Worklife Balance

19th May 2006 at 01:00
'You need to socialise. You need to switch off. Teachers are bad at that because they always want the children to achieve'

Worklife balance is no longer the stuff of staffroom whingeing. The introduction of planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time means it's out in the political arena. There's a growing recognition, too, 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, especially in your first year. In the second of four worklife forums, we focus on new teachers Chris Henry (pictured left) and Peter Wilson (far left). Both have a strong sense of vocation, but both are determined not to let the job take over their lives. They recognise the need to leave space for sport and socialising. As Peter Wilson says: "I don't want to look back 10 or 15 years down the line and wonder what I've done apart from work."

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A regular game of football or a session on the tennis courts is what Chris Henry and Peter Wilson are looking forward to now they've become neighbours. They reckon they need to let off steam, quite literally, if they're to survive their current work regime.

Both are NQTs at Norbreck school, Blackpool, a 600-pupil primary which is commanding every reserve of their resilience and resourcefulness for at least 12 hours of every working day. For two young men who regard teaching as a vocation, the demands of the job have nevertheless proved overwhelming.

It's not that Norbreck primary is particularly challenging. The actual stuff of teaching, of being with the pupils in the classroom, is the one thing that lifts the two men's spirits. It's the sheer scale of the planning, assessment and accountability that saps them of their energy and leaves them ragged come Friday.

Research at the London School of Economics has shown that between 40 and 50 per cent of trainee teachers leave the profession within three years, largely due to workload and pupil behaviour. But Chris Henry, 25, and Peter Wilson, 30, believe they are in for the long haul.

Chris Henry has wanted to be a teacher since he left primary school. He grew up in poverty on a council estate in Chorley and it was school and his inspirational primary teachers which made him see there was a world beyond seasonal working or unemployment. He joined all the school clubs, loved being a learner and vowed as a teenager that he would help children in similar circumstances.

Peter Wilson, the son of a teacher, had always been involved in youth work and sports coaching and, although he began his working life as a dental technician, the pull of the classroom proved too strong. The turning point came when he visited Cameroon, where his father was helping to set up a school with VSO. He came back hooked on teaching, and he still feels that way: "No two days are the same, and when the children do something well you just think, 'Yes! I can do it'. That gives you a good feeling." Chris Henry agrees. "When you see kids picking up on a concept and getting it right, it really is something to be proud of."

But both men are daunted by the workload. Peter Wilson teaches Year 2; Chris Henry Year 4. Both are in school by 8am, preparing their classrooms for the day ahead, making sure resources are in place, liaising with other staff. Coffee and sandwiches are taken on the hoof during break and lunch as both use the time for assessment and preparation. And when the children have left for the day, they're still in class creating resources and planning for the days to come. Any marking is taken home.

Chris Henry has a challenging class, something made clear to him when he took on the job. He finds it stressful trying to cover all the elements of the curriculum he feels are essential in the limited time available - from guided reading to non-core subjects such as music, which he regards as an essential entitlement - especially when behaviour is an issue. Twelve of his 30 pupils have significant behavioural and emotional problems, and although initially he was a disciplinarian, he found he was going home feeling extremely tense.

"After those first weeks I made a concerted effort to concentrate on the positives. I prefer to reward rather than punish, but behaviour is an ongoing issue. By 3.15 I am drained, and if I could just go home, I would.

But there's the classroom to sort out because the more preparation done at that point the less there is to do the next day. Mondays are very tough because there's a staff meeting until 4.30 and then everything to do after that."

He tends to leave school after 5pm. And until this term he was still living with his mum in Chorley, an hour's drive away. Then it was a case of having tea, spending half an hour in front of the telly or a computer game and then back to schoolwork, marking until 9.30pm. "With 30 sets of work to get through it takes time and I want to put constructive comments in the children's books. People tell me I don't need to do all that, but as far as I'm concerned that's part of the job."

He's now moved to a two-bedroomed flat - one bedroom is for all his paperwork - that is closer to school and closer to Peter Wilson. Proximity to each other could be a lifeline for Peter Wilson, who's hoping they'll be able to build in more breaks for sport out of working hours. Despite his 12-hour days, Chris Henry has jealously guarded Tuesday nights, when he plays football for his pub team. He feels guilty about it, especially when older colleagues tell him they spent the night creating worksheets, but he has kept the footie going. "It's the only time I forget about my worries and switch off," he says. And he likes enjoying a pint afterwards with friends who are not teachers. "I've met teachers who cannot switch off. All they talk about is the kids. I don't want to talk shop like that."

