I want to add to the discussion about teacher wellbeing, to explore the signs and symptoms and then offer some practical advice from my own experience.
How are you doing, deep down?
How are you doing? I don’t mean the casual “How are you?” question that we answer politely with “Fine, and you?” I have written this article to flag up how easy it is to slide into routines and practices that are bad for us as teachers and what we can do about it.
To judge your wellbeing I have a question for you but you need to be brutally honest in your reply.
“How do you feel the night before starting the school week?”
It’s Sunday evening and you begin to mentally go through the week ahead. There are bound to be challenges and outstanding tasks as well as new deadlines to meet, that is ‘normal’ but how do you ‘feel’ about it, deep down. You need to be in touch with those feelings, either the excitement or the nervousness, as you mentally get ready to start teaching on Monday. If there is a feeling of dread, of apprehension or anxiety that too can be ‘normal’ but what we should concern ourselves about is the depths, the extremes of these feelings.
Other ways to assess your well being
There are other signs that things are not as they should be too. First we stop being learners and rely on routine and established behaviours, especially when faced with a challenge. We lose a certain capacity for change or taking on anything new. We find it hard to ‘switch off’ and to leave school behind. Relationships take the strain, and as teachers we rely on good learning relationships with our students, this is a significant symptom.
We develop a security blanket.
Taking things home to do is fine if it is an option and not a necessity. When you leave school you may find yourself carrying along ‘work’ to do at home. When these are loaded into the car and left there until the next day or over the weekend then you need to stop and assess how you are doing. Worse still if you take them into the house and they remain untouched you have a problem for then they represent a spectre of your worries and concerns.
What you have done is create a form of ‘security blanket’, a way of convincing yourself all is okay because you can ‘catch up’ at home and so you pack them up and carry them out with you. Don’t believe me? Try this, try leaving everything at school when you go home and see how it feels. I did and it was a revelation.
Take nothing home and see how it feels.
There I was standing in the carpark feeling as if something is not right. It was odd, I had nothing in my arms, nothing on the back seat and I felt ‘lost’. I had the same feeling all the way home and when I entered the house. My routine had been to say “Hi” and then do a little work before cooking and eating and then finishing things off. It is easy to get into this routine but is not good for us. A little work can become a lot and finishing things off can mean a very late night.
It is about setting boundaries and expectations.
I can remember Kenneth Baker in 1987, the then Secretary of State for Education, setting 1,265 hours as a reasonable expectation although there was the caveat about needing extra time for the marking, report writing, lesson preparation and teaching resources that were needed to “discharge effectively his professional duties” [i] I also remember a deputy head who would ask “Have you earnt your money today?” If the answer was “Yes” then the instruction was to “Get on home and relax”!
Here is my advice
Do as much as you can at school without staying too late. This often means working efficiently and with focus when not in the classroom.
Plan ahead and keep an eye on any event or deadline that requires you to participate.
If you must take things home then set a space aside for doing ‘school work’. Do not let invade your personal space (dining room table, kitchen worktop, or even worse, the bedroom).
Have a rule about taking school work home and stick to it. “Not on Friday” is a good one.
Don’t try to ‘multitask’, i.e. watch TV or socialise whilst working – you end up doing a poor job of both and you do not recharge your batteries.
The night before a school week asks yourself “How do I feel?” and set your mind to address any negative issues. This may, and probably will, involve engaging with others to share your feelings.
You may need to learn to say “NO”
Saying no is not a sign of weakness and neither should it be a last resort. Here is a link to an article all about saying “NO“
Think about finding a coach, like myself, that specialises in working with teachers. Sharing and being challenged is good for us and the impartial nature of the relationship with a coach can have significant benefits.
It’s not easy and it won’t happen overnight
Of course it’s not easy, but being aware of our ‘well being’ is often all it needs to find the focus to do something about it. If you are still struggling then make sure you talk to someone.
[i] The Education (School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions of Employment) Order 1987
I have written this article as a way of looking at the teacher retention and recruitment issues we are currently facing in the profession. A key element is doing too much, high levels of stress and burnout.
Teaching involves passion, dedication, endless energy and a strong sense of accountability as well as ‘personal’ responsibility. The rewards are addictive and here in lies the problem, when do you say “No”? It’s not easy to say “No” and so you put up with a little less personal time in order to meet the needs of the children you teach. You do a little extra, buy the odd resource, stay a bit longer because the benefits of doing so outweigh the cost.
Learn to say NO*
There is a case to be made for saying “No”, loudly and with commitment and to suffering the immediate consequences but it comes at a cost too. Are we as teachers ‘masking’ the problem of being underfunded, under resources and over burdened by doing more? Are our efforts to make things work actually responsible for the high level of numbers of teachers leaving the profession, of many being too tired to have a life outside of school?
I know you cannot turn up to lessons with books unmarked, lessons not planned, refuse just one more students in your class and not enough resources to go around but what can we do about getting the work life balance sorted? Sorted in a way that means we have a chance to recharge the batteries, to socialise, to have a life outside school and for us to be learners once again too.
“Am I the best person to be doing this?”
Having worked with teachers who are tired, who have no work life balance and who are struggling to be effective in the classroom I have one question I always ask. It is a question you should always ask yourself before starting something, before taking on something extra, before saying “Yes” instead of “No”. That question is “Am I the best person to be doing this?” and you need to be brutally honest with yourself. It is no good saying “Who else would do it if I did not?”
“The Secret of Time Management”
Of course you need to ‘unpack’ the words “best person” and there is a contextual aspect to the words more than I can go into here. I have written an in depth look at the this question with the catchy title “The Secret of Time Management” and you can find it here. In the article, which is spread over several posts, I look at three elements, 1) the task 2) the person and 3) the resources at hand and work these into what I call the “Not Enough Time” or NET equation. I believe you will find it helpful if you can find the time to read it!
We end up saying “Goodbye” instead of “No”
We know the plus side of going the extra mile, of giving a little more but here is another side I want to draw your attention to too. Things are unlikely to get better if we keep perpetuating the current approach of giving more and more. In many ways teachers, by not saying “No”, are ‘masking’ the serious issues that are affecting our education system. It is difficult to get a true picture of the resources that are needed or the systems that are fundamentally flawed in education if we mask them. What we do see is people who do not say “No” eventually saying “Goodbye” to teaching. I would suggest that until we understand the NET equation and we accept saying “No” is a good thing the teaching profession will continue to risk recruitment and retention of those who want so much to teach. Teaching will become, if it has not already done so, a ‘toxic’ environment.
One final observation regarding time. When we are refreshed and focused we achieve more in a shorter amount of time, we are more effective. It’s worth thinking about this next time you are asked to do something! Perhaps you should reply “What do you want me to stop doing in order to do what you are now asking me to do?”
*How to say “No” nicely – A link to another article looking at ways to help address the workload issue in teaching.