Tuesday, 29 December 2015

What Does Pixar's 'Inside Out' Teach Us About Teacher Wellbeing? Part 2

Riley: I... I know you don't want me to, but... I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my old friends, and my hockey team. I wanna go home. Please don't be mad.
Mom: Oh, sweetie...
Dad: We're not mad. You know what? I miss Minnesota too. I miss the woods where we took hikes.
Mom: And the backyard where we used to play.
Dad: Spring Lake, where you used to skate.

This is the finale of 'Inside Out'; the dialogue is accompanied by many an animated sad expression, a healthy number of tears and it culminates in a big family hug. Apparently Dacher Keltner from the University of California, Berkeley, 'helped revise the story by emphasising the neuropsychological findings that human emotions are mirrored in interpersonal relationships and can be significantly moderated by them.'  However, the film heavily emphasises how we self-regulate our emotions and focuses less on the part that human interaction plays in influencing how we feel. For the purposes of the movie's concept this is forgivable but in real life if we shunned social interaction and relied on self to keep sane, I dare say we would find ourselves in a mess.

There are enough moments in the film where Riley and her parents help each other to overcome difficulties: sometimes by being 'goofballs' and acting like monkeys, and other times by playing hockey with a screwed up ball of paper or suggesting shared experiences to cheer each other up. And these are the moments I'd like to reflect on with regard to our own wellbeing.

I'd like to direct your attentions toward Benjamin Zephaniah's poem 'People Need People'. There are three verses, but here is the first:

People need people,
To walk to
To talk to
To cry and rely on,
People will always need people.
To love and to miss
To hug and to kiss,
It’s useful to have other people.
To whom to moan
If you’re all alone,
It’s so hard to share
When no one is there.
There’s not much to do
When there’s no one but you.
People will always need people.

In my previous post about 'Inside Out' I discussed how the exercise of a full range of emotions is good for our wellbeing. If this is happening then it is inevitable that there will be visible manifestations alerting others to our feelings. And when we spend time with friends, colleagues or family most of us hope that they will respond to the visual clues and ask us how we are feeling. And if you don't display your emotions, and the people around you don't notice when you do, then your wellbeing is in peril.

Benjamin Zephaniah suggests we need people 'to cry and rely on' and to moan to! 'Inside Out' shows us that once you have allowed emotions like sadness to manifest that healing actually begins when other people respond to it. Don't be afraid to let others see you in what you perceive to be weakness. There is actually great strength in admitting to others that you feel weak. Only when you admit it can you begin to become stronger, and so often that happens with the help of a best friend, spouse, partner, sibling, mentor or work mate. In those around us there can be found a wealth of experience, knowledge, and most importantly kindness, care and love. And we all need a bit of that, don't we?

For teachers it is important to identify those people in all areas of your life. Who knows you well? Who knows how much energy your pour into your job? Who has perhaps experienced the strains of the changing face of education and made it through the other side? Who do you know who appears to have a good work/life balance despite having a busy job? Who do you know who will just give you a cuppa and then sit and listen to your woes, without belittling them or waving them aside? Find that person. Actually, find a few; one in each setting you find yourself in. Find someone at work, find someone at home, find someone at the end of the phone line, and on Twitter. Wherever you are, know the people who can help you. And then talk. Make them aware of your emotions as part of day-to-day life. Not just when all comes crashing down. It's probably worth reminding yourself when you find those people that your range of emotions should come into play: if you feel happy, talk about happy things. If you feel scared, talk about what's scaring you. If you feel calm, tell them. Don't just moan. Or cry. Or rely.

And then there is your part of the deal. A relationship is two-ways. When the family's removal truck doesn't arrive, Riley cheers her parents up. When Riley sets out for her first day at school, her parents cheer her up. No matter how broken you are, you can still be a support to others. At times you might take more than you give, and vice versa. Who are the people in your life who need you? As teachers we are expected to care for the wellbeing of the children we teach and we can't escape from that - they need us. We all have colleagues; for those who are leaders it is part of your role to see to their wellbeing. We are duty-bound to moderate the emotions of those around us at school and if our own wellbeing isn't in check, we risk being ineffective in this area.

Benjamin Zephaniah reminds us in his poem that we need to live our lives with other people, sharing food, relaxing in company, learning from and playing with them. He says that other people can put us at ease and make life more appealing. 'Inside Out' reminds us that family and friends help us to deal with difficulties better than we can on our own.

For a case study in how talking about feelings helps, please read Numpty Teacher's blog post How I Stopped Drowning

Saturday, 26 December 2015

What Does Pixar's 'Inside Out' Teach Us About Teacher Wellbeing?

Joy. Sadness. Fear. Disgust. Anger. The five emotions that Pete Docter and Dacher Keltner decided govern each of us. Maybe that's unrealistic but it is Pixar; suspend some disbelief. Whilst your doubts are hanging up there, consider the question: what can we learn from 'Inside Out' about our own wellbeing?

