How to Maintain Your Work-Life Balance
During exam season, and the steep ramp up to it, work seems to turn all the way up to 11. This leaves your “life” hanging by a thread as the “balance” becomes similar to that of a rhino playing on a seesaw with a bumblebee.
But don’t let yourself (your family time, your health, your hours on the Kardashian rumour mill) fall by the wayside. It’s a case of putting your oxygen mask on first. When you’re coping well, your teaching will be better, and the smaller stresses won’t seem like volcanoes. It’s an investment.
But, like many things, staying calm is easier said than done. It’s best to plan ahead for annual pinch-points; if you’re prepared, you can avoid getting sucked into the vortex of panic. Unforunately, if you’re caught off-guard, it’s harder to recover. That’s because once you’re in the chaos of the vortex, it’s hard to think straight, so you’ll be less able to correct the imbalances. Problems seem insurmountable, stress takes hold and brain-fry keeps you working harder instead of smarter. So start getting ready after the Christmas break: think of it as a regular New Year’s resolution and make it a habit to protect your future self. Here’s what to do…
Share the load
Work with your colleagues to spread extra burdens equally. If your department is big enough, it’ll mean that everyone ends up with less work overall. Why not divide up tasks like running extra-curricular classes and trips, supervising detentions, and hosting revision sessions? If the students are pooled together and a staff rota is put in place for these activities, the students get the same amount of support and resources without unnecessarily burning through individual teachers’ time.
That sounds like an oxymoron, right? But organised down-time is one of the best escapes from a hectic work life. If you have something written on the calendar - or, even better - paid up, publicly announced, or planned with a friend - then your accountability increases and you’re less likely to bail on it when the date comes around. Whether it’s a haircut, cookery classes, a round of golf, a pub quiz, a yoga weekend, a walking tour, a sauna, or a trip to the cinema, book things in ahead of time, write them on the wall, and then work around them. Without concrete, ring-fenced ‘me-time’, you could find every hour of your day becomes blurred together like an imitation Monet, schoolwork spilling over into dinner, relaxation and sleep time.
Lists aren’t just for Santa
“He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, well he’s a clever worker then, because that’s going to help him avoid no-end of admin and chasing his tail later on.” I may have been a word or two out with my lyrics, but let’s go with this version for now.
Lists are your best friend. You know you’re a teacher because when you see that sentence, tears well in your eyes; you smile and nod slowly with sad recognition. Because before you were a teacher, Chloe was your best mate, wasn’t she? Or Rav? But now, with social life decimated (see ‘Scheduled Relaxation’…), it’s all about lists and that precious staple-gun that keeps getting nabbed from your drawer. Hold them close, those dear friends.
Keep a to-do list divided into “must”, “should” and “could” categories to help you prioritise tasks realistically. Add to it the minute something new comes up (MUST: chase Nathan’s exam entry; SHOULD: moderation meeting at 4pm; COULD: fix dodgy whiteboard) and remove tasks as soon as you’ve done them. When you’re busy, it’s easy to get all in a tizz and spend time on the wrong kind of jobs. Lists will keep you on the straight and narrow.
A flashcard a day keeps the wobbles at bay
You know that May, June and July are exam months. It’s no big shocker. So don’t start doubling your hours in April to try to steer your students right: plan ahead so that they’re creating revision resources from day one. This makes life easier for you and for them, as there’s no last-minute surge in work for anyone.
Nowadays, it’s harder than ever to separate work from home. If you have your work email redirected to your personal account for easy checking, disable that setting straight away. Checking email at home for updates from Granny or discounts on bike helmets is one thing; opening your email at 11pm to see a question from a colleague or a moan from a student is something else altogether.
You should engage with work email when you’re alert, in the right frame of mind, and in reasonable office hours (choose your own cut-off point, ideally before 7pm). Draw a line under your day to make a clear separation between work and home life. You can even do this by choosing a specific location for marking and planning (a desk, corner chair, kitchen table…), so that when you retire to the sofa, you aren’t tempted to start mixing your poisons again.
As well as the bigger, scheduled relaxation breaks we talked about earlier, don’t forget to take little breathers. Exam season can feel like free-diving: sinking down into the water without an oxygen tank. Pop up now and then for some air; take your lunch break whenever possible and get outdoors, or go and be social in the staff-room (if it’s not all shop talk up there). Eat well, try to get those magical eight hours of kip every night, and cut back on the booze if you’re indulging too often. Not to stereotype the profession, but, well, you know who you are!
“If you can keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs…” That Kipling had some great ideas, and not just about baking cakes. When all is said and done, you have to keep a sense of perspective. If you’ve taught to the best of your ability, then the rest lies in the hands of your students. They have to take responsibility for their own engagement and effort, and if you find yourself riding through the urban jungle on the motorbike of a bounty hunter, scouring the shopping malls with a giant butterfly net to try to capture students for extra revision sessions… well, I’m not saying you’re a fool, because you’ve probably got senior staff badgering you about results, but it’s also not the best life choice. Put the net down. Step away from the Harley. There’s only so much you can do here.
Alright then! To recap: work with your team-mates to lighten the load; work smart by preparing early and ruling your day with a list; take little breaks as well as longer, scheduled down-time; and draw a much-needed line under the school day whenever you can. Burn-out is a very real and serious problem in the teaching profession, so look out for Number One. Which, OK, can be hard when you’re a selfless educator following your saintly vocation. But you’ve earned it. So start filling up that June page on the calendar!