Tags: Classroom Teacher | Teaching and Learning | Work-Life Balance

Delegates on Lynne Copp’s training courses often ask, ‘How can we realistically stop the long hours culture in teaching, and should we?’ Here Lynne suggests ways to redress the work-life balance

The first thing to report will not be a surprise – we all do it! Some of us for short periods of time and others for longer. What about gender difference? Well, on average men work longer hours than women and have less of a sense of wellbeing – this is even true for part-time employees. When we look at long hours by role, this is where we see the real issue and therefore the real opportunity for change. It is our long-serving and established teachers, especially those in management positions, that appear to have the most miserable time of all. It is at this level, big school or small, that most stress and least worklife balance is achieved! Middle managers in schools work much longer hours (some up to 80 hours a week). The effect on health is apparent and is also showing a direct correlation – the longer hours you work, the worse you feel! That should not need a degree in rocket science to work out! So why do you do it?

For some it is personal choice. I have heard teachers say, “Lynne, I live on my own I have nothing else to go home to!” or they say “This is just a busy time, things will ease off soon!”or “I want to be here,I love my work!” There is nothing wrong with personal choice and I am the first one to support it, but my heart goes out to those of you that have no choice – those who are there because they cannot get through the workload if they don’t. They have been getting in early and working late for such a long time that the hamster wheel of work has become their life – they truly wouldn’t know what else to do! These people never switch off, they wake in the night thinking about work, they take stuff home at weekends and they love the thrill of “having” to work when they are on holiday. I will never forget the man that I saw screaming into his mobile phone and typing into his laptop at the same time as making sure that the fine Caribbean sand didn’t blow into either device!

These people don’t “choose” to be like this. Like drugs, alcohol and over-indulgence in any sort of pastime, work can become an addiction for some people.The only difference is that work is the only addiction that we are still rewarded for. I hear people say, “He is fantastic, he works such long hours, he is so committed to our school. We must therefore reward him by promoting him to a higher position.” These people learn that working longer means more reward, but it is a nasty lie and illusion! Working long doesn’t mean working well. Teachers that are so tired that they can hardly think do not educate our future generation well! They just drone on in the fog of the long hours addiction. It is seen as a sign of commitment, loyalty and regarded as worth rewarding. But why reward someone who takes longer to do his or her job? If I took twice as long to design a product or service for my customer, do you think they would pay me more for being late? No! I would be lucky to be paid at all!

It is time to remember the morale of the children’s fable; “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and lay bare the ‘long hours Emperor’ for what it is. It is time to stand up and be counted and say “NO!”. It is time to stop measuring input and start measuring output. In other words, not the hours they’ve worked, but what they have contributed. I believe that the result will be fantastic; I believe that those people that work hard but still get time to live, will be the talent of the future in our schools and educational establishments.

So how do you begin? Schools need to invest in process management, management development and worklife balance at all levels. Large school or small, your staff need support with prioritising, letting go, managing workload, managing change, managing interruptions and driving out waste. Head teachers need to change the measures and communicate goals; be clear about hours. Flexible working needs to become a reality, to give teachers more choice and administrative bureaucracy needs questioned and waste eliminated.

To end, I am always reminded of the story quoted in the book “The Heart of Success” by Rob Parsons, where a little boy asks his mum why does daddy work such long hours? His mother replies, “maybe daddy just doesn’t get all his work done in the time allocated”. The little boy ponders on this for a moment and replies “Then why don’t they put him in a slower class?”. Practice what you preach and reward output, not input!

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise magazine, December 2005.

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