How I got my life back from teaching

13th July 2018 at 00:00
Wellbeing, while well-intentioned, has become just one more thing for teachers to do, says Rob Ward. Instead, he says, teachers should aim to do less, and argues this will benefit you and your pupils – after all, it’s just a job…

Wellbeing is a weasel word. That’s not to say I have a problem with the idea of teachers being well, both mentally and physically. But of late it seems that “wellbeing” has become some kind of commodity – an extra for teachers to tack onto their day or something they need to buy into.

Schools are laying on mindfulness and yoga classes; snake-oil salesman have spotted a gap in the market for paid solutions and sticking plasters for a professional body that is on its collective knees; and individual teachers are desperately hoping to make themselves well again by doing something else, something extra.

This is absurd. Doing more will not give you your life back. You have to do less.

“Wellbeing” is what people in other professions call “normality” and if you want to live a normal life, without the insidious creep of education encroaching where it doesn’t belong, you need to make it happen.

It’s hard to do it alone and you’ll need your colleagues’ assistance. Hopefully, your school’s management team will help facilitate a bit of normality, too.

But it’s possible. And I know this because I did it. Here’s how I stopped teaching taking over my life.

1. Set parameters

Firstly, I set myself some parameters. I am a morning person, so I cycle to work and do all my lesson prep while my energy levels are high. I arrive at 7am every day and leave at 3pm unless I have a meeting (or on Thursdays when I run an after-school club).

Within those hours, I work hard and I work efficiently. Especially before school, my time is precious – if I have got myself into work before most pupils have woken up, I’m going to make bloody sure I spend that time wisely. And when 3pm comes around and my energy and enthusiasm are sagging, I can leave, happy in the knowledge that I’ve already done an eight-hour day.

I do not work at home. Not on an evening, not on a weekend. Never. My home is my castle and the idea of dragging Cuthbert’s dog-eared exercise book into it so I can half-heartedly mark it while watching The Great British Bake Off is anathema to me. And who would benefit if I did? The work is not being marked properly and the feedback might not be understood anyway. I’m resentful at having my evening invaded and I’m not even paying due attention to Paul Hollywood’s twinkly eyes. Nothing is getting done properly before I give up and drag the other half of the students’ work back into school with me the following day. I may as well not have bothered at all. So I don’t.

This means that sometimes things go unfinished. Sometimes work goes unmarked. Sometimes things need returning to later. That’s absolutely fine.

I don’t allow my colleagues into my house, either: I do not have work emails on my phone. Nothing that is communicated electronically is so important that it can’t wait. As far as I’m aware, management don’t have my phone number (although I don’t think they’d ring me if they did – I’m just not that important).

2. Revisit how you teach and mark

I am extraordinarily lucky that my school places a huge emphasis on looking after its staff. The management knows that the people they employ are their most important resource, and they treat us accordingly. We do not worry about Ofsted and when inspectors do show up, we do not change a single thing about the way we do things.

There is no prescribed way to teach – if it works, it works. I have total and utter freedom to teach in whichever style suits me and my classes. My school’s data demands are reasonable. We have parents’ evenings instead of written reports. We have very few meetings and these are conducted efficiently. I do not have to submit lesson plans to anyone; I do not have to justify my decisions. I have autonomy, and autonomy is the greatest thing a leadership team can give its staff.

Our marking policy is very, very reasonable and realistic. Mock exams are often externally marked by qualified examiners; clearly, there is a financial cost attached to this. Luckily, my school has decided it is a price worth paying: grades are consistent, staff are not snowed under with marking and can instead concentrate on teaching, while pupils feel their examinations are truly valued. Everybody wins.

Other than centrally set assessments, I rarely give pupils grades for their work. It just leads to kids comparing scores and a number offers them no way to improve. Writing comments is time-consuming and I often end up repeating myself incessantly. Instead, I check work as it’s being done, usually only giving verbal feedback. If there is a common misunderstanding or mistake, I can address it immediately and to everybody. Individual feedback is specific, immediate, and can be clarified and questioned. More importantly, it can be acted upon within seconds.

I aim to read 50 per cent of what is written in every lesson, which means every pupil gets feedback every other lesson.

3. Get planning and make resources

Perhaps the most time-consuming part of a teacher’s day is lesson planning. It’s not a huge part of mine and here’s why: I rarely plan “lessons”. The idea of formulating starters and plenaries and activities and extensions and tasks and whatever other elements are fashionable this week is something I moved beyond long, long ago.

Maybe I’m a traditionalist, but as an English teacher, I see the text as central to everything. Once I’ve got my text – be it an article, an extract, a novel, a play or a poem – I have a suite of questions and approaches that I apply to them over and over again. There is a lot of repetition.

