To achieve success, teachers and school leaders need to form and nurture strong relationships. These strong relationships are a school’s currency, the means by which things get done.
Relationships, however, are an exhausting and messy business and require the use of your whole self to keep going, and must be navigated while all your energy and attention is centred on the task at hand. Everyone who has ever worked in a school is familiar with the feeling of emerging from the front door at teatime, blinking in the daylight or appalled by how dark it has got, wondering where the past eight hours have gone.
The type of people who work in schools – these people so committed to good relationship – are not known for doing things by halves. To be any good at teaching, you have to jump in with both feet, shoulder a workload heavy enough to fell a musk ox and become a master relationship builder and communicator all at once.
Teaching is an addictive, all-consuming profession, full of dizzying highs when it goes well and soul-shuddering lows when it does not – in short, it is not a career that lends itself well to balance.
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And yet balance is exactly what is required if teachers and school leaders are to survive.
There is a scene in the Steven Spielberg classic Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison Ford – in his iconic Indiana Jones guise – attempts to switch a heavy bag of sand for a priceless golden idol in a booby-trapped temple: get the weight right and he will be granted safe passage; get the weight wrong and all hell will break loose, in the form of a giant boulder that will crush everything in its path. Indy eyes the artefact on its rigged plinth, letting sand run through his fingers as he judges the exact weight needed to safely switch out the treasure.
Indiana Jones' lesson on teacher wellbeing
It is an incredibly fine balance and there is a lot at stake if he gets that balance wrong – and finding that exact counterpoint is essential for educators, too. It is not called "work-life balance" for nothing.
Teachers and school leaders stand in front of a treasure of their own: the Holy Grail of doing the job to the best of their ability. But to grab the gold they must give something in return. Deciding how much of yourself to give is that bag of sand: how much of your energy, enthusiasm and time do you choose to part with? Because the job will take all of it if you let it.
None of us has just one full-time job. As well as the one that brings in the money, we also moonlight in many other roles, often simultaneously. Being a partner, son, daughter, carer, supporter and friend are all other job titles we hold. Teachers who are parents leave school and immediately recommence their other full-time job, often calling home and getting started before even reaching the car park.
The point here is that, yes, you could use up all your sand in pursuit of perfection, that perfect treasure. You could let all your time and energy run through your fingers and pour every last grain into your job. But what will be left of you if you do? Far better to find that delicate balance. Make a conscious decision about how much you are willing to give. Hold tight to the job titles that matter most (hint: these probably aren’t the ones you get paid for) and ensure you’ve got something left for the people who really need and deserve the best of you.
It is true that this might result in you aiming for "good enough" rather than perfection, once you have reached acceptance that your marking tray or inbox will simply have to wait because your family comes first. But it is far better than the alternative.
So, find your balance and don’t let it go – and, if you see a giant boulder rolling toward you, run.
Susan Ward is an education support officer and a former primary school headteacher