The film's lesson (obvious spoiler alert) is that Joy cannot be the sole controlling emotion and that other emotions have a part to play in our wellbeing. At the beginning of the film we see Joy rushing around, taking a lead and trying to keep the other emotions in check. The other emotions rarely get a look in (sounds ideal, right? A life full of joy?) Then worrying things start to happen - Joy instructs Sadness to stand in a 'circle of sadness' so that she can't influence the feelings of Riley, the main character in whose brain the personified emotions reside. Eventually Joy realises that to deal with the problems Riley is facing, Sadness needs to take the reins. Joy's epiphany comes when studying a happy memory of Riley's family and friends consoling her: "They came to help... because of Sadness."

I suppose it's prevalent in psychology: feelings shouldn't be suppressed. When all the personified emotions in the film do give up trying to control Riley, a blackness descends on the brain's control centre: the beginnings of an absence of emotion - depression?

Advice about dealing with workload and the pressure of teaching that focuses on just thinking positively is usually sneered at, and for good reason; it hardly seems productive. It seems that the advisor is condoning suppression of all emotions other than joy. The positive advice that is coupled with practical steps to take is much more productive, but if still only focuses on joyful emotions it can easily miss the mark for those struggling with other feelings.

Writing this I am well aware that my previous advice could be seen to fall into the aforementioned categories. This post is another step in my journey into understanding how I, and others, achieve a good work/life balance and emotional wellbeing. One day, maybe I'll understand and be able to truly help others. I digress.

My question, prompted by an enjoyable Boxing Day afternoon movie, is this: can free expression of all emotions have positive impact on wellbeing? And I ask this particularly with teaching in mind. 

Can expressing anger about ever-changing goalposts relieve stress? Could allowing the fear of change in education to be in the driving seat help one to feel better? What about letting disgust at your SLT's latest time-consuming bolt-on initiative be your primary emotion for a while? Is just being sad about a profession that you once really enjoyed actually constructive?

'Inside Out' would say yes in answer to all of those questions. The film's conclusion goes further: the protagonist's memories are coloured depending on which emotion was prevalent at the event. By the end of the story Riley's memories become a cocktail of colours - each memory is multi-emotional. It is possible, and natural, to simultaneously feel more than one emotion. It is possible for aspects of teaching to enrage us at the same time as experiencing joy in another part of it. Whilst feeling joy about a breakthrough with a struggling child we may also fear the unknown of the next week with them. And, so, 'Inside Out' says, we will be happier if we allow all of our emotions to steer us and to help us make decisions. Perhaps happiness, contentedness, positivity and optimism (and ultimately, wellbeing) can be found in experiencing the full spectrum of emotions and in not regarding any of them as unhelpful.

What seems strange in the film is that out of the five emotions, we would traditionally only see one of them as a positive emotion: joy. All the others (anger, disgust, fear, sadness) we would immediately think of as negative. It looks like joy will always be overpowered, fighting a losing battle. But what the film portrays so well is how Joy works alongside the other emotions, not so that the main character is always joyful, but so that she always feels well, even when she eventually cries in her sadness. After the crisis, it is the moment when Sadness takes control that Riley feels best.

Sadness explains, "Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems." Perhaps we do need to allow our 'negative' emotions to stop us teachers from ploughing on regardless because 'we have a job to do, so let's just get on with it.' Maybe anger, fear, disgust and sadness, alongside joy, can make us stop and think and lead to us eventually being well.

These are musings from someone who knows nothing of human psychology - please don't judge too harshly, but please do engage on this. Point me towards research. Tell me your own experience. I'd love to think more about these issues.

Postscript:

I have since found an article that does my blog post, but better. I should have researched what had already been written!
Inside Out Shows Wellbeing Isn't Just About Chasing Happiness
The bit about 'Emodiversity' is particularly enlightening.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Just 3 Teachers

Mr Clough

Walking into the lesson he picked up an elastic band, pulled it back, "That's potential energy..." he said. The elastic band flew across the room. "And that's kinetic energy." Never have I forgotten that moment in year 6, never have I forgotten that particular piece of physics. He was our headmaster and I would rank him as the most influential teacher I ever had. The cigar smoke seeping from his office, the giant art projects (shoes and socks off to walk over the paper), the trip to France (he showed me Monet's garden, took me to L'Orangerie and instilled a love of art which stays with me today), the funny words he used (smellytape). Yes, he had the hearts of his children. And I'm sure the hearts of his staff members too. His funeral was heavily attended. He made teaching (and leading a school) look like fun and we loved to be around him.

Lesson: be a fun teacher

Mrs Ashworth

The stories. It was all about the stories. We read and read and read. Zachary and I stayed in at lunch time to talk to her about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (we were in year 3!) and she brought in books of Tolkien-inspired art work to show us. She indulged our passions, and hers, and a lifelong reader she did make. If ever a teacher fostered a love of reading in her pupils it was her. Oh, and she also used to let me tidy the cupboard - my standard ploy whenever maths came round and I did it a surprising number of times. It was a cupboard I liked to imagine as Roald Dahl's Chokey, so small was it in our little old Victorian school building, and I remember reorganising the piles of text books I was supposed to be learning from (what were those ones with a hot air balloon on the front?) I've never understood why she allowed it, but she did, and look at me now.

