Nothing wrong in taking a toilet break

24th December 2004 at 00:00
I've written lots now on the joys and tribulations of downsizing. I downsized a year ago in order to spend time writing and found the whole process decidedly nerve-racking, so much so that I actually returned to teaching for four months to do a maternity supply.

It wasn't just the money; I had a feeling that being around in the middle of the day was somehow immoral - degenerate even. Having an uninterrupted cup of coffee with a friend at 11.30 in the morning felt like the height of sloth. Even sitting at my computer writing didn't seem like proper work.

There was no racing heart; no thoughts of what was on the horizon if I didn't manage to finish what I was doing in 10 minutes.

It has taken the year for me to be happy with what I do. I realise now that there are worthy and very productive people who don't work every single hour of every single day. I feel now that I should take up the cudgels for teachers because they are either too busy or too knackered to do it for themselves.

I thought that the last school I taught in, a busy Lancashire comprehensive, was unusual in the level of dedication of the staff. Now, having relocated to Scotland, I realise it is, in fact, the norm.

After the four-month maternity sojourn in the local high school, I have been lucky to land a delightful job teaching language, literature and drama one day a week in a rural primary school. The level of work of the permanent teachers in both schools is just as high as that of my former colleagues in England. This work frenzy among teachers has to be addressed before they all collapse.

Non-teachers will inevitably quote the long holidays. But the reality is that holidays are used to do the administration that there's no time for during the term; to prepare courses; to bone up on interminable changes to the curriculum. I even spent two weeks one year painting classrooms because I couldn't face another year of teaching in squalor. (This is not unusual.

I knew a Craft Design and Technology teacher who built a classroom during the holidays.) Then there's all that examination analysis; prospective sixth- formers coming in wanting impossible combinations of A-levels. A couple I know nearly divorced because of the woman's level of work. The sight of her swotting up new key stage 3 initiatives on the beach in Majorca just about finished it as far as her partner was concerned.

I have learned a lot in my year off but the biggest lesson is that I don't have to work all the time. I've learned there is nothing wrong in spending an hour in the middle of the day reading the newspaper or talking to a friend or walking on the beach. In fact, all these things can be enriching.

I loved teaching but it is a job that now has a burn-out limit.

I recently shared a meal with two teachers, an ex-teacher, an academic and an accountant. We were talking about the new lifestyles that two of us had adopted and were listing all the pros and cons to our overworked guests. I said that one definite pro (without giving too much information) was that my digestive system had improved dramatically.

The academic and accountant looked at me with horror. "I would never consider employment that wouldn't allow me to go to the loo when I wanted - it's Dickensian!" said one of them.

The two teachers merely smiled. It's not funny, though, is it? In the three schools I have taught in over the past 18 months, morning breaks are constantly interrupted by students; lunches are taken on the run and evenings are used for marking and preparation that should have been done during the day but haven't been because non-contact periods have been taken up covering for colleagues.

The miracle is that students learn anything at all. You don't realise that you're tired all the time. I used to say that my day was a roundabout that I stepped on to in the morning which got faster and faster until it threw me off at the end of the day when I was too exhausted to hold on any longer. (I was an English teacher and rather fancied talking in metaphor.) But it felt true. Now I realise it needn't be like that. Somewhere along the line teachers have come to believe they must wear themselves out in order to do the job well. Not so. Most teachers like teaching - so let them teach. Give them secretaries and painters and plumbers for the other stuff.

Jennifer Baker was head of faculty in a Lancashire comprehensive and is now a freelance writer and part-time teacher. She lives on an island in the Inner Hebrides

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