`When you're a teacher, every child matters but your own'

12th December 2014 at 00:00
By Jo Brighouse

It is 11pm on a Tuesday and Sophie Jones* is about to start marking her last set of books. Her only other option would have been to get up at 4.30am and mark them before her children woke at 6am. Either way, after a full day of teaching, looking after her children and doing mountains of paperwork, she will get less than six hours' sleep before having to repeat the whole process again.

This is not an unusual week: it's not exam season; the inspectors aren't visiting; she's not a head of department. She's just completing all the everyday tasks necessary to meet the requirements of her job as a secondary school English teacher.

For Jones, the demands of teaching are all-consuming. However hard she works, however efficiently she organises her schedule, finding space for family life is a continuing battle. "The hours of work required mean that it is difficult to give enough time to my family," she says. "Plus the pace and intensity of each day mean that the energy needed for young children - or indeed any age children - is often lacking.

"I hope that I have managed not to affect my children negatively. I hope they see me as a role model. However, were I not spending time planning or marking at the weekend, I could spend more time with them."

But in the struggle to give enough time and attention to your own children, as well as those in school, Jones admits it is often a teacher's partner who loses out.

"I think it is the relationship with my husband that is most affected: we barely talk in the evenings, as I work most nights. I also rely on him to undertake much of the work in the house, including cooking every night. He works in a professional environment and is incredulous at what is expected of teachers. He says that both having a family and being a teacher is unsustainable."

Teachers are people, too

Jones' situation is not unusual. A survey carried out by the NUT teaching union in September shows that 90 per cent of teachers have considered leaving the profession in the past two years because of workload. And 96.5 per cent say their workload has negative consequences for their family or personal life (bit.lyNUTsurvey). It is unsurprising, then, that Nicky Morgan promised to make addressing the issue of teacher workload her first priority when she became education secretary for England in July.

"We forget that teachers are not just teachers," she told the Conservative Party conference in September. "They're also friends and relatives. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. And when I hear of teachers working late into the night marking books, planning lessons, preparing for inspections that may or may not come, I do two things: I marvel at their dedication, but I also think there must be a better way.

"I don't want my child to be taught by someone too tired, too stressed and too anxious to do the job well."

Comforting sentiments maybe. But although the subsequent Workload Challenge survey launched by the government on the TES website has been completed by thousands of teachers, definite policy focused on lessening workload has so far not materialised.

In the meantime, while teachers are crushed under the weight of dialogic marking, detailed planning formats, reams of assessment and all the other paperwork that is now considered an essential part of the job, it is fast becoming an unavoidable truth that, when you're a teacher, every child matters but your own.

Weight of expectation

"Finding time to spend with the children after school during term time was always a struggle," says Dr Fiona Hammans, an experienced headteacher who is director of new projects and chief inspector for the Aspirations Academies Trust. "When I became a headteacher, my family are now happy to say - although they wouldn't have dared at the time - that I just `disappeared' for the first year. All I recall is that I was exhausted and used to get up at 4am to do all the work that I couldn't after school, as I had to get back to be a parent."

Teachers at all stages of the professional hierarchy tell a similar story. Even a cursory look at forums, Twitter, Facebook and the "What keeps me awake at night" column in TESS uncovers stories of teachers teetering on the edge of being unable to balance a family and the job they love.

So when did teaching become such an all-consuming monster, gobbling up your social and family life and generally making you feel as though you are constantly being pulled in all directions? In days gone by, teaching was considered one of the most family-friendly professions: no scrabbling around for childcare in the holidays, no unsociable hours and a definite advantage when helping with homework.

The development of the current status quo has been a gradual one with no specific cause, but contributory factors include everything from the inspection regime and persistent government-level changes to increased accountability and an expectation that teachers ought to fix all society's ills.

The workload has crept up on us slowly. The odd evening of school work became every evening; the occasional Sunday afternoon became every Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, working 247 was normal and family life had turned into something that was happening without us, somewhere beyond the planning documents and piles of marking.

Perhaps we could justify all this if it meant more time teaching. But that is not where the increase in workload is - we are not teaching children for longer than teachers in other countries.

A recent study reveals that teachers in England work longer hours than teachers in most other countries but spend less time in the classroom. According to the Teaching and Learning International Survey 2013, published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, teachers in England work on average 46 hours a week, with less than half this time (20 hours) being spent in the classroom actually teaching. In comparison, teachers in Finland - a country widely regarded as a world leader in education - spend an average of 21 hours in the classroom but only 32 hours a week working (see panel, opposite).

As the figures make clear, alongside dealing with the intense and often exhausting act of teaching itself, teachers now end each day facing a mountain of paperwork and spending as many, if not more, hours on planning, marking and bureaucracy out of school as they do working face-to-face with children. So it's hardly surprising that the pressure on family life is becoming untenable.

Without top-down reform, teachers must continue to try to find a balance between work and home within the existing confines of the profession. That often means going part-time, usually through a job share. Part-time working is seen as a flexible option that teachers should embrace in order to have the best of both worlds - and it's an option that I have taken.

But the attitude from schools is often that they are doing you a massive favour, rather than giving you something that is yours by right. I was lucky that my school even agreed to my working part-time. Although there are rules within employment law that dictate that your employer must consider (but not necessarily agree to) any requests to go part-time when you need to fit family life around the job, you are still very much at the mercy of your headteacher.

