A self-indulgent blog post on work/life balance

It’s term 2 of another academic year and, if like me, it has been a whirlwind return, going from 0mph to 100mph within a matter of minutes, it can be easy to fall back into bad habits.

Yet there is something different for me. Anyone who knows me, knows that without fail, October half term is sacred. I go away, with or without friends, every year. Over the past few years I have been to Amsterdam, Barcelona and then, this year, Berlin. The reason is simple. It is a holiday we, as teachers, need to take. With two long terms either side, the darker mornings and evenings, the cold and wet, miserable weather and illness, it is a term where it is easy to fall into a miserable pit of doom. I know if I was to stay at home, I would work. It would happen. And, therefore, the only safe way of stepping away from the planning and marking pile, is to leave the country.

Going on holiday affords anyone the time to rest, relax and recuperate. It also provides an opportunity to reflect, potentially upon the past term but also upon life as a whole, especially with regard to the work/life balance dilemma. During the week away, I lose Freya, the HOF and become Freya the person – it is a humanising process. This was made more evident by a friend, who I had gone away with, putting a picture of me on Facebook with a cocktail in my hand and the tag line ‘The Freya I know.’ It was an upsetting but truthful remark. There is something about term time that transforms me, and others, into working robots at the sacrifice of our family, friends and loved ones. Physically we change from glowing and radiating human beings to tired, withdrawn and paler shadows of our former selves. Emotionally we become more unstable – one minute full of the joys of the spring and the next, overcome by the overwhelming nature of our work. Anyhow this isn’t a post about complaining about our workload, a colleague has forbidden me from that 🙂 Instead it is about choice.

Choice is what I have thought most about over the past two weeks, especially with regard to the work load conundrum. I have come to realise that we are the ones in control of our lives and we are the ones responsible for the choices we make. And when I think of myself, I realise I have two choices – two paths perhaps – the first, is to be that work robot sacrificing my life and my happiness for the career I have OR the second, that whilst I love what I do and value its importance, I choose to put myself first. I choose to spend time with family and friends, do things that I love to do and pursue hobbies and interests I haven’t afforded myself the time to do.

And the point is this…teachers don’t get enough time to do their job well. FACT. Heads of Faculty don’t get enough time to do their job well. FACT. What has happened, in my experience, is that we have worked harder in our own time as a result – evenings, weekends and holidays. In doing so, we do two things: 1) Make ourselves miserable 2) Imply that we can do everything we are tasked with because we are willing to make personal sacrifices to do it and to get the job done.

And that isn’t satisfactory.

And that’s when I realised, that in choosing work over my ability to live, I was neither making myself very happy nor was it really getting me anywhere quickly.

But in making the switch, in choosing life, difficulties emerge.

Firstly, there is the guilt. It is interesting returning to work when you have been away and others haven’t. I have spoken to many people this week who have told me they spent all of the holiday working. And that’s when the guilt steps in. My initial thought goes to a feeling of guilt. Should I have been working all week too? Especially as I am the HOF? And then my thoughts turn to the pile of work I could have completed over half term and the new things being added to that pile, the minute I walk through the door and I wonder at how much more I could have cleared.

Yet, when you take a step back, the guilt dissipates. Whilst I have returned to work with a smile on my face and a spring in my step, others, who have not been away and who have worked for the entire week look tired and miserable. I am calmer as the 100mph sets in because I am refreshed and energised from a fantastic holiday. I feel it and the kids see it. We chat about our holidays and smile – mentally, physically and emotionally ready for the challenges ahead.   Leading my own life, makes me happier and this impacts upon my energy in the classroom and my relationships with the children.

In addition, whilst some may have worked over the holiday, they too have returned to an almighty pile of stuff to do. In this profession, we are never ahead and we are never done. Taking six days off is not going to change much about that.

Finally, nobody has died. Year 10’s exercise books weren’t marked. No-one died. A scheme of work hasn’t been finished. No-one died. The corridor isn’t quite decorated as I wanted it to be. No-one died. Life goes on.