Lesson: engage children using their own interests

Mrs Sanderson

Picture two scruffy teenagers on rollerblades causing a public nuisance outside Morrisons. Picture a maturing (she may have been younger than I thought but when you're little you think everyone is old) lady walking down the access ramp towards them. That scenario, in my experience, never goes well. Except when after 15-ish years those two teens still remember their nursery teacher and that maturing lady still remembers every one of her little charges. I have many more memories of my time at nursery than I do of my Key Stage One experience. I visited the nursery recently as my daughter did a stint there before we moved; the huge hall that once provided so many hours of imaginative play seemed tiny, as did those cavernous classrooms where she let us do woodwork with real nails and hammers and saws. Who needed Mummy at nursery when you had Mrs. Sanderson - caring, kind and encouraging of all exploration. Even rollerblading.

Lesson: know your children

Thanks to @Michaelt1979 for the inspiration for this blog post

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Family First?

"When's Daddy coming to my Christmas play?" asked my five year old daughter on more than one occasion. "He has to go to work darling, so he can't come."

When I had children I resigned myself to missing out on some of these little moments. Having the school holidays, not having to travel for work and sometimes being able to come home for tea time seemed like a fair trade for not being able to do the school run, go to presentation assemblies and attend end of year productions.

As it has happened, with the odd difference in days off between my school and my daughters', I have had the privilege of picking them up from school and seeing the eldest presented with her 'Pupil of the Term' certificate. Teachers are kind and have allowed us the last parents' evening slots so I do feel a part of their school life.

But the Christmas show wasn't to be. Or so I thought. At the end of the penultimate week of term the head pulled me aside, asking why she'd not had a request from me to go to see my daughter's Christmas show. Inside, crushing emotion and self-disappointment welled up. I'd let my little one down. She had wanted me to come, and I could've gone if only I'd asked. I had unnecessarily prioritised work over my family. My voice cracked as I tried to explain why I hadn't asked.

The happy ending is that, as a result of my boss's prompt, I went to my middle daughter's nursery Christmas show and it was lovely - Christmas really began that day. I had checked with my super-understanding five year old and there were no hard feelings; she is sweet enough to be able to be excited for her younger sister even when it might not seem fair. So, No.2 and I shared giggle fits during one of the songs and I smirked as she spent a whole number rearranging her star outfit, complete with full-on hands down skirt moments. Family came first that afternoon. And I got to miss the SLT meeting: Christmas bonus. 

And what have I learned? Well, it was a reminder of how to prioritise. I have a kind boss who cares for the wellbeing of her staff and who, despite not having children of her own, understands the importance of family. I should have known that I could at least ask. Not everyone is fortunate enough to work for such a leader. I have a family at home who need me and deserve my best. My job is important, but actually my own flesh and blood are more important. Really, I'm essentially doing my job because of them - so that I can support them financially. But their needs are more than just that. They need my time too.

I don't think I'll be suddenly leaving school at 3:25 everyday to get home to them, or even automatically assuming that I can take time off work to go to every school event, but I will consider my family more in the decisions I make regarding how my time is spent.

This was re-blogged on the TES blog on 11th December 2016 entitled '"Daddy can't come to your Christmas play, he has to go to work"': https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/daddy-cant-come-your-christmas-play-he-has-go-work

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Forced Academisation: Will Hands Be Tied?

The Lords are revolting! "How very dare you!" they reply to the Tory idea that all failing schools should convert to academies. 

Come January I'll have worked in an academy for a year. Our school was rated as 'inadequate' by Ofsted two years ago this month. This is the part where I hasten to add that I joined the school in September last year, quickly distancing myself from any association with the grading. I took the job based on the weakness of the report - the challenge appealed to me. Who wouldn't want to work in an inner-city school boasting the accumulating problems of years of declining leadership? I remember sitting in bed reading the report and gasping out loud at what it contained. I remember visiting the school to be the told by the new head (who had already been appointed before 'the visit') that "the report was kind." I went to interview and accepted an Assistant Headship at the school, knowing that very soon the local authority would relinquish its responsibilities and that an academy chain would be 'taking over'.

It was my decision to work in an academy. Some of the existing staff members were highly suspicious of the change. As are most who are anticipating the passing of The Education Bill in which failing schools are to be forced into academisation without even the consultation of parents or teachers. And there are some awful stories which would only serve to heighten fears, but mine is not one of them.

As mentioned before, the current head started in the new year, post killer Ofsted. She quickly set about making changes (no time to outline those here). When the school became an academy - part of a large local chain - she retained her status as leader of the school. Whilst she has become part of a bigger machine, she still makes the decisions that are right for the school. In our chain, each head has autonomy as the academy recognises that its leaders know their individual schools best. Maybe, we've struck gold and other academies are not structured in this way, but they can't all be bad, surely?