And even if you get a part-time role, the chances are you that won't find it any more accommodating to family life than a full-time position. Helen Noble, a primary school teacher and mother of two-year-old twins, says that the full-on nature of teaching can still leave you with little energy for your own children.

"I've found it really hard to juggle the two qualities of being a good teacher and a good parent," Noble says. "It's left me questioning my ability in both, feeling you want to do your best as a parent and teacher and not wanting to compromise.

"The considerable task of planning and preparation for job-share colleagues is especially difficult when you aren't in school full-time. Many late evenings up until midnight to get planning and resources sent to my team are required. I work at the end of the week, so all this is needed by Sunday."

I fully identify with this experience of part-time work. While we're no doubt thought of as slackers by some of our full-time colleagues, part-time teachers find it all but impossible not to let their work days bleed into their "free" days.

Although working in a job share allows me to spend more time with my children, it also adds its own workload issues: lengthy emails and phone calls to your job-share partner; driving into school to return books at 7am on a Monday; losing Sunday afternoons and evenings to a planning flurry even though you won't be in school the next day. Because I don't teach every day I also feel under more pressure to make the lessons I do teach count, so I probably spend longer planning and marking them than I would if I taught five days a week.

I have also been surprised by how much the job takes over even when done part-time. If my husband tells me he's working away for a couple of nights, my initial reaction is relief that I won't need to spend time having dinner and talking to him when I could be planning and marking. Add the fact that I end up handing over most of what I earn to my children's nursery and I sometimes wonder whether it's worth it. But with changes in educational policy and curriculum sweeping in like a tidal wave, I don't dare step out of the river in case I can never get back in again.

Following the leader

So, headteachers should be able to solve some of their staff's problems with part-time working. And for teachers who stick it out full-time, headteachers should also be accommodating to the demands of family life. Yet despite many school leaders being sympathetic, just as many are not.

Sally King*, a primary school teacher with two young children, believes that your headteacher's attitude can have a huge impact on whether you are able to successfully balance teaching and being a parent.

"Teaching can be a good career for someone with children if you are dealing with a reasonable headteacher who has an understanding of what family life today is like," she says. "Otherwise, work-life balance is incredibly difficult to sustain. What happens in that case is that the working individual and family suffer until it becomes untenable."

Those leaders who do their best to ensure that teaching is family-friendly are shocked that some of their peers do not do the same. "I always used to go out of my way to make it possible for staff to be able to respond flexibly to their children's needs," says Dr Helen Wright, an experienced headteacher and a commentator on education. "After all, our entire business is about supporting children and families, and as employers we need to apply this to our staff, too.

"As long as the students do not suffer - and they won't if they are taught by a colleague of the teacher who needs time off - then I think it is perfectly possible. All it needs is give and take, and an appreciation of people and their needs. Creative thinking at leadership level is essential."

Hammans agrees. "It always strikes me as a bit incongruous that schools - all about children and young people - shouldn't be as family-friendly as they can possibly be, even with the constraints that a teaching timetable brings."

She adds that headteachers who respond to the needs of their staff will be paid back tenfold.

"Some schools are not as flexible these days and determine every waking moment of their teachers' contracts," she says. "This will mean staff may be more disposed to take the day off because their own child is off school. The giving of discretionary time and effort by staff will reduce if family commitments aren't considered - and `working to contract' will be on both sides.

"Another impact is that being too rigid forces people out of the profession or deters them from applying for promotion, and this reduces the talent pool available for a school."

And this is another problem: as Hammans has described, headteachers are suffering the same pressures on family life, and TES magazine reported last year that one in four primary headships remained unfilled 60 days after advertising (read more at bit.lyRecruitHeads). How many classroom teachers are put off climbing the ladder into management because they simply don't have time to take on the extra workload?

"If I were to consider moving up the ladder, there would have to be significant recompense for it to be worth it. Personally, I'm not seeing much of that in education at the moment," says Tom Starkey, a TESS columnist and teacher who has worked across all age groups in education.

"There have been a number of times in my career when I have been encouraged to take a more senior position. One of the things that I've always considered when this has occurred is: to what extent would the increase in working hours take me away from my child and would the prospective increase in pay or stature make it worth it? When I've weighed things up, it never has been."

The inflexibility of teaching to accommodate family life is all the more damaging since parent teachers often say how much better they are at their jobs because they have children. They are thrust into being a consumer of education as well as a provider, and the insight that this brings can improve their practice.

For example, Noble believes that becoming a parent has helped her to identify more closely with the parents of her students. "I'm definitely much more empathetic with parents than I was previously, so in that way I can understand a child's development through a teacher's eyes and as a parent," she says.

A hard bargain

Of course, life is not all bad as a parent teacher: the most obvious benefit to family life is the school holidays. "Teaching is definitely a vocation and not just a job," Wright says. "Family life often ends up working around it. But the pattern of intense term times and more relaxed holidays is a real boon to family life."

But although no teacher would ever claim that the holidays were not a massive asset, some are beginning to wonder whether the pay-off is enough - whether those carefree few weeks with your family are worth being forced into Jekylland-Hyde parenting.

It is a question we need to consider very carefully. As teachers, we put so much stock in a child's home life and how they are brought up, yet teaching could be preventing us from giving our own children the family life we wish all our students could have.

*Names have been changed. Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

Time after time: teaching hours around the world

The Teacher and Learning International Survey 2013, published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, asked teachers about their average working week. This chart enables a comparison between countries of the average number of hours that teachers spend teaching each week (white bar) and their average total working hours per week (black bar)

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