Secondly, when confronted by colleagues who seek to inform you that they didn’t get a holiday (and this has happened) or (in the coming term that they work all weekend, every weekend), in order to push the guilt away, I have had to work hard to remind myself that whilst I can choose the path my life follows, I cannot do the same for others. Don’t get me wrong, I do sympathise with these colleagues but I have come to realise that they too have a choice to make. If they work every evening and every weekend, it is because they are choosing to do so. Yes, the argument will be that they have to because otherwise it won’t all get done BUT maybe, rather than having this argument in the first place, we, as teachers and leaders, have to accept that we can’t do everything we need to do and we will never get everything as perfect as we would like and therefore we have to let some of what we need to do go in order to retain some of that balance. This, in itself, is quite a liberating experience.

Another anxiety that arises from choosing to work less is the anxiety that others will question your level of commitment. In working hard, you reveal the commitment you have towards making things better. If you don’t work as hard, by having your weekends and holidays free, does this mean your level of commitment is wavering? I am hoping this is not the case. I know that I don’t want to work as hard as I do anymore but this does not mean my commitment to the students I teach and the students within my care is any less. Instead, I feel that in restoring that work/life balance I am ultimately becoming a better, and happier, teacher and leader. One who is calmer and more relaxed in the classroom which I am hoping will pay dividends in the end.

The danger for me, and for others, I expect is that I can return to work week 1 and feel this way. Energised, happier and healthy. I can be ambitious and forceful in not letting work take over but what happens three weeks in to term when the DFE are in and our department review is under way.

The challenge it seems is to push that pressure away.

Routine is key – everyone needs to find theirs.  I work better at school so am going to try and stay until 6-7 every night in the hope that it will reduce the feeling I might have of needing to work at the weekend.

To keep myself busy at weekends, I have been considering the holiday approach – booking things in to do at the weekend – a theatre trip here, a museum there and, in doing so, this, like the holidays away, forces me to step away from the work for at least one day at the weekend.

Also, as HOF you have the power to choose the pace for your team.  This term I have chosen to keep the main thing the main thing. One of the greatest impacts on my work/life balance this past half term was the desire to progress.   I sat in my office one day, crying on the shoulders of my very lovely and very supportive LM about feeling as though I hadn’t gotten anywhere. He reminded me that at interview, I said it would take five years and, here we were, a year and a half in, after the toughest of first years. Why was I, therefore, expecting to have the job done after such a short amount of time and putting the pressure on myself to have it done? Instead of trying to get everything perfect now, I have chosen to slow things down and get everything perfect within my five year period which means reducing the pressure on myself and on the rest of the team. I am choosing to calm the pace down so that everything becomes that little bit more manageable for everyone.

So I guess the point is this: I am a workaholic, as many of us are. BUT, I can’t carry on working at the pace we do and I don’t want to because I want to have a life away from work. And therefore I am choosing, this term, to address the work/life balance and I am making choices that will help me do this. I am choosing to see my family (who I haven’t seen properly since Easter), I am choosing to spend time with my friends (some of whom have forgotten what I look like), I am choosing to visit places and do the things I enjoy once more and start to enjoy some new hobbies and interests.

I hope that other teachers will lessen the pressure off of themselves and do the same. And to those who have already mastered this art, I salute you and am open to any words of wisdom or advice you could impart 🙂 Happy half term everyone!

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5 thoughts on “A self-indulgent blog post on work/life balance

  1. Right, I have read it, and I will re-read it. You are quite broad and macro in your perspective. I challenge you to apply the same approach to days, and to weeks. As you do with terms. I challenge you to find a short trip away, away from your weekload, during the working week.

    “One who is calmer and more relaxed in the classroom which I am hoping will pay dividends in the end.” Should not be reserved for just week one.

    There is time. Just not time for everything. As you rightly position – there is time for the main thing and you define ‘the main thing.’

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