A friend and ex. colleague of mine recently asked me for some advice. She is currently working as an Assistant Head in a particularly challenging school: high levels of deprivation, tough behavior, and the sort of data that has you living in fear of “the call.” She is a fantastic teacher: skilled, hardworking, and completely committed to her work.
“I know I’m making a difference where it really matters.” She said, “I can see the impact of my work which is fulfilling but I have no life and the stress is wreaking havoc on the other areas of my life and my health. But looking for a job in a less challenging school feels like selling out like I’m letting my pupils down. What do I do?”
My friend didn’t come to me because I am some sort of fount of wisdom, she came to me because she knows I was in the exact same position just two years ago. I was an Assistant Head of a challenging school in East London, regularly working 70 hours a week, which isn’t uncommon. Recent research carried out by the Guardian found that a third of teachers work over 60 hours a week, with over 70% believing it impacts on their mental and physical health.
Of course, my situation was my own fault as much as anyone else’s. New to senior leadership, I was committed to leading by example: I wanted anyone in my phase to be able to walk into my classroom at any time and see exemplary practice. My books were always (triple) marked and up-to-date, my displays relevant and my classroom tidy and organized. I met every deadline and said yes to anything and everything I was asked to do. I ran clubs, parent workshops, and even holiday revision sessions (never again.)
I was responsible for teaching and learning in KS1, leading English, the performance management of five teachers, mentoring an NQT, carrying out a full program of monitoring every half term, coaching and team teaching with struggling staff, and producing written data analysis every six weeks. Oh, and there was also the small matter of being a full-time class teacher, desperately trying to get 30 six-year-olds, only 2 of whom had English as a first language, to meet National Expectations.
Why did I do it? The simplest answer is I didn’t want to let anyone down. And I WAS making a difference, which in itself was satisfying. The children in our school had such chaotic and challenging lives and I believed that dedicating my entire life to them was the honorable thing to do.
There were children whose only meal between school lunches was the breakfast I brought in for them each day. They needed me and I genuinely believed I would be letting them down by doing less. Not to mention that there was also the very real threat of academisation hanging over us if our results didn’t improve. I was convinced that the level of work I was doing was necessary to “save the school.”
Other members of staff would comment on how organized I was, they would ask how I managed to get everything done and I’d just sort of shrug and say, “I guess I’m just very organized.” When really I just wanted to scream, “ALL I DO IS WORK & SLEEP! I’VE LOST 10lbs THIS MONTH BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE TIME TO EAT! MY IRON LEVELS ARE DANGEROUSLY LOW BUT I DON’T HAVE TIME TO GO TO THE DOCTOR! THAT’S HOW I GET IT ALL DONE!”
Looking back, that would probably have been more reassuring to my colleagues than pretending I was coping with a completely unreasonable workload. I was setting an example but it was unfair to expect anyone to follow it. But I remained determined to keep all the plates spinning – and I did a pretty good job of doing it and looking like I was coping. I was in full martyr teacher mode and everyone around me praised me for my hard work so I didn’t question it.
Even when I called in sick to spend two days sleeping, I just told work it was a stomach bug and returned to my old routine once I was back. Even when I was crying as I drove to work, partly because of the stress and partly down to exhaustion, I didn’t think there was a problem with what I was doing, I just berated myself for not coping better. Reflecting on this now, it is no wonder I was ready to walk away from the profession by the end of the school year.
The problem is that we still celebrate martyr teachers; it’s the most damaging narrative in our profession. You see them in films and read about them literature: from Miss Honey to John Keating. They’re the teachers who sacrifice everything for their work. We are surrounded by the message that to be a good teacher, to truly make a difference, you must sacrifice your evenings, your weekends, your holidays, your time with your family and friends along with any hobbies or interests. And all for an average salary of £24,525.
15 months away from education gave me some much needed perspective. When I started toying with the idea of coming back I promised myself I could only do so on the understanding that my job would never be more important than my health or overall quality of life. I still work hard: on average 50-55 hours a week – but I don’t take any work home (apart from report writing.) My weekends are my own and I use my evenings to write, exercise and see friends. It’s not that I’m working less, I’m just working more effectively, learning when enough is enough and saying no more often.
It’s very easy for me to say, “I used to work too much and now I don’t and now life is much better” but it took retreating from the profession for over a year to realise that this was possible and to understand that leaving at 5pm doesn’t make me a bad teacher, or any less committed to my class. Once I’d accepted this, I then had to find the right school to return to. Last September I still had half a book to write so I wasn’t going to be able to give over my weekends to school work, even if I had wanted to.
I needed a school with a realistic marking policy (no triple marking), a pragmatic approach to monitoring and a leadership team that would encourage teachers to have a life outside of work. The last one is easy: I think every head teacher would say they want their teachers to have hobbies, interests and time with their friends and family but this can sometimes be at odds with their policies and expectations. If we’re going to get rid of the martyr teacher complex from our schools it has to start with the expectations from the leadership.
I used to wear my 70-hour-week as badge of honour: it was worth it just to see the impact I was having and I would glow with pride whenever comments were made about my commitment and dedication. Now, I take pride in turning up on Monday refreshed and full of stories about my weekend to share with my colleagues and class.
I’m no Miss Honey, but that’s OK.