make changes in your work/life balance and if you've done all you can, then you must take it further and speak to those who have the power to make changes for you. The possible results of not doing this can be devastating, even if you're not feeling it right now, that erosion of your mental health could be on its way.

I know I am not the only one attempting to do my bit for better mental health and wellbeing in education and I'd be willing to bet that most who are have similar, or worse, stories to tell. Listen to those voices - they are not against you; they are for you. Their words are impassioned because they really do care, not because they think they've got it sussed and are better than you.

Please explore the links I've included at the beginning of this blog post as they all point to other things I've written that explore some of these themes in more detail. If you would like to chat about anything then please do get in touch.

This blog post was re-blogged on the TES blog on 11th October entitled 'If all we do is rant to each other about workload, rather than seeking help, we're choosing to subject ourselves to stress': https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/if-all-we-do-rant-each-other-about-workload-rather-seeking-help-were

Monday, 26 September 2016

Teachers! Be More Batman!


You'll be unaware, but across the internet a debate rages: is Batman a superhero or not? The first result from a google search adamantly suggests that "In the strictest sense, Batman isn't a superhero because he has no "amazing" powers (e.g. powers that are magical or pseudo-scientific)." 

Superman was born with a whole range of amazing powers: super-human strength, the ability to fly and X-Ray vision to name a few. Spider-Man was imbued with powers by a radioactive spider, mutating to possess precognitive spider senses and the ability to cling to most surfaces, among other capabilities. But Batman is just human like the rest of us; perhaps why he has probably enjoyed so much success as a fictional character.

If Batman doesn't have powers, what does he have? Abilities. He has genius-level intellect, peak physical and mental condition, is a master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant, a skilled detective and he utilises high-tech equipment and weapons. Yes, his vast fortune helps with the last one, but otherwise his abilities are all realistically attainable to a certain extent.

Teachers often have very high expectations of themselves. This may result from the pressure put on them 'from above' to perform. But it often comes from a personal sense of responsibility, stemming from the same emotional place that led them into education in the first place. Teachers expect themselves to be superheroes, amazing powers and all. And it is unrealistic and damaging to their health. A superhero without actual superpowers who tries to behave like he has wouldn't last long. If Batman flung himself from the top of a building (without a gadget) he'd meet an unfortunate end: if Superman did the same, he'd swoop off into the horizon, a silhouette passing the setting sun. When teachers try to live life as if they are super-human, the consequences are potentially disastrous for themselves, their families and their pupils.

"With great power comes great responsibility" is a true enough maxim. But how true is "With great responsibility comes great power"? Not true at all. The responsibility we are given doesn't come with a free helping of superpowers, yet so many of us are pushing our human abilities to the limits, expecting to be able to do what only super-humans could.

Yet we have a job to do. An important one and a difficult one. Whilst Batman battles to clean up crime in Gotham City, we have our own dark enemies to face as we protect the innocent ones from their influence. And we must do it all with human ability only.

So how can we be Batman-like teachers? What are those shortcuts to becoming a superhero teacher without actually having superpowers and without killing oneself in the process of trying? Let's revisit his list of abilities:

  1. Genius-level intellect - perhaps we don't quite need to be geniuses but a good amount of knowledge and understanding are key to operating as a teacher. As JL Dutaut once put it so eloquently: 'We need to be knowledgeable as teachers, not just about our subject, but also about pedagogies, not just about practice but about policies. And the knowledge we as a body have and create every day in classrooms should be heard, and should inform those that make the policies, because teaching is an informed profession.'' There is no need to expect yourself to innately know everything about how to teach but there is a wealth of information out there which will begin to inform your practice. Read the blogs, the articles, the magazines, the books. Listen to your colleagues, your boss, the guy doing the training day. Consult the research that's already been done for you.This is your first step to becoming a Batman-like teacher.
  2. Peak human physical and mental condition - at risk of sounding like a broken record, I must reiterate in the context of this article that these things are important. We need to be doing all we can to ensure that we are well. And yes, our leaders must ensure this too. Being rested and alert can make or break a lesson, regardless of time spent planning it (in fact if you've stayed up late planning it, chances are it'll go to pot if you're tired as a result). As difficult as it may be to prioritise wellbeing it is absolutely essential that it is top of your list: without being well you'll struggle to teach well. Even Batman takes time off from fighting crime in Gotham when he gets a bit bashed up; when you're feeling a bit worse for wear the best preparation you can do is get a good night's sleep then reassess in the morning. Getting rest, eating well, exercising regularly, spending time doing things you love and with family and friends are all essential to your success as a Batman-like teacher. I've written about wellbeing a lot - follow this link to read more.
  3. Master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant - right now, many teachers feel they are in the midst of battle. Our colleagues the country over are feeling oppressed. Whilst some would advocate political engagement, I think quicker gains can be made by challenging the status quo in our own schools. We have much more chance of changing policy and expectations by directly petitioning the leaders in our own schools. Sometimes it won't even take a battle - sometimes your senior leaders just need to know that one of their edicts is difficult to put into practice, or that you are struggling to complete all your tasks and that you'd appreciate some extra time. Many teachers are afraid to be honest about these matters - if they were willing to stand up for themselves, fighting hand-to-hand (however peacefully) they could effect personally beneficial change. And if they fight with stealth and patience, as any martial artists would, suggesting solutions to problems, showing willing and a positive attitude and perseverance, they are even more likely to win over their leaders in order to bring about improvements leaving you with more time to focus on what really matters: the children. Perhaps a tenuous link, but there are many who would testify to the success of this type of combat. For more on this read my post 'Rise Up! (Being Militant Teachers)'
  4. Master detective - there is nothing more like sleuthing in teaching than assessment. Putting more effort into assessment allows a teacher to spend less time on planning. If you are making effective use of time in lesson to continually assess children's needs then their next steps become more obvious; you won't need to agonise over what to do in the next lesson, you will just know. Keeping a record of all this - nothing more detective-like than a notebook - can make following steps in the teaching cycle much simpler. More time spent assessing and giving feedback in lessons also means less time spent marking books after school. This one works well with the first point: the more you read about your subject and pedagogy, the easier it will be to recognise the clues which will help you to work out what children need and how to teach it to them. If Batman were a teacher he would definitely know his data!
  5. Utilises high-tech equipment and weapons - I have to be careful here; no way am I wading into the debate about the use of tech in classrooms. Nor will I speak on any kind of pedagogy. We all have our weapons - our go-to tools - and successful teachers have a particular tried-and-tested arsenal of methods which ensure children learn, time is not wasted and behaviour is managed well. These Batpeople of the classroom will also have tools which make their lives easier too: the ones that keep them in peak condition. In order to survive, and have the appearance of a superhero, you will need to build your own batcave and fill it with equipment (physical and metaphorical) that you know supports the way you teach and the way pupils learn. It's worth remembering that with every new Batman incarnation comes a bigger and better car, the addition of helicopter or whatever else: our arsenal can always be improving, especially if step 1 is followed.
Teacher, no matter how great you are, you are not a superhero with super powers. You are a human being with great responsibilities who, admittedly, might often be expected to deliver super-human results. You do not have powers, but Batteacher, you have abilities - don't be afraid, or ashamed, to use them. Please don't kill yourself in the process of trying what is humanly impossible - your citizens need you in one piece. 