As an academy we have benefited in other ways:

Parents were initially vehemently against the academisation, but a year on perceptions have changed. They see now a school run by professional people with their children's best interests at heart. They see us as part of a bigger force for good in our city - there is a sense of belonging amongst our stakeholders. They see that as a result of the aforementioned leadership, under the academy's umbrella, that major changes are taking place and transforming their children's education. Whilst we still have our challenges, no longer is it an 'Inadequate' school. 

Staff, on the whole, now feel proud too to be a part of the chain and there is a greater sense of teamwork and belonging; our staff Christmas meal was apparently the best attended in many years. Positive working relationships with other schools in the group are beginning to be fostered and expertise is being shared. 

The children notice the difference the most - they are learning more, more quickly, and enjoying it. They look smarter in our new uniform. They like the tighter routines and the maximisation of learning time. But they would not put the changes down to the academisation, but to the shift in 'how things are done', which all points back to the leadership (most children would recognise the change came about when the head changed). 

We have become an academy but the powers that be in the academy group have allowed the school's leaders to do their job, resulting in all manner of positive changes. I recognise our situation may be different to others as the new head was not responsible for the 'inadequacy' of the  school, nevertheless, I wanted to share a positive story of a school being forced into becoming an academy

Photo Credit: geebeetography via Compfight cc

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Overtime: Are Teachers The Only Ones?

Teachers’ workload: two words bound to get any teacher on their soapbox. Articles abound on the issue. The DfE even challenged us about it (does anyone else find the use of the word ‘challenge’ strange?) I don’t need to tell you, the hardworking teacher, that the workload is great and I think even the stereotype of ‘Teachers. Huh! Cushy number; working 9-3.30!’ has died a death; even the non-teaching public know now that teachers don’t just work a. 37.5 hour week.

Evenings. Weekends. Holidays. Some of us work them all. Overtime pay? Not a chance. Lack of free time, family time, fun. Many a teacher has experienced this. But are we alone? I mean, are those memes that suggest teachers are the only ones working at home in the evening actually accurate? Well, there have been studies: its official! Teachers work more than any other profession!

However, I know some pretty hard working folk who aren't teachers and I decided to ask a few of them about their working hours. I asked them their role, contracted hours and overtime (either paid or unpaid). Here’s what I discovered:

Many of the workers I asked are contracted at around 40 hours, similar to teachers. Many of them said that they work around 20 hours extra, unpaid, on top of their contracted hours. Workers who answered in this manner included a Director of a water company, a Vice President of a manufacturing firm, an Associate Director of a political consultancy, an Enterprise Architect for a publishing company, an IT Consultant, an HR Business Partner in a telecoms company, an IT Architect in a small data consultancy and a Senior Finance Manager for a construction Services company. If my friends are representative of workers in those industries then that’s quite a lot of people around the world working similar hours to teachers without being paid overtime. Some of those I asked reported that working around 90 hours per week is sometimes necessary.

What about working from home? The IT Architect said “for me there is little to distinguish work and home. Holidays increasingly are measured on broadband quality. I don't think I really ever switch off from thinking about work.Echoing the sentiments of others, the Finance Manager remarked “My phone is on 24/7 and I'm expected to check email at all hours.” A number of those I spoke to revealed that they did extra work at home, others did not say whether their 20 hours of overtime was done in the office or at home. The Vice President stated “I'm always working: nights, weekends, vacations! I have found the saying "It's tough at the top" to be very true.”

Another major finding was that travel takes up more time on top of extra hours for non-teachers. Whether it’s being ‘at work’ 24/7 on foreign business trips away from family or sandwiching a week’s hotel stay with 15 hours of UK-wide driving, this is something most teachers don’t have to deal with.

It may be noted that those I spoke to all hold fairly senior positions and are likely to be paid well.  I didn’t ask for salary details simply because those who compare the workload of teachers to that of other professions never compare salary either. My anecdotal evidence is in direct reply to the blanket statements of ‘no-one works as hard as teachers’. Well they do. There are many men and women all over the country up late working, arriving at the office early to get an extra hour in, missing out on time with their children, spending every waking hour replying to emails, going on ‘holiday’ with a project to complete. Teachers are amongst those people but they do not have a monopoly on these characteristics.

One of my friends concluded: “It appears most people really enjoy the work they do and they do what is needed to be successful! I'm feeling lucky to enjoy what I do and that I have fun doing it!If you really are in teaching because you are passionate about it and you love working with the children, then surely this is the attitude to have. Imagining that you are the only one still up at 11pm preparing for the next day will not change the fact that teaching is a hard job with many demands and pressures. Knowing that everything you do can have a positive impact on the lives of others can make all the hard work worthwhile. Counting yourself as one of the many workers around the world who goes the extra mile for no reward could begin to take the edge off the pain you feel.

And if you are still up at 11pm preparing for tomorrow, perhaps you’d benefit from reading up on maintaining a good work/life balance. Although the pressures are high and the workload is heavy, I believe there are things we can all do to address the balance. Might I suggest you begin with a couple of my own blog posts?
Photo Credit: thatbookkeeper via Compfight cc

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Perpetuating the Stereotype: Teachers

Who is devaluing the teaching profession? The government? The media? The public? Or teachers themselves?

