'My peers are all accountants, lawyers, City traders...

26th May 2006 at 01:00
'My peers are all accountants, lawyers, City traders. They might have the Ferrari... but many are jealous of the time I spend with my son'

Worklife balance is no longer the stuff of staffroom whingeing. It's now out in the political arena and has become the business of government and teacher unions, part of the growing recognition that worklife balance is essential to an effective workforce.

In the third of four forums on getting the balance right, head of department Joe Thomas (pictured left) tells how his family is now a priority. He has tightened up on his organisational skills, shifting as much work as possible while still at school, and spending less time on disciplinary issues. "I don't get sidetracked into discussion with a disruptive student; I don't spend time agonising any more; I get them out of the room, give them a chance to cool down and deal with them on the spot."

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In the too-cruel dark days not so long ago, Charlie Thomas was curling up for his morning nap just as his teacher father - who had been up since 4am covering the early morning child-minding shift at home - geared up for a lesson with Year 8. Joe Thomas, 36, possibly felt like putting his head down beside his son. But the day job called. He would gather his strength, brush himself down and head off for work at 8am, chin up and shipshape.

It's better now Charlie's reached the giddy heights of two. He sleeps until 6am and things are looking up for his father, head of English at Smestow secondary school in Wolverhampton. Rising two hours later at 6am means Joe Thomas can cope with just about anything. A bout of Noddy, followed by Year 8, is as tolerable as a glass of chardonnay. Almost.

When Charlie was on the way, Joe Thomas decided that time for family would be a priority in his working life. His wife, a City lawyer, had given up her better-paid post to become a full-time mum and Mr Thomas, though the breadwinner, wanted to be a hands-on dad. Funnily enough, he says, it has made him more efficient. "I suppose I've adopted the shire horse mentality; get up and get on with it." He has tightened up on his organisational skills, shifting as much work as possible while still at school, and spending less time on disciplinary issues with pupils.

"I started off in teaching being friendly and laid-back (he has been at Smestow since he was a newly-qualified teacher 12 years ago). Now I've got the big boots on; students know where the line is and that beyond there is no negotiation. They respond to that. I'm not aggressive. I still use interpersonal skills - so much relies on that - but students like the firm but fair approach. I don't get sidetracked into discussion with a disruptive student. I don't spend time agonising any more; I get them out of the room, give them a chance to cool down and deal with them on the spot."

Mr Thomas believes he is able to make time for work, family and hobby (he paints one night a week) because he likes the challenging, lively nature of the pupils at the school, and because he has chosen to live just a few minutes down the road. Travel time is reduced and he enjoys meeting his students around and about; he believes it leads to improved relationships.

A local lad himself (a former pupil of Wolverhampton grammar) he has a commitment to living and teaching in a community. "There's never a dull moment. I feed off the energy of the students."

He oversees a department of eight and says he is lucky in two things; having a bunch of colleagues who pull together, cover for each other and are there for the students, and having a deputy head teaching in the department. This eases communication lines with senior management. He is also a teacher-governor, which he says helps him have greater insight and perhaps a more positive perspective on management decision-making.

All of these elements contribute to his managing to get the job in balance, most of the time. As head of department for the past five years, he acknowledges periods when difficulties dominated. "I had staff who found the job too challenging and I was having to give a lot of support through extended absences," he says. "Then I would lose sleep and if you're up at 4am with a young child, that's lots of time spent worrying. In teaching you are dependent on the nature of the personalities of the people you employ, but the team is very good now. We often get together in breaks to talk through any difficulties and we also laugh together. The job requires a sense of humour - and patience."

As Mr Thomas is on call for any behavioural issues arising in his department, bad days tend to be when he is called away from his class to deal with other students. The school, however, has employed two key stage 3 behaviour mentors - two former learning support teachers with warm but no-nonsense approaches - and they, with members of the senior management team, call in on challenging classes, talk to students and monitor those on daily report. This, he says, has eased the load considerably.

As an English teacher he has a heavy marking load, but he has tried to minimise the burden by introducing some peer marking and self-marking as part of an assessment for learning (AFL) approach, and by varying the homework tasks. "Obviously you can have too much peer marking, but an element is beneficial. It takes me about three hours to mark a set of essays and if you set too many of those all at one go, that's a killer. So I set a diverse range of tasks that aren't all heavily about teacher marking." But he accepts that in English, assessment makes unavoidable demands on staff time and effort. "One criticism is that we write too much in students' books and make too much work for ourselves. We have tightened up but you cannot get away from the nature and the demands of the subject."