The core texts of teaching English literature were written a long time ago. They haven’t changed since and they won’t change in the future. Some of them will be taught for decades to come; whatever your subject, this will be the case for some key components. So in the early days of the new specifications, our department planned for these texts in lots of detail; we worked collaboratively, we were given a day off timetable, we shared what we made and we now use it over and over and over. Our shared drive is rammed with resources we can – and, most importantly, do – use every day.

Much of our planning can be seen in the form of booklets of resources. These were a labour of love: hours of knowledge from a collegiate body of staff bundled up in a single word document, one that can be printed and handed out like a homemade textbook. What’s more, it’s the kind of textbook we specifically want – we made it, after all. In budgetary terms, they are wonderful. In terms of teaching a topic, they ensure every pupil gets every scrap of key information. Pupils missing lessons can easily catch up on what they’ve missed; students with long-term absences can use them at home; and teachers have already have their way through the subject plotted.

Obviously, staff can take interesting diversions, swoop off on a tangent or explore things not presented in the booklet – but they can very easily return to the core knowledge afterwards. After the initial labour-intensive burst, my planning time has been dramatically reduced thanks to this approach.

I file things systematically and methodically. I reuse and recycle everything – with different classes, different year groups, year after year. It’s far easier to tweak something than to reinvent it. I am a thief: I steal ideas (often from Twitter). I have no shame about this and nor should I. I am not a perfectionist; I haven’t got time to be.

Occasionally I do go into productivity overdrive (usually during dark, cold winter months) and produce schemes of work and booklets or reusable resources. This is work I enjoy and which will benefit me for years. I like doing it, so it hardly feels like work at all.

4. Take a stand on ‘your duty’

More important than any of the practical advice above is something more intangible: I just decided I didn’t want to be a teacher all day, every day. Teaching wasn’t a vocation for me – I stumbled into it in my thirties, almost by accident. It wasn’t a calling and I’m not evangelical about it.

I call school “work”. It is a job. I get paid to do it and, let’s be honest here, if I didn’t get well remunerated, you would never see me on school premises again. Admitting this should not make me a pariah – it’s simply a practical way of looking at part of my life. Treating education as a job of work doesn’t make me a lesser teacher and it doesn’t mean I’m any less committed than anyone else. I’m a good teacher, work very hard and I know I do a good job. This means I am proud of what I do and don’t feel guilty about what I don’t.

Equally, I don’t believe I am responsible for my pupils’ results. Sure, I help facilitate them. But those test scores and exam results do not belong to me. They are not mine; they are my pupils’. I don’t take responsibility for the success or failure of others. I just help along the way. Again, I’m lucky in that my school doesn’t hold me accountable and my pay is not linked to my performance.

I model the behaviour I expect to see. I never look stressed in front of kids and this, hopefully, makes them less inclined to stress. I very rarely lose my temper and this leads to less fractious relationships with pupils. I have very high standards of work (and I model this, too). I’m also aware that I teach children and sometimes it’s okay to be a bit silly (them and me). Being an automaton is no fun for anyone, and although “fun” lessons make me cringe, it’s absolutely fine to have fun along the way.

Outside of school, I do a lot of exercise. I eat well. I read lots. I go to the cinema every Monday. Many of these things have obvious in-school benefits, too, but those benefits are circumstantial. I don’t spend my own money on things for school and I don’t attend conferences or TeachMeets in my own time – I don’t want to be on duty if I’m not in the building.

Can this work for everyone?

I’m not sure what the opposite of a perfect storm is, but the conditions that have coalesced to help create my work/life balance are within the reach of most teachers, leaders and schools. Abandoning perfectionism, knowing when you have done enough, and organising your planning and marking are vital changes you can make with minimal input from others.

Perhaps some of the other conditions will require buy-in from your leadership team, but as marking initiatives such as comparative judgement move to the fore, schools are, it seems, beginning to realise that triple-marking every piece of work is a catastrophic waste of time, energy and goodwill.

Ofsted mythbusting in recent years has also been a great boon for the profession – the scales are finally falling from educators’ eyes, as they realise tasks performed for the benefit of the inspectorate are utterly unnecessary.

And if your school is still peddling these fallacies or pursuing pernicious policies, please tell them they are no longer required – maybe they just don’t know.

Even if some of these changes are beyond your reach or remit, there are tweaks you could make to your own way of working, thinking and teaching that are within your power. Try a few on for size – trust me, you’ll never look back.

Rob Ward is an English teacher in Yorkshire

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