Friday, 12 June 2015

Addressing The Balance

addressing the balance teacher workload wellbeing work life thatboycanteach
I was marking books during my lunch break when a colleague approached me asking for advice on work/life balance. She'd been sent to me by a fellow member of the SLT because apparently I'm the expert. My qualifications? Managing to teach a year 6 class, lead UKS2 and maths school-wide, attend to other SLT-type duties and still get home in time most nights to bath and put to bed three under-fives. (I suspect it's also been noticed that I rarely answer emails at the weekend.)

So, what did I say to my colleague?

Prioritise - what really needs doing and what can wait? This weapon has been longest in my arsenal. Maybe it did stem from a fairly lackadaisical attitude but it is now fully grown as an effective tool (can I get away with such mixed metaphors?). The simple idea is that on any given day there are some things that you just can't give two figs about. Those things will have to wait. Concentrate on doing one or two things well that day - the ones that obviously need doing soonest. You can't do everything all at once. I often find that as a result of prioritising, the odd thing drops out of the in-tray and straight into the bin - it would have been wasted time and effort doing that particular job anyway. Admittedly this way of existing runs the risk of becoming last but there's something else to combat that...

Organise - make time by planning ahead. Although it may not feel like it, you are the master of your own teaching destiny. if you know the week will be heavy on one particular job, ensure that you aren't piling more on yourself. Don't plan 5 days' worth of independent writing which you'll have to mark and level to the nth degree on the same week you know you've got a trip, parents' evening and your mum's birthday meal. Be wise. Similar to 'organise' is...

Maximise - make the most of the time you've got. It's a hateful saying but there's an element of truth to the maxim "Don't work harder; work smarter." Where was I when my colleague found me? Eating sandwiches with one hand and brandishing my green biro with the other. Using those little bits of time in a school day, even just to make one of your five phone calls, is worth doing. Sitting straight down at your desk once the kids have walked out the door without giving lethargy the chance to kick in will reduce the number of maths books you take home. Even better, and super-effective, is making time to sit down with individual children to mark their work with them.

Collaborate - nurture a good working relationship with other teachers. Those of you blessed with a year group partner (or two) are sitting on a gold mine of opportunities. Even if you aren't, there will be other members of staff for you to tap in to. Mention what you're doing, maybe they'll have a resource ready prepared for that. Ask for help if you don't understand something - better to admit a weakness and be enlightened quickly than to remain resolute and struggle through, thus wasting time. Don't underestimate the time-saving effects of this one.

Rest - productivity relies on rest. I could scour the internet for scientific evidence for this but we all know it from experience, don't we? Teaching has a rhythm - some weeks are less busy than others. At the same time as planning ahead and using the time you have, you should also think about using the natural breaks - and make the most of them. Different people find rest in different things. Ensure there is something else (on the life side of the balance) that takes up some of your time - something that isn't easy to get out of. Make a commitment to an extra-curricular activity and get some 'you time' (I would suggest that even family commitments fall in to this category, I didn't say 'alone time'!).

Finally, it's worth pointing out that with a job like teaching there are, as mentioned already, particular points in the year when the workload gets heavy. At these times taking the above advice will help to alleviate but not eradicate. For example, this half term (summer 2), when everyone else thinks we're winding down for the summer holidays, the cumulative effect of that final push for the highest possible levels (or whatever your school has decided to call them now), assessment and report writing, impact reports (if you have an area of responsibility), end of year productions and all those last minute trips actually can take their toll. When that's the case it's worth reassuring yourself that you'll have five or six weeks of mostly-life and, that for the time being, work might just have to tip the balance.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

How I've Stayed In Teaching

What if the key to job satisfaction was not in a change of external expectation but in an altering of internal attitude? Could it be that it's not them who need to change things, but you? At the risk of sounding like an X-factor contestant's deluded parent, I suggest that employment enjoyment (catchy, huh?) is down to a positive mindset. And, yes, teachers - I'm talking to you.

Education - the way we think about it, the way we do it - has changed. What started off in the UK as a sort of people-factory to supply the British Empire with able workers is now something very different, and rightly so. As governments come and go, national pedagogy changes, some Education Secretaries don't really seem to be up to the job, politicians throw the baby out with the bath water (remember Labour's new National Curriculum 5 years ago?) and teachers try to keep up with the developments.

These developments may not always seem like advances but it is up to us to push forward regardless. We must make the best of a set of guidelines we might disagree or struggle with - for the kids' sake as well as our own. Yes, we will have to work hard - but what did you expect?

With an optimistic outlook one can search for solutions to the problems we face. The workload may seem heavy - how can you efficiently lighten the burden? The curriculum content list may seem a drag - how can you uplift it? The hours may seem long - how can you shorten them? Asking this kind of question is the start of your journey to loving your vocation. And just to be clear: I'm talking about making changes in the way you do things as a result of changing how you think about things.

I'm not claiming to have all the answers to those questions however, upon reflection, I can truly say that asking them has been fundamental to my happiness and success. I've not always been successful, I've found many things difficult (like lifting my lessons from 'satisfactory' to 'good' and beyond) and I have learned to be happy. Along the way I've gleaned invaluable bits of advice from colleagues and bolted them together into some sort of Scrapheap-Challenge-pedagogy that really works.

Find the teachers in your school who genuinely seem to enjoy what they do. Adhere to them. Avoid the mood-hoovers and the drains and find the radiators. Learn from them. Find out how they answered those questions - believe me, they will have asked them and found some answers already. For some teachers the answer may be moving to a different school.

Very well, Ofsted inspectors, senior leaders, local authority bigwigs, media men and the rest do affect the possibility of being so positive. As do the kids. There are factors which make it very difficult for us to do our job but there really is only one choice: adapt or die. That sounds harsh but it's true: roll with the punches (sorry, I don't mean to sound like an Apprentice candidate) or leave the profession. And for most of us the second one is not an option - we've invested so much time in our career and we remember a time when we loved it; when we really think about it we still care passionately about the education of children. And let's be honest: our livelihood, and that of our family, relies on us remaining in teaching. We can't leave. So we have to change.

I've often thought of teaching as having an acting job - our roles can be so varied. But let's not get ourselves typecast - let's be adaptable. Jack Nicholson's "Here's Johnny!", Robert DeNiro's " You talking to me?", Roy Scheider's "You're gonna need a bigger boat." - all improvised, all oft-quoted, all examples of how the screenwriters were shown how the script should really go by the ones having to actually deliver it. Pick up the script and improvise - make it your own. Show the director how the part should be played - that's how you will make difference, that's how your voice will be heard. That's what will make education great. It'll also make your job more enjoyable.

In Education today, adaptation of self is essential and it is only made possible by having an up-beat perspective. We can't sit around waiting for the perfect alignment of politicians and policies to begin to enjoy our work. Problems are only problems until they're solved - don't allow them to remain as problems. Ask those questions. Find those colleagues. Make some changes. And above all think positively.

There are many issues mentioned only in passing here that I intend to write on in the near future. The short shrift I've given to particular things is not because I haven't thought about it enough!