Longer School Days and a Work/Life Balance

In Confident Body, The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley14 Comments

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“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”
Alain de Botton

Achieving a work life balance is a honourable pursuit, but like seeking out the philosopher’s stone, it is fundamentally flawed notion. The very aim of this illusory state paradoxically brings us more hurt than help. We feel damned by the guilt that attends our interminable workload as we struggle to fit in our lives into creases of quality time. Our families and friends too often suffer in this fight for the illusory perfect balance. Not only that, we get a kicking in the press for being holiday loving layabouts, with a penchant for a golden pension, for good measure.

In a week when a former DfE special advisor posed the question about longer school days and shorter school holidays, the debate about the role of the teacher, and their working lives, crashes back into the headlines, and popular debate, with the subtlety of a freight train. The common misapprehension of all teachers darting home at three thirty, sunning it up in the French Riveria all summer, pop back up to the surface like unwelcome waste in a sea of troubles.

Teachers inevitably sigh, grumble and grouse and then get back to their ever growing marking pile and their ceaseless lesson plans and email to-do list. Add the multiple classroom performances to the paperwork, then to the emails and the working hours soon pile up and spill into the supposed halcyon holidays.

Parkinson’s law is the adage which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Being a teacher fits this adage perfectly. Like gas filling a room, the teacher workload fills our lives.

Far from experiencing a delightful work/life balance, satisfied by endless summer holidays and short working days, we grind away, filled with guilt at being stuck at our school work on the weekend, marking and planning away, when we should be spending quality time with our own family. Our job is never more than an email away and most evenings are filled with book marking, planning, managing the emails and jobs that stack up throughout the day.

The image of teachers themselves seeking to extend their already lengthy school day to supposedly relieve pressure simply does not exist. We have serious trouble with retaining the workforce as it is, but if working conditions worsen then surely the state of the profession can only suffer further. Call me cynical, but the longer school day debate smacks of a financial decision and not about making education any better.

And yet the ignorant attacks on our profession are bearable.

Why?

Because we have the huge privilege of working in schools. We need not define our work simply in terms of monetary gain. We can define our work in terms of significance. Laymen get small glimpses of this in programmes like the ‘Educating…’ series. Not every day is a bed of roses, nor every student a model of effort and attitude, but working with young people can be life affirming and as rewarding as you could wish for in a job. The relationships, the variety, the challenges: they all make being a teacher much more than a job.

To speak of teaching as not just a job, but instead a vocation, can and is dismissed as a trite, romantic notion, but if you really don’t believe teaching can change lives and make a difference to the world; however small, then I doubt you can find happiness in working in a school away from your family’s and friends so much of the time.

We need to love what we do and this makes the pressures bearable, the criticisms merely temporary. The headlines quickly become chip-paper.

What we need to do is laugh off the ignorant criticism of our professionalism, but with utter seriousness, defend our working conditions to help safeguard the future of the profession. We need to defend our hard won daily working conditions and our right to regular holidays (when we are often busily planning and catching up with our marking pile!) so that we can concentrate on becoming the great teachers that our children deserve.

We should relieve ourselves of the guilt that attends our pursuit of a work/life balance, but defend that tenuous slither of balance we actually have. How I see it is that there are boundaries between our life and our work that we can and should salvage with our current working conditions. It is a thin red line. We should defend that line with tenacity.

Ultimately, we should be kinder to ourselves and to our colleagues. No one else will be. It is certain the tabloid headline writers will not be. In this ‘big society‘ we are patently not ‘all in this together‘. And yet teachers can be. We need to be because our profession, in the age of the profligate banker, is one of the few worth fighting for.

Comments

  1. Re Parkinson’s law. That really isn’t at work here. Teachers work is not like a gas expanding to fit a space, it is more like a high pressure system where more and more work is crammed in the same space until eventually everything is crushed and distorted beyond recognition. Teachers are more like work black holes where extra tasks are flung and all perspective of time and being are stretched until…….. Who knows.

    1. Author

      That is a rather bleaker image. I’m sorry – I don’t subscribe to that view, although I am not naive to the pressures of the job.

  2. I think that by extending the term lengths, those outside Education will be shocked by the subsequent increase in sick days. I know that the majority of staff at my school are already working at near empty, with two weeks of half term left, and it is through sheer will power and the desire not to add to the burdens of colleagues that we struggle in each day, whilst armed with lemsips, cough sweets and boxes of tissues! My half terms are usually spent trying to get better, ready for the next 8 week slog and, as you so rightly say, catching up on marking, form filling and planning. I love teaching – and wouldn’t change professions for the world – I just wish some of these big Education decision makers would do more than watch a much edited tv series about teaching and come in for a whole half term – all day, every day and see what the job actually entails.

