The impossible dream

balance-15712_1920A guest post by @MrKS1Teacher 

This week I tried something so astonishing that most would find it seemingly impossible. As a primary teacher of five years experience, I aspired to wrestle back control of my work-life balance in the most radical of ways. In a moment of madness I made a wild presumption that my time away from work should be my own. And so, as the clock in my classroom struck 5.30pm on Monday evening, I downed my yellow highlighter pen and put away my class’ maths books. However, in a change to my usual schedule, as I slid my laptop into the padded backpack that cradles it on my journey home, I placed it not on my back but in the classroom cupboard. I then simply switched off the light and walked away. This is a routine I repeated for the next four nights and yet again, like in my previous non-teacher life, my evenings became an opportunity to switch off from work and spend quality time with my now heavily pregnant wife.

The issue of teacher workload is ever present in classrooms and sitting rooms across the land and the edu-Twittersphere is littered with hints, tips and tricks on how teachers can create that delicate balance between work and life. ‘Leaving work early twice a week’ and ‘removing work email apps from personal devices’ are familiar pieces of advice. Some contributors have even lambasted fellow teachers for, to paraphrase their words, wasting their time on creating fantastical displays more worthy of a flashy tourist attraction then a meaningful learning environment. Whilst there may be elements of truth and wisdom in these contributions, in part they serve to emphasise the role of the individual teacher in creating their own problem of workload. ‘If you didn’t read your emails after 6pm, you wouldn’t feel so pressured would you?” However, the problem of teacher workload has grown out of a pervasive culture in schools that produces irrational and unrealistic expectations of teachers and children alike. The roots of this culture are to be found in marking policies tainted by Ofsted myths and unhelpful assessment tools designed to ramp up accountability rather than pupil outcomes. Everything must be quantified and ‘evidenced’ to within an inch of its life, as if teachers were on trial at the Supreme Court of Learning. “You allege this child is learning but yet present no substantive evidence? Professional judgement, you say?! What is this hokum of which you speak?”

For those new to the profession as well as the more experienced, the problem can seem insurmountable and the suggestion of taking up a hobby outside of school or spending quality time with the family, at least on a school night, seems an impossible dream, as unrealistic an expectation as those imposed by SLT. Teaching can be an overwhelming profession and as one of my colleagues put it recently, at times it feels like the weight of the world is rested on one’s shoulders. Personally I liken the feeling to standing at the centre of a frenzied tornado, with Pupil Premium grids, assessment data, a mountain of unmarked books and highlighter pens of every colour of the rainbow twirling feverishly around you whilst you talk to a disinterested parent at the door about their child’s challenging behaviour. Though they struggle, many teachers hide the true extent of their trials from colleagues and carry on regardless, working ridiculous hours at work and sacrificing a social life for the caffeine-fuelled drudgery of lesson planning and resource making on the sofa. This is the reality for many and a few lone and rather faded voices of disgruntlement in the staffroom will not change the situation.

Here the old adage ‘strength in numbers’ is particularly relevant. Having a forum for teachers to air their views on the current climate within their schools is vital to improving the issue of workload. If teachers need to do anything, it is to open up to each other, not on Twitter but in their schools. And not for the sake of collective therapy but with the intention of changing things. As the 17th Century English revolutionary, Gerrard Winstanley wrote, “action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing.” It is important too that this process does become essentially adversarial, pitting staff against an SLT sitting aloft in their ivory tower. Listening is an often overlooked leadership tool but it is essential for effective leadership, in business and education alike. The best of school leaders will want to listen and invite discussion, especially when staff are unconvinced of a particular measures’ impact on pupil outcomes. And when this is not the case, the collective voice of a whole staff is an incredibly powerful and potentially disruptive force. Only the most foolhardy of leaders would fail to listen and act accordingly.

Is this a call to arms? Not quite. More a word of encouragement to a profession that seems to have forgotten that as ‘professionals’ we have some legitimate claim to know best. And we must trust our own ‘professional’ judgements and argue constructively in favour of them. If the marking policy does not work in the interests of our pupils, let us not limit our discussion to a grumble by the photocopier. Instead we should open up a dialogue about it and share our concerns openly with SLT, utilising our own expertise to find a way forward that improves pupil outcomes. We need to be proactive in tackling our problem with workload but we cannot truly resolve the issue by taking up squash on a Thursday after school. By forcing ourselves to ‘get a life’ outside of work we simply deal with the symptom and not the cause of our overbearing workload. And as an unintended consequence we perpetuate the problem and fail in our responsibility to affect real, lasting change, not only for the good of our own wellbeing but for the outcomes of our pupils. Whilst successful, my experiment with work-life balance last week will not be sustainable without transformative action, and the truth is we are the only ones qualified to make that change happen. So let’s take back control of our lives by first taking charge of our own profession

 

@MrKS1Teacher  Year 2 teacher engaging small minds with big ideas.

This post was originally published on the author’s blog and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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