Life lessons: My colleagues seem to work harder than me

Feel guilty when colleagues say how hard they're working? They're revealing their anxiety, says Tes' maven of manners

Thomas Blaikie

Maverick teachers: Where have all the eccentric teachers in schools gone?

Dear Thomas, 

I’m not coping well with colleagues who keep telling me how hard they’re working

They’re working all the time, they say. One teacher has even said he’s abandoning a family meal in the evenings so he can do even more work. They’re just going to have sandwiches. 

I’m alternately angry and guilty. I think I work pretty hard, but is it enough? 

Naman Bhattacharaya

Workload: My teacher colleagues all talk about how hard they're working

Dear Naman, 

I don’t like the sound of the sandwich regime – from the health point of view as much as anything else. 

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: teachers work essentially in isolation, alone in the classroom. How do we ever know if we’re doing a good enough job? 

If the pupils bolt from the room, or riot, then it’s clear enough. But usually the signals are ambiguous: low-level boredom, mild enthusiasm, now and again a wild success and, equally infrequently, a catastrophic failure. Just like life itself, really. 

So: ideal conditions for anxiety to fester and spread. Enough is never enough. We must do more and more. We can never stop. 

I like to think, looking at it more generally, that it was Mrs Thatcher who started this mania for work. When, in 1984, she emerged from the Grand Hotel Brighton after it had been bombed by the IRA with her inside it, she barked at waiting reporters, “Yes, I was working.” 

Except, judging by recent documentaries, this never happened. It’s just my imagination. But certainly she was famous for sitting up all night working, and was rumoured to take electric baths (whatever they might be) in Shepherd’s Bush to keep her going. 

In fact, Mrs Thatcher’s idea of a society of individuals all beavering virtuously away to gain their just rewards was hardly new in Britain. It has its origin in much Christian morality, with its intermittent loathing of idleness and pleasure-seeking. 

After the Industrial Revolution came the notion that human beings ought to be like machines, whirring away all the time, not breaking down, and – most importantly – saving time.

This unfortunate mechanical model persists to this day in our educational system, with its obsession with tests and exams

Writhing in agonies of self-doubt on the floor of your cell

On top of all this, there’s the important feeling that teaching is a vocation, not a job. This is all very well, except when it is taken almost literally. Indeed, you are a nun or a monk, writhing in agonies of self-doubt and fervent prayer on the floor of your cell, eating only the occasional dry crust – or sandwiches. This is your calling, and if you’re anything less than wracked, there’s something wrong with you. 

As you quietly suggest, colleagues frequently find it necessary to advertise their dedication and long hours. Their cars will be first in the car park in the morning, luminous with virtue. They express astonishment if somebody went out on a “school night”. 

Once I came across a fellow-teacher photocopying at lunchtime with a special air of drama and martyrdom. It turned out he was copying materials for a child who’d left the school. 

In fact, now I think about it, this feverish atmosphere of incessant work is really created by people going on about it. Places where work really is being carried out at an intense level, such as accountants’ offices, are rather calm and peaceful. 

It’s not difficult to see that much of this isn’t quite right. The debate about work-life balance has been going on for decades, after all. How much of this “working” is defensive? Somehow hours of dreary grind will drive away the constant low-level anxiety that is the teacher’s lot. Doing what exactly? 

Trying to solve all your pupils’ problems isn’t necessarily the best educational approach. They must achieve independence eventually. 

So how do you deal with this excessive work zealotry if it has set in in your school? Not easy. A young teacher I know found herself affronting entrenched puritanical ideals of vocation and self-sacrifice when she asked for more pay. 

It’s always challenging, in any workplace, to suggest that everybody might do less. Accusations of being unprofessional – or worse, not caring – will flow. But it might well be more professional and more caring to ease off a little, or even a lot. 

You can try to see your colleagues’ drumbeat of “Yes, I was working” for what it is: a manifestation of anxiety. If you feel the problem is widespread in your school, you might try to do something about it. Get together with some other teachers who share your view (if you can find them) and ask to see the appropriate senior manager

Colleagues: the ultimate food-disposal unit

What to do about leftovers? This isn’t a food column, I hear you cry. Well, I know that. 

I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time, but have held back in the current circumstances. However, the staffroom is a marvellous place to dispose of any excess food you happen to have. 

If you’d had a party (back in the days when parties were something people had – or went to) and were left with 4 million uneaten cheese straws, or you were given too many boxes of chocs for your birthday, well, just put them in the staffroom and they’ll be vulture-ed, or really piranha-ed, away in seconds. Very satisfying if you have a tidy mind. 

At least this is what happened in my day. I do hope some awful food-safety rule hasn’t intervened since. I think they tried to stop the Women’s Institute selling homemade jam but got nowhere.

What I do know for sure is that a young maths teacher of my acquaintance distributed pieces of his 30th birthday cake to his colleagues recently without incident or consequences.

So food is still going strong in the staffroom. Cake especially, I should imagine. 

Thomas Blaikie was a secondary English teacher for 25 years. He is author of Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners (4th Estate)

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