Workload: are you an early bird or a night owl?

When it comes to teacher workload, is it better to get cracking early or keep going late? Gemma Corby explores

Gemma Corby

Teacher workload: For a teacher struggling to cope with a heavy workload, is it better to get up early or to stay at school late, asks Gemma Corby

There has always been an air of righteousness associated with the early risers of this world. 

“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” and “the early bird catches the worm” are two of the more famous tropes that reinforce this idea. 

But if people are putting in equal hours, does it really matter if they are getting in early or staying late? 

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Whether someone is an early bird or a night owl is genetically determined – by something known as their chronotype – and has nothing to do with virtue (which is a shame as I have always been quite smug about my ability to leap out of bed in the morning).

A person’s readiness to engage with the world early in the morning can also be influenced by the quality of their sleep. For those who experience light or disrupted sleep, perhaps due to sleep apnoea, parasomnias (such as sleep walking, sleep talking and night terrors), stress and anxiety, chronic pain or young children, it is understandably harder to get going at the sound of the alarm clock. 

So, whether you are a lark or an owl, what are the advantages and disadvantages of each for teachers?

Workload: getting in early

The advantages

Peace and quiet

When I worked full-time as a Senco, I aimed to get in for 7.30am each morning (this may have got a bit later towards the end of term). I found I was at my most productive for the first half an hour of the day as I had very few interruptions, and I could get myself set up for the day ahead. 

Lower stress levels

As the traffic is lighter in the mornings, I tended to sail through, so I would arrive calm and ready to face the day. If something did slow me down (tractors are very common on East Anglian roads in the morning), I knew I had plenty of time, so I didn’t feel my blood pressure rising.

Early morning CPD 

I was up so early I became a regular listener of Radio 4’s Farming Today programme – which came in very handy when teaching the agricultural aspects of geography. My knowledge of anaerobic digesters also makes me a great dinner guest.

The disadvantages

Afternoon exhaustion

My energy levels tend to crash around 4pm, making after-school meetings and parents’ evenings even more of a challenge. 

If I could leave early, I would, although it inevitably meant taking home lots of marking and planning. 

Photocopying nightmares

What happens if the photocopier jams at 7.30am and the reprographics expert isn’t in until 8am? Nothing. You just silently tear your hair out whilst trying to figure out where tray 2B is, knowing that if you mess it up you will experience the wrath of the entire school. No biggie.

Unpopularity at home

You may try to be as quiet as possible, but inevitably as you try to get dressed in the dark, you will send something crashing. Cue a very grumpy non-early riser emerging to passively aggressively make a cup of tea while giving you evils.

Staying late

The advantages

Face-to-face time

There are more opportunities for those who stay after school to meet with students, parents/carers and colleagues, therefore improving communication. 


There are also greater opportunities to socialise with colleagues after school, as pubs aren’t generally open at 7am, at least not the ones you’d want to frequent. 


Once the students have disappeared ,you can relax, put the radio on (and tune into something cooler than Farming Today, if you like) and plough through the marking and planning – meaning less to take home.

The disadvantages


I personally find it difficult to be productive after school as there are frequent interruptions, usually from well-intentioned colleagues.

It is difficult to focus as the cleaners dust and vacuum around you, while updating you on the latest gossip (which, although often fascinating, isn’t going to help you mark those Year 9 books any faster).

Unhealthy habits

I have been known in the past to buy bags of sweets as prizes for students and consume them all myself as my sugar-levels crashed post 4pm. Sorry, kids. 

It is likely that most teachers are in early and stay late, just to get through the workload, but to cite another popular trope, burning the candle at both ends is never healthy or sustainable for anyone, lark or owl.

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former special educational needs and disability coordinator

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