Lay that burden down

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Jacqueline Wheble used to be so busy she didn't have time to walk the dog. Then Teachers' TV teamed her up with its life coach and her workload nightmare disappeared. David Mattin unpicks a modern miracle

When Jacqueline Wheble was promoted to assistant headteacher last year, she expected her workload to increase. The reality was shattering. "Paperwork was keeping me up till midnight every night," she says. "I saw my partner for about two minutes in the kitchen each evening. There wasn't even a spare moment to walk the dog. I was totally stressed."

Research by the National Association of Head Teachers suggests Ms Wheble's experience isn't unusual. In a survey of 1,800 schools carried out last November, the NAHT found that 38 per cent of all absences among headteachers were due to work-related stress, a rise of 26 per cent on 2004.

What's more, Ofsted says that under new requirements to allow teachers time away from classrooms for planning, preparation, and assessment - the PPA agreement - many heads and their deputies are being forced to take on more teaching. There's never been a more stressful time, it seems, to be a senior manager in a British school.

It's perhaps not surprising, therefore, that when Jacqueline Wheble - juggling teaching, assistant headteacher duties, and her role as behaviour support leader - spotted an advertisement on the Teachers' TV website promising a revolution in her work-life balance, she jumped at the chance.

In the upcoming series Ease the Load, life coach Gladeana McMahon shadows stressed teachers and explains how they can streamline their work, improve efficiency, and recover much needed spare time. "I just wanted to know what I was doing wrong," says Ms Wheble. "Other people seemed to manage; why couldn't I?"

Last December, Gladeana McMahon began observing Ms Wheble at her school, Pictor special school in Greater Manchester, and at home, and got her to complete a questionnaire. "It quickly became clear that Jacqueline's job was incredibly demanding, and that she lacked an organisational system,"

says Ms McMahon. "There were bits of paper at home, at school, and in between, and no way of knowing which bit she should turn to next.

"But at the heart of the problem was her thinking. Jacqueline was a classic perfectionist: highly conscientious but hamstrung by her own unrealistic expectations. And this is typical of the teachers I've seen for Ease the Load."

The good news was that Ms McMahon had a few simple techniques that could relieve the burden. "Gladeana was extremely forthright," says Jacqueline Wheble, "and also extremely perceptive. It was absolutely true that I had no system. I lugged three full bags of papers home every night, and tended to just dive in and pick a task I thought I could complete in the time available."

Gladeana McMahon's first move was to persuade Ms Wheble to adopt the A, B, C system of prioritising work. Into category A go all tasks that must be completed within 24 hours. Into B, all those that must be finished within a few days. And into C, those tasks that would be completed one day in an ideal world, but perhaps not ever in this one.

"Prioritising was a major issue," says Ms Wheble. "As was the need to break tasks down into small chunks. And third was the need to set clear deadlines, and write reminders in my diary. It sounds simple, but it amounted to a revelation."

But it would take more to achieve long-term change. It was time to crack that perfectionist attitude. "Key to Jacqueline's problem was her deep-seated idea that she ought to be able to clear everything on her plate, all the time," explains Ms McMahon. "That just wasn't realistic. It caused an all-or-nothing approach in which she wouldn't start a task she couldn't finish, which stopped her making any headway at all in many areas.

Adjusting to her new, busier job meant acknowledging that there would always be a queue of work, and that this is all right."

It was, says Jacqueline Wheble, a powerful insight. "I realised that, unconsciously, I'd believed that my problem was that I just wasn't working hard enough. I felt guilty, and that caused stress. Gladeana made me see how the job is so busy that there will always be more to do. I can't escape the backlog; I have to learn to manage it. It's a big shift in attitude.

Now the guilt has gone, and I feel in control."

Letting go of the self-defeating "I must do more" attitude also meant learning to delegate. A crash-course in assertiveness can also help, says Ms McMahon, when it comes to managing the expectations of colleagues and parents. "At senior management, a teacher's job suddenly becomes very different," she says. "Just like Jacqueline, new senior managers need to realise that it will take time to become proficient. Remember how hard classroom teaching seemed at first? Senior managers need more help to learn new ways of working."

David Tuck, headteacher at Dallow primary school in Luton, sits on the national council of the NAHT. He recommends the headteacher induction programme, managed by the National College of School Leadership, which allows headteachers in their first three years of service a grant of pound;3,000 to spend on their own training and development. Courses focus on developing leadership skills, and there is a mentoring segment.

"But, of course, more needs to be done to help senior management develop the right skills," he says. "People skills and financial planning have become such a big part of the job." Managing an annual budget is what all heads have to learn to do - pound;2 million in the case of Dallow primary.

Jacqueline Wheble's stint with Gladeana McMahon has transformed her working practice. The three bagloads of paper have been exchanged for three slim A, B, and C folders, and only "A" tasks make the journey home with her. There's no more sitting up until midnight either; she works two evenings a week, plus Sunday afternoons.

"Before, my work controlled me; now I control it," she says. "The fact that I've got a long 'to-do' list doesn't stress me out any more. I know I'm up to this job, and I'm so much happier."

There's even been time, at last, to walk the dog.

Ease the Load appears on Teachers' TV all week from Monday April 17, at 12pm and 8pm, as part of Mental Wellbeing Week. The episode featuring Jacqueline Wheble is on Thursday April 20 at 7.30pm and 9.30pm. The programmes can be downloaded at On May 12, Friday magazine starts a four-page forum on work-life balance. You can contribute to the debate at Go to 'Friday forum: motivation' in the Staffroom

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