TM4T NQT - A Teachers Guide to the Work-Life Thing

There is already plenty of advice available on the Web addressing the topic of Work-Life balance. The problem is that almost none of it deals with the specific challenges faced by a conscientious teacher, almost all of it aimed at short term solutions, and quite a lot of it is contradictory, vague or simplistic.

Befoe tackling this issue, sensible teachers need to disentangle its different dimensions. This is not an easy challenge especially for teachers early in their careers, and it is complicated because every teacher's life is different. It requires thought, introspection, and a willingness to share. This help-sheet therefore focuses on analysing the problem, after which solutions are more easiy identified. We are NOT going to rattle off a list of tips and hints. Your happiness is too important for that.

So, how do we analyse this work-life balance thing? Well, first of all: work-life “balance” is a pretty dumb metaphor. Are we talking balances like scales here? Should 'work' and 'life' have equal weight? Surely not? Or is this a tightrope thing, where we balance precariously to avoid falling on either side - life or work? Nah, doesn't work for me. Let's draw some different mental pictures. If this seems like a whimsical approach, bear with me - our visualisation of a problem is important in making our interventions effective.

The Bubble

This is what some teachers mean when they talk about the work-life balance. For them, Work is simply one part of their Life, but that part appears to be growing, like the blue bubble shown in this Venn diagram.

They may experience the work component of their lives swelling in size, as if it compresses or stifles the other aspects: family, leisure, study, sleep. For some, the venn diagram metaphor may describe what they feel is going on inside their minds, and represent physical pressure - a headache.

If 'pressure' is your preferred metaphor, then you're probably comfortable with the traditional remedies: have some golden time for yourself and your family, establish clear time-boundaries between work and home - and actively defend these boundaries if they are challenged. Protect your time from thieves as you would protect your money. Schedule some weekends off, arrange distracting activities with your loved ones, switch off electronic communication at home, and so on. You really need to protect your precious gold-dust (the yellow bit in the Venn diagram).

The Tug o' War

For other teachers, the work-life thing isn't a balancing act at all: it is simply a frustration at the lack of time available to do the things they want. These things-we-want-to-do seem to compete with each other, pulling us in competing directions.

Frustration results. Sometimes, it is frustration that work-commitments are preventing us from fully enjoying life outside school. At other times, sometimes secret or guilty times, the reverse is true. We actually feel frustration that we could achieve even more in our teaching careers if we could invest more time at school. For those of us who see the education of children as a vocation rather than a job, this tension can clearly be terrible as the demands of work and home both trigger powerful emotions.

If this 'pulling' metaphor works better for you, then you don't want to have rigid boundaries. You need to accept that at different times you will have different priorities. Exam results day? Home-life may take a back seat. Important anniversary? Work can wait. You need to be flexible, and use your calendar to plan ahead. You also need to accept the obvious: there is a limit to the load that each of us can carry; so there is a constant need to de-prioritise non-essential tasks.

The Grey Area

Some of us are happy in school, and happy at home, but uncomfortable in the grey ambiguous area in between. The Work-Life Venn below shows two overlapping ovals, one representing 'work' and one representing 'home'. The grey area shows the work a teacher does in addition to his/her paid hours - in TM4T this is called 1265-plus (1265 is the standard number of yearly hours worked by teachers in England and Wales).

Teachers who see the problem in this way may need a greater sense of control over their lives, and the answer is likely to involve greater structure and more formal time management. The intention should be that YOU have control over everything outside Directed Time. Of course, you will have to do more work, but you should choose to do it and decide when and where it happens. You also need to be decisive - delayed decisions mean work backs up, and when this happens the grey area becomes less in control.

The Triangle

Sometimes, the work-life balance is actually a love-triangle, in which a teacher balances their love of teaching children with their love of others in their personal life.

For most of us, there is no contradiction or compromise in these two loves - they are equal and complementary. However, this does not mean that our partners or family share our love of the-school or the-kids. This visualisation differs from the Tug o' War (above) because it is not just about time - it involves emotion, and - potentially - conflict. In this scenario, you the teacher may envisage your work-life issue as a tug o' war, while your partner (or other loved one) may see it as a bubble, squeezing out all non-work opportunities.

If you visualise this issue as a triangle, you should really stop thinking too hard about work-life and start thinking harder about your relationship. Before you tackle the 'balance thing' you need to really talk to your significant other: talk about you, them, work, life and how you-two-together should tackle issues. The aim of a shared perspective needs to come first, before you make any decisions.

Finally: the balancing thing.

For some of us, the balancing metaphor is valid. Some teachers weigh each minute as it comes into existence, deciding right then and there how to spend it.

If time was money, this is like a young child being given an unexpected gift. What a decision: spend it on sweets, or save for a toy? For these spontaneous souls, the work-life balance metaphor involves agonising over where to allocate each unit of non-directed time. This decision-making frequently DOES involve the notion of balance, of not piling too many eggs into one mixed metaphor basket.

These teachers try to act responsibly, consciously not spending too much of their precious time on work, but feeling obliged not to spend too much on pleasure either. These teachers may also use a juggling metaphor, each minute requires a decision, and each decision is another ball up-in-the-air.

A life-pattern like this can turn into a recipe for guilt, stress and confusion.

If you recognise this metaphor too well, you need to do several things to get your life under control.

You should decide in advance roughly how much time in your life you are going to allocate to work (in addition to your directed time), and also how much time of that time you intend to spend on work. If you teach accountancy you will probably understand that last sentence; otherwise not. Here we are using a clear metaphor: time = money. In accounts, the idea of a budget is crucial - this is how much money is available, but that does NOT mean that all this money must be spent; a prudent manager will consistently seek to under-spend.

In a similar way, you should budget a significant chunk of your time, and a significant chunk of your life, to teaching. If you're not prepared to do that, you're either in the wrong job, the wrong country, or the wrong century.

You should also decide on and develop a regular pattern to your work, deciding which parts of the week, and parts of the day, are best for you to do your outside-school work. You should decide in advance how, and when, you are going to deal with additional unexpected work (what TM4T calls 'disruptions'). The intention is always that you respond to demands on your time, you don't just react.

Having mentally established some stability, you should then acknowledge that things will not in fact be stable. You will have to be flexible with your plan, and - most importantly - you will have to regularly monitor whether your time-budget is reasonable and practical.

The trick here is quite subtle: instead of deciding what to do (a hundred time a day), you should instead monitor what you are doing (based on a twice-a-term decision). This does not remove your workload, but it should remove some of the anxiety which goes with it.