7pm and the marking about halfway done. I raise my head and stretched my shoulders feeling a little crack as I do so. Another hour or so and it will be done. Hopefully, the snow that is streaming down outside will not have blocked the roads by then. A few pangs of hunger are starting to kick in as the usual dinner time passes by.
8pm and nearly there now, just a couple of notebooks to go and all the grades collated and ready to be uploaded to the report system. Now, just to pop into the staffroom and make photocopies for the first period tomorrow, starting in… a little under 12 hours – yikes!
And what’s this? An email at 8.15pm? At least someone else is working as late as me! I make the mistake of opening it. A request for a meeting before the start of the school day tomorrow at 7.40am…
Towards the end of last year, I found the above scenario playing out far more often than I would have liked. Sure, the occasional extra hours in the evening or the odd Saturday morning to ensure reports, assessment marking, and that session on learner-centeredness for the staff training day are all done is an inevitable part of working in education. However, when it happens every week, it can quickly get too much. The work-life balance soon tilts heavily to the more stressful side as a cycle begins of get up, go to work for 12 hours, come home, and sleep.
This term, I have made the decision to reset the balance. The only question was, how? When work has to be done, it has to be done and it has to take priority. First of all, I took a look at my own organisation and forward planning. A regular schedule for marking notebooks and recording assessed activities (my current school loves its trackable data!) has helped manage that side of things and has made the current cycle of reports much more efficient. It’s also important to have the courage to speak up when the workload is too much. Any decent employer will listen and see what action can be taken and thankfully my line manager was proactive in offering advice and making changes to help manage the load.
It also became apparent that activities taking place outside work would have to be cut down or cut out. This was a tough call for me as I have spent a lot of time over the last several years engaging in self-driven professional development through social media, blogging, webinars, and online courses. This has played a significant role in my growth as a teacher, trainer, and academic manager through a constant source of inspiration to try out new ideas and aim high. Indeed, in the past, I had managed to engage with my online network while also manging a full-time job, undertaking a course of study, and enjoying family time with my wife and children.
So, what is different this time? I began to realise that I needed to take a break from my self-development activities (to see the impact of this on my conference attendance, have a look at this post of mine for ideas) so I could fully focus on the two key elements of my work-life balance – my full-time job and my family. After almost a decade of blogging, contributing to websites, giving webinars, online mentoring, and engaging with fellow professionals through Twitter chats and online forums, I decided it was time to step back. I began to turn down requests for articles or presentations (though not my blogs for Modern English Teacher of course!) and stop enrolling for any MOOC or online course of interest. I also turned down opportunities to go to conferences, even just as an attendee.
I then looked at what I was doing with my free time. Working late had led to a general feeling of tiredness and a tendency to spend weekend mornings lazing on the couch mindlessly scrolling through feeds on my phone. That wasn’t helping as my days off contained little more than trips to the supermarket or running errands. I now make sure those mornings are about spending time with the kids and planning activities for the afternoon. I swapped time swiping through social media and clicking on links for reading (and not reading methodology chapters or professional development articles either but simply reading for pleasure).
At first, I was concerned that less time spent engaging with the wonderful world of online resources would somehow stall my development. I thought I would lose track of current trends and an air of staleness would creep into my classrooms. However, the opposite has been true. More time for myself and my family, more time to relax, and less time thinking about work has resulted in me having more energy for my classes, and more efficiency in tackling tasks at work before they mount up.
In the latest edition of Modern English Teacher, Daniel Xerri writes about the importance of taking care of our mental and physical well-being to be effective practitioners. He concludes that: ‘Despite how daunting or improbable it might seem for us to do so, going for a run – or doing any other kind of physical exercise – might be one of the best forms of professional support we can provide ourselves with.’
I would add that simply making time to engage in any activities away from work be they reading, going for a hike, having a family day at the park, or blasting through a season on Football Manager, can be a great boon for our teaching and working life. With more energy comes more focus and a better ability to deliver in the classroom. I am not saying I will never again spend my own time on pursuing development online and/or outside working hours, but it is nice to take a break and allow my focus to fall elsewhere.
So, at a time when we can all enjoy the latest Modern English Teacher issue on learner-centeredness (one piece of professional reading I have not cut from my self-development routine!) I guess my focus now is more on self-centeredness and making times for the things I enjoy away from ELT 😊.
What do you do to get away from it all? Do you find taking a complete break from work-related activities helps you approach the class with more energy? Or do you need that regular fix of CPD? Please share your thoughts in the comments!