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Geoff Barton: 'Why I'll be checking my school emails over Christmas'


Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, writes:

If you’re reading this, it may be a sign that you haven’t entirely left work behind, even here in the deepest recesses of the festive season.

For some of us, switching off from the day job seems to get harder and it may be because the boundaries between work and home have increasingly blurred.

Here’s an example. Last week a parent sent me a furious email. "You people never take us seriously," she said. Her complaint was about our school’s communication. She said that she had emailed her concern to a member of staff, a teacher, and she still hadn’t received yet a reply.

She had waited one hour – yes, one hour - before contacting me to complain.

The member of staff concerned had taught a full timetable that day and, even if she hadn’t, I’d like to think that teachers give priority to planning lessons and marking work rather than responding in haste to vituperative emails.

Welcome to the brave new world of educational leadership where a parent expects a solution to a complex issue within one hour. And of course emails like that come in at all times of the day and night, meaning that whilst we might physically leave school life behind us, its issues and communication about them can follow us into the evenings, the weekends and the holidays.

A simple answer, of course, is to lock down email in order to hermetically seal ourselves off from work issues. It’s akin to shouting at your brain and telling it to switch off, but I’m not sure how realistic that is.

A few years back I decided that on summer holiday in France I would briefly check my emails twice a day. This reduced my stress levels much more than having previously insisted on never looking at messages. A quick skim of the issues was enough to reassure me that there was nothing I needed to worry about. The holiday could resume. It also stopped that sickening feeling I used to get at the ends of holidays, knowing I was returning to more than a hundred emails and not knowing what kind of issues might lurk within them.

This was, in other words, a way of managing worry. Instead of getting stressed about what might be lurking, we can – in Donald Rumsfeld’s famous phrase – turn unknown unknowns into known unknowns.

And so it will be this Christmas.

I’ll do exactly what I am looking forward to doing – retreating into the unrealistic mountain of books I have set aside, spending time with family and friends.

But, like most of us, the thoughts of work, the issues to be dealt with in the new year, the training day arrangements, publication of performance tables and later results – all of these will continue to surface, playing out in thoughts and dreams across the holiday period.

Increasingly it feels unrealistic to think that we can ever switch from one mode of operation (work) into one that’s totally separate (home).

Which is why you shouldn’t feel too guilty for reading this today, nor me for writing it.

Happy Christmas.

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