My advice to teachers: before it's too late, find a healthy work-life balance

7th February 2016 at 10:00
picture of college workload rising mergers
One college leader mulls over a career of work-life imbalance

This is a cautionary tale for those of you who have difficulty with your work-life balance. Perhaps now, more than ever, is the right time to assess whether you might be able to make some subtle but effective changes so that you can focus more on your life away from work.

My wife and I married in 1976. In November 2014 we celebrated 38 years of marriage. Externally, things looked good and we had a lot to show for our time together: three daughters, five grandchildren, a nice home and a good circle of friends. However, Caroline was 20 months on from a diagnosis of cancer and, while for the most part was in good spirits, the long-term prognosis wasn’t good. Sadly, she died in January 2015 and her passing has led me to reflect on my contribution to our relationship.

In summary, I think that I could and should have done better. Often, I didn’t strike the right balance between work and home, and it is fair to say that our family life would have been richer if I had replicated the effort I put into work.

Family life? 'Requires improvement'

In Ofsted parlance, I like to think that I could have scraped a “good” but the stark truth is that the most likely judgement would have been “requires improvement”.

In my working life, I can claim to have been more successful. Although not especially clever, I benefited from a confidence level that exceeded my ability and, when coupled with high levels of resilience and determination, it meant that I was destined to succeed.

My rapid rise through the ranks was in no small measure due to my work ethic. I started as an apprentice bricklayer at the age of 15. I had no qualifications and worked my way through the various job roles in education.

Over the years, I have been a sixth-form college principal, an inspector at Ofsted, a director of education and, for the past decade, I have been an FE college principal.

While it was less obvious in my early career, for the past 20-plus years, I have been more ambitious, more determined to succeed and more focused than my peers. I loved my work and did everything I could to ensure that I was truly match-fit. This included being an assiduous reader of everything work-related and even spending 10 weeks at Harvard developing my strategic thinking and leadership skills.

'Excessive hours'

In 2013, I changed my role and became the part-time chief executive for the college.

The trigger for this had been some quite serious health worries of my own, but the part-time role proved invaluable during my wife’s illness and it has afforded me an ideal opportunity for reflection.

My personal ambition drove me to work incredibly hard and for a long time, I was in a minority. Over the past decade, the number of staff working excessive hours has grown exponentially and for many this isn’t driven by an innate desire to progress to senior roles.

There has been a noticeable gender change in education, with an increasing number of women at all levels. While many women have an ambition level that matches mine, there is also a large group who do not, but who are incredibly committed to their work and, in an environment of diminishing resources within the public sector, find themselves working ever harder to meet the various demands of the job.

I am now eight months from my retirement date and I can see the financial benefits of my career in terms of my current salary and future pension. Despite this, I am not at all convinced that I always made the right choices.

There is now no chance that I can deliver on all those things that my wife and I had planned to do in my post-work period.

Stephen Grix is chief executive of MidKent College


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