So you want to teach and have a life?

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Achieving balance rather than burn-out depends on a set of skills you can acquire. Most importantly, reports Hilary Wilce, teachers need to learn the three Rs - rest, recovery and relaxation...

It's a new year, a new diary - but, alas, not a new you. No matter how many resolutions you might have made about not working seven days a week, and having a life outside school, it won't happen until you make it. But this can seem impossible. From the first day of term, life goes by in a whirlwind and then it's the holidays again and nothing has changed for the better.

Of course, the workforce remodelling agreement should have helped, taking routine tasks off teachers' shoulders and ring-fencing planning time, but so far the benefits have proved patchy. "Some schools are not operating it yet, or new initiatives have come in which have taken up all that free time," says Tom Lewis, professional development manager and a counsellor with the Teacher Support Network.

"Time pressures are still a big problem for teachers. They work all hours in school, come home and work again. Then they can't sleep at night, or they wake up at three or four in the morning worrying about everything that has to be done."

Hilary McKendrick noticed a big easing of pressure when she went to work in a preparatory school after years of primary school teaching. "Things are so much easier when you have more time," she says. "If you have 18 in your class instead of 32, that's half the marking for a start."

Teachers are always so busy that both new teachers and those climbing the career ladder can run into problems, says Jane Hough, a former London assistant head. "You feel you're doing OK, then along comes something extra, like a parents' evening, or reports to write, and that tips you over the edge. But you are a professional. You're in charge of your own life.

External things might make things difficult, but you still have it in your control to make things better."

As the professional networks facilitator for the General Teaching Council for England she has helped assemble tips from teachers on time management.

"But the really important thing is to ensure there is always a cut-off. You might want to plan the perfect lesson, but you have to learn to say, 'No, this is good enough'."

Tom Lewis agrees that the only way to improve things is to recognise the problem and draw boundaries. "If a lesson plan takes one hour, ask yourself: am I really going to make it that much better if I stare at it for another three quarters of an hour? Once you start to create these boundaries, you begin to realise that you can trust your confidence, experience and knowledge to make more space for yourself."

In school, take breaks to socialise with colleagues. And decide when you work best. Do you prefer to stay late at school and have a clear evening at home? Or get home and take a break, and then work later on? Learn how to say no to requests.

"Speak up if you feel you need more help," he says. "In so many schools there is a conspiracy of silence because people feel that if they have these problems, they are somehow a failure and inadequate."

Elizabeth Holmes, author of The Newly Qualified Teacher's Handbook, says that lesson preparation and marking cause new teachers the biggest problems, but they need to keep an eye on the whole picture. "For instance, you need to know how much sleep you need and then ask yourself, 'Can I work and then go straight to bed and fall asleep?' And if the answer's no, then you have to work back from that to how much wind-down time you need after finishing your work in the evening.

"People also tend to spend more time on the stuff they find easier. So they give less time to the things they find hard, and that enhances the stress and makes those things even more problematical."

She advises teachers to work with colleagues wherever possible, and to recognise the importance of looking after themselves. "Teaching needs to be done by happy and healthy teachers, not ones who are collapsing and having to take six months off."

But for some people, the problems go deeper. John Pritchard, a former primary head turned personal development consultant, says, "Sometimes you need to have a frank, challenging conversation to see exactly what's going on.

"If someone came to me with a problem, I would need to find out whether this stemmed from an internal perception of the situation, or from external pressures. Then I'd ask them to list their priorities, and we'd look at whether these get enough time. Or I might ask them to keep a diary and write down what they are doing, then rank it for priority and for stress."

He might also get them to score how they feel about different activities.

"If paperwork at school gets three out of 10, and you want it to be eight, we would discuss options for dealing with this and talk about things such as setting goals." His website ( includes tools tailored to help teachers deal with time issues. But everyone, he stresses, has to find their own point of balance, and this can differ hugely.

Shelley Upton teaches drama at Maiden Erlegh School in Reading. She also directs the school's annual concerts and plays, helps with dance and fashion shows, and organises staff social events. Last year she won a regional teacher of the year award.

But she can only do all this, she says, "by having no life. I leave school, on average, at 7pm and as soon as I get through the door I'm working again.

I have a fantastic husband who does all the cooking and calls me when the meal is ready.

"Then I work again. I love what I'm doing and I would not change any of it, but by the time the summer comes round I am on my last reserves and all I can do is sit on an island and read a book"

Working hours

The average total hours worked by full-time teachers in a week are:

Primary schools

Headteachers: 53.5 Deputy heads: 53.4

Classroom teachers: 50.1

Secondary schools

Headteachers: 65.1

Deputy heads: 61

Heads of department: 51.5

Classroom teachers: 49.1

Special schools

Classroom teachers: 43.9

Source: Teachers' Workloads Diary Survey (School Teachers Review Body) March 2006

Tasks teachers are no longer required to do

* Collect money

* Chase absences

* Bulk photocopying

* Copy typing

* Produce standard letters

* Produce class lists

* Keep records and filing

* Classroom display

* Analyse attendance data

* Process exam results

* Collate pupil reports

* Administer work experience

* Administer examinations

* Administer teacher cover

* ICT trouble shooting and minor repairs

* Commission new ICT equipment

* Order supplies

* Stock take

* Catalogue, prepare, issue and maintain equipment and materials

* Minute meetings

* Co-ordinate and submit bids

* Seek and give personnel advice



Emily is a graduate teacher trainee, working in an infants' school in the Midlands. She wants to remain anonymous because she feels embarrassed about not coping with time pressures. "I love being in the classroom but there seems so little time for completing assignments and case studies, as you are planning and evaluating every lesson.

"A lot of our block lessons are planned beforehand but being a graduate trainee, I have to make them my own and then type them into the lesson plan format that our training school uses, which is time-consuming. It's the same for numeracy and literacy planning. Most of Saturday is lost to planning and preparation despite working for an hour or two every night. I have a mentor but he's busy and I try not to 'pester' him."

David Rees, a personal development consultant and member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, advises:

"Teachers work with their brain, so rest, recovery and relaxation are essential. They need to know that if they are working, or worrying about work, for more than 60 hours per week, feeling helpless, and not getting enough sleep, they are in danger of burn-out. Emily needs to establish a 'flow' in her life - a feeling that she works to live."

At work she needs to:

Lengthen planning time horizon. Planning daily and weekly tasks is a good starting point, but she also needs to plan monthly and half-termly, so that she gets ahead of events and meets deadlines.

Eliminate duplication of effort. She should make her case studies, lesson plans and exercises re-usable so she builds a toolkit of resources. Then her long hours will feel like more of an investment for the future.

Do her most creative work when her brain is freshest, probably earlier in the morning, and try to free up evenings for relaxation.

In her personal life she needs to:

Sleep seven to eight hours per night.

Start the day earlier and go to bed earlier.

Drink two to three litres of water during the day and eat little and often.

Exercise four to five times per week with activities such as walking, yoga, dancing, swimming or aerobics.

Find mental variety through quiet times for relaxation and stimulation from conversation and pastimes such as quizzes.

Ten tips from teachers for teachers

* Get to school early for a good start

* Plan when to tackle difficult things

* A good filing system

* Allow lesson time for pupils to clear up

* Sort out tomorrow's lessons before leaving school

* Get pupils to self-assess

* Have an evening cut-off point

* Aim for achievable marking targets

* Photocopy in bulk and store spares

* Say YES to social invitations

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