A lot to keep up

1st February 2008 at 00:00
'If you want something done, ask a busy person' is an apt phrase for teachers. Alison Brace has a quick chat with those who are happy to have every night filled.

Teachers are not known for resting on their laurels: the daily challenge of sparking the enthusiasm of 30 youngsters who would perhaps rather be elsewhere means they are constantly kept on their toes.

But look around any staffroom and there are always those who go the extra mile, whose busyness extends way beyond the school gates.

While you're running just to keep up with the planning, the marking and the latest raft of Government directives, they take on more.

Helen Langton is one of those people. She speaks quickly, eats quickly and races around on her bike everywhere. It is a bit of a joke among friends of the 37-year-old English and drama teacher that she's so busy.

During term time she juggles three days a week at The Green School for Girls in Isleworth, south west London, with a mind-boggling timetable of different commitments.

Helen is a governor at both her daughters' schools: she was vice-chairwoman at Orleans Infants in Twickenham until last year and now heads the school's quality and standards committee. She has been a parent governor at nearby St Stephen's Church of England Junior School for the past 18 months.

And that's just for starters. She also tutors pupils for 11 and 13-plus exams and runs a sideline business as a clothes stylist for those on a tight budget. For three years she was a freelance writer for Scholastic Books and last summer she managed to squeeze in a relay triathlon.

Her secret? "I'm really strict about my timings - and I try to fit everything into a school day. The 3.30 to 7pm slot is dedicated to family.

"I come from a family of teachers and I have always lived my life in very busy six-week blocks. But holidays are when the phone gets switched off and we are very much off duty and just a family." Helen credits husband Phil, 38, with making her extra curricular work possible. "He's always positive and he appreciates that I achieve a lot. I know I have manic tendencies and he is the perfect foil."

Not that Phil is exactly the lazybones of the house: he is head of biology at Hampton School, a boys' independent school in south west London, a committed triathlete and head of men's tennis at a local club. He also runs the family allotment.

"There's always been a 5050 split on the cooking, the cleaning, shopping and childcare," says Helen. "Phil does his bit. My main worry is that I risk spreading myself too thinly, but I do thrive on it and I cannot imagine life any differently."

A look around any staffroom will reveal teachers who are prepared to go the extra mile. Kay Donegan, a 61-year-old teacher from Erskine, Renfrewshire, has been a primary teacher in the Glasgow area for nearly 34 years. For almost 21 years she has also been a Samaritan, working night shifts and dealing with distressed callers. She is in her second year as chairwoman of the Samaritans' Glasgow branch.

Her commitment to them varies but a glance at her diary reveals that the next five weekends will be given over to Samaritans meetings.

"It's my choice and nobody's forcing me to do it and I also have a very supportive husband," she says.

As chairwoman of her branch and a trainer, she is responsible for 170 volunteers handling 40,000 calls a year. So how does she juggle the demands of the Samaritans and working five days a week as a consultant teacher in Glasgow primary schools?

"Working for the Samaritans can be distressing but I've never felt it has interfered with my teaching," says Kay. "You walk into the branch and go into Samaritan mode. The support you get from other volunteers means you can go away and switch into home or school mode."

Andrina McCormack, a chartered psychologist, says that being able to compartmentalise tasks is one of the hallmarks of a busy person. It was Lucille Ball, the Hollywood actress, who coined the phrase: "If you want something done, ask a busy person". Her films may have dated, but her wisdom remains a universal truth. With good reason, says Dr McCormack.

"Generally busy people have good organisational and time-management skills, they are able to prioritise and they allocate time to when it is most usefully effective.

"If somebody says to them, 'can you do this?' They know exactly how much free time they have got and if they can fit it in."

In general, teachers are well placed to fit the busy people mode, says Dr McCormack. "Teachers should be well organised to cope with the pressures of a job where you stand in front of 30 children hour after hour and have to keep them occupied."

Busy people, she says, tend to be self-motivated and have targets that they are aiming for. They also have another key skill: they value their free time.

Never too busy

Becky Dibble doesn't seem to have a free moment. The 25-year-old science teacher at Portchester Community School near Fareham in Hampshire is busy doing something every evening of the week - and she wouldn't have it any other way.

Becky has been running a Girl Guides' Rangers unit from the age of 18 and regularly takes groups of girls away on camps at home and abroad.

She is also a ballroom dancer with Anthony, her husband, competing at just below championship level.

At school, she runs the Duke of Edinburgh award unit, which involves weekly evening training sessions and up to eight weekends training in a forest. She is also a school governor. "It can be quite stressful at times," says Becky, who has dancing lessons three nights a week. "I have one guise that is fake tan, glitter and dresses and the other that is mud and walking boots."

But she's not complaining. "It is quite a juggling act but I have to keep busy and I wouldn't change it for the world. I had all these opportunities when I was a kid and flourished under them. I just want to give them back, particularly to some of those kids who are not the most privileged."

Becky's Diary

Monday: School followed by Duke of Edinburgh award session until 6.30pm. Dance lesson from 8pm until 9pm.

Tuesday: School followed by staff meeting until 4.30pm. Dance lesson from 7-8pm and then dance practice until 10pm.

Wednesday: School followed by club to help pupils with coursework until 4.30pm. Dance lessons from 6.30pm to 7.30pm. Rest of night off.

Thursday: School followed by lesson planning until 10pm.

Friday: School followed by Rangers meeting from 7-9pm.

Saturday: Duke of Edinburgh training in the forest from 9am to 5pm.

Sunday: 9am apply fake tan. Leave at noon for dance competition and return between 9pm and 10pm.

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