Wellbeing: the subtle art of saying “no”; saying “not yet”, and asking the right questions…

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As the dark winter months close in around us, I am seeing a lot more in my Twitter feed about wellbeing and people who are seriously struggling with very challenging work environments.

I have been a teacher for 10 years. My first 5 years were spent working in the wrong way; I made myself incredibly ill every year, and one year I actually fainted back stage after a theatre trip through sheer exhaustion. Working every hour of the day did not make me a better teacher; it made me intolerant, frantic, and did not help my marriage. It also wasn’t really the fault of the schools I worked for – I fell for the ridiculous but attractive idea that I was fed as a trainee; to teach is to be a martyr and change lives by sacrificing your own. WARNING: This is dangerous nonsense.

My working pattern is much better now. I am an Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning at a large inner-city secondary school. I am married to a very busy musician and we have a two year old. My typical week looks like this:

– I get to my desk between 7-7:30 every morning, leave between 4-5pm every day. Most days it is closer to 4pm, unless I have leadership duty for a school event.

– I use ‘Microsoft to-do’ to run my to do lists (I’d recommend it!). I then select three key things I want to achieve from my list every day – anything else I get done on top of that is a bonus. If my day gets overtaken by unexpected jobs, I write those down and cross them off my list too – it’s important to remember that, even if you don’t get what YOU wanted done, you have still achieved a lot on those really busy days!

– I aim to be as efficient as possible during the working day. Meetings have clear objectives, I set targets for each period of ‘free’ time, and if my workload feels overwhelming I speak to my line manager and we come up with a creative solution.

– I do almost everything digitally. While I am in meetings, I take my notes and minutes live, update to-do lists and create resources as I go. This cuts down on a lot of admin time; I used pen and paper for most meetings last year and I estimate that moving towards using my tablet for everything this year has saved me around 4 hours per week.

– I work for around two hours on a Sunday evening – this covers my lesson planning for the week (my teaching load is 8 hours per week). I don’t plan individual lessons, I plan a series of learning – that often means I am only creating one ppt for a whole week with one class. It’s probably the same amount of work, but it feels like less!

– I get my marking done live during lessons as much as possible, or in the hour before school in the mornings. Compared to what I used to do before joining senior leadership, marking makes up only a fraction of my workload.

– I work every now and then in the evening during the week, but it’s not regular, and it’s generally just little things which need mopping up before the next day. I THINK about work a lot, and I do a lot of reading and research, but I don’t see this as work because (geek that I am) it’s something I enjoy.

– I generally don’t check my emails out of work time. If there is an emergency, my boss will call me. There hasn’t been an emergency in the whole year I’ve been in my job, nor has there been even the slight suggestion that my senior colleagues want me to check my emails more often.

– I do everything I can to maintain a busy, fulfilling life outside of work. I sing, play American football (I know – unexpected!), write, run, and have an extensive circle of good friends and close family.

I know that many people who do my role in other schools work more hours than me. I also know that I am good at my job and, though I still have a huge amount to learn, I know my colleagues are happy with how much I get done. I know that this is enough.

Some thoughts on work-life balance:

Leaders (sometimes the leader is wrong, but this doesn’t make them wicked)

Wellbeing and workload are everyone’s responsibility, but sometimes we fall into the trap of blaming leadership entirely. Leaders are not omniscient beings and, though it is incumbent upon us to seek to know as much as possible about our schools, we can’t possibly know it all. Leaders might ask teachers to do things which are unreasonable. This doesn’t make those leaders bad, necessarily. It might mean they are tired, overlooking something, uninformed or struggling with their own workload. If a leader asks you to do something which you feel is difficult, you need to speak up…

Ask: “Why would you like me to do this? What’s the big picture?”

When I ask my team to do things, I show them the overall context so that they understand where their ‘bit’ fits in. My team regularly see my Academy Improvement Plan for T&L; they see exactly where their data feeds in to our work, and they know that the things I’m asking them to produce for me have a purpose. Leaders asking for data should say, “We’re going to use this for…” “This will help us to understand…” If you have a clear idea of WHY you’re doing something, it is much easier to stomach. It also helps you to decide what to prioritise and when.

Ask: “What exactly do you want this to look like?”

Sometimes leaders ask us to do things without being entirely clear. This can lead to anxiety and stress, all because of a slight miscommunication. In previous years I have spent hours producing data which was NOT what my boss actually asked me for. Ask what exactly they want, ask for a model if possible, or success criteria (if it works for the kids, why not the staff?!)

Ask: “What would you like me to prioritise?”

Sometimes there will be genuine pressing reasons why something has to be done right now. Structures in schools often mean that leaders don’t know the full range of things people are being asked to do (one colleague could be asked to do three different things by three different people, without any of them realising it!). If this is you, tell people what you have on your plate, and ask them to help you to prioritise. When they fully understand people’s workload demands, leaders have a better chance of looking after their staff!

If it comes to “no”…

Sometimes you will be asked to do unreasonable things. Being given really short notice, or being asked to do something you don’t feel equipped or supported to do properly is incredibly stressful. Ultimately, some schools get away with putting staff under pressure because people allow them to. If teachers don’t turn around and say “no” when it is warranted, these cultures of high accountability and no support are allowed to continue.

Say: “No”

OR: “I have a lot on at the moment and I’m going to struggle to get this done. If you feel that this is really important, I will have to do it instead of doing X, Y or Z.”

OR: “I can’t do this yet. I will have time in a couple of days/ in a week/ when I’ve finished…”

It might not work, but at least you will have done something to voice the issue. If we love our jobs, love our schools, we must do what we can to rescue them from sleepwalking into becoming pressure cookers. Keep the lines of communication open; be honest about your capacity for work. Good leaders want to do what’s best for their staff, but they can only do it if staff talk to them. On the other hand, leaders who don’t want to listen don’t deserve your efforts.

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