Gandhi said "Be the change you want to see..." but many teachers are doing the opposite. They're living up to the stereotypes and allowing the labels put on them to become self-fulfilling prophecy. By acting unprofessionally they are perpetuating the negative views of the media, government and public.

This is perhaps seen most clearly on Facebook - the platform that gives us a voice within our own social sphere. On Facebook most of us tend to only be 'friends' with people we're actually friends with, creating a melting pot of employment backgrounds (as opposed to platforms like Twitter where we follow a 'tribe' of the more like-minded).

Facebook users have an impact on a personal level. People will form opinions based on who they know. What do our non-teacher friends see? A great deal of negativity. A lot of complaining. A lot of memes suggesting that we work longer hours than them, have a harder job than them, take more work home than them (we don't). Is looking down the nose creating a good impression? They see a lot of sharing of articles about teachers who have left teaching, often without any explanation as to why they are posting them. Non-teachers, no matter how friendly, can be left with the belief that all teachers are work-shy whinging wannabe martyrs.

Maybe we forget that on Facebook many of us (30 or over) are complaining directly in the face of the non-teachers who care about teaching the most: parents. They see a teacher complaining, think 'all teachers must be like this, including my little Jonny's teacher' and they worry. It's no wonder that the general public's perception of teachers is unhealthy. Take this one step further: people who are parents are influential in both media and government. It's also no wonder that something so close to their hearts as education is constantly being paraded through parliament and the papers. 

The negative posts on Facebook only attract interaction with other teachers. I've never seen a sympathetic comment from a non-teacher - negativity does not draw positivity from them. This negativity only ever seems to draw more negativity from other teachers, too. I suspect that the more shares these posts get, the wider the circle of discontent becomes as teachers wallow ever deeper in their own perceived miserableness, dragging others down with them as they cement their self-made position as a time-poor, worn-out minion.

Rarely have I seen posts of a positive nature being made on Facebook about teaching. The response of many teachers to any positivity is usually a sarcasm that seems to arise from an inability to see the job in a positive light (they're often in the form of 'jokey' comments which only thinly veil a teacher's true negative feelings). I am sure much of this is as a result of the largely-negative nature of the online social interactions teachers experience - some teachers just can't help themselves now; complaining is ingrained.

The negativity that appears to prevail, I regard as unprofessional. I know teachers who have worked and suffered in difficult schools under terrible management for years who have not once complained online. They remain quiet to maintain their own integrity, and that of the profession.

We are responsible at a grass roots level to have a positive impact on society's view of our profession. If each one of us, in our own sphere of influence, remains professional, we can bring about change. Stop the whining; no one will champion our cause as a result of it. Stop reposting the articles and memes. Be proactive about this; start to write positively about your job, even if it is in the context of the hard work we do and the pressures we are under. Start to think about the impact you could have on those outside of teaching if you behaved more positively (whilst still raising the necessary issues) and act accordingly.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Great Expectations

I alluded in my last blog post to a previous version of said post which included a surfing metaphor. Prompted by yesterday's TES article by Professor Colin Richardson I thought I'd post it as he and I had some similar thoughts. 

My prediction is that the Prof's article will not go down well. The main argument will be along the lines of "But we have no control over the pressures put on us by the government, SLT, governors and Ofsted inspectors!"

And it's true, we don't on the whole. But we can control our approach to the workload we are lumped with, and in a controversial move Professor Richardson actually makes some good points.

But first, here was what I began with:

You're lying on your board, eyes cast over your shoulder scanning the waters for the next wave. It appears and you squint, gauging its size as it rolls closer, gathering momentum. It's a big one. Mentally, you fear both riding it and being overcome by it, but those are the options. Better to try and chance success than to be pummelled. A keen surfer at this point is almost unaware of the choice - there is no option for them but to catch the wave and go for it. A stressful situation no doubt, if one lets it become so. But are surfers typically tightly-wound balls of stress? No! We consider them to be the most chilled out, relaxed people around.

I wonder if the knowledge (no doubt compounded by social media's endless brainwashing) that teaching is indeed a demanding and busy profession leaves many-a-teacher quaking in their boots as they anticipate the deluge. When the workload gets heavy they're already resigned to the fact that they won't be able to deal with it all. I wonder if many of us never get on top and ride the wave because we think the wave is just too big to be conquered.

Even a confident surfer knows that any wave might just conquer them, and that an attempt may leave them gasping for air, fighting the undertow. But they also know that they can get back out there and wait for the next swell. They're relaxed about their chances, knowing that perfection is not always guaranteed. 

A lot of teachers are perfectionists - this is not a bad thing, it means they care and want to do a good job. It also means they will inevitably think that their job is never done. And it isn't. There will always be something more to do, something that could be done better. Subconsciously many teachers attempt perfection even when they know it is unachievable. We must begin to realise that we will have a bad observation, we will get the wrong end of the stick with the marking policy and we will struggle to assess without levels for a while. But we also must realise that none of those difficulties spell the end of our career. We must see them simply as opportunities to learn. We must be willing to swim back out to sea, ready and willing to get back up on the board and try again.

