Choose Life (Work Balance)
Choose a job.
Choose a career.
The first lines of Ewan McGregor’s infamous introductory monologue to the film version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting are an opening gambit that start out with a recommendation of choosing life, before then doubling down on choosing work as both a job, and a career. Even in Mark Renton’s idealised look at a potential ‘life’ he opts to name work twice. If this doesn’t seem the most up to date film reference in the world, I blame my years of teaching, during which I struggled to make it to the cinema all that often.
I chose a job; I chose a career. I neglected to remember the part where life came first. With that, I made myself rather ill. The Germans have a term for this, and an excellent little book goes by the same title; ‘Wenn Die Arbeit Krank Macht’ (when work makes you sick). Of course, the book I refer to (and a warning here that it is all in German) does not limit itself to a look at work making you sick, but instead looks to an area I neglected: the actual causes and prevention of this kind of sickness (or ursachen und prävention as my little guide calls them). This book, and many people now, are outspoken in a call for one thing above all else to improve health and wellbeing when working; a better life-work balance. The order of those terms here (and in our own life/work balance campaign and survey here) is no accident. Life has to come first.
The problem in teaching is, for many of us, that the dividing line is a very thin one. Most teachers I know became teachers because they love education, they love working with children, and they love teaching. So how do you draw a line between your life and work when you love your work and it means so much to your life? That switch off just isn’t as simple as it sounds when you find yourself planning on weekends or considering how great the things you see in stores on the weekend might be for use in your class. And when teachers can be reached by email or any number of teacher-to-parent communication apps – what time is the cut off for being there to help the children you care for each year?
The search for an often-illusive balance between work and life is, somewhat surprisingly, a relatively new concept. ‘Work-life balance’ has been a term in use in the UK since around the 1970s. In education, it feels even more modern. The government’s own policy on Reducing Teacher Workload having only been published in July 2018, has already been updated in November 2018, March 2019, and again in July 2019. Workload and the balance of work and life in teaching have never been a hotter topic in the corridors of Whitehall. At times, the idea of a reduction of workload or a redress of the work-life balance can begin to feel like the soup du jour of the education sector as a whole. Prior to 2018, of course, people were just hardier souls, hard-working folk unfazed by a long day of grind at the chalkface. Or, perhaps they simply enjoyed freedoms we no longer seem to quite so readily find? The freedom of switching off on an evening, never fearing a missed email or worrying they hadn’t tracked all their data. Is the life/work balance and workload crisis in education a recent phenomenon exclusively because of the recent changes in education?
In 2013, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove said that teaching had ‘never been more attractive, more popular or more rewarding’. The fact that by 2019 news outlets were talking of as many as one fifth of teachers planning on leaving the attractive, popular and rewarding profession must have come as quite the shock to Mr Gove. Or whoever happened to be in office at that point. If Gove’s reforms were swift and dramatic, they were nothing compared to the pace of change at the top of the educational tree. Since Gove left his position in July 2014, there have been four further Secretary of States for Education.
In 2016, Nicky Morgan announced new measures to tackle what she perceived to be one of the biggest issues facing the education sector; teacher workloads. In 2017, Justine Greening looked set to publish findings of the government’s own workload survey which had looked at the huge issue of teacher workloads, before saying she felt the reason workloads were so excessive was simply ‘a product of inefficient working’. Damian Hinds followed and immediately set about fixing what he believed to be the number one concern in teaching: the workload. Hinds spoke about his year-long battle to reduce workloads for teachers in January 2019. Before finding his own workload substantially reduced in this area with the appointment of Gavin Williamson in July of the same year. It is not yet known what Williamson will see as his top priorities for teachers, but I wouldn’t bet against it including the words ‘work’ and ‘loads’.
It’s August 2019 as I write this, and I see no obvious solution to creating a perfect life/work balance for people working in education, but that doesn’t stop us trying. There are things you can do. For starters, there’s the Classroom Secrets Life/Work Balance Survey I mentioned earlier. It’s designed to get a huge response from those working in education so that we can gain a massive reach to the people making policies and changes in education. Then there’s the things already out there that try to make a difference. The excellent Fit2Teach app is brilliant for those who struggle to quantify just what it is they need to redress in the balance between life and work while the government’s own toolkit to reduce workload in schools is informative and could be of use to leadership teams who want to help their staff improve their wellbeing and happiness. Beyond these tools, I’d offer the same advice I was offered years ago as a trainee teacher: If you need help, ask for it. Talk to other teachers, tell people if you’re struggling. Use social media (with caution of course) and ask for help and support. There are thousands of teachers balancing their own life with work, some will be better at it than others but nearly all will be willing to talk and to listen while many will be able to offer good advice that could help you better your own life-work balance. Teachers are a supportive bunch, it’s in our nature. Ask for that support and offer any you can. We are all in this together.