It is that time of year already. It is once more unto the breach dear teachers – the hallowed summer holidays are ending. Get those work clothes cleaned and ironed. Unburden yourself of the summer to-do list clinging about your neck like an angry albatross (you probably didn’t finish it either). Eager new recruits await.
As the summer slouches toward September a darkened mood can descend. Teachers of the world unite with the inimitable return-to-school gloom. These emotions are universal – regardless whether you see teaching as your own hellish servitude, or as your love-fuelling vocation. It is the only natural end to a holiday.
Amidst the gloom it is hard to be wholly positive, but it is crucial that as the new year starts we hold a sense of the wonderful plasticity of the human brain: ours and those of our students. The influence of teachers is such that we can make a difference. The promise of a new school year and a new set of students is that we can begin anew.
But it isn’t easy.
Obstacles abound. The workload of a teacher has the bottomless quality of Mary Poppins’ bag. No matter how many hours you commit, you will never touch the bottom. That’s ok. We are all mired in the same slough of workload. Happily, we possess a job that can fuel our purpose and give us a sense of perspective as we are weighed down by our jobs list. We do still need workable strategies and habits that we can employ to beat off the back to work blues and to mitigate the stresses that attend the job – which is the purpose of the following:
Why a teacher workload is like Mary Poppins’ bag and what to do about it.
Here are some common sense, evidence-based strategies to help us thrive, so that we may beat away the blues and work that little bit better:
– Think about what you will not do. We are very good at deciding what we are going to do in the coming year. New resolutions and ideas excite us to move forward. We should rightly harness this energy. Yet, we are less effective at focusing upon what we will not do to make room for our new additions. Are you excited by new tools like Google Classroom, or are you experimenting with a new marking system? Well, then ask, what are you dropping. To quote Lao Tzu: “In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired. In pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.”
– Make a morning plan. Take 10 or 15 minutes to sharpen your axe – figuratively, of course – each morning. Rather than starting with the emotional assault of your email stack, think through your priorities for the day. Whether you are a professed ‘morning person‘ or not, there is research to prove that we suffer form ‘decision fatigue‘ created by working in a complex, emotional job like teaching, where you make hundreds of emotion fueled decisions a day. Take a look at this excellent long article from the New York Times on why Judges are more lenient in the morning and after some food! We make most of our best decisions in the morning, so plan accordingly. If you get the chance, aim to do the most important jobs on your list as early as you possibly can.
– Take small breaks. Too many teachers fail to take breaks during the working day. The pressure of the Mary Poppins’ bag of workload pushes us toward the false sense of security posed by not properly stopping throughout the day. Only there is a significant amount of research into the value of taking breaks, proving that if we don’t take a break we become less productive, our decision making is hampered and our willpower sapped. Remember to step away from the computer and take a refreshing break. A break does not mean surfing the web and cyber-loafing. We are too easily assailed by the tyranny of email. Our brains cannot refresh themselves whilst hooked into the mains – let your mind drift or chat to a colleague. Take a proper break, recharge, and come back fighting.
– Take a proper lunch break. Part of the work creep into the daily lives of teachers is the shrinkage of the lunch break. What was once a lunch hour has been whittled away. The problem is that this endless attempt to reach to the bottom of Mary’s bag is that we are making bad decisions. We are less effective in the afternoon and are likely to make worse decisions than those who have had a break and some healthy food. There is a sound link between blood sugar levels and our willpower and general working effectiveness. Indeed, glucose could be the key to better learning – for both teachers and students. Start eating and being all the better for it.
– Avoid perfectionism: be the best version of yourself. Aiming for great success for your students is a given, but aiming for perfection in your working life is only a recipe for stress and unhappiness. There are good aspects of perfectionism, but it is damaging when failure is perceived as a negative. Failure is essential. A healthy response to failing is that it is the first step in learning to be better and definitely not a crushing dead-end. All teachers fail daily – a capacity to persevere is what marks out the most successful teachers. Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ theory is becoming ubiquitous in schools as a methodology for the learning of our students, but we must remember to apply the principles to ourselves. Take a look at my blog post on perfectionism here.
– Keep things in perspective. Learning isn’t measured in singular lessons or minutes. The lesson plan didn’t work – fine – tomorrow ill be better. When what you thought you taught and they knew, they didn’t. Well, that is common too. Yes – short term goals and to-do lists give us the organization and motivation to move forward, but education is a long game – the proverbial marathon. Test scores go up and test scores go down. You being healthy and in school is the best scenario for your students, so keep things in perspective when the chips are down. Set yourself specific, attainable and challenging long-term goals. By doing this you will increase your motivation levels and be better able to manage failure in the short-term. Ask yourself: what are my long-term goals as a teacher? It will place a single bad lesson on a wet and windy Wednesday in perspective.
– Chat with a colleague. Chatting to your fellow teachers isn’t loafing or time wasting. The collective confidence and emotional support that can be provided by working and talking together should go without saying, but it can be forgotten in the maelstrom of the working week. Not only that talking to your colleagues can actually make for a more productive workplace. Make the time to chat and become even more productive.
– Take control. One of the ways in which stress is compounded for teachers is an innate sense that we have little control over our working lives. This ‘locus of control‘ – our belief in our capacity to control our lives – is important in helping us manage our work-related moods and to spark our motivation. Yes – we have to teach what our government and school leader dictates (to a degree) – but we mostly have the freedom to teach how we like and we make the vast majority of the decisions in the privacy of our classrooms. Ultimately, if we feel we have no control over our work then you have the final choice to move schools. We almost always have a choice and this should be help us psychologically master the ‘back to work blues‘. The most important choice is choosing to believe that an education can help any student, regardless of their circumstances, move toward something better. We have a choice to believe that we make a crucial difference.
– Eat, sleep and be merry. I could write a list as long as the dead sea scrolls that gives evidence for the positive impact of sleep and physical exercise on our psyche and our ability to function successfully in school. A trite cliche it may be, but a healthy body begets a healthy mind. Again, planning and preparation is often required to develop the habits of eating and sleeping healthily, but they pay off in giving us the stamina to survive and flourish in our working lives.
I am not saying that there are easy solutions to this all-too-human experience of the ‘back to work blues‘. At least knowing that the feeling is universal, that we may share our collective pains and groans, is a start. Make a start. Move forward.
Make a difference.
May your year ahead be a fruitful one for you and your students.