And I couldn't have summarised better than Professor Richardson:

"The vast majority of teachers expect too much of themselves. They aspire to unrealistic goals. They always fall short – and deep down they realise that they do. They know there is always more they can do for their pupils. They know that what they and their schools provide can never be good enough for the young people in their care. They acknowledge that their schools can never be perfect. Inevitably, they feel guilty about their shortcomings when they fail to meet unrealistic aspirations.

Consciously or unconsciously, they try to assuage their guilt through hard work and long hours. And they succeed, at least to a limited extent, but at a vast cost to themselves."

I urge you, stressed and overworked teacher, to at least give this article some credence. Could it be that you could make some changes in your self-expectations? Might it be a good idea to put a time limit on your work next week, finishing at a given time rather that 'when the work is done'? They might be piling it on, but fight back by admitting that a teacher's work will never truly be done.

Further reading: Addressing The Balance - 5 tips for sorting out your work/life balance

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Crowd Sourced: Advice on Coping with the Workload

On Facebook I recently asked my teacher friends this question:

What are your strategies for coping with the workload?

I particularly asked for teachers who enjoy teaching how they dealt with the expectations put on them. Here are a few choice answers:

"Making sure I stop when I've had enough and give myself time to eat with colleagues or have a chat with someone. If I'm at home working I do the same, I'm far less productive when I'm fed up with it than when I still feel positive. I don't work weekends at all unless absolutely necessary and then it's Sunday evening. I think part of tackling it is realising that it'll never all be done and if you feel like it is, the goalposts will move again tomorrow."

"I never get everything done! I set out my limit I will work each week - two evenings and Sunday afternoon and in school 8-5 then I think to myself 'if it's not done it's not done - don't worry you've done enough work!'In desperate times I have also paid siblings to mark tests which are a case of just ticking and I can then just analyse the data."

"I refuse to do things I don't deem necessary, regardless of what the head might think!"

"I had certain days and times that I had for working; I always stayed very late on a Friday because (weirdly) it suited me! I generally had one day each weekend that was work free. I was honest and asked for help - like after I went back from maternity leave I asked someone to share in running choir because realistically I couldn't do that hour every week if I was going to keep up. Also delegating a bit. The thing I think that helps most is keeping in mind that there's always more to do (so you will always have a long to do list) but having these as 'must do soon' and 'to do...' (I got better at this with experience).

"Don't take work home."

"I have one night a week when I catch up on school work at home and I now stay late on Friday to get everything sorted for the following week then I try not to work at the weekend if at all possible. I've started working through lunch too. I think planning your week so you don't have a load of marking from the same day helps. Also just give in to the fact that you'll never get to the end of the 'to do' list!

"I do as much as I can at work. I arrive as early as I can and stay late. I'm much more focused when I'm at school. Make good use of playtime/assembly/lunchtimes. Obviously I do work at home but only what I can't get done in school."

"I work until a set time each evening (it's not very late!) and I don't work weekends. Managing your time well is paramount I think. I work in a small school and wear lots of different hats, so have to prioritise time and tasks. It is possible. Also, prayer and don't compare yourself to others. We're all different and work in different ways.

"Just 'chill out'! My job is not the most important thing. Especially not more important than faith, health and sanity!"


To qualify, most of these answers came from teachers who have been in the profession for ten years or fewer and they have varying family commitments. The overall message I think is this: find what suits you and what fits in with the life side of the work/life balance. There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to managing your time but in these snippets of advice it seems clear that teachers who enjoy their job also recognise that there is a never-ending pile of work to be done and that you just can't spend all of your time doing it.

Photo Credit: jobporter via Compfight cc

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Dear SLT (on workload)

This is the third time I've started this post totally afresh. As I've written each one, my thoughts have changed so that the audience and purpose of the piece have also had to change. In previous posts I have covered my thoughts on how a positive attitude coupled with a few strategies can help with the en vogue issue of workload and I stand by what I wrote then, but there are further issues to be addressed.

I was well on my way to finishing a piece (complete with surfing analogy) about how essentially teachers just need to chill out a bit more and stop worrying so much about getting everything done. But as I've thought about, and talked to, teachers I know who are in situations where trying to take such trite advice just would not help, I've realised the focus had to change.

I feel very privileged to be a fully-functioning teacher who is also a member of the senior leadership team. I am timetabled to teach 60% of the school day, focusing on maths and English; our main areas for school improvement. As well as having the opportunity to teach the children, the privilege is in the form of the respect I get as someone who fights on the frontline at the same time as making orders from HQ. It also gives me the responsibility to speak to the rest of SLT on behalf of the teaching staff. It means I really have to practise what I preach. As a result, our SLT is in touch with how our decisions work out in practise, meaning we can adjust accordingly.

So my advice today is for SLTs. It seems silly having to say these things but, from what I can gather, many SLTs are getting it wrong.

