I knew a colleague, many moons ago, who was impossible to track down. Whenever I swung past his classroom, he was elsewhere.
Reprographics, perhaps? Departmental office? He was a ghost. And yet, I surmised, he had to be somewhere: his jacket was often found to be hanging casually on the back of his chair.
It was some time later when I discovered the truth.
“That’s my decoy coat,” he told me, proud as a peacock. “I chuck that there when I want people to think I haven’t left early.”
Reader, he always left early.
Now the days are lasting longer and the urge to get out and embrace marginally better weather is hard to resist, I’m reminded of that ex-colleague, and find myself thinking, specifically, about the politics of leaving work early. I wonder, truly, whether staying late at school necessarily means you're working smarter.
Workload: Is it wrong to leave work early?
Signing-out machines are common in many schools now, and often prompt the staff to record their reasons for leaving the site, whether for medical reasons or meetings, or simply because they’ve “finished for the day”.
These choices are presented to staff whether it’s half three or half six. And, while it’s unlikely such monitoring was designed primarily to seed leaver’s guilt, those individuals who break out in a cold sweat at the idea of being the last car in the car park surely see such technology as a kind of early finisher’s sword of Damocles.
But they really shouldn’t worry about it. I’ve known heads of departments with childcare responsibilities who slip away from school just after the final bell, and still do a great job on top of multiple roles within the school. These days, it’s easy to access emails and Class Charts, or similar software, from home.
As long as the teacher is able to manage their time efficiently, and things are running smoothly in the classroom, it surely can’t be a problem if a member of staff is clocking out at 4pm from time to time. Goodness knows, there’s enough pressure on teachers already without forcing them to stay late every day.
Working smarter, not working longer
In the past, I felt awful if I left before other members of my department. I was the only one with children, and would work through lunch and every spare minute to get my lessons prepared for the following day, lugging my marking home with me.
I wasn’t leaving hugely early (I thought), and probably hardly ever before 5pm. But I couldn’t help but feel bad whenever I’d announce my departure to my head of department, especially when she’d turn to me and say, “I don’t blame you,” in such a way that made it clear blame was indeed being apportioned.
It really is all about working smart. Frankly, it’s easy to potter and dither at the end of the working day. Most of us are far more productive in the morning, after mainlining a pint of coffee and before the first class-load of energy-sapping learners rocks up to that classroom door.
Staying until 7pm every day – as a classroom teacher – isn’t sustainable, especially if you’re working in your evenings and over the weekend, too. And staying late doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working harder than everybody else. It could even mean you’re not as well-organised as you thought you were.
I’m not saying everyone should start leaving a decoy coat on the back of their chair. But it’s not the biggest crime in the world if you slip off earlier than usual from time to time.
In fact, to avoid burnout, it’s sometimes essential. Goldman Sachs-style hours at the desk aren’t likely to reward teachers with much beyond extremely tetchy period-five lessons.
Paul Read is a teacher and writer