Balance

I’ve not been a very balanced person in my life. A few years ago, I wrote a post about how I had approached teaching called ‘At What Cost?’ It was the start, for me, of a new way of thinking about education. I was sinking hours and hours and hours into my job, and although I was seeing benefits for the students, I was starting to wonder if it was possible to maintain.

Unfortunately, I continued to sink hours and hours into work after writing that post. Although I thought seriously about how to simplify teaching, and started writing about making teaching a sustainable profession for the long term, I was not living by those principles. Ironically, when I wrote the most about simplicity, I was putting in some of the longest hours of my teaching career: arriving at 6am, leaving at 7pm, and working weekends and holidays.

It’s true, not all of that time was focused on school work. Some of the ‘work’ I’ve lumped into those above hours and days was spent writing a blog, then writing a book (it is out in May and I am very excited), then writing book chapters or contributing to education groups or speaking at conferences. I was living a deeply unbalanced life.

At the time, one of my closest friends compared their calling to education with those called to other causes in history. Nelson Mandela, they liked to say, sacrificed his life for the cause he so believed in, and all for the greater good.

It is very hard to argue with Nelson Mandela.

And you know, if people want to be that teacher, that is absolutely fine. I started teaching the same year the documentary ‘Waiting for Superman’ came out. I saw teaching as a vocation too, and I saw my own life as merely the conduit for improving the lives of others.

The problem always comes when reality confronts the ideal.

I probably would have continued to sacrifice my life for my calling, had not a confluence of bad news in 2017 – personal and professional – led to me feeling like I had lost everything in my life. With the disruption of my career, I felt like I had lost all meaning.

For a long time I struggled with that meaninglessness and emptiness. I struggled to work out what to say in my blog, so I didn’t, or what to say at conferences, so I didn’t.

And then I got used to a new balance. I got used to getting to work at half 7, and leaving at 4, or 5 at the latest. And never working weekends. And not even checking work email on holidays.

For a while, that made me feel empty too.

The me of five years ago would have filled that emptiness with work. But instead I recognised, at long last, that I needed to fill that emptiness in other ways. Here’s what I did instead.

I read more fiction. I went to the theatre. I met up with friends. I invested in my relationships with people. I got a dog. I wrote for myself, not for other people. I enrolled in a creative writing class. I auditioned for an amateur dramatic society. I called my parents more.

Put bluntly, I got a life outside work.

So I haven’t written a lot on this blog for a very long time, but that’s ok, because I haven’t had much to say that I haven’t said in my forthcoming book (please read it).

I’m starting to find balance, and I’m here to tell you it is a lovely way to live.

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Things I have learned this term

This has been one of the most fulfilling terms of my career, and also one of the most challenging – how often these two seem to go hand in hand. It has been something of an adjustment, having to learn how to manage a department as well as take on new whole-school responsibilities. Not to mention trying to teach. Here are some of the things I have learned this term:

How to do duty… And how to not do duty

In the early days, I felt ridiculous doing duty. I’d knock apologetically at classroom doors, and teachers would scowl as if I were interrupting them – which, of course, I was. Now I’ve done my duty periods enough times, I think I’ve worked out which classrooms I can pretty much leave alone, and which benefit from a “casual walk-through.” I think back to myself as a new teacher, and how I’d have liked SLT to approach my classroom; I’m tougher with the students who are clearly taking advantage; I’m tougher if it’s a supply teacher or an NQT – I tend to haul students behaving less than perfectly away from the former in particular with little discussion. Especially as we come to the end of term, I feel like they are the ones who most need a calmer classroom. I’ve also realised that the more visible you are, the easier it becomes. Serendipitously, a spate of SLT sickness has allowed me to take on more duties; practice makes for some fast improvements.

How to teach less, but well

It has been a big adjustment going from having four classes to three. You wouldn’t think that losing four periods would have such a big effect, but the remaining 15 hours a week I am teaching have become my favourites. I really miss my year 9s, who (I’m almost sad to confess) are racing up to me at lunchtimes to fill me in on how much they are learning with their new teachers and how well they are behaving. Now, I feel grateful every lesson I can shut the door and just be a teacher. At the start, it seemed like this was the least important part of what I do, but after a bit of a battle with my year 10 class, I realise it is the most important. It is worth spending extra time making those 15 hours my best of the week. The fewer issues I have in my own classroom, the more helpful I am in the rest of my roles.

How to take feedback

I am so blessed to have a plain-spoken member of my team who simply does not sugarcoat: I know when I’m doing a good job, and I definitely know when I have to do better. A few weeks ago, she told me, in much more couched terms, that I wasn’t a presence in the English department at the moment; I wasn’t supporting teachers enough. After recovering from this blow, I resolved to do better. How can I ensure I check in with all the teachers I am responsible for, so none of them feel like she felt that day? How can I rebalance my responsibilities so I don’t let teachers down?

How to keep my sanity

That said, the English office is always a place of sanity for me. It’s amazing to have such a team of motivated individuals. We share the office with the Maths department, so they also deserve kudos for keeping our spirits up at the end of a long term. In particular, there are four or five of the teachers who have been permanently stocking the office with chocolate, Haribo and donuts. I need to exercise more restraint in future, but this term these have been all but essential to a healthy spirit.

