Protecting work-life balance: what can we do?

This week’s Sec Ed front page was a depressing but inevitable result of the TIMSS report released last week that found that teachers in England are working longer hours for less comparable pay than similarly qualified peers in other professions. It’s no surprise that significantly less than 50% of the workforce has over 10 years’ experience or that if classroom teachers are working long hours they are leaving for less stressful professions.

I felt for my NQT a couple of weeks ago when she received her first qualified teacher pay packet and worked out that she was being paid just over £4 per hour. I tried to sweeten the bitter pill by pointing out that in five years she’d be earning over £30,000, but by her reckoning she’d still only be on about six quid an hour. I haven’t dared work my own hourly rate out!

It’s crucially important that those of us in leadership positions or who have been in the profession a while model a healthy work-life balance for our less-experienced colleagues. We must not let them believe the message that the job is never done or that they should be working every waking hour planning lessons or assessing work. It is true that in reality the job is never finished – there’s always something else that you could do in this line of work – marking a few more books, designing another resource, planning another lesson, tweaking a display, ringing another parent; the list goes on. But we have to be brutal with our work and put it down to ensure we do actually have a life outside of work.

So what can leaders do to minimise overwork and ensure that our colleagues are not burning themselves out before they’ve even begun to get within two (or even three) decades of retirement age? There are a few things that, to my mind, all leaders should be compelled to do to ensure teachers stay sane, happy and, above all, teachers.

  1. Be nice
  2. Everyone works better in a pleasant environment where people are friendly. This is particularly important when we are often dealing with a small minority of students that set out to be unfriendly towards teaching staff – you don’t need this from colleagues as well. A smile and a natter go a long way.
  3. Trust and support colleagues
  4. Very few teachers set out in this job to make a dog’s dinner of it. Trust and support teachers, empower them to make their own decisions, and remove the feeling that they’re constantly under the microscope. Yes, we have to monitor colleagues’ performance, but there’s no reason we can’t do it in a pleasant and supportive manner.
  5. Don’t create unnecessary work
  6. The subheading says it all – if something doesn’t need doing, don’t ask people to do it. Avoid the urge to create more documents for teachers to fill in which will add to the workload. Make sure systems (for data collection etc.) are streamlined and minimal.
  7. Lead by example
  8. Senior Leaders must lead by example. Fair enough, arrive early if that’s when you best work is done. But leave in good time too. Let teachers see that you go home at a reasonable time every day, talk about the non-work related things you’ve done at the weekend, and encourage colleagues not to work evenings and weekends. If they’re having to do that then the system isn’t working.
  9. Share the message

Make it common knowledge that you value work-life balance. This is practically the same as point 4 above, but we have to be explicit about our expectations, both in what we do expect, and what we don’t e.g. marking books at the weekend or staying up till the small hours creating lessons.

  1. Give useful advice

I encourage my colleagues to avoid writing copious amounts of feedback on students’ work or making PowerPoints for every lesson (personally, I never, ever use PowerPoint – it constrains the organic development of a lesson in my opinion). Share the tricks that you use to save time and encourage your less-experienced colleagues to use them too.

Clearly this list isn’t exhaustive and I’m not trying to tell everybody that this is what they must do to cut workload, but these are the pillars I live by to keep myself and (I hope) my faculty sane. It’s not rocket science; teachers with their own lives who can keep work in perspective do a better job, are happier and are more likely to stay the course. Persecution, blame and a punitive culture in any organisation helps no-one.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

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