“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.
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.