Work life balance

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Worklife balance is no longer the stuff of staffroom whingeing. It's now become the business of government and teacher unions, part of the growing recognition that it is essential to an effective workforce.

In the final of our four worklife balance forums, deputy head Jill Mayfield feels she's managed to get the balance about right. After 30 years of teaching, she's not afraid to ask for more time. "I am organised, but if need be I will ask for more time... I think it's harder to do that when you are younger."

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School days are a race against the clock. There can't be many other places where time is so segmented, sliced by the stridency of bells when children are in, parcelled up by planning and preparation when they go. Yet Jill Mayfield (pictured) says she has never been afraid to ask for more of it.

A primary school deputy head in charge of literacy and assessment and co-ordinator of staff development, the 58-year-old is only too aware of pressing demands on her time; the consequences for her workload of the many changes that have come out of government during her 30 years of teaching and, in particular, the more recent diktats of accountability. Yet if she thinks she needs more time for new initiatives or day-to-day tasks, she will ask for it.

That, she believes, comes with confidence born of experience as well as self-knowledge; knowing her strengths and limitations. It's also about self-preservation. "I am organised, but if need be I will ask for more time and usually, because my head is supportive and our relationship is good, I'll get it. I think it's harder to do that when you are younger."

Mrs Mayfield, however, who has been deputy at Knavesmire primary, York, for the past 11 years, says she was given the confidence to act as she thinks fit - as well as a keen sense of her standing as a professional - back in 1968.

Then, aged 21, she started teaching at a junior school in the Birmingham suburbs, where the head was always encouraging and protective of her staff.

"She wouldn't let us do dinner duty, for example. I wouldn't have minded being with the children and having a free dinner, but she said no teacher of hers was going to work for five shillings an hour. We would spend our lunch doing the Daily Telegraph crossword."

Now Mrs Mayfield spends her lunchtime marking and preparing for afternoon lessons because she says she gets through tasks quicker while they are still fresh, and she wants free time for herself in the evenings.

She starts early, arriving at Knavesmire at 7.45am, but work is usually behind her by 5.30pm. "I like to think I have my evenings and weekends free," she says. "If I do have to work a 70-hour week (to finish a task) then I will do it, but on the whole I simply cannot work late. I'd be too tired to do my job properly the next day and if I had to work much of Sunday, I would be irritable for the rest of the week."

Mrs Mayfield believes that many teachers flog themselves for long hours, afraid of leaving stones unturned or being seen as a lightweight. "Teachers are very much in the public eye and there is a blame and shame culture out there. I don't like to feel unprepared; I don't like to feel I am doing anything less than a good job, but I will prioritise. We do have a responsibility to the people who pay us, but we also have to try to take some of the pressure away from ourselves." She likes being a deputy and having some influence on her school's direction, but when initiatives come at schools thick and fast, Mrs Mayfield believes teachers have to take a step backwards. "When all these things hit you, you have to say, 'yes, I will do this, but what is the best way for me to do it and what will be best for the school?' You have to look hard at what things really mean and fit them to the school's way of thinking."

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, she says, there were pressures on teachers, but they were different and largely to do with lack of accountability and under-resourcing. In her first year, a colleague buckled under the strain and rather than replacing him, his class of nine and 10-year-olds was split between herself and another teacher. Both then had to teach classes of more than 40 with no support and little guidance. "The classroom door was shut and you did your own thing behind it. Yes, there were schemes of work, but you were left to your own devices with limited resources and expected to get on with it."

After leaving Birmingham, Mrs Mayfield worked for the then Inner London Education Authority (Ilea) in Hackney, followed by North Kensington. She loved working for Ilea - her school in Hackney was open-plan, progressive and exciting - but she also believes teachers were less effectual in many respects. Although it was then accepted that they should take into account children's wider social backgrounds, there was no real means of addressing them. "I remember once going to a flat where some of my pupils lived and found they had nothing, no furniture at all. But there was no way of doing anything about it, no way of making referrals. Children would disappear from our register and there were no means of tracking them; systems weren't in place."

Teachers might spend more time on checks and balances today, but she feels such accountability is necessary, even if it does mean more demands. "I don't remember people working the long hours they do now. I shared a flat with another teacher who used to work in a pub four nights a week because she enjoyed it. You couldn't do that now."

