Sarah Eggleton has been an English teacher for 12 years. She currently works at a Secondary School in inner city Manchester where she is Head of English and Assistant Headteacher; with responsibility for marking and feedback, metacognition, literacy, parent engagement and staff development.
There’s a wonderful saying doing the rounds on my social media at the minute: “ask not what the day needs from you but what you need from the day” and I wonder how many of us approach the school or working day with this attitude? I often feel the day is in control of me and I’m scrabbling to fasten my seatbelt; my to-do list is like an ever-unravelling scroll, the issues arise faster than I can bat them away and the general feeling is one of surviving rather than thriving. As I look around at my colleagues I know I’m not alone.
It is difficult to find a research study or survey that doesn’t find that teachers struggle with their workload. But after a year of WFH, when the pace did change dramatically (although it wasn’t necessarily any easier – the difference was significant) is now the time to think about what we need from our jobs and our schools to improve our wellbeing and work/ life balance? I’m extremely fortunate to work in a school where staff wellbeing is both monitored and valued and has a high profile. Here are some ideas for improving wellbeing and balance in your school or in the way you work.
Things your school leaders can do/ put in place:
Hold the fort: a no obligation free pass to request cover from a colleague so you can leave early/ arrive late, attend a child’s school event, get your hair done or just enjoy a lie in. The idea is that generosity proffered to you will result in it being returned by you to help another colleague out. This allows some flexibility and freedom – no questions asked – if you need some time and can organise some cover then take it!
School counsellor: our school employs a counsellor to work with staff one day a week. Anyone can confidentially request to see the counsellor and can receive up to 8 sessions. We protect time in the school day in order to see the counsellor – even providing cover if necessary (although it can occur in a free or PPA). Aside from the obvious benefits of this; one incredible aspect that no-one saw coming was that it has reduced the stigma of mental health in school. Staff have open conversations about their experiences with the counsellor and there’s no shame in talking to her and admitting that you need some support. Leadership see the cost of the counsellor as being offset by the fact that because staff have quick and free access to mental health support it can prevent mental health issues or stress spiralling leading to a prolonged absence. I don’t know of many schools that offer this service but I think it’s incredible and they should!
Enforced finish: I read about one school that actually closes and locks up at 4.30pm two nights a week so staff are physically forced to leave and prioritise their life over their work. I like the idea – especially because everyone in the school does it – including the head – so there’s no stigma attached to ‘the early dart’ – it’s actually celebrated!
Regularly evaluate policy: post-Covid we’re re-evaluating our marking policy – after a year of marking looking very different it’s helped us to identify the possibilities and different ways of monitoring that hadn’t been considered before. We’ll use staff voice surveys and a working party to get feedback from staff of their experiences to help inform what we do next.
Things you can do yourself:
Use your middle and senior leaders: if you’re struggling tell someone! A non-judgmental colleague who has the power to help. We make the wellbeing of our staff the forefront of our conversations in middle leader and senior leader meetings. We ask how staff are, we look at the calendar and reflect on if there are too many events or deadlines etc. We try to give our staff a voice through these channels and invite staff to share their concerns so we can address them with solutions or at the least, some give and take. Your voice can make a difference.
Managing workload realistically: by this I mean not setting yourself unrealistic amounts of work to complete in a day and then feeling bad about not achieving it. Keeping an eye on deadlines and prioritising work so that nothing creeps up on you creating a pressured situation. Accepting that good enough is good enough. Valuing your life outside of work and reminding yourself this is a job.
Keep perspective: sometimes – when year 11 have left and the nights and mornings are light and sunny – the dark days of November seem like an imagined dystopia. Work life balance is cyclical – sometimes we’re throng on – other times balance is much easier to find – try to keep that perspective in mind when you are struggling and remind yourself it’s not going to last. This too shall pass.
Accept there is not a quick fix: Workload is unavoidable; unless policy or criteria for judging schools drastically change. It has to be accepted that a school and it’s leadership team can put things in place to help work life balance but we have to accept it is an ongoing issue within the profession that needs to change long term. For now the best we can do is keep talking about it, be open to adapting and support one another.
Sarah Eggleton is Assistant Headteacher and Head of English at Stretford High School.
This blog is part of a series looking at the importance of student wellbeing and successful strategies for a whole school approach. On our wellbeing page you will find our previous blogs including ‘Could student wellbeing be linked to academic achievement?’ where we looked at the evaluation findings from an Evidence analysis impact study exploring any potential links between wellbeing and student outcomes. Here you will also find a range of practical resources and guidance on wellbeing for parents and teachers, developed by experts.