And they won't quibble over whether you have super powers or whether you simply have abilities.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Reach For The Cheese Slicer

When it comes to cutting cheese I'm a traditionalist. A knife; that's the tool for the job - preferably a made-for-the-job cheese knife. You won't find me using a cheese slicer. They're flimsy at best and the thickness of the resulting piece of cheese just doesn't do it for me. And I've sustained severe injury from them in the past - it goes against all my instincts to cut towards my fingers as I grasp the block of cheese in a manner not necessary when cutting with the proper implement: a knife.

Except every now and then one comes across a block of delicious mature cheddar whose length and width are perfectly adequate but which only measures about two or three centimetres in height. With a piece of cheese of this stature cutting a slice suitable for a sandwich is a challenge. Of course, I relish a challenge and out comes the trusty cheese knife and a slice of cheese measuring roughly 2cm by 10cm - you've got to cut a lot of those bad boys to fill a decent sandwich. I hesitate, sigh and then do the sensible thing; out comes the silly cheese slicer. And yes, the slices of cheese are paper-thin but at they do fill a sandwich properly. And using the ridiculous device wasn't that hard once I'd swallowed my pride. And this time I didn't even lacerate my digits.

This is not a post about the trad vs. prog debate. This is a post about occasionally accepting that there are more efficient methods of working than the ones you're accustomed to. This is not even a post where I attempt to tell you what those more efficient methods of working are, although I will illustrate my point. This is a post to encourage you to reflect on your practice and that of others around you, be that at work, amongst your friends or even on social media networks.

Ever found yourself envying another teacher's lack of weekend workload? Was it you that sarcastically said 'I wish I had time to just sit and read for pleasure!' or similar? Perhaps you even genuinely questioned how it was possible for someone to have seemingly less work than you.

Amongst teachers there are differing levels of workload depending on time of year, the leadership of schools, proximity to Ofsted and a million other factors. But perhaps one of those other factors is your working methods - and you do have total control over them.

Translate my cheese block to a pile of marking. My cheese knife becomes taking them all home to mark in the evening in front of the TV. The dreaded cheese slice is actually completing marking within a lesson - something you've designed your lesson structure around and which, as research seems to show, has a greater impact than marking books in the absence of the children. It's something you know other teachers do but it's just not the way you've always done it or you 'can't see how it would work'. Reach for the cheese slicer.

Alternatively my cheese block could be that half an hour after the kids have left, you know that time when you mooch down to the staff room, get a coffee and get caught up in a conversation you don't really want to have. That's the way it's always been - you always get a coffee at 3:30. It's your cheese knife. There's a teacher in your school with a cheese slicer. They don't leave their room at that time and they seem a bit antisocial but they are getting stuff done, probably their prep for the next day's lessons, or one or two more report comments so that they go home with less to do. They're maximising their time and you could too. Reach for the cheese slicer.

You rarely get taught on teaching courses how to reach for the cheese slicer and most CPD doesn't touch on it either. Use of the cheese slicer is something you either work out for yourself or it is passed on from others who have discovered the way of the cheese slicer. Remember, the cheese slicer is a better way of doing things. You should share the ways you've found of working more effectively and seek out others who work efficiently in order to learn how to put down the cheese knife every now and then, favouring the cheese slicer instead.

Even now there are those crying out: 'But I love my cheese knife! And cheese slices are ridiculous.' Yet it is they who want the sensible slices of cheese that only the cheese slice can provide and it is they who bemoan the fact that they only have the useless pieces they cut with their precious cheese knife.

Reach for the cheese slicer.

