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

12th December 2014 at 00:00

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. 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 TES 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.

*Names have been changed.

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