Invest
Your members of staff are your most expensive and most valuable asset. You need to look after them. The success of your school depends on their health. Think PSHCE, but for the teachers. One of your primary aims is to reduce stress - if you don't, you won't have an effective team. In order to do this every new initiative needs to be fed through the 'reduce workload' filter. The old initiatives will need to go through it too. It is possible for all the latest demands to be met in a way that doesn't leave teachers pulling their hair out - I've seen it done. But there is no hard and fast rule for how to do this - you must evaluate everything in the context of your school and ask the question: 'How can we make this easier for our teachers?' Not easy, mind you, but easier. Teaching is not easy. Where a teacher needs to improve, you need to give them bespoke provision (intervention - like we'd want them to do for the kids!) - this is the investment they deserve and it will profit you in the long run.

Interact
You need some sort of 'open door policy'. The SLT needs to be approachable. Teachers need to feel that you have their best interests at heart and that you care for them. I'm not advocating touchy-feely leadership but an environment where views are spoken open and honestly, in both directions, but with some tact. You want your frontline soldiers to be able to report back - this way you will hear the positives along with the criticism and suggestions for change. They are the ones who know what it's like to work every day trying to carry out everything you're expecting them to do - if they feel they can bring their concerns about work/life balance to you then you are better placed to address those issues. You need to know how they are feeling and how things are really going when they're not being observed (the 'open door policy' can work two ways; I'd advocate drop-ins and not organised observations). The people I know who struggle with workload work in schools where the SLT are virtually absent.

Involve
Following on from the previous two points it is so useful to have an SLT who are all engaged in the action. Sitting high in ivory towers does not give an impression of leadership, rather of tyranny; dictatorship at best. SLT members need to roll their sleeves up, take up their weapons and lead by example. Julius Caesar saw this as such a necessity that he would fight in the ranks - many other great military leaders are said to have done the same. No doubt troop morale was high in these cases. This strategy will probably open more doors than an 'open door policy' would, making relationships far more natural and parallel. I always used to wonder if my swimming coach could swim as he never got in the pool (we found out he could, even fully clothed, when I pushed him in). Put your money where your mouth is and dive on in, the water's pretty hot right now and you need to feel it for yourself. If you experience a week in the life of a classroom teacher in the current climate then you'll be better informed when it comes to planning to make teachers' workload lighter.

A quick glance at the 2015 Ofsted guidance for effective leadership and management shows that the three approaches outlined above, done right and consistently, can be the basis for covering most of their descriptors for 'Outstanding'.

Why aren't all SLTs doing these things already? There are probably a cocktail of reasons but one major culprit at the moment seems to be panic. Leaders are overwhelmed by the pressure on them and are passing on their stress rather than doing the strategic thinking that they are in the job to do. As leaders it is our role to stem the tide of anxiety (we're paid more because it's a more difficult and stressful role) by implementing time-saving strategies. This is our duty. 

Expecting teachers to do their job properly without your investment, interaction and involvement will hinder their output with disastrous outcomes for the school you're trying to lead and manage.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Addressing The Balance

I was marking books during my lunch break when a colleague approached me asking for advice on work/life balance. She'd been sent to me by a fellow member of the SLT because apparently I'm the expert. My qualifications? Managing to teach a year 6 class, lead UKS2 and maths school-wide, attend to other SLT-type duties and still get home in time most nights to bath and put to bed three under-fives. (I suspect it's also been noticed that I rarely answer emails at the weekend.)

So, what did I say to my colleague?

Prioritise - what really needs doing and what can wait? This weapon has been longest in my arsenal. Maybe it did stem from a fairly lackadaisical attitude but it is now fully grown as an effective tool (can I get away with such mixed metaphors?). The simple idea is that on any given day there are some things that you just can't give two figs about. Those things will have to wait. Concentrate on doing one or two things well that day - the ones that obviously need doing soonest. You can't do everything all at once. I often find that as a result of prioritising, the odd thing drops out of the in-tray and straight into the bin - it would have been wasted time and effort doing that particular job anyway. Admittedly this way of existing runs the risk of becoming last minute.com but there's something else to combat that...

Organise - make time by planning ahead. Although it may not feel like it, you are the master of your own teaching destiny. if you know the week will be heavy on one particular job, ensure that you aren't piling more on yourself. Don't plan 5 days' worth of independent writing which you'll have to mark and level to the nth degree on the same week you know you've got a trip, parents' evening and your mum's birthday meal. Be wise. Similar to 'organise' is...

Maximise - make the most of the time you've got. It's a hateful saying but there's an element of truth to the maxim "Don't work harder; work smarter." Where was I when my colleague found me? Eating sandwiches with one hand and brandishing my green biro with the other. Using those little bits of time in a school day, even just to make one of your five phone calls, is worth doing. Sitting straight down at your desk once the kids have walked out the door without giving lethargy the chance to kick in will reduce the number of maths books you take home. Even better, and super-effective, is making time to sit down with individual children to mark their work with them.