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Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Wellbeing x Optimism

 Thanks to February I've racked up a fair few blog posts now and in looking back over them I can see there are definite recurring themes. This, of course, is deliberate; I want my posts to have a united focus and I want my blog to have consistency. But in review, I was left asking myself a question:

'What does wellbeing have to do with optimism?'

I've written a lot about achieving a good work/life balance and its obvious link to wellbeing. I've also written a lot about being positive and optimistic about teaching (here, here and here, for example). But what's the link?

In a nutshell I propose that the better your work/life balance and the better your wellbeing, the more positive and optimistic you'll be. Stands to reason, doesn't it? But could it be the other way round? If you are more positive and optimistic could your work/life balance and wellbeing be better? Let's explore.

Apparently (and almost certainly unsurprisingly) negativity is one of the key indicators of fatigue. And we've all experienced that, haven't we? When we're tired it's very hard to look on the bright side of life. And teachers are tired, tired people. Especially the ones who for one reason or another have a poor work/life balance. A lack of clearly-defined boundaries between work and personal life leads to emotional stress and even anxiety and depression. And it's hard to feel positive at times when you're experiencing stress.

Interestingly, a quick google search of 'negativity and stress' reveals much about how stress can be caused by negativity. There are several articles suggesting that conditioning yourself to think more positively can reduce levels of stress. Of course, I would never prescribe positive thinking on its own; it has to be accompanied by practical doing. So if you took a few practical steps to improve your work/life balance and began to engender positive thinking at the same time, research and experience shows that you would feel less stressed. And if you were less stressed? What then? Well it would surely lead to more positivity and a snowballing optimism.

But that doesn't necessarily lead to better work/life balance and wellbeing, does it? Well, effective and dynamic optimists will look for solutions in difficult circumstances. Yes, there are arguments that pessimists identify problems and therefore make contingency plans but in the heat of a moment one with an optimistic outlook will be more likely to believe there is a way forward and to find it. Optimists won't look on workload and believe it is all externally governed, they will take ownership and find ways to make it manageable. In my own experience, dynamic and proactive optimists are more likely to take personal responsibility, ensuring that their wellbeing is factored into the way they organise their life.

So, when optimism is a key characteristic of a person they will experience greater wellbeing as a result. This will perpetuate their optimism which in turn will lead them to seek out more efficient ways of working to ensure their work/life balance is good. Which will make them more optimistic... the whole thing is cyclical. But what if you're not already running in that wheel? Jump on at any point - good habits can be formed. The cycle can be entered at either or both points: practical doing and positive thinking.

What could practical doing look like? See my blog posts:


What could positive thinking look like? See my blog posts:

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Blaze Your Trail

The word 'autonomy' comes from the Greek 'auto' meaning "self" and 'nomos' meaning "law", so together the word means "one who gives oneself one's own law".

But I know too many teachers wanting autonomy who are waiting around expecting to be given it. But if the definition of the word is anything to go by, that's not how it works.

For example, many teachers who are bogged down with work are not willing to speak to their leaders to ask for some extra time. They worry that the answer will be no. Or they believe there is no point in asking because someone else once did and their request was rejected. My answer to these objections is that you don't know until you've tried. If you are a hard worker and have a good reputation then most heads will be inclined to listen to your concerns and find solutions. And what's the worst that could happen? I can't imagine many headteachers who would start capability procedures just because a teacher asks for a morning out of class, even if they do turn down the request.

Being an autonomous teacher means being a go-getter. Go get that extra time you need, go get the help from a colleague, go get that next job if your boss really is that bad.

In the business world employees are much more used to autonomously blazing their own trail, whereas many teachers expect to be led down a well-trodden path. My wife, who worked in the private sector before we had our children, and who is much more savvy than I am when it come to employment, has shown me another way. I have written proposals asking for TLR awards, I have suggested that a role be created for me after pointing out a need in school, I have asked for the advice and training I've needed in order to further my career. After a few years of waiting around for things to happen, becoming an autonomous go-getter was the only solution.

Even the best heads need signals from their staff before they can cater for their needs. Start sending out those signals - and make them obvious. Make your signal as obvious as walking into the office and explaining your problem and suggesting your desired solution. Go get what you want - blaze your trail.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Date Night

Tonight is date night. I say that as if it's a regular fixture in our calendar but it's not. It should be though. My wife is a stay-at-home mum of three and has recently set up her own baking business. Our evenings are taken up with book marking, macaron making and house cleaning, amongst a whole host of other chores.

Evenings out are what works for us - getting out of the house is important as it stops us thinking of all the jobs that could be done and we are less likely to be distracted by technology if we're in the pub or at a restaurant. We consider going out for a meal a luxury as we can't always afford it, and it means finding a babysitter too. Tonight we're benefitting from a kind Christmas present of Zizzis vouchers and my sister is doing the honours with the children. We're really looking forward to enjoying some good food and quality time together.

Even though we don't always get to go out, we ensure that we have a weekend night together to watch a film and have a glass of wine. We also try to spend the last half an hour of each day together, just to catch up and wind down. We've learnt that if we don't do this things get strained between us and communication breaks down. The time together is essential.

If you are a teacher in a relationship then you have to prioritise time with your significant other. Thankfully I have a super-supportive wife who understands the time requirements and the pressures of the job and she enables and encourages me to use time at home effectively. But this understanding is part of a give and take relationship - sometimes I have to put the work down  clear the schedule and make time for what's important. If I never did this I don't think my wife would be inclined to be as supportive, and she'd have every right not to be! 

Having said this I know that this is the first time in five months we'll have been out for a meal together - that is not good enough. This half-term holiday I pledge to make time for more regular date nights during term time - we can't always wait for holidays! Who's with me?

