Work-life balance is an enigma – we all want it, but it’s so elusive.
Most government initiatives supporting work-life balance rely on formal HR policies, such as the right to request flexible working. However, flexible hours of work are not always possible in many teaching roles. Besides being in the classroom, teachers also have to do ‘back office’ activities to ensure that they can engage with other staff and be there for pupil and parent queries after school has ended.
On top of this, many teachers have families or other personal commitments of their own, which also require time and energy. And, family demands change over time ─ and are not always predictable. As my daughters have grown older, I’ve found that teenagers want to talk to you when they want to, not when you have time for a chat.
Luckily, my boss is very sympathetic to flexible and remote working, as long as I get the day job done and my students are happy.
Of course, it’s not always that easy for teachers. Their pupils need them in the classroom, which makes it difficult for them to work from home or take too much time off. It can sometimes feel as though flexible working simply isn’t an option and that there is no way to achieve a level of work-life balance that allows you to comfortably fit personal commitments around your teaching.
Asking for support
But “flexible working” does not always have to mean switching to a part-time contract or leaving your colleagues in the lurch every other week while you attend to family matters.
Our research has shown that it is often ad hoc and informal offers of support that make a big difference. For example, having the license to ask parents to come and see you on another day if they have requested to meet on Thursday, when it is really important that you leave on time that day to take your son to football practice.
Sometimes work can’t be avoided or moved, but many parents have been in similar situations and will understand. Likewise, it is important to let your colleagues know when you might need a bit of “flex”. Other people are not mind-readers and won’t know what’s helpful unless you tell them.
And it is equally important that school leaders make it clear to staff that they are within their rights to rearrange meetings with parents or to make informal requests for a bit of leeway. Senior leaders should consider having a whole-school policy that sets out guidelines for flexible working around set teaching hours, to make sure that staff members are clear on where they stand. Sometimes just knowing that you have the option to ask for support can make a world of difference.
Encouraging a more flexible culture might cause a few headaches initially, but ultimately, having such “give and take” in our working lives is good for everyone. Happy teachers mean happy children and a happy school environment.
Dr. Almuth Mcdowall is a senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London.