This time of year means one thing for teachers: exhaustion

The constant striving for excellence can lead to burnout – go steady instead, says Susan Ward

Teacher workload: This time of year means one thing for teachers - exhaustion

The final term is now upon us and for schools across the land that means it is time for the annual quality-improvement stock take. What has gone well this year? What could have been better? What are the priorities for next year?

But teachers need to also take stock of something quite different. For many teachers this term is typically characterised by one thing: exhaustion. A year’s worth of missed lunch breaks, late nights, early mornings and weekends spent marking begin to take their toll. What should be a celebratory term, full of satisfaction as learners move on with confidence to the next bend in the road, can often be muted by a haze of tiredness. Yawning through the leavers’ service may seem like a normal symptom of teacher life, but in fact it can be an indicator of something much more serious.

There is always a price to pay for clattering along at an unsustainable rate of knots. The fuel tank will empty long before the finish line is in sight and many teachers spend the summer term adrift, desperately trying to just get to the end. This is the cost of working too hard for too long.


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Much has been made in recent years of teacher workload and burnout. The revolving door of teachers in and then quickly back out of the profession via the teacher recruitment crisis speaks for itself. Teachers are told they must “practise self care”, make time for what is important, be mindful. Wellbeing messages have become just another stick to beat teachers with, yet another thing they should be doing that they just can’t seem to make time for.

The truth is, no amount of meditating or Sunday morning walks in the woods will sort out teacher workload. The work will always be waiting. What is needed is a cultural shift in thinking – let’s encourage our teachers to find another way.

Currently, teachers cannot expect others to stop them careening head long into the empty space beyond burnout. Because the reality is they are putting on an excellent show. They are performing at such a rate they are the envy and awe of school leaders and colleagues alike. Plans arrive early. Wall displays are constantly updated. Parental requests are met and no jotter ever goes unmarked in triplicate. On the surface, it looks like a lead practitioner sailing through, making it all look easy.

The reality is that the plan handed in early was probably done at 5am. The jotters were marked at the expense of an afternoon with his or her own kids.

These teachers are fireworks. They are autumn leaves. The life is leaching out of them, but they are making it look good.

But there is another way – so, teachers, listen up:

Choose not to burn so brightly. Choose not to expire in a blaze of colour and leave nothing but ash behind. Be a candle. Burn steadily. Use your light to ignite others so that together you push back the dark. Surround yourself with those who will gently cup their hands around your flame and protect you when sharp winds blow.

True, your performance will not be as showy. Sometimes it might even seem a little pedestrian next to bolder, more eye-catching performances, but you must remember that you will light the way long after these passing wonders are gone and forgotten.

School leaders, fill your schools with candles, not fireworks. Let’s end this school year with a steady glow, not a bang.

Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30

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