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Monday, 8 February 2016

Managing Marking

The year I began my requested move to year 6 was the year marking and feedback became high on the agenda. With the knowledge that book scrutinies with the SIP were going to become common place, not to mention the expectations from Ofsted, I quickly sought help and advice. How was I going to keep up with the marking when the output from year 6 was proving to be voluminous?

My deputy head at the time was a seasoned year 6 teacher and she gave just two pieces of sage advice which revolutionised my marking:

Mark as much as you can during lessons

Previously my focus in a lesson would have been group work, or even one-to-one work, and whilst this has not fallen entirely by the wayside, my focus is now on seeing as many kids as possible during the lesson. By doing this, and marking as I go, I find that I ensnare any issues with understanding before the end of a lesson, meaning I can address needs there and then, often pulling together a group who need help with a similar problem. As I feedback verbally to them I make a written record in their books which they then respond to within the lesson. This I find to be much more effective than the marking I do once the lesson has finished which they are expected to respond to in the following days (when, to be quite frank, it is hard to find time to allow them to do this). Having done this, I'm left with 15 to 30 minutes of 'mopping up' marking to do, usually at lunchtime or straight after school when there's not a meeting. 
If you're lucky enough to have another adult working with you in the classroom then asking them to do the same saves even more time, even if they're just marking right/wrong in maths or checking for spelling and grammar mistakes in English. Share the marking policy with them, take time to show them examples of your own marking and then give them a green pen; trust them enough to have a go.

Plan carefully so you don't have too much marking

Teachers really don't help themselves sometimes. In a bid to have as much evidence of a child's learning as possible they record everything in books. This is not necessary. It also points towards the possibility that the tasks being set are not that engaging. Children like working on paper, or on the walls, or verbally, and they learn a lot by working in this way. Additionally, non-book tasks often promote the use of other skills such as working collaboratively, problem solving and reasoning. 
When you're planning your lessons think of the entire week. How much time for marking will you have? In that time, how many books or sets of books can you realistically get marked? Decide which classes need that evidence in books and plan book work for them. For the other classes design tasks that mean you will have little to no marking. There is no need for these tasks to be considered pointless just because the work is not done in books. As you do this, be conscious of children, groups or classes who have not done recorded work for a while and make sure that there is always some up-to-date evidence in books.

Since then, at my current school, I have implemented a marking system based on using symbols which represent and replace common marking comments. Both staff and children have become adept at using the system and it frees teachers up to spend more time on writing comments which children can respond to in order to deepen their understanding. Even if there is no such policy in your school, this is something you could design and use in your own classroom.

By taking all of these actions, I have, for the last few years, succeeded in managing the workload generated by marking. Whilst expectations are still high for marking and feedback, beginning to build these ideas into your routine should see a reduction in the time you spend marking.

I realise many teachers will already employ these techniques but have written this in the hope that for some, as it was for me a few years ago, it will be a new time-saving idea. I would also love to hear from experienced teachers who have found other ways to reduce the time they spend marking books.

For more excellent stuff on marking:


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Saturday, 6 February 2016

Taking Charge

These days plugging your phone in to charge must rank up there with brushing teeth when it comes to bedtime routine. You wouldn't want the battery to die halfway through the next day, would you? We understand the importance of recharging when it comes to the mobile technology we couldn't live without but how much do we pay attention to our own power reserves? As teachers we expect to rock up to work and energise children, often when we're running on empty ourselves. It's akin to sending that text when the battery's on 1%, the phone subsequently dying mid-send, leaving you wondering if the message ever reached its destination. Will the kids learn if we're absolutely knackered?

Ask yourself: What do I plug into? From where do I draw my energy? For 99% of us the answer to that will be something other than planning the next day's lessons, or any other work-related activity for that matter. Some of us will find it in 'alone time', some in spending time with family and friends. Others of us will play a sport, binge-watch a whole season of The Walking Dead or indulge in some geeky hobby. And let's face it - a good proportion of us will enjoy a glass of wine every now and then, perhaps with a cheeseboard.

'When am I supposed to have time to do that?' It's a valid question; sometimes teaching can be so all-consuming. But it's something that time has to be made for - you're in control. Just as you would never forget to plug your phone in before bed time, you need to plan to plug yourself in too. Even if it's just half an hour of reading every night, or taking one night off a week to play 5-a-side. If you plan it in, you'll be more likely to do it; you'll be more likely to rearrange your whole schedule in order to accommodate your power-up. Some busier weeks you might have to run on emergency reserves; on the other hand, when an unexpected lull throws the opportunity to relax and recharge, you should take it guilt-free.

Recharging is not optional; it's a necessity. What's your power source?

Friday, 5 February 2016

Good Evening, Bad Day

When you've had a bad day, don't exacerbate it.

I covered an ill colleague's class today and let's just say they didn't quite live up to my high expectations. Poor behaviour, and having to constantly remind children of the standards they are expected to conform to, is something that puts me in a bad mood. I like it when children are learning, even if there is a 'buzzy' atmosphere, and if that happens I have a good day.

Maybe I need to be more resilient in these situations. And I'll reflect on that and hopefully be a little more prepared for next time.

But tonight I did the right thing. I got in my car and cranked up the Red Hot Chili Peppers (well, as loud as my ears would allow before they crackled). Once the kids were in bed my wife and I watched Liar Liar (it's on Netflix now) and had a laugh. Jim Carrey. I'm still in awe of his lunacy - my teenage obsession has not worn off. I was reminded of how in life's most serious situations there is a time for silliness. Laughter may be the best medicine, especially when shared. We drank wine. We made bacon butties. We watched a fairly thought-provoking episode of House. We did what we wanted, and felt fully entitled to it.

