There’s a wellness crisis happening in UK schools. Teachers regularly sacrifice their down time: evenings get consumed with lesson prep, breaks are a chance to frantically catch up with admin tasks, and weekends become overrun with piles and piles of marking.
We’ve heard so many stories of teachers who feel that, in order to succeed, they have to sacrifice their personal life. We’ve been there ourselves. And we know first hand that this way of working leads to burnout.
While it can feel hopeless when you’re drowning in admin, we promise you there’s another way. You don’t need to work all hours of the day to be a super teacher. Here are our most important tips for striking a work-life balance that works for you.
Prioritise what’s important
Prioritising tasks is the first step to getting on top of your to do list, and that starts with taking a step back and gaining some perspective. Grab a piece of paper and create two columns. In column one, make a note of every major task in your day, both in and outside the classroom.
“Major tasks” are tasks that take more than half an hour to complete. Next, in the other column, make a note of the smaller tasks that take less than half an hour to complete. If you do this for the whole week, you’ll be able to see right in front of you how much you’re trying to cram in. If it’s too much for you, look at what you can Defer, Delegate, or Delete (known as the 3D approach).
By prioritising what’s actually important, looking at what can wait and what you can get support with, and syphening some non-negotiable time for yourself, you’ll be able to recharge and bring more passion and energy into your classroom.
As Success Coach David Jessop says: “So many in the teaching profession put their own mental balance and wellbeing way down the list they have in their head, when it needs to be at the top.”
By physically writing out your list, and noticing when it’s looking overwhelming, if someone tries to add yet another task to it you can just say “no”.
Take time out
Let’s start by addressing the most common protest to this: taking time out for yourself isn’t selfish. You’re not betraying your pupils for taking the weekend off marking. You should never feel guilty for spending time on your personal wellbeing. In fact, you should prioritise it.
Teachers are predisposed to care for their pupils, which often leads to the ‘oxygen mask’ mindset of putting other people’s wellbeing before your own.
Georgia Holleran, teacher wellbeing pioneer and the powerhouse behind TeachWellFest, agrees: “[Teachers] tend to be carers, they tend to be people who care about individuals and therefore they tend to care about their pupils first and foremost.”
This might seem like a great trait, and it’s what makes you a nice person, but always putting others’ needs before your own can be detrimental to you and your students if it’s leading you to burnout.
We love the idea of creating a personal ‘red-line’. This is a non-negotiable point at which, every day, you will draw a line under your work and go and enjoy yourself. The more we get into this habit, the more we realise that everything isn’t going to collapse in our absence.
Your work will still be there when you come back to it, refreshed and revitalised and even more productive. Give it a try, and watch your productivity soar.
Don’t work for works’ sake
Every human being (that includes you, teachers) only has so much time and energy to give in a day, so use it wisely. Stressing over a hall display or getting embroiled in potentially bottomless overtime work isn’t going to make you a better teacher. Next time you t find yourself refreshing your email account for the tenth time, or fussing over a Powerpoint presentation colour scheme, stop and ask yourself: is this the best use of my time? More often than you might think, the answer will be ‘no’.
Regularly stopping to ask yourself this question can help you become more present in the classroom, and help keep your eyes open to where your time outside of lessons is going.
So, whenever you take on a task,, whether it be marking, playground duty, or crunching grade data, be mindful of the energy it’s taking. What am I sacrificing to do this? Is this the best use of my time? Am I being too much of a perfectionist? We’re sure you’ll start to surprise yourself.
Remember your why
It might sound obvious, but staying in tune with the passion that attracted you to teaching in the first place makes all the difference to your wellbeing.
Rebecca Kenny, who was a teacher for over 13 years, agrees: “Enthusiasm is more vital than ever. It's when mine died that my mental health started to suffer.”
When stress mounts and free time feels limited, it can be easy to forget the benefits you both receive from, and bring to teaching.
Former drama teacher, Vikki Parker listed what she believes are the main skills needed to be a teacher as:, “Resilience, passion for your subject, ability to cope with stress, a collaborative attitude, critical thinking, self awareness, the ability to communicate with children, fairness, flexibility, multi-tasking, creativity, curiosity, and belief in the holistic development of the young person.” These are some incredible qualities, so never lose sight of the value you bring to the classroom.
We know how easy it is to get overwhelmed at times. But give yourself a break. You’re making a difference in the world just by showing up with a passion for your subject, and a desire to help your students. Everything else can be worked on, and be worked out. And if we can help make your life easier by creating resources, sharing advice, or lending our voice to your cause, we’d love to hear from you.