Get a life

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Teaching and living a full life need not be mutually exclusive concepts. Cassandra Hilland suggests how to make more time for yourself

The "overworked and underpaid" teacher is a national stereotype, and it is easy for NQTs to be disheartened by reports of poor conditions. The truth is that teaching conditions are changing, and can even favour the recently qualified. "Overworked and underpaid" does not have to be the reality.

Your first year needn't kill you. There are several ways to ensure you don't overload yourself, get enough rest, and - yes - even have a social life too!

Let's start with the bane of an NQT's life - marking. Ploughing through essay after essay often gives teachers too little free time and too much stress. Marking used to give me nightmares. Once I dreamt that all the words kept rearranging themselves on the page and I had to keep marking everything again and again.

"Marking stress" usually comes from an inability to mark fast enough without sacrificing quality. Conscientious NQTs lug all the excess home with them, stay up till one in the morning to finish it all, then have the same problem the next week, getting more and more worn down.

I resolved the problem in several ways. Firstly, I reconsidered how much knowledge had to be assessed in written format. I pared it down to three main essays a term - one for each major topic. I built in more essay preparation lessons since the students said they found this beneficial.

I supplemented the essays with other forms of assessment: interviews, presentations or extended assignments. This put the onus back on to the students to learn more independent study methods. If I had a large set, I would sometimes reverse things by setting students a timed essay to be done in class, and making revision for the timed essay their previous homework.

There is no law against occasionally marking in class time, as long as your students are occupied. If pssible use, say, form 5A's class time to mark form 5A's work - and tell them this is what you are doing! The students quickly get on with other tasks because they know you are marking their essays "for them".

This method also works as a form of class management - you glare at the mutterers at the back and warn that you are about to mark their essay.

Get the most from your breaks every day. So many teachers work through their breaks as a matter of course. If you don't give your body and brain a rest, the cracks soon show. Lots of people try to pounce on teachers during breaks - anxious students, line managers, colleagues - so prioritise. Make appointments to see your students in a free period if their problem looks time-consuming. Have set days each week when you are there to discuss things. Formal meetings should cover most of them anyway. If anyone wants to "see you at lunch" about something, firmly tell them you eat lunch in the canteen. You never know, they might even come with you!

Do one activity a week that has nothing to do with education. Make sure it's something new and enjoyable. I found a ceramics evening class therapeutic - pounding the stresses of the day into lumps of clay helped me switch off and get things in perspective.

If there isn't a class you like, then set one up. I recently organised a life drawing class in this way, and it strengthened friendships with both students and staff.

Keeping healthy is also important. If you feel unfit and sluggish, it affects performance. Force yourself to exercise before or after work. After a while it becomes pretty painless - honest! It's also a good way to meet new people. Teaching can be a lonely job.

If you are going out with friends, avoid talking about teaching, even with other teachers. And if you can't think of anything else to talk about, then you should get out more!

Cassandra Hilland teaches English at Farnham College, Surrey

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