I also turned to Twitter this evening for advice about a work situation, knowing that if I didn't have some sort of plan of action, I'd turn it over in my mind all weekend. Because some great colleagues were willing to engage and share their thoughts, I was able to park the problem and get on with enjoying my night; the evening I deserved.

When you've had a bad day, be kind to yourself. Constructively offload and actively seek pleasure. Don't make things worse, do your bit to make things better.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Doing It With My Eyes Closed

I'm going to bed. I'm actually in bed now. A full three hours ahead of when I went to bed last night. Sometimes you've just gotta go. And that's about the long and short of it.

Our bodies do this extraordinary thing when we become tired: they behave as if they are tired. When we've had a lack of sleep, our body reminds us in rather unsubtle ways. Mine sends messages to my eye saying, "'Ere mate, if you just start twitching, and then go on doing that, y'know, at least once a minute, say, then maybe he'll realise we're knackered." My eye obliges, often for days on end. Then there's a little muscle in my arm who gets in on the twitch action. Eventually (because I have to ignore twitches, really) my eye says something along the lines of, "Enough of this, already. I'm just going to close. Oi, Righty, are you shutting too, pal?" And they agree. They don't care if I'm actually handling a motor vehicle on the public highway, or reading my daughters a story (it's equally as dangerous to fall asleep during either), they just go right ahead and clock out.

And if shock tactics don't work then my body has a secret weapon. One which had me visiting doctors last year convinced I had late-onset type 1 diabetes (it is a thing). My body sends out the message: "Right troops, time for a full assault." (Are you bored of the personification of the rest of my body yet?) And I shake and shiver uncontrollably. I can't regulate my body temperature. I wake up in the night drenched in sweat. My dreams are wild flights of delirious fantasy.

I have to listen to my body when it gets that vocal. And that's how I ensure I get enough sleep. I just do it when I need it because I know it's barely worth me dragging myself into school when my body is going at me hammer and tongs. Even with the best planned lessons, the most carefully-considered resources, the books marked in the right colour pen in a way that gives children opportunity to respond to my comments in order to deepen their understanding - even with all that, if I'm shattered then, quite frankly, I'll do an inadequate job.

To my mind a huge part of preparation for the classroom comes from hours spent asleep. Even when Ofsted come a-calling you'll find me downing tools no later than 10pm, ready to catch a whole load of refreshing and revitalising Zs. Sleep is restorative - it trumps planning and marking. With a good night's sleep under the belt I'm much more likely to make spontaneous magic happen in the classroom, magic that can't be planned for. That's what I tell myself, anyway. Seems to work.
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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Room With A View

I go up, pull open the blinds, set up the little fold-out table and just sit, looking out over the city. It's not a particularly picturesque view, but essentially it's not the inside of a school; it's the outside world. And that's where I go to work interrupted (mostly). Witnessing the weather, watching the cars and cats go by - it calms me and focuses me, or sometimes just takes my mind off it all for a moment.

It's the best place I've found in the building to work after my afternoon teaching duties. It's a bit makeshift but it gives me space: physically and mentally. And a place like that is important to most of us. Our environment affects our mind, which in turn affects our ability to work. And if you can keep your hidey hole fairly secret, you'll not be disturbed that often  either!

Have you found your hidey hole yet? Your little oasis of calm within the walls of the school? I'd really recommend finding it and using it on those occasions when the office or your classroom just isn't doing it for you. 

A place with a window is ideal - a reminder that out there is a world which doesn't depend on what you're doing, a world which won't come crashing down if you don't get your work done. A window gives perspective. Reminds you that school isn't the be all and end all. 

The cats who cross the road, back and forth, back and forth, will go on doing so. The city will continue in its frenetic activity, never really sleeping. Your world can be a bigger place than your job; a room with a view will help you to remember that.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

There's Always Tomorrow

What if I miss a day? I know it's only 29 minutes each day, but it could happen. This is something I want to do: write every day for a month.

I find that writing refocuses me. Writing about my work focuses me on my work. Writing about something entirely unrelated helps me then go back to my work. On occasion, when I hit a wall, I will down tools altogether, pick up a pen (OK; my ipad) and write creatively - that's something that the weekly #teacher5adaywriting challenge has taught me. I've even done it at school when I know I'm supposed to be writing some action plan or other. Once cobwebs are cleared (by the process of thinking creatively) I'm back on task and ready to assess my impact on the subject I lead, giving evidence to support my statements and providing myself with next steps.

So it's not likely that I'll miss a day, because this isn't a bind for me - it's a release.

But what if circumstances outside my control dictate that I miss a day? I'll be disappointed won't I? After all, I am the competitive sort, the one who likes to stick to goals set. The one who woke up already in a bad mood this morning because it was too windy for me to achieve my target of cycling to work.

Well, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa (What?! I have three small girls), I just have to "Let it go!" It doesn't sound like sage advice, really, but the whole point of #teacher5aday is that stress is reduced, not added to, so being able to shrug off the potential disappointment of not achieving a goal is pretty necessary to me.

I love being organised and having to-do lists and time tables, but even when I've failed to complete something in the time I wanted to do it, I'll just change the date on it and shift it to the next day:

"Life always offers you a second chance. It's called tomorrow."  ~ Nicholas Sparks from 'The Notebook'

So if I don't write one day? No point in worrying about it:

"Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?" ~ Jesus from 'The Bible'

If I don't get all my jobs done one day, and I just need to get to bed so I, ready for another day? Same. No point in worrying about it. There's (nearly) always tomorrow.


Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Why I Never Use The Word 'Busy'

It all started when, every week, an unemployed friend would ask me how my week had been, to which I invariably replied 'Busy!'. As time went by, he began answering the question for me: 'Busy?' I felt mightily uncomfortable as I highlighted the major difference between my week and his: I was 'busy' and fulfilled, he was largely at a loose end as he applied for job after job, consequently feeling very unfulfilled. I decided to stop saying I was busy, instead telling him some of the things I'd been doing instead, making for much more interesting conversation.

I decided to completely stop using the word - not to colleagues, not to my wife and not to my friends. By definition I was, and still am, busy, but I ceased to describe myself so.

Apart from boring people with a one word answer when they genuinely enquired about my week, there has been another benefit too:

In telling others that I was busy, I was telling myself that I was busy too. And in telling myself that I was busy, I told myself that I didn't have enough time to do everything that I needed to do. I found myself writing things off before I even had a chance to look at my schedule - 'How could I possibly fit that in? I'm way too busy.'

Now that I don't label myself as busy, I am finding that I have a better attitude towards the additions to my to-do list. Now I think 'I can do that. I can fit that in'. And I do. I've also found (as previously mentioned here under 'Routines and Busyness') that when my schedule is full I work more efficiently; knowing that there are other things lined up for me to do means I get on with tasks.

On a practical note, there are three things that have really helped me with fitting lots into my day:

  • the apple calendar (there are other calendars available) which syncs between my ipad, iphone and icloud. I use this instead of a paper diary these days and I plan jobs into consecutive blocks of time. The calendar reminds me when it is time to do something; it's a bit like having my mum around and is very effective - I have to do it if the calendar tells me to.
  • the apple reminders app which again syncs between devices. Both this app and the calendar app allow you to schedule and set reminders for jobs - this is almost the key to all my organisational success! Naturally I'm quite forgetful, but with these apps, you'd not be able to tell. I am now in the habit of reaching for the nearest device and making a note on my job lists (in the reminders app) or booking something in to my calendar, meaning that I don't have to remember to write it down later. If something doesn't end up getting done, I just change the date and time of when I'm going to do it.
  • an actual notebook, you know with paper pages. I have no scraps of paper. Everything goes in the notebook: CPD notes, planning ideas, answers to maths tasks that I need to mark, observation jottings, SLT meeting notes... everything goes in!
So by being busy, but not thinking of myself as busy, I find myself maximising the time I have and using it much more effectively. It's been a very simple change, but one that psychologically seems to have had a big impact on how I work.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Working For The Weekend

Some might say I labour under the illusion that, as a teacher, one doesn't have to work at the weekends. Except it's not an illusion because I don't work at the weekends. There are others like me. Working at the weekend at home would be problematic for me as three under-five-year-old girls also live in my house. They are looked after all week by my amazing wife and by the time Friday night comes around I have to flick the 'work' switch to off and the 'life' switch to on. My wife needs me to, the girls need me to and I need to, too. To take it further, my colleagues need me to, my class need me to, my boss needs me to - if I haven't recharged my batteries at the weekend then work suffers as well.

So, how is this possible? 

Firstly, I recognise that I work in a supportive school with leaders who I know I can talk to if things are getting too much. When I was at interview for my post, I made them aware of my family situation - they took me on knowing that my whole life wouldn't be committed to the job, and they weren't empty promises. I am provided with a good amount of time to get work done within school hours, but just as all teachers find, it still isn't enough.

However, analysing my current situation, I think, could perhaps help one or two others. For example, I know weekends are out-of-bounds. My deadline for the week is Friday home-time, and all being well, work won't resume until Monday morning (apart from those times when I re-plan a whole lesson in the shower on Saturday morning). What might help you to avoid weekend work?

Deadlines
Deadlines are widely acknowledged to be an important aspect of productivity. What would happen if you set a similar deadline to the one my family dictates? If you've ever known an event was going to stop you from working at the weekend, then you probably got done what needed doing during the week, then enjoyed your best friend's wedding or your partner's birthday weekend away, possibly even returning to work on Monday feeling relaxed (even if you did get that Sunday-night feeling as you thought about another busy week ahead).

Routine & Busyness
I recently visited a physiotherapist who prescribed a few exercises which are to be completed three times a day. In the week, at my busiest times, I do every set of exercises. At the weekend, when I have loads of time to spare, I do one set at best. What's the difference? Routine and busyness. When I'm busy, I get more done as part of my daily routine. At less busy times, like the weekend, I am less productive. Using up those spare bits of time during the week can reap you the benefits at the weekend. You're probably more likely to be productive in those short time slots, in amongst the busyness of doing other jobs, than you might be at the weekend after you've had a lie in, a leisurely coffee and have neglected to get dressed!

Focus
I have to focus in order to be productive. To get more done in less time I have to do one task at a time. If other things are going on then I am distracted and take far longer to do things. Many teachers plan with the TV 'on in the background' (guaranteed not to be in the background, but in front of them!) - this one, I'm sure is down to personal preference, but removing all distractions (such as the TV) may just help you to cut down on work time. I'm convinced the work/life balance doesn't mean doing both at the same time, rather it means doing one, then the other: some work, then some play. 

