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'Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint'

Just because you’re awake, it doesn't mean you should work – teachers need to time to rest, writes Fearghal O'Nuallain

Just like a marathon runner, a teacher needs to pace themselves - otherwise they will face burnout, writes Fearghal O'Nuallain

Running a marathon is very different to running a 10km race. I learned this lesson the hard way in 2006. I was in Cork and running my first marathon. The sun was shining and there was a festival atmosphere for race day. Everything was going great until my legs started cramping 15km in. It was my calves first and then my hamstrings. It was agony. I was doing so well. I was running hard with some serious athletes. As I bounded along for the first hour, I thought, "Maybe this is my thing? Maybe I’m an amazing long-distance runner? Maybe that’s my secret power?" It wasn’t, I’m not, it’s not.

I had made the schoolboy error of running too hard for the distance. I burned up all my reserves in the first hour of running then my muscles started to cramp. I finished the race by taking long breaks then hobbling the remaining distance.

I made the same mistake in my first years as a teacher.

“How many hours a week do you work?” My NQT supervisor asked me a month into my first term. “Around 50,” I said proudly. “I arrive at 8am each day and leave at 6pm”.

“And the weekend?” they asked. (I didn’t work at the weekend!) “I, errr, rest at the weekend,” I replied. “I meet friends and catch up with my family. That’s what weekends are for, isn’t it?” 

Teacher workload and wellbeing

He gave me a patronising glare. “Ah,” he said. “I think you’ll find that most of your colleagues work over the weekend.”

I added my school emails to my phone and saw that traffic was constant throughout the weekend. My colleagues were sending progress reports on Saturday nights and policy documents on Sunday mornings. 

I quickly fell into step with the school culture and started working all the time. A three-hour train journey on a Saturday? Do some marking. Sunday evening? Perfect time to plan for the week ahead. Easter holidays? A great opportunity to run booster sessions.

My sleep suffered and my health deteriorated. The inevitable happened and I burned out. I felt terrible. Why couldn’t I keep up? Did I just need to work harder at working harder? I was signed off for two weeks to recover. During that time, I spent a lot of time reconsidering my career choice. Was I cut out for teaching?

Then I remembered my first marathon. I recalled being bent over on the side of the road, clutching a cramping calf as I watched everyone run past at a much slower, but steady pace. I realised I was working too hard. I had started my teaching career as though it was a short dash for five years, not a marathon for 30. 

I’ve run marathons since, and I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve kept it slow and steady and finished without cramps. It’s all about settling into a comfortable pace. You can run hard and fast over a short distance but not for long. 

I’ve also learned to work at a sustainable pace. Just because you’re awake, it does not mean that you should work. Teachers need to rest and recover. We need time for friends and for family. We need hobbies and we need time to go running, however far we choose. 

Because there’s no point in having teachers who only last five years then run off to do something else. We need marathon runners who are in it for the long run.

Fearghal O'Nuallain is a teacher and author

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