Love? You should be so lucky

14th February 2003 at 00:00
It's Valentine's Day and you're single and looking for a relationship. Well tough, there's marking to be done. Janet Murray explains why romance can be so hard to find when you're a teacher

It's Friday night and Emma Hardy's flatmates are getting ready to go out.

There's music blasting out of the sound system and a pile of empty wine bottles in the kitchen. They're planning to visit a new bar in town, but Emma won't be joining them. She'll probably have a soak in the bath and a glass of wine in front of the television, where she'll fall asleep.

Emma, 28, is a primary school teacher in Liverpool. Despite having been in the job for more than three years, she's still finding it difficult to find time for a social life. "I work so hard during the week that when it comes to the weekend all I want to do is sleep," she says. "I'm too tired to socialise, especially on Friday. I've usually perked up by Saturday and manage a night out then, but Sunday is always spent catching up on marking and planning lessons for the next week." So it's no surprise that Emma is single. "I'd love to meet someone," she says. "But I just can't see where I'd find the time to hold down a relationship."

Paula Allen, 31, who teaches history at a secondary school in Kent, agrees.

"Teaching completely takes over your life," she says. "Everyone tells you it's going to be hard, but I really don't think you fully understand how much it's going to affect your life. I've been single for five years now and I'm not hopeful about meeting someone. I take work home every evening, so I don't usually go out on weekday nights. And at weekends I often just want to collapse in front of the TV."

The problem is not exclusive to teachers. According to Cary Cooper, Bupa professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, excessive working hours prevent many young people from meeting a partner. "It's a huge problem for twenty and thirtysomethings in every walk of life," he says. "Young people are working harder and harder. When they come home they haven't got the energy to socialise, which means they're not getting the opportunity to meet potential partners.

"It's worse for teachers because they bring their work home with them. And then there are after-school commitments such as parents' evenings and school concerts. Many teachers even give up their holidays to take children on school trips."

His comments are borne out by a workload survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCooper in 2001, which found that teachers and headteachers work more intensive weeks than other managers and professionals. Those without management responsibilities were working 52 hours, compared to 42 for other professionals in comparable positions. And headteachers'

workloads were, on average, 300 to 400 hours higher than other jobs with similar levels of responsibility - even when holidays are taken into account.

With so little time to spare, forming and maintaining relationships can become a low priority. Professor Cooper believes this is due to teachers'

personality types. "People who work in the public sector are, by definition, dedicated. They feel they have an obligation to the parents, community, the children they teach. They are committed to their vocation, which is great news for those they teach, but has huge personal costs." So it's hardly surprising that many teachers are turning to other ways of meeting people.

The online dating agency Dateline reports that there are more teachers on its books than any other profession - one in 30. There's even a dedicated online dating service for teachers, provided by the educational website eteach, in association with DatingDirect.com.

Mark Patton, 30, is a primary teacher from Derby. He joined a dating agency last year, after moving to a new school to take up a deputy headship. "I'd just broken up with my girlfriend of six years and I was feeling low," he says. "I thought moving to a new area would give me a fresh start and I hoped I might meet someone. But when I got to the school, I realised that most of the staff were middle-aged married women. Being a deputy head meant longer hours and greater responsibility and I began to feel really isolated. Teaching can be stressful and I missed having someone to talk things over with, which is partly why I joined a dating agency."

It is a commonly held view that many people meet their partners at work. So why aren't teachers doing just that? For women teachers - who make up more than two-thirds of the workforce - the answer may be that they never meet men at work other than the 50-year-old married headteacher and Ron the caretaker.

Relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam believes working conditions are to blame. "Teaching can be quite isolating. You work alone for a good proportion of the day and there's relatively little contact with adults.

The staffroom can be a small pool to pull from, particularly in primary schools. And even in large secondary schools the maximum staff may be 120, most of whom you may not interact with during the working day. The staff will often encompass a wide age range, many of whom will already be married."

And it's not just younger teachers who complain that it's difficult to find a partner. Professor Cooper believes it can be even more difficult for teachers in their forties and fifties. "For more experienced teachers, finding a partner can be more difficult because their job has been stressful for a number of years; they may even have lost their marriage as a consequence. And it's these teachers who often have a management role that means they're putting in even more time than chalkface staff. They need companionship, but there's little personal time."

Paul Edwards knows. At 48, he's climbed as far as he wants to go and is now an assistant head at a school in Northampton. He is financially secure, takes two or three holidays abroad each year, but doesn't have a partner.

"I used to put in long hours when I was a classroom teacher," he explains.

"Now I'm on the management team, the hours are crazy. I arrive at 7am and rarely leave before 7pm. I'm on the PTA, so I'm often out two or three nights a week, attending functions and management meetings."

Many teachers have high hopes for the agreement signed by the Government and all the teaching unions bar the NUT aimed at cutting workload. This could mean a reduction in hours, a limit on providing cover for absent colleagues, guaranteed planning time during the school day and more time for those in leadership roles to fulfil their duties. Which should mean a better work-life balance. But the measures are to be implemented gradually over the next two years, so don't dust down your party frock just yet.

What can teachers do in the meantime? Tom Lewis, of the Teacher Support Network, says overworked teachers need to consider the ways they can free up time in their professional lives to allow for more personal time. "It's important to put boundaries on school work," he says. "This means developing assertiveness and remembering that you do have the right to negotiate and to say no. There's no magic formula, because everyone is different, but, for many teachers, consciously freeing up time to pursue a hobby, interest or just see friends or family can be liberating. It's saying to yourself 'this is my time' and believing it."

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