My pastor always says 'If you don't book it in, you book it out!' and it is true; booking in time on the life side of the balance is a better way to ensure you get it. By making deadlines you are carving out time for 'you' (and your family, friends, hobbies etc), which is essential for your wellbeing. By using time during the week whilst you're already caught in the momentum of busyness you will achieve more. And by dedicating time to work without distractions you will be more productive. Any one of these time-saving methods could be employed alone, but together they are a powerful formula for beginning to avoid weekend work.

This video (The Science of Productivity) has some more great tips for how to get more done in less time:

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

What Does Pixar's 'Inside Out' Teach Us About Teacher Wellbeing? Part 2

Riley: I... I know you don't want me to, but... I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my old friends, and my hockey team. I wanna go home. Please don't be mad.
Mom: Oh, sweetie...
Dad: We're not mad. You know what? I miss Minnesota too. I miss the woods where we took hikes.
Mom: And the backyard where we used to play.
Dad: Spring Lake, where you used to skate.

This is the finale of 'Inside Out'; the dialogue is accompanied by many an animated sad expression, a healthy number of tears and it culminates in a big family hug. Apparently Dacher Keltner from the University of California, Berkeley, 'helped revise the story by emphasising the neuropsychological findings that human emotions are mirrored in interpersonal relationships and can be significantly moderated by them.'  However, the film heavily emphasises how we self-regulate our emotions and focuses less on the part that human interaction plays in influencing how we feel. For the purposes of the movie's concept this is forgivable but in real life if we shunned social interaction and relied on self to keep sane, I dare say we would find ourselves in a mess.

There are enough moments in the film where Riley and her parents help each other to overcome difficulties: sometimes by being 'goofballs' and acting like monkeys, and other times by playing hockey with a screwed up ball of paper or suggesting shared experiences to cheer each other up. And these are the moments I'd like to reflect on with regard to our own wellbeing.

I'd like to direct your attentions toward Benjamin Zephaniah's poem 'People Need People'. There are three verses, but here is the first:

People need people,
To walk to
To talk to
To cry and rely on,
People will always need people.
To love and to miss
To hug and to kiss,
It’s useful to have other people.
To whom to moan
If you’re all alone,
It’s so hard to share
When no one is there.
There’s not much to do
When there’s no one but you.
People will always need people.

In my previous post about 'Inside Out' I discussed how the exercise of a full range of emotions is good for our wellbeing. If this is happening then it is inevitable that there will be visible manifestations alerting others to our feelings. And when we spend time with friends, colleagues or family most of us hope that they will respond to the visual clues and ask us how we are feeling. And if you don't display your emotions, and the people around you don't notice when you do, then your wellbeing is in peril.

Benjamin Zephaniah suggests we need people 'to cry and rely on' and to moan to! 'Inside Out' shows us that once you have allowed emotions like sadness to manifest that healing actually begins when other people respond to it. Don't be afraid to let others see you in what you perceive to be weakness. There is actually great strength in admitting to others that you feel weak. Only when you admit it can you begin to become stronger, and so often that happens with the help of a best friend, spouse, partner, sibling, mentor or work mate. In those around us there can be found a wealth of experience, knowledge, and most importantly kindness, care and love. And we all need a bit of that, don't we?

For teachers it is important to identify those people in all areas of your life. Who knows you well? Who knows how much energy your pour into your job? Who has perhaps experienced the strains of the changing face of education and made it through the other side? Who do you know who appears to have a good work/life balance despite having a busy job? Who do you know who will just give you a cuppa and then sit and listen to your woes, without belittling them or waving them aside? Find that person. Actually, find a few; one in each setting you find yourself in. Find someone at work, find someone at home, find someone at the end of the phone line, and on Twitter. Wherever you are, know the people who can help you. And then talk. Make them aware of your emotions as part of day-to-day life. Not just when all comes crashing down. It's probably worth reminding yourself when you find those people that your range of emotions should come into play: if you feel happy, talk about happy things. If you feel scared, talk about what's scaring you. If you feel calm, tell them. Don't just moan. Or cry. Or rely.

And then there is your part of the deal. A relationship is two-ways. When the family's removal truck doesn't arrive, Riley cheers her parents up. When Riley sets out for her first day at school, her parents cheer her up. No matter how broken you are, you can still be a support to others. At times you might take more than you give, and vice versa. Who are the people in your life who need you? As teachers we are expected to care for the wellbeing of the children we teach and we can't escape from that - they need us. We all have colleagues; for those who are leaders it is part of your role to see to their wellbeing. We are duty-bound to moderate the emotions of those around us at school and if our own wellbeing isn't in check, we risk being ineffective in this area.

Benjamin Zephaniah reminds us in his poem that we need to live our lives with other people, sharing food, relaxing in company, learning from and playing with them. He says that other people can put us at ease and make life more appealing. 'Inside Out' reminds us that family and friends help us to deal with difficulties better than we can on our own.

For a case study in how talking about feelings helps, please read Numpty Teacher's blog post How I Stopped Drowning

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Family First?

"When's Daddy coming to my Christmas play?" asked my five year old daughter on more than one occasion. "He has to go to work darling, so he can't come."

When I had children I resigned myself to missing out on some of these little moments. Having the school holidays, not having to travel for work and sometimes being able to come home for tea time seemed like a fair trade for not being able to do the school run, go to presentation assemblies and attend end of year productions.

As it has happened, with the odd difference in days off between my school and my daughters', I have had the privilege of picking them up from school and seeing the eldest presented with her 'Pupil of the Term' certificate. Teachers are kind and have allowed us the last parents' evening slots so I do feel a part of their school life.

