Working yourself to DEATH!

I thought I'd put a little Halloween slant on this week's offering. And yes, I did just spend five minutes debating whether or not to use an apostrophe in 'hallowe'en'. I went with not. See, I can roll with the times.

Anyway, workin' hard is hardly workin' for most of us. By this, I, of course, mean that it isn't working as a model of good practice at all. A quick look at #edutwitter will give you the zeitgeist hot-take but it boils down to this:


I once worked in a school where the Headteacher would often crow about how they had been awake for 48 straight hours 'sorting out the data'. They wouldn't even go home (not sure how their family felt about that - I suspect relieved, but that's a whole different post!). And some of the other teachers would swoon about how dedicated the Head was. Not me. My comment of 'wow, that's some poor time management, right there' was about as well-received as a zombie corpse in a yoga retreat (I'm guessing - I've never been to a yoga retreat). I was told that I wasn't a 'team player' and that I should 'hope to have that sort of dedication one day.' If I did, maybe even lowly little me could aspire to the heady heights of management.

Well, I don't want to make that sacrifice for my career. To paraphrase a well known Broadway/West End witch, if that's success, it comes at much too high a cost.

But so what? If this person chooses to burn the candle at both ends, and in the middle, and then throw it into the fire wholesale, so what? It's their funeral, right?

Well yes.... and no. Because that sort of behaviour rapidly becomes the expectation, then the norm, then the minimum requirement. It was not unheard of for members of staff, from NQTs to SLTs (newbies and old-timers for you folk over the pond) to get in at 7am and leave at 7pm. And these people would also take books home with them to mark.

And I was one of them! Although, I refused to take work home. If I was in school for 12 straight hours (maybe a 20-minute lunch break, but honestly, not very often), then I was getting everything done there. But even this was seen as an act of rebellion. Once, in a different school, I was caught 'sneaking off' at 6pm one Friday evening by a Headteacher. When they saw that I didn't have any crates or suitcases (not kidding) of books and/or paperwork with me I was asked to explain myself. Looking back, I should have just chuckled and treated it like the absurdity it was but I was a young teacher in my first school, so I explained. I have friends staying for the weekend so, realistically, I'm not going to get any work done.

"Tough. You'll just have to excuse yourself. Your friends will understand, if they're real friends, when you're a Year 6 (Grade 5) teacher, you have no weekends."

Genuinely what was said.

This is silly. We are human beings. Yes, as teachers, we have decided to give a little bit back to a community. Yes, we (most of us) enjoy our jobs. Yes, on balance, we probably all do a little more than we should. But that doesn't mean that we're slaves. We do a job. We are contracted for a certain amount of hours every week. Beyond that, WE DON'T GET PAID. Let's be honest, we don't even get thanked. Again, overworking, whether it be spending holiday time perfecting a classroom display, or evenings marking books, or even time after school meeting with parents, all of it just reinforces this ridiculous belief that we are duty-bound to 'go the extra mile.'

It's stupid. I'm sorry but the person who went the extra mile simply ended up a mile away from where they were supposed to be. And, to repeat myself, we don't get thanked for it. When we move our own goalposts for the good of the school, the school resets our goalposts to that higher position. It stops becoming 'above and beyond' and starts to normalize at a higher point, pain tolerance.

On top of that, overworking is hazardous to your health. Not just your mental health, although that should be enough, your physical health. Susan Michie and Anne Cockcroft, from the Occupational Health and Safety Unit of the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine, wrote an article for the British Medical Journal entitled: Overwork can kill. Within this fascinating, if a touch macabre read, they found:

higher workloads increase disease and death rates
They go on to explain that overworking and work-stress-related situations can lead to heart disease, neurogenic and hormonal problems, citing a case in Japan where a man literally worked himself to death.

So yeah, it's a thing.

However, I have no intention of simply ranting and retreating. I think we can do something about this. I have mentioned a few times in this blog the NUTs guidelines to acceptable responsibilities for teachers. This includes work hours. Work to them. If some books don't get marked, no-body is going to die. In fact, read my post about how to ease marking strain (Mark My Words) to help with this.

Give yourself a day once a week where you walk out immediately after the last child has left the school gates. Stand out there with your coat and bag and let nothing get in your way. You are leaving.

Make sure you have a lunch break. You are entitled to it legally for one thing. Your contract has been adjusted (even though you're salaried and technically don't get paid by the hour) to account for it. Take it. Go to the staff room; sit down; eat. Actually chew your food. Don't accept any interruptions from those children who 'just want to speak to you really quickly.' Tough. It's your time to breathe.

Make a list at the end of every day and colour-code it for the next morning. Appreciate that you will never get everything done, so put the most important things in red - even those really important things that you would rather not do. Things that are important but NOT URGENT get an orange. Things that would be good to get done go green and things that would be a little boost get blue (those were the colours for me, anyway - you can pick your own; I'm not your dad). You'll be surprised how quickly all those red things get ticked off. You'll also be surprised at how much time you're spending on THINGS THAT DON'T EVEN MATTER.

Try to avoid procrastination through gossip. I had an open-door policy in my classroom for both children and staff but that came with an understanding that, while I would be listening, I would also be getting stuff done. If it was something really serious, then I would offer the person some 'closed-door' time, of course I would, but most of the time, people just wanted to rant, vent, or share. They didn't care if I was also marking my books. A few of the teachers even went to get their own books and we had a mark-and-moan session.

I think it's fair to say that, as a profession, teachers are inclined to martyrdom, but it shouldn't be expected. And let's not forget the reason we became teachers in the first place, those little angels who are the only people in the building by legal decree. If we burn ourselves out then we have nothing left to give for them. You can't be a good teacher if you're dead.

Thanks for reading this far, I hope it's been useful. There are lots of people on Twitter who feel the same way as you do (however you feel) and it costs nothing to reach out to them. It is the biggest staff room in the world and (most) of the people there are very friendly and quick to offer support, recourses, a shoulder to cry on or a wall to punch until the voices stop screaming. I'm one of them. You can follow me @mr_m_musings. Another person who I know feels the same way, and inspired this post, is @morris9_emily. Also, the people who lurk around the #teacher5oclockclub are always up for a chat and a giggle - it's the only sane way to face 5 am!

Seriously though, mental health is really important and if you're overworking then you are not looking after the most important person of all - you. Take a break. Unwind. Speak to someone if you're stressed. Oh, and happy Haloween!
Carl Headley-Morris