'Teachers must throw off the shackles of overwork and find time for their hobbies too'

One head of department calls for teachers to remember there is more to life than school work

Stephen Petty

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The scene: A packed and steaming old village hall, December 2015. I am standing proudly at the front of the stage, alongside five fellow members of the Australian men's national synchronised swimming team. For it be the season of pantomime and we are part of “The Story of Sinbad the Sailor” – sort of.  One by one we introduce ourselves to the audience. Stereotypes ahoy! 

Me: “Hello, the name’s Bruce Walladingo. Ever heard of me?”

Audience: “No”

Me: “Oh? That’s strange…because I’m really big Down Under” 

And so it continues. In fact it has been continuing since the first rehearsal back in September. This is my first venture into acting (and synchronised swimming)  yet I can safely say that this unlikely experience has helped to make it one of the most memorable and enjoyable terms of my teaching career. 

I know what you are thinking, and I too used to believe that I could not possibly afford the time for this. What would happen to all that nightly merry-go-round of marking and planning? Year after year I turned down the producer’s kind offer of an, er, small part. How could I possible find the time to attend all the rehearsals, learn my lines, engage with all the method acting involved in taking on such a nuanced role?  

But this time I just decided to stop thinking like that. “Oh yes I would” do it this time. I can honestly say that my students will not have noticed any resultant deterioration in the quality of the teaching and learning. (Some unkind people would suggest that there may be an obvious reason for that.) If anything the students have perhaps benefited from a little extra spring in my step this term – the jokes may have been a little cornier, there may have been a few more lapses into farce. They have, I hope, simply noticed a teacher just that little bit happier in his work.

Sometimes the tentacles of teaching really do stretch out into our whole lives  – and of course many of my evenings and chunks of weekends have continued to be all about schoolwork – and yet the many hours lost to the stage really have not been detrimental to my work. Sometimes I think we allow those tentacles to wrap around us too easily. 

Some of you may be familiar with the book Nudge. It’s essentially about leadership and persuasion methods – the sort of book a headteacher gets given for Christmas whether they want it or not. Well, I say forget Nudge. The book I'd advise heads and all other teachers to read would be called  “Nudge Nudge” – a fitting allusion to the world of pantomime double-entendre made famous in a Monty Python sketch.  

The “Nudge Nudge” approach to work does not, of course, suggest that every teacher takes up pantomime next year and starts making similar suggestive comments about their anatomy, "growth mindsets" and the like. The message is a much broader one than that. It is about teachers adopting a new attitude of mind, about throwing caution to the wind and finally committing to things that we want to do in our regular lives, not just waiting and “surviving” until the next holiday. It is about teachers reclaiming more evenings and weekends for themselves – and realising that it may actually help our work rather than be a hindrance. 

Of course the job makes huge demands on our time. “Nudge Nudge” is not saying that everything is fine and fair in the world of teaching. I still feel those tentacles and I still work very hard at home. But there are manageable, life-enhancing opportunities for all of us out there, and I am now convinced that they should be taken. Do not believe those who tell us that it is about "being a teacher or having a life". Enjoy life a bit more and we will enjoy teaching a lot more.  

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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