Peter Wilson has just taken on a mortgage with his partner Clare Simpson, who is also an NQT for Year 5 at Norbreck. Although the couple are both home by 6pm, he marks and prepares resources most nights until 8.30 while she works until 9.30 or 10pm. He spends Sunday doing the same. "I know that the more effort I put into my planning and preparation, the better my lessons will be and the more both I and the children will get out of them,"

he says.

"I don't resent the time and I enjoy making resources, but at the same time I don't want to give up sport and socialising. I don't know many people in this area, so having Chris nearby will be a great opportunity to get involved in sport again.

"I believe it's about time management and making space for other interests.

It's important to do that. You need to socialise. You need to switch off.

Teachers are bad at that because they always want the children to achieve.

Sometimes I find myself waking up at 4am with my brain already in gear and thinking, 'What shall I say to Ryan? How am I going to get the best out of him on that task? How am I going to deal with this?' It's the nature of the job, but you have to switch off."

Peter Wilson says teacher training did not prepare him for the volume of paperwork, much of which he resents. "All these questionnaires to do with self-evaluation and professional development. Who is going to look at all this stuff? Why do we have to do all this writing up that's just going to be shoved in a file? Next year I want to be able to come home and go out and play tennis."

Both men feel PPA time is crucial in lightening their workload. Without it they believe they'd be spending another two hours a week preparing in the classroom. They also appreciate the school's policy of getting teachers within year groups to plan together and to take responsibility for planning in different subjects on behalf of colleagues. They enjoy meeting the younger teachers at out-of-hours events to enjoy a drink together and mull over work issues in a more relaxed atmosphere, though they make sure there's a cut-off point for talking shop.

Smaller classes, says Chris Henry, and more classroom support would make a difference to his work-life balance. He remains dedicated to the children's interests, he loves the random conversations that you can only get in a classroom, he appreciates compliments from his headteacher. "When the class has worked well and the head compliments them on how they are behaving, that really lifts the spirits. I am trying my very best and it's paying off.

"I don't look on the job as getting easier, but I do hope that as I become more experienced I will cope better. If I can manage now, when I'm in at the deep end, then surely things can only get better."

He is determined not to "live the work". "I know a lot of teachers who don't have outside interests. I don't want to feel that I'm doing more assessing than teaching. I am determined to keep my hobbies growing."

Raj Persaud, the Gresham professor for the public understanding of psychiatry and a columnist for Friday magazine, says that, like junior doctors, NQTs need to take a developmental perspective to their work, to see things further along the line. "It's tough in the training phase, and if you are going to learn a difficult job then you have to invest a lot of time," he says. "Better that young teachers learn things rapidly so that they have more time for leisure in the future."

Mentoring is crucial. "Trainees need to have inspirational role models; people who can perform the job in a way that isn't stressful," he adds. "If junior doctors saw the old hands, the consultants, after years of experience, appearing as hassled and overwhelmed as they are, that would be totally off-putting."

Peter Wilson is also concerned when he sees older teachers putting in the same hours as him. "I don't mind using up my weekends and holidays on work, but I get really scared when I see older, experienced teachers doing what we are doing. It makes me think, 'Is this what it's going to be like? Is this the job? Working every day until nine at night?'

"I don't want to go on like this and look back 10 or 15 years down the line and wonder what I've done apart from work."


7am Get up

8.00 In school preparing the classroom, putting up work on the whiteboard for children to get on with when they come in

8.50 Pupils arrive

9.15 First lesson

10.50 Breaktime. Grab a coffee and get classroom ready for next lesson.

Usually no time to see other teachers

12.30pm Lunch. Chris Henry takes sandwiches to his classroom so he can sort out afternoon lessons and assess the morning's work. Peter Wilson walks the children over to the dinner hall then goes back to the staffroom for a packed lunch. Once or twice a term he goes out for lunch with other Year 2 teachers. On Fridays he runs a skipping club in the playground

1.30 Afternoon lessons begin

2.30 Afternoon break. Time to get ready for last lessons

3.15 School ends. Peter Wilson goes out to talk to parents

3.30 Tidy up classrooms, prepare resources. Staff meeting on Monday

5.00-5.30 Leave school

6.00 Arrive home. Telly and supper

7.00 More preparation, looking up resources, marking work

9.00 Finish work

9.30 Chris Henry goes to bed. Peter Wilson waits for his girlfriend, also an NQT, to finish her marking (about 10pm)

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