Achieving the illusive work-life balance in teaching

Achieving work-life balance is an ongoing battle for many teachers.

Even the notion that balance exists somehow seems to be nearer living legend than reality, which as a teacher can make the task of organising and claiming your own a source of frustration and anxiety.

What are the main obstacles to achieving work-life balance, and what measures can teachers take to swing the pendulum back in favour of a working life that includes personal and leisure time?

One of the realities of teaching:

Those in the profession know teachers work long hours.

In the recent blog article ‘Workplace stress: the issues and demands of teaching’, it states that the working week for secondary teachers is 55.7 hours on average, while for primary it’s 59.3.

Outside of the education world, these figures are likely to come to as a surprise to many.

Who hasn’t heard the line about teachers’ wonderfully long holidays or how great it must be to finish work at 3.30pm every day, one too many times.

Some say that because teaching is a vocation, it brings with it an element of self-sacrifice.

The implication being that teachers understand what they’re signing up for when they enter the profession.

While many would agree that teaching is a vocation, and sacrificing the occasional social event comes with the job, we have to be careful to manage our expectations of teachers, to see them as real people, not as saintly beings who should be willing to forgo a personal life for the sake of work.

Conversely, teachers who choose not to spend hours outside of school marking, preparing lessons, and carrying out other administrative tasks should not be judged or vilified for making this decision.

Teaching is currently experiencing recruitment and retention issues, which thrusts the issue of teachers’ working life and work-life balance back into the spotlight.

This isn’t a new issue by any means, but it’s one that should spur us to look beyond government rhetoric and to listen in a meaningful way to what teachers are telling us.

According to a survey by The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), 76 per cent of newly qualified and trainee teachers said they considered leaving the profession due to workload.

This significant number is reflected again when asked about work-life balance, when 79 per cent said they hadn’t managed to get this right.

Eighty per cent of respondents said that they didn’t have enough time to relax, and 81 per cent reported not having enough time for hobbies.

These figures reveal a recurring issue of teachers who have to sacrifice a great deal more than just their hobbies.

Not having sufficient time to relax outside of work is cause for real concern, and potentially the source of greater problems down the line in terms of teachers’ health and wellbeing.

When asked what positive changes would improve teachers’ work-life balance, teachers suggested having less work to do in the evenings, as well as less unnecessary paperwork.

We know that these two areas in particular can cause teachers a great deal of stress.

In 2014, the Government launched The Workload Challenge consultation, and like ATL’s survey, respondents noted the volume and turnaround of marking, unrealistic deadlines, and long and irrelevant meetings as major contributing factors towards a skewed work-life balance.

In the Government analysis of the consultation, 32 per cent of teachers called for marking arrangements to be modified, while 25 per cent said we should reduce the need for data inputting.

Time management for teachers offers a toolkit comprising practical resources to help teachers better prepare and organise their time.

Their suggested approaches claim to help reduce stress, while also helping teachers feel more in control.

See the ‘Useful links’ section for details.

Many time management resources emphasise how work-life balance is different for everyone – there is no one size fits all – so accepting this, and finding a structure that suits your work-life demands is the ultimate goal.

We know procrastinating is a sure way to lose valuable time, but there are ways to overcome putting things off.

When sitting at your desk to carry out a specific task, ATL suggests using the one-hour rule, which basically means staying seated for the hour, after which, you take a short break.

Sticking to the one-hour rule helps to focus attention and remain mindful of your objectives.

Another suggestion is to tackle your least favourite task first.

By completing a job you’d prefer to put off, you give yourself an incentive in knowing there are better things to come, and the sense of achievement in getting a difficult job out of the way first is a great motivator.

Creating to do lists, work diaries and a calendar can help you to schedule and plan for short and long term goals.

These resources enable you to prioritise your workload, and revisit as needed.

Having visual references also helps to keep your goals and tasks organised, and allows you to manage your time more effectively in preparation.

In the ‘Time management for new teachers’ article, Sara Bubb recommends setting realistic targets, organising workload around energy highs and lows, i.e.

at points of the day you are most and least productive, and to accept that not everything has to be perfect, good enough will do on some occasions.

While the article is aimed at new teachers, the advice is pertinent for any teacher who is feeling the pressure of a heavy workload.

A popular approach to organising workload is to adopt the SMART goal setting technique.

So, goals should be simple, measurable, action-based, realistic and time-limited.

Using this structure is particularly helpful for day to day tasks.

Finally, in order to find balance in your free time, remember to leave work at work, plan social events with family and friends, have regular leisure activities that you enjoy participating in, and make time to truly relax and unwind.

Useful Links:

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