But the Christmas show wasn't to be. Or so I thought. At the end of the penultimate week of term the head pulled me aside, asking why she'd not had a request from me to go to see my daughter's Christmas show. Inside, crushing emotion and self-disappointment welled up. I'd let my little one down. She had wanted me to come, and I could've gone if only I'd asked. I had unnecessarily prioritised work over my family. My voice cracked as I tried to explain why I hadn't asked.

The happy ending is that, as a result of my boss's prompt, I went to my middle daughter's nursery Christmas show and it was lovely - Christmas really began that day. I had checked with my super-understanding five year old and there were no hard feelings; she is sweet enough to be able to be excited for her younger sister even when it might not seem fair. So, No.2 and I shared giggle fits during one of the songs and I smirked as she spent a whole number rearranging her star outfit, complete with full-on hands down skirt moments. Family came first that afternoon. And I got to miss the SLT meeting: Christmas bonus. 

And what have I learned? Well, it was a reminder of how to prioritise. I have a kind boss who cares for the wellbeing of her staff and who, despite not having children of her own, understands the importance of family. I should have known that I could at least ask. Not everyone is fortunate enough to work for such a leader. I have a family at home who need me and deserve my best. My job is important, but actually my own flesh and blood are more important. Really, I'm essentially doing my job because of them - so that I can support them financially. But their needs are more than just that. They need my time too.

I don't think I'll be suddenly leaving school at 3:25 everyday to get home to them, or even automatically assuming that I can take time off work to go to every school event, but I will consider my family more in the decisions I make regarding how my time is spent.

This was re-blogged on the TES blog on 11th December 2016 entitled '"Daddy can't come to your Christmas play, he has to go to work"': https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/daddy-cant-come-your-christmas-play-he-has-go-work

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Overtime: Are Teachers The Only Ones?

Teachers’ workload: two words bound to get any teacher on their soapbox. Articles abound on the issue. The DfE even challenged us about it (does anyone else find the use of the word ‘challenge’ strange?) I don’t need to tell you, the hardworking teacher, that the workload is great and I think even the stereotype of ‘Teachers. Huh! Cushy number; working 9-3.30!’ has died a death; even the non-teaching public know now that teachers don’t just work a. 37.5 hour week.

Evenings. Weekends. Holidays. Some of us work them all. Overtime pay? Not a chance. Lack of free time, family time, fun. Many a teacher has experienced this. But are we alone? I mean, are those memes that suggest teachers are the only ones working at home in the evening actually accurate? Well, there have been studies: its official! Teachers work more than any other profession!

However, I know some pretty hard working folk who aren't teachers and I decided to ask a few of them about their working hours. I asked them their role, contracted hours and overtime (either paid or unpaid). Here’s what I discovered:

Many of the workers I asked are contracted at around 40 hours, similar to teachers. Many of them said that they work around 20 hours extra, unpaid, on top of their contracted hours. Workers who answered in this manner included a Director of a water company, a Vice President of a manufacturing firm, an Associate Director of a political consultancy, an Enterprise Architect for a publishing company, an IT Consultant, an HR Business Partner in a telecoms company, an IT Architect in a small data consultancy and a Senior Finance Manager for a construction Services company. If my friends are representative of workers in those industries then that’s quite a lot of people around the world working similar hours to teachers without being paid overtime. Some of those I asked reported that working around 90 hours per week is sometimes necessary.

What about working from home? The IT Architect said “for me there is little to distinguish work and home. Holidays increasingly are measured on broadband quality. I don't think I really ever switch off from thinking about work.Echoing the sentiments of others, the Finance Manager remarked “My phone is on 24/7 and I'm expected to check email at all hours.” A number of those I spoke to revealed that they did extra work at home, others did not say whether their 20 hours of overtime was done in the office or at home. The Vice President stated “I'm always working: nights, weekends, vacations! I have found the saying "It's tough at the top" to be very true.”

Another major finding was that travel takes up more time on top of extra hours for non-teachers. Whether it’s being ‘at work’ 24/7 on foreign business trips away from family or sandwiching a week’s hotel stay with 15 hours of UK-wide driving, this is something most teachers don’t have to deal with.

It may be noted that those I spoke to all hold fairly senior positions and are likely to be paid well.  I didn’t ask for salary details simply because those who compare the workload of teachers to that of other professions never compare salary either. My anecdotal evidence is in direct reply to the blanket statements of ‘no-one works as hard as teachers’. Well they do. There are many men and women all over the country up late working, arriving at the office early to get an extra hour in, missing out on time with their children, spending every waking hour replying to emails, going on ‘holiday’ with a project to complete. Teachers are amongst those people but they do not have a monopoly on these characteristics.

One of my friends concluded: “It appears most people really enjoy the work they do and they do what is needed to be successful! I'm feeling lucky to enjoy what I do and that I have fun doing it!If you really are in teaching because you are passionate about it and you love working with the children, then surely this is the attitude to have. Imagining that you are the only one still up at 11pm preparing for the next day will not change the fact that teaching is a hard job with many demands and pressures. Knowing that everything you do can have a positive impact on the lives of others can make all the hard work worthwhile. Counting yourself as one of the many workers around the world who goes the extra mile for no reward could begin to take the edge off the pain you feel.

And if you are still up at 11pm preparing for tomorrow, perhaps you’d benefit from reading up on maintaining a good work/life balance. Although the pressures are high and the workload is heavy, I believe there are things we can all do to address the balance. Might I suggest you begin with a couple of my own blog posts?