Teacher wellbeing stories: James Birchenough 

Headteacher and author James Birchenough shares his top three ideas for a healthy work/life rhythm.

James Birchenough

James Birchenough Wellbeing story image

So here I was, sat in my study working during the evening – again. How did I get back here? 

It didn’t make sense: I knew how to leave work at work (I’d even written a book on it!) and I usually put these strategies into practice. And my employer was excellent at supporting staff wellbeing (they were voted “The Sunday Times Best Not-for-Profit to Work For” in 2019).

I had the knowledge and tools to balance home and work, and my managers had created a culture where that balance was actually achievable. However, at this point in time, it wasn’t working.  

Why was this? When I sat back and reflected, there were a few different things at play.

Firstly, living through a global pandemic has changed us all in different ways, some of which are barely perceptible. At the time, in February 2021, trying to follow our normal fast-paced rhythms with the pandemic still raging was bound to not quite work; extra background anxieties and practical tasks like lateral flow testing added to our usual responsibilities, creating an extra heavy load.

Secondly, I love the flexibility that working from home brings (we do this most weeks for PPA time), but doing this more often throughout lockdowns had gradually blurred the lines between work and home. There wasn’t a physical distinction between the two, and I hadn’t put a clear enough boundary in place to counteract this. I also ended up doing more hours in the day as I (incorrectly) felt I’d done less than usual.

Finally, I'd taken on extra responsibility a few months before: I was passionate about this additional role, and the work involved was enjoyable and stimulating. I also knew that if I didn’t do it, no-one else would, and I really wanted this project to succeed. 

At this point, I didn’t know what to do to readdress the balance. I decided to pick up my own book and read it with fresh eyes. I expected the strategies written by a younger me would be naïve and impossible to achieve, but my skepticism soon evaporated and I was able to identify achievable changes that would make the biggest difference. I used its action planning tool to set the following targets to help me leave work at work; one physical, one emotional, one mental: 

1. Leaving my laptop at work every night

This was a simple but effective strategy that I’d been so good at following before the first lockdown: if your laptop/work phone/stack of marking isn’t with you at home, you can’t do the work, and you’re more likely to do restful or enjoyable things instead.

To help me do this, I prioritised laptop work before I left the building each day, and placed any remaining laptop tasks at the top of my to-do list for the next day. I also asked my wife and colleagues to hold me to account, to make sure I actually followed through on my plan; and did the same for my colleagues too.

I learned that while this ideal isn’t always achievable, it was more achievable than I'd remembered. 

2. Using the journey home to process the day and the emotions it provoked in me

I'd been using my bus journey to do extra admin work on my phone, and while this meant I could leave a little earlier, I often felt heavy and bogged down when I arrived home, rather than excited about the evening; there wasn’t any space between work and home as work only finished as I approached my front door.

On other occasions I was more snappy with my family: having more things going around my head placed me closer to overwhelm and it only took something small for my stress bucket to overflow. Other times, I was simply less present in the moment.

Being disciplined with how I managed my time on my journey home to create some contemplative space (again not every single time, but more often) helped my mind to feel less cluttered at the start of my non-working time, and I became more able to genuinely rest. 

3. Quickly jotting down, or letting go, of work-related thoughts at home, so I could be present in the moment

Sometimes we forget that thinking about work is still work, and we should treat it as such. I realised I’d been subconsciously feeling responsible for solving everyone’s problems and had taken it personally when things hadn’t gone to plan; this had caused me to work twice as hard to bring solutions, giving more of myself to work than I wanted to, and not sticking to the limits I would usually set.

Now I had more responsibility with my additional role, I had more problems to solve. I'm generally comfortable with a to-do list left uncompleted at the end of a working day, but I realised that I’d need to become comfortable with problems left unsolved as well. 

Over the coming weeks I put these steps into practice and saw my work/life rhythm return to one I was more happy with: not perfect, but better. There was space for the occasional evening of work on a task for my additional role that I enjoyed doing, but my work was more regularly left at work, instead of the norm being to take it home physically, emotionally, or mentally.

I’d also remembered the importance of stepping back, taking stock, and evaluating whether my current balance was what I wanted, so hopefully if this happens again I’ll be ready to take action.  

Even if a good work/life rhythm seems unattainable, there's always something we can do to make a change: and, over time, a series of small steps is likely to add up to significant alterations and a work/life rhythm you’re happier with. 

James Birchenough is a headteacher for one of Transforming Lives for Good (TLG)’s Education Centres – tlg.org.uk – and is the founder of Wellbeing for Educators and Leaders in Learning (WELL). He has written books about work/life balance for teachers, how SLT can create a supportive culture, and advice for trainee teachers, all of which are available at jamesbirchenough.wixsite.com/well 

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