Again, the school has taken steps. For example, when he started as head of department he spent a lot of time collating data. The school's appointment of a data manager has ended all that.

Having a child of his own has made him more focused by necessity. If nothing else, he likes to be home by 5pm. "A lot of my peers in middle management say they cannot get through their work at school, that there are too many calls on their time. But I am on call at home as well and that makes me use my time at school to the full."

He remembers his father, a dentist, having to sit in a darkened room for a time when he got home from work before he could engage with his family. By contrast, Joe Thomas likes to be involved as soon as he steps in through the door. "When I walk in, my wife's looking as shattered as I feel, so I take over with Charlie straight away and we always try to have dinner together, bath his lordship and he's usually down by 8pm. Obviously if there's coursework or exam marking, it's not always possible. I have two evenings allocated for marking, but once Charlie's down, if there's a set of books to look at, I'll do it then." One evening a week Mr Thomas goes to his father's house, five minutes away, where he has a studio, to spend a couple of hours painting. "If I get inspired I'll stay until 11pm or 12, though that can be a bit hard if I'm up at 6am, but it's a good way of switching off from work." Again, during the holidays he allocates time for work strictly. "You could be at it the whole time, but it's about time management," he says.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster university management school, says teachers need to prioritise time outside work, particularly time for family. "Teachers are called upon to give, give, give and, if they're not careful, they haven't anything left to give to their own families. I know people whose parents were teachers and had no time for them. I would say that is a unique form of stress in the profession. Teachers always have work to take home. With all the accountability issues, particularly, and a whole stream of initiatives from government, there is always more work to do. The in-tray is always full, no matter how hard you work. But teachers have to say to themselves, three nights a week I'm leaving school at 5.30pm and taking no work home. That's family time, or time in the gym, or whatever."

Friday magazine columnist Dr Raj Persaud says teachers are very good about being driven at work, but not so good at being driven about their goals outside work. That, he says, is dangerous. "If the only thing you are passionate about is work, and it becomes your whole identity, when things go badly - as they inevitably will - your whole life collapses. Work is a selfish mistress and teachers have to learn to be selfish about what they want for themselves."

He also says that establishing a good worklife balance requires, as with Mr Thomas, "working with colleagues who share your vision. It's hard to come up with solutions if you don't have support from other teachers and unless you are all on the same path. Establishing worklife balance requires co-operation about cover, a group of people working together who are prepared to cover for each other."

Joe Thomas believes that having a group of friends who are not teachers is also helpful and gives perspective. "My peers are all accountants, lawyers, City traders. They might have the Ferrari, they might not have young people's futures in their hands, but they have other stresses. Many are jealous of the time I spend with my son and if I talk about a fantastic sixth-form class or this kid who came out with a great joke, they say they don't get that in their jobs. I think I'm lucky."

Joe Thomas's typical day

6.00am Woken by two-year-old son Charlie Does the early-morning shift at home -children's TV, breakfast, etc

8.00 Leaves house, arrives school by 8.10

8.30 Whole staff briefing three times a week

8.40 Registration with sixth-form tutor group

9.00 Lessons begin. As head of department, Joe Thomas teaches 22 50-minute periods to Years 7, 8, 10, 12 and 13, plus a Year 12 GCSE retake. On a busy day he teaches six lessons

10.45 Break for 20 minutes, colleagues crowd into departmental office for chat and coffee

Lunch Sixth-form "consortium" lessons (including sixth-formers from other schools) for A-level English language and literature. Mr Thomas takes one of these a week and snatches a sandwich. Otherwise he stays in school with a packed lunch to be on stand-by for other colleagues still teaching and for any preparation or admin

3.10 School finishes. Mr Thomas stays until 4.30 for meetings (one a week), to meet consultants, LEA staff and to do preparation or marking

5.00 Arrives home, takes over care of Charlie

7.00 Family supper

8.00 Charlie's bath and bedtime

After 8 Marking two nights a week, or painting in studio

11.00 Bed

* Next week: Jill Mayfield, primary deputy head

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