Her own children are now adults (aged 33, 31 and 28). After eight years away from teaching, she returned to work when the youngest was two. Then she would arrive at work later and leave earlier, completing her tasks at home, when her children were settled in bed. "I think the hardest time when you are a teacher is when you have a young family," she says. "Then you are dealing with young children during the day and going home to young children in the evening. I also think there is more pressure on women to carry on teaching and have a family these days."

One of Mrs Mayfield's sons is now an assistant head and his wife a deputy.

She acknowledges that, as young teachers who have earned quick promotion, they feel the pressure of work more. A bad day for Mrs Mayfield is when she has spent too much time "faffing around" and not getting on with tasks. "I don't like to be distracted. I don't like to have things hanging over me."

For example, PPA time is used strictly for that alone.

Raj Persaud, the Gresham professor for the public understanding of psychiatry and Friday magazine columnist, says teachers such as Mrs Mayfield see themselves as instruments that need looking after in order to be effective. "They don't flog the instrument to death, because then it won't work properly." People who set clear worklife boundaries tend not to have to "patrol" them all the time, he says.

"If you don't have those boundaries, then people just throw more and more work at you. The best doctors know their limitations; they will say, 'I don't know what this disease is exactly, I will refer you on'. The dangerous doctors are those who are so insecure they cannot say 'I don't know'."

Teachers who feel insecure about their job prospects, or who are anxious for promotion, he says, may be reluctant to ask for more time or more support with a task.

In the past, Jill Mayfield used her spare time to paint, and when her children were young she and husband Chris always dedicated Sunday to a family day out. Now she likes to spend her leisure hours travelling - Rome at half-term, France in the summer - going to the theatre, or to restaurants, or having time to prepare a meal in the evening. She and her husband plan to retire in about a year, so they can spend time travelling together and attending to their growing numbers of grandchildren.

That's not to say she hasn't enjoyed her job to the full. The first in her family to go on to higher education, she saw teaching as an opportunity for independence and interest, and it has given her both. "I took a holiday job when I left school working in the shares department of Rolls-Royce (having been brought up in Derby) and I hated it. It was so boring. I was clockwatching all the time. No two moments are the same in teaching, and I enjoy the quirkiness of children, I like the way their minds work." For this reason she believes she has never had to spend too much time dealing with behavioural issues. She has always been calm, always firm around children, and has worked with staff to develop a calming ethos in school, so reducing behavioural difficulties.

Mrs Mayfield believes she is good at taking the long view with her job.

Being married to a non-teacher has helped. "There are enormous demands in every profession. I accept with my own job that at times the pressures will be greater, and I will have to work for longer, than at other times."

Schools, she says, should go some way to helping people establish a healthier worklife balance. Attending to her dying mother in the run-up to the examination season recently proved very stressful, but she says she was helped by being allowed to leave school earlier every Friday to travel to see her.

Schools need to be supportive and open with staff in this way, she says.

"Teachers should feel that they can voice problems and schools should be ready to praise success. Of course people have to work out their own work life balance. We are all grown-ups, after all. But there should be a recognition that people do have a life outside school. We have an NQT, for example, a singer, who will always write up her singing commitments on the school noticeboard. That has to be encouraged."

Jill Mayfield's daily diary

6.15am Wake up and get up sharp.

Start to think about the day

7.30 Leave to beat rush-hour traffic

7.45 Make sure everything is in place for the first two sessions. Much has been prepared the day before

8.45 Staff briefing

8.50 School starts

10.40 Fifteen-minute break after assembly.

Coffee with other staff

Noon Lunch. Work through with a packed lunch. Two lunchtimes are spent running the recorder club and helping with an art club

1.10-2.15pm Break, grab a drink

2.25-3.25 Last lesson

3.25 to 5.30 Finish off marking. Use rest of time preparing classroom for the following day and dealing with management tasks. Meet with head on a needs-must basis, otherwise "try not to interrupt each other". Also allocate days during the holidays for termly management planning.

Whole-staff meeting for one hour after school every Monday. Governor meetings can mean the day ends at 9.30 several times a term 6.00 Home. Make a meal. Sit in the garden in the summer. Meet up with grandchildren

Any school work to be finished is dealt with between 8 and 9pm 11pm Bed

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