Work life balance

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Work-life balance is no longer the stuff of staffroom whingeing. The introduction of PPA (planning, preparation and assessment) time means it's out in the political arena becoming the business of government and teacher unions. But there's also a growing recognition in society that work-life balance is essential to an effective workforce.

The demands of teaching today mean the job can fill every waking hour and still not be done. Many of you tell us of 6am starts; others of reaching a stage when you have to say "that's enough", either bailing out or getting tough about work limits. For the next month we're running a forum on getting the balance right, in which we'll bring you case studies of teachers' lives. For secondary head Fiona Hammans (pictured left) it's realising that "it's okay to do an okay job. There are occasions when you have to pull out all the stops, but you shouldn't be working flat out all the time."

We'd like to hear about your experiences. Share your tips in our forum in the staffroom at Talking about it can ease your workload rather than add to it - and we'll pay you pound;25 if we publish your contribution.

When the job of being headteacher of a 1,500-pupil secondary school threatens to shatter her equilibrium, Dr Fiona Hammans knows she is in no frame of mind to deal with mortar fire. On a bad day she adopts the bunker mentality and will ask her PA to block any complaints or difficult calls.

On a bad day, she will crawl into bed at 6.30pm and stay there until the next morning.

But that's on a bad day, and they're few and far between. Most of the time she is a pragmatist, cutting her cloth to best fit the demands of her trade as a headteacher and of being a mother of three adolescents. Both are roles she relishes, but when push comes to shove family comes first, a commitment which helps to keep the job in perspective.

Dr Hammans, 46, is head of Banbury school in Oxfordshire, a bustling, multicultural institution with a fairly challenging intake; the leafy alternative, she says, is "out of town". Banbury is the kind of school she has always wanted to head.

But can heads combine family and work demands and achieve that often elusive work life balance? Not many, according to a survey carried out at the end of last year on worklife balance by the Headteachers' Association of Scotland. It found 60 per cent of heads were buckling under ever-increasing workloads, working an average 58 hours a week not including extracurricular activities, parents' evenings, school concerts and similar events. One-quarter complained of burn-out and said they would not apply for their own jobs.

South of the border, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) says a relentless spate of government initiatives - the workload agreement, teaching and learning responsibility restructuring, extended schools, Every Child Matters, balancing budgets - is leading to increasing numbers of heads leaving the profession or falling sick. Of those off work through illness, 38 per cent are suffering from work-related stress, according to the NAHT. Moreover, the association's regional officers say that last term they dealt with as many grievances aimed at heads as in the previous three years put together. "When people are tired," says general secretary Mick Brookes, "they tend to reach for the gun rather than spend time on diplomacy."

Fiona Hammans decided at the start that she would live near Banbury and that she would put her own children through her school, contrary to the culture at the time of staff sending their own children elsewhere. Cutting out travelling time and being able to remain relatively easily in touch with her children's educational and social progress was the only way she was going to be able to make the most of her job.

"It would be hard to keep on top of both roles if my children were elsewhere," she says. "But it also gives me a perspective on how other parents perceive what is going on in school. My children come home with stories about incidents which are very different from my understanding of what happened, and that gives me some insight into what other parents will also be hearing. I do my best not to step in, and parents' evenings can be a bit tricky when I am queuing up alongside other parents, but we believe we made the best choice."

The fact that she relishes the job also helps her to cope with the stresses and strains. She began her working life as a research fellow for ICI, working on the physiology of crops, after finishing a doctorate on plant physiology. But she was soon bored, something she has never experienced in teaching, especially not at Banbury. "It's hard work, but it's exciting,"

she says. "You have to extend all your senses to manage the classroom. You have to anticipate situations, you have to learn to read people, and I enjoy all of that. Enjoyment is key.

"In my first year of teaching I waded in when others wouldn't and split up a fight between a couple of big boys. There was blood all over the place.

Later on my professional tutor came to see me and said, 'I can see you are going to be a head' and that seemed the right path for me. But people say I am not like other heads because I will get in there among the students and muck around, have a laugh, joke with them. If you take it all too seriously you lose the whole object of why you're working in a school environment; if it's all too serious, neither staff nor students will want to be here."