Collaborate - nurture a good working relationship with other teachers. Those of you blessed with a year group partner (or two) are sitting on a gold mine of opportunities. Even if you aren't, there will be other members of staff for you to tap in to. Mention what you're doing, maybe they'll have a resource ready prepared for that. Ask for help if you don't understand something - better to admit a weakness and be enlightened quickly than to remain resolute and struggle through, thus wasting time. Don't underestimate the time-saving effects of this one.

Rest - productivity relies on rest. I could scour the internet for scientific evidence for this but we all know it from experience, don't we? Teaching has a rhythm - some weeks are less busy than others. At the same time as planning ahead and using the time you have, you should also think about using the natural breaks - and make the most of them. Different people find rest in different things. Ensure there is something else (on the life side of the balance) that takes up some of your time - something that isn't easy to get out of. Make a commitment to an extra-curricular activity and get some 'you time' (I would suggest that even family commitments fall in to this category, I didn't say 'alone time'!).

Finally, it's worth pointing out that with a job like teaching there are, as mentioned already, particular points in the year when the workload gets heavy. At these times taking the above advice will help to alleviate but not eradicate. For example, this half term (summer 2), when everyone else thinks we're winding down for the summer holidays, the cumulative effect of that final push for the highest possible levels (or whatever your school has decided to call them now), assessment and report writing, impact reports (if you have an area of responsibility), end of year productions and all those last minute trips actually can take their toll. When that's the case it's worth reassuring yourself that you'll have five or six weeks of mostly-life and, that for the time being, work might just have to tip the balance.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

How I've Stayed In Teaching

What if the key to job satisfaction was not in a change of external expectation but in an altering of internal attitude? Could it be that it's not them who need to change things, but you? At the risk of sounding like an X-factor contestant's deluded parent, I suggest that employment enjoyment (catchy, huh?) is down to a positive mindset. And, yes, teachers - I'm talking to you.

Education - the way we think about it, the way we do it - has changed. What started off in the UK as a sort of people-factory to supply the British Empire with able workers is now something very different, and rightly so. As governments come and go, national pedagogy changes, some Education Secretaries don't really seem to be up to the job, politicians throw the baby out with the bath water (remember Labour's new National Curriculum 5 years ago?) and teachers try to keep up with the developments.

These developments may not always seem like advances but it is up to us to push forward regardless. We must make the best of a set of guidelines we might disagree or struggle with - for the kids' sake as well as our own. Yes, we will have to work hard - but what did you expect?

With an optimistic outlook one can search for solutions to the problems we face. The workload may seem heavy - how can you efficiently lighten the burden? The curriculum content list may seem a drag - how can you uplift it? The hours may seem long - how can you shorten them? Asking this kind of question is the start of your journey to loving your vocation. And just to be clear: I'm talking about making changes in the way you do things as a result of changing how you think about things.

I'm not claiming to have all the answers to those questions however, upon reflection, I can truly say that asking them has been fundamental to my happiness and success. I've not always been successful, I've found many things difficult (like lifting my lessons from 'satisfactory' to 'good' and beyond) and I have learned to be happy. Along the way I've gleaned invaluable bits of advice from colleagues and bolted them together into some sort of Scrapheap-Challenge-pedagogy that really works.

Find the teachers in your school who genuinely seem to enjoy what they do. Adhere to them. Avoid the mood-hoovers and the drains and find the radiators. Learn from them. Find out how they answered those questions - believe me, they will have asked them and found some answers already. For some teachers the answer may be moving to a different school.

Very well, Ofsted inspectors, senior leaders, local authority bigwigs, media men and the rest do affect the possibility of being so positive. As do the kids. There are factors which make it very difficult for us to do our job but there really is only one choice: adapt or die. That sounds harsh but it's true: roll with the punches (sorry, I don't mean to sound like an Apprentice candidate) or leave the profession. And for most of us the second one is not an option - we've invested so much time in our career and we remember a time when we loved it; when we really think about it we still care passionately about the education of children. And let's be honest: our livelihood, and that of our family, relies on us remaining in teaching. We can't leave. So we have to change.

I've often thought of teaching as having an acting job - our roles can be so varied. But let's not get ourselves typecast - let's be adaptable. Jack Nicholson's "Here's Johnny!", Robert DeNiro's " You talking to me?", Roy Scheider's "You're gonna need a bigger boat." - all improvised, all oft-quoted, all examples of how the screenwriters were shown how the script should really go by the ones having to actually deliver it. Pick up the script and improvise - make it your own. Show the director how the part should be played - that's how you will make difference, that's how your voice will be heard. That's what will make education great. It'll also make your job more enjoyable.

In Education today, adaptation of self is essential and it is only made possible by having an up-beat perspective. We can't sit around waiting for the perfect alignment of politicians and policies to begin to enjoy our work. Problems are only problems until they're solved - don't allow them to remain as problems. Ask those questions. Find those colleagues. Make some changes. And above all think positively.

There are many issues mentioned only in passing here that I intend to write on in the near future. The short shrift I've given to particular things is not because I haven't thought about it enough!