    1. I know teachers work outside lesson times, but a lot of schools only have about 6 hours of lessons a day. Students find a shock when they go on work experience and have to do an 8/9 hour day. I’m all for saving my holidays, but I’ve never worked in a country with such short lesson hours as this one.

    2. Author

      I think you make a very good point about staff illness and the related aspect of staff well being. Few outside teaching recognise the intensity of term time. It is a hoary analogy, but putting on multiple ‘performances’ to large group all day is hugely draining.

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  4. Thanks for this post, Alex, which I found well-balanced (!) in its depiction of the pressures and the rewards of teaching.

    I know there any many who will disagree, but I actually feel that most teachers and school leaders at all levels usually work as hard as they demand of themselves, not because they are driven by in-school demands or external forces. Yes, there are things we have to do, and often new responsibilities are added (while nothing is taken away), but most of those I have known over a thirty year career in teaching, and those I have met since I finished headship in 2010, make choices about how hard they are prepared to work. And I think we need to question whether our choices are acceptable/reasonable, and occasionally recalibrate if we feel that our health (physical and mental) or our friends and family are really suffering.

    I agree that work-life balance is hard to achieve but have said elsewhere (on #nurture1314 posts, I think) that it’s a journey, not a destination. We should always be aware and should try to do all we can to be realistic in what we demand of ourselves, to look after ourselves and each other (school leaders should be mindful of the balance in others’ lives as well as their own) and we should examine our priorities/core values from time to time. And if we feel that what we are doing IS reasonable, we should try to get a grip on our guilt, know that our relaxation time is well-deserved and crucial for our on-going effectiveness, and rise above any criticism from those who don’t understand and appreciate what teaching involves.

    1. Author

      I think the role of the school leader is essential is holding the line in effect. If the school leader doesn’t recognise a requirement for some balance then problems will no doubt arise.

  5. In the end, the lines have become too blurred. I’m working, on average, 60 hours a week – we’ve been noting all the extra hours we do in school – my usual day now is 7 till 8 and one day at the weekend. If I’m lucky. We’re also expected to do at least one day revision over the next three holidays – unpaid. If you expect a balance, you seem to be in the wrong job – my head tells me it’s what teachers are expected to do and what they’ve always done. I get three non contacts a week [I’m head of English and Literacy and I’m expected to put together the school magazine] – we get 25 minutes for lunch – directed time is 5 hours per fortnight – minimum] Can of worms here. Good luck!

    1. Author

      I’m afraid your conditions seem out of whack. I do think school leaders are the fulcrum of this whole debate. How they act will determine teacher quality and the capacity of teachers to sustain their careers. Frankly, your school may find in the near future it cannot attract high quality teachers because market forces mean they can seek better conditions elsewhere. You weekly hours are not far from most English Subject Leaders I know of, but you added extra and small non contact time is poor. There comes a point when you simply need to look elsewhere for better conditions and support!

  6. I think the point that you make about the importance and satisfaction of our job is a key one. I work as hard as I do and try to be as good as I possibly can be for the difference that it makes to my pupils. I wouldn’t put in that sheer effort in a different job ( I know because I have worked in other areas). However it is at the expense of using my holidays to recover and the prospect of them being shortened is an unpleasant one.
    It is not easy to brush off the constant criticismand the feeling that the current government doesn’t value our profession at all. I do fear for the future as many young teachers are put off by the unrelenting workload and leave the profession early. I consider myself lucky as I had my family when workload requirements were less onerous and I don’t know how teachers today cope with the demands of the job and a young family.
    Hopefully at some point the tide will turn and some sanity will prevail.

  7. As the comments here demo, teaching is a profession but that does not harmonise employer expectation or expected practice. Some of the work demands illustrated are extraordinary, as are some of the individual commitments exemplified.
    What most would agree is the vocational pleasures we’ll experience are beyond a 8-6 commitment. But recovery can’t just be in holidays; 20% time off contact is essential, and I also feel food/nourishment needs to be part of the package.

  8. The ripple effect of this will impact on the wider school community as it will generate more work for staff in support/admin posts, some of which already work full time, all year round.

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