In this respect Dr Hammans is clear about the need to get the job into perspective. "There are occasions when you have to pull out all the stops, but you shouldn't be working flat out all the time. It's okay to do an okay job. You cannot be excellent 100 per cent of the time. You don't need to be in school until 8pm to get the job done properly. I tell staff to go home and we have light weeks when staff are expected to leave (at a reasonable hour).

"When I first came it was deemed to be good for staff to be here in the holidays, but that shouldn't be the case. If you are exhausted because you are constantly pushing at the top of the game then you have no reserves to do the job properly."

Dr Raj Persaud, the Gresham professor for the public understanding of psychiatry and Friday magazine columnist, says it's easy for the role of headship to dominate other roles in life - parent, spouse, sportsman, for example - and that people must think seriously about the role they want to play. "The problem for those in absorbing jobs is balancing other relationships; being able to do that is critical. Heads face a huge number of problems every day, and one of the arts of survival is to accept the limits of their ability to solve problems, to tolerate unsolved problems.

"I am not advocating complacency. This isn't about not giving a damn; it's about trying to make a difference by knowing when to let go. One of the amazing things about brilliant heads is that they often seem serene, and it's because they know when to let go."

In its recent publication, Work-life balance: myth or possibility, the Association of School and College Leaders describes how, to make life more manageable for teaching staff, some heads have introduced domestic services such as dry cleaning and secretarial support to organise car tax or medical and dental appointments. "Presenteeism" is increasingly frowned upon.

According to one contributor to the TES chatroom on worklife balance, one governing body has ordered its head to stay away from school one Friday in every month to have time for reflection. Mick Brookes says the NAHT is encouraging heads to ask some hard questions about priorities. "They should be asking, 'How is this going to benefit the people in my school?' and if it isn't then it's not a priority." However, he acknowledges that whereas some old hands might be prepared to be tough in this respect, such a "high risk" strategy may seem beyond the reach of a young head with a family and a mortgage.

But however much heads might try to keep the job under control, there are times, inevitably, when all hell breaks loose. "Some weeks are horrendous,"

says Dr Hammans. "I'm up at four, my kids need me desperately, the washing machine breaks. I have a string of meetings after school and my husband (a buyer in retail) is working away or overseas. Sometimes I don't want to be the principal of Banbury, I don't want to live near the school or be recognised in the street. I'll get up early to do my shopping so as not to meet anybody. But most of the time it is what I love. I have learnt to take the long view."

As a rule, Dr Hammans jealously guards family time. She carries her mobile into meetings and if it's a family call she will always take it. Most working days she likes to be home by 6pm and have a family meal on the table by 6.30. "I manage this by planning food one week ahead, otherwise we'd end up with chips with everything. My children hate the word casserole, but that's the general fare. We then get down to some homework.

Mine can last anything between 10 minutes and several hours, but it's during this time that my children like to come in to talk to me and raise any issues they need to."

Living near school and near town means that her children can be largely independent and can make their own way to their various activities.

Otherwise, Dr Hammans likes to fill her time away from work with domestic business. Cleaning the house, painting and decorating, making jam are her ways of de-stressing. "I don't want anybody else coming into the house and I find doing my own cleaning a release," she says. "I do read a lot, but I'm not very good at pottering."

Dr Hammans' typical day

5.00am Wake up, review yesterday in school

5.45 Five-minute run around the block

6.30 Cup of tea for husband, wake up kids

7.30 Leave for work

7.45 Check emails and diary

8.15 Leadership team meeting

8.45 Year 11 assembly on revision

9.00 Meeting on school ICT development

9.50 Go through post

10.00 On call, walk the school to pick up troublesome pupils

11.05 Ten-minute break in staffroom

11.25 Meeting with Senco Noon Calls on previous day's business, respond to emails

12.25pm Revision lecture on science for Year 11 CD borderlines

13.25 Lunch with school council

14.05 Tidy up lunch, go to internal suspension room to cover for member of staff

15.05 School finishes, attend staff tea

4.00 Meeting with LEA officer about Year 7 student whose parents want her moved

4.30-4.50 Paperwork

5.00 Setting up exchange with school in Germany, budgetary matters, contribution to staff bulletin

5.50 Leave for home

6.00 Cook dinner

6.30 Family meal

7.00 Homework, marking, paperwork

8.30 Children come in to chat

9.00 Telly

10.00 Bed

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