I am in the fortunate position of leading a school that is packed with enthusiastic and ambitious young teachers. However, that profile causes me to question the sustainability of their efforts and the impact that their dedication has on their health and wellbeing.
School leaders have a duty to look after their staff. So we have initiatives in place to show our appreciation of the work that all staff do. We timetable departmental meetings during the core working day; we review policies to look at their impact on workload; we provide free toast on Friday and free tea and coffee every day; we have a culture of praise and celebration; and everyone gets a card and some chocolates on their birthday.
We even have a “sing-a-long-a-briefing” each half term that sends everyone into school with a smile on their face and a song in their heart. But is this enough? I don’t think so.
I have shared the following advice with my team in the hope that I can help them to stay healthy and keep up their enthusiasm for many years to come.
1 Perfectionists need not apply
Teaching is a perfect storm for perfectionists. Most are naturally conscientious and altruistic.
There is always room for improvement, so we could easily fill every waking moment with an infinite number of jobs.
That is why you have to be able to say, “This is not perfect, but it is good enough and I’m not spending any more time on it.”
Decide what a reasonable working week is and stick to it.
Make sure you have “sacrosanct time” when you almost never work – for me, it is after 9pm and all day Saturday.
2 Assess your impact
Ask yourself if you can be more productive in the time you’ve got. Are all jobs necessary? Can some jobs be completed more efficiently? I’m not talking about short cuts that result in shoddy work, just making sure that you are not making work for yourself that will not have an impact on your students.
3 Plan lessons realistically
It is impossible for every lesson to be an extravaganza of the latest pedagogical techniques. If you are teaching strong, solid lessons every day that meet the needs of your students, then you are making an outstanding contribution to your school.
If you know that your lessons with 8B this week are going to require a lot of teacher input and some creative resourcing, try planning something less taxing on yourself with 7A. My PGCE tutor told me that “you can get a lot from a little” and it is an excellent piece of advice, which can benefit every single teacher in your school.
Not every lesson needs 15 PowerPoint slides and four differentiated sheets to be effective. And remember, your good ideas can be recycled in many ways.
4 Plan time for yourself
I make sure to plan some of my personal time in the same way that I plan my work diary. Try to find at least one day a week when you leave school at a reasonable time – and don’t then work at home.
If you don’t do this, you can find that every spare hour is filled by work, you are not doing the things you enjoy or doing any exercise – and you are in danger of becoming miserable and one-dimensional.
5 Manage your emails
When I first started teaching, we didn’t have email, just two cans and some string, but somehow, we managed to communicate anyway. Of course, emails are useful but they should save time, not eat into your home life. I follow a few basic rules:
Set a time each day to respond to emails. They won’t disappear in the meantime.
Keep your inbox tidy so you won’t feel overwhelmed each time that you go to check for new messages.
Turn off your email alerts at home unless you are working. Have a set time beyond which you won’t respond – it can usually wait until morning.
Only answer an email if your response is absolutely necessary.
Only use contact groups, “reply all” or “cc” if you really need all of the people involved to read the email.
Before sending an email, ask yourself if it is necessary. Could you talk to the person?
You work with a group of talented people who have skills that you don’t have and vice-versa. There may even be someone in school who is employed to do a task that you are wasting time on. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
7 Just say no!
As Zammo put it in Grange Hill’s anti-drugs chart-topper, sometimes you need to “just say no”. You can say no to requests to take on more work, to take up a career development opportunity or to lead an initiative. Better to say no than struggle to meet expectations.
Mark Cottingham is headteacher at Shirebrook Academy