My favourite thing this term has been observing the three colleagues who have opted into the “Leverage Leadership”-style “developmental observations” – 20 minute drop-ins with brief and focused feedback following (Harry Fletcher-Wood has written about this in helpful detail). It has been really something watching each colleague grow and improve as term has gone on. The Headteacher is fond of telling me that when she is feeling stressed, she goes and “walks around year 11 English lessons.” I know exactly what she means – there is nothing so soothing as watching great professionals at work.

Some thoughts for the term ahead (the year ahead feels too enormous to contemplate):

I will keep writing

Like almost everyone, I suffer from melodramatic crises of confidence, and I have found it increasingly hard to write this term. Or rather, to publish – I’ve written copious posts which now lay strewn in various folders, achingly missing the special something which would allow them to flow freely into the digital world. I’d like to write better, of course, but at times it might be worth just chucking it out there (like this post in fact, which I never intended to publish).

I will support teachers

I have come to realize that my time in school needs to be spent being completely available to the teachers I am responsible for. They need to be supported, and their needs must always, always come first. I know, and must never forget, that it is harder to be a teacher on a full timetable than any of the positions I have been lucky enough to hold: I have never been so viscerally exhausted as a HoD or member of SLT as I was teaching, even with some years of experience, a full timetable. That is the real hard work.

I will be great at my job

In the past, I’ve tried to be all things to all people and have taken on far too much outside school. This led, last year, to a five-month long cold I just couldn’t shake and needing a pair of crutches to move around (a very long story). I need to remember that my first responsibility is to my school, and no matter how exciting the opportunities I might be offered, sometimes it is better to just say no, and instead be great at the day job. After all, I have a long way to go to be “great”!

… but I will take time to do other things

The Head of Maths and I have been talking about going to meditation classes for about six months. I have a tendency to race from thing to thing with little thought or reflection – 2015 is the year to stop this nonsense. I will also see my friends more, even if they choose to live in far-flung suburbs or crazily West.

The hardest term

I remember keenly the late March, early April of my first year of teaching. My colleagues, buffeted and disheartened, seemed to be clawing their way through Spring 2 as I blithely looked on, just getting into my teacher stride, wondering why everyone else was having such a hard time of it.

That was the only year of my teaching career I haven’t had an exam class. Now I know. I firmly believe that the Spring term, although it begins calmly enough, is the hardest term, crescendoing into Spring 2 with a the strength of many tornadoes.

Here are some reasons why:

1. Deadlines

All of a sudden, these become very real. I started a countdown in my diary (40 days until language coursework call-up, 30 days until Speaking and Listening exams need to be completed, 20 days to sort out the Literature Controlled Assessment) to try to keep all of these straight. Throw in a bit of self-evaluation and it’s suddenly deadline city. I quickly cancelled as many learning walks/book looks/student surveys as I could get away with. In fact, what was I thinking? In the future, Spring 2 should contain no superfluous deadlines.

2. Coursework/controlled assessment

The above deserves double, if not triple, mention here. It’s all about your students having the strongest portfolio to show the exam board what they can do. A folder which was looking fine to me in November suddenly appears to be full of gaping errors and misplaced apostrophes. Re-drafting (or re-writing) happens in all the snatched time you can find. Other subjects begin to grumble. Year 11 students become gold-dust.

3. Revision becomes crucial

Those gold-dust year 11s who are borderline in your subject also seem to be borderline in everyone else’s, and the bidding war begins. What was previously “only English on a Tuesday” turns into fierce bartering, as actually we’d like the students Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week for Controlled Assessment; so I need to give up some year 11s to you next week. Who’s keeping the revision attendance to inform parents of who was there, not there, and excused on this occasion? Oh that’s me. My spreadsheet begins to look labyrinthine. I have to translate this into something digestible for SLT. They look at me with quizzical faces in the relevant meeting. Even I can’t make it out anymore. I also feel like I spend my life on the phone to parents, chasing children and barring the door at 3.20pm so they can’t leave until I have imparted precious wisdom.

4. Crunch time

The pressure piles onto the poor, crucial year group and you see some children absolutely fly. In our final assembly, I was hard pressed to make a list of 33 amazing students turn into a feasible number to meaningfully reward with lovely stationary treats for being so fantastic. And then there are the others, who crushingly give up. I was reminded by someone far wiser than I on Friday that it is “always our job to believe in them, especially when they don’t believe in themselves.”

5. They’re tired, you’re tired; behaviour happens

Which means exclusions, reports, internal referral and more phone calls home, leaving teachers doubly tired for the next lesson and primed for more behaviour to happen.

6. The fun stuff is over

Well, maybe not over, but definitely paused. No switching rooms with the person in the drama studio to have a real go at some practical work with year 7 – the tiny classroom will have to do as I don’t have the time to organize anything beyond turning up with my wares and ideas. Trips also feel like a far-off memory – I’ve taken only two this term, and each (while marvelous and enriching) nearly killed me.

Do I sound pessimistic? I don’t mean to; I’m just tired, like every other teacher in the country, particularly those with exam classes.

I share this in the knowledge that we are not alone; we are all part of a shared effort to get young people to the best possible position, so we leave as little up to the chance of the exam day as possible. Our students lead hectic lives, and by this point in the year, with some, it becomes apparent that so little of what really matters is within our control as teachers.

Yet I feel a renewed sense of purpose: after all this work, from students and teachers, parents and leadership, how can all the lovely children not reach their target grades? I’m hoping it is enough, and I’m hoping they can keep going for just two more months.