“A Teacher’s Work is Never Done”: The Work-Life Balance Dilemma

justice scales
When I started my teaching career, to say I was overwhelmed by the workload would be a major understatement. I’d survived a practicum placement that at times made me feel sure I was having a nervous breakdown, so it was with a heavy heart and a slightly broken will power that I sought the advice of colleagues at the end of my first year. “How,” I asked impassioned with despair, “am I supposed to survive 40 years in this job? I can’t see myself surviving three!”

They were kind and supportive. One such colleague, a ten-year tenured drama teacher smiled at me warmly and assured me that this is just how it is…but it does get better. You’ll have resources you can use next year, your behaviour management skills will improve, and you will find your marking speed increases.

What she said is not exactly untrue, but don’t be fooled; if someone is telling you this they are all lying to you! Yes, you will have resources, but in most subjects you have to teach new units or will need to adapt your lessons to new classes. Or there is the most obvious issue, which is you will change the lesson because you discover that you can make it better than last year. You WANT to make better lessons. You get faster at marking but want to trial new techniques to improve your level of feedback. You definitely improve your behaviour management, but every year you will work with new students and you will have to learn to deal with each one as an individual in order to ensure they meet their true potential (and teenagers are some prickly pears).

The reality is you will never have enough time to get everything done. I’ll repeat: you will NEVER have enough time to get everything done (keeping in mind that many teachers’ interpretation of getting everything done involves going way above expectations). So here I have compiled a few techniques and strategies that I have tried myself or seen others use in order to ensure a work-life balance. They may work, they may not. But if you spend time wondering how long you can stay in the job because of being highly stressed and overworked, it’s time to take action. The education system of any country will not survive on a workforce made up of people who will leave in five years or less to enter other industries. Institutional memory should be the goal; there is no point wasting the vast knowledge you gain each year in the job.

1. Are you ready for tomorrow? Then don’t stress:
I went through a long period of guilt during my first five years where if a sufficient amount of work on my ‘To Do List’ was not completed, I heavily self deprecated and felt like I wasn’t good enough. How ridiculous. You’re a human being, not a robot. At the end of a long day if you are tired, you will need rest to be effective in the classroom tomorrow. The solution is simple; make sure your lessons are planned for the next day, then go home. If you are too tired then go home and get some rest so you can get to work early the next day and do it then. This is a better long term solution.

2. When you go home, work stays at work:
This is one I’ve only just started doing myself, after years of nights where the laptop was ferried home only to sit in the backpack while I took a nap on the sofa. This occasionally means there is a night you have to work late and only exit the building when the site team start jingling keys at your door, but there is an excessive relief in walking into your house without the burden of more work to do. It can wait until tomorrow.

3. 90% of being effective in the classroom is being well rested:
You can work as hard as you like, but an overworked, exhausted teacher who has planned heavily will never be as effective as the well-rested teacher who put their lesson together in fifteen minutes adapting a PowerPoint from the TES. Why you ask? 90% of being effective in the classroom is being reactive to what is happening. And trust me; a student can spot a weary teacher at 20 paces. More than that, teaching is about relationships; no one wants to learn from someone who’s grumpy.

4. Weeknight Club:
It’s sophisticated in its elegance; you and your closest friends go out to dinner or a film one night during the week to break up the monotony. I’m not talking about a big night out, just a couple of hours trying somewhere new or visiting your favourite local for a pub meal or a curry. I can imagine non-teachers thinking this ridiculous as an option, yet the reality is that teaching is not the kind of job where you can slink in at 9:30 in the morning with a bottle of water and ibuprofen after a big night. It will do wonders for making you feel like a grown-up and break up the hum-drum of the week if you can enjoy the company of your friends beyond a Saturday.

5. One day on the weekend is yours:
In my beginning years of teaching I would work both days of the weekend, essentially having a seven day workweek. Naturally I couldn’t maintain this and a weekend without working is practically incomprehensible. A common solution to this is to choose either Saturday or Sunday and make one of them your workday. This means the other day must be work-free. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and do something expensive or elaborate; a day of relaxing at home with your favourite TV series will recharge your batteries better than almost anything.

6. Your health matters:
Teachers place excessive stress on their backs and upper arms. We often don’t drink enough water during the day due to limited toilet breaks, and develop unhealthy eating habits due to lack of time to prepare healthy meals.
The solution is simple, but hard to implement. On Sundays I now spend about an hour making delicious and healthy vegan treats for breakfast and break times. I make a salad or put leftovers in Tupperware for lunch the following day. Knowing my meals will be healthy ensures I have more energy.
I routinely get a back massage and I joined a gym near my house. I’m not saying that I go as much as I should, but paying each month encourages me to get there as much as possible. A friend of mine went one step further and signed up for a class; on Mondays she leaves to make her class on time, no matter what.

7. Sometimes you have to get away from it all:
I understand that this will contradict Item 5, but sometimes you will need to take a weekend and get away from it all; a road-trip to a favourite spot or spending the night over at a friend’s house. I know some will ask, “Isn’t that what holidays are for?”, but the reality is that sometimes you will need to work through your holidays, and sometimes the thought of getting through four more weeks to the end of term is far too terrifying. The other obvious consideration is that an opportunity may arise to spend time with non-teaching friends across a weekend; what are you going to do? Miss it so you can get more work done?

Remember: this is your life. You need to be content within yourself and well-rounded as an individual to be the best possible teacher. So stop making excuses, the work will always be there, make sure you still enjoy your life. Your students will thank you for it.