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It’s all about finding a balance!

At the beginning of her career, Penny put her all into teaching but it began to take over.

It’s taken her a number of years, but she’s gotten better at prioritising her wellbeing and having more of a work/ life balance. In this blog, she offers advice for others.

Penny balance

Teachers (by this I mean all educators) are notorious for spending hours marking, planning, finding resources and doing everything they can to make the learning experience of their pupils as interesting and as ‘perfect’ as possible. We often work late into the night, sometimes to the detriment of our own families, all in order to educate the children of others. I’m not saying that we should or shouldn’t be doing this. Everyone has their own way of working, their own priorities and their own methods. We all work in different schools with different policies and different expectations, and we all care passionately about education and our job. What I can talk about is how I found my own work/life balance so that I wasn’t in school every night until 7pm, and now manage to have many more evenings and holidays enjoying time with my family, instead of staring at a computer screen.

Lesson 1: Work is work, not life (well… not your whole life!)

As an NQT, I spent hours in school after the children had gone home, designing amazing classroom settings, laminating everything I possibly could and doing everything I needed to do to the standard beyond what was expected of me. I loved it… to begin with. I loved teaching, I loved finding resources and thinking up new creative ideas, but the pressure I put myself under nearly broke me early on in my career. I decided one day that enough was enough and I needed to spend some time concentrating on life beyond the classroom.

Lesson 2: Getting the balance right

I’m not saying that people who design amazing classroom environments and spend long hours in school shouldn’t. Far from it! I have so much admiration for colleagues who can do all of this and more. There are so many who go above and beyond for their students and are truly amazing and inspirational teachers! Kim and Lisa for example (twitter @OlkimGar and @MrsAEYFS), are two of the most creative practitioners I have ever seen and their early years setting is something I will always envy and delight in seeing. All I’m saying is that for me, it was becoming too much about work and school than about life, and that wasn’t healthy for me at that time. I had to find a balance between what I was expected to do, what I wanted to do beyond that, and how I lived my life outside the classroom.

Lesson 3: Use your time wisely

If I wanted to find a balance between work and home life, I had to learn two things: 1) How to prioritise and 2) How to use my time wisely. I’m a great procrastinator as any of my colleagues will tell you, so using ten minutes here and there at break time, before a staff meeting or at the start of lunch to mark 5 books or prepare some resources, became a daily goal. I hated carrying piles of books home to mark, so I made better use of peer assessment, verbal feedback and recorded marking when it was needed. Everything I did and do now is obviously to our school policies on feedback and marking, but these policies are ones that we have reviewed and discussed as a whole staff to make them appropriate, manageable and above all, meaningful to the children. Even now, when work starts to pile up, I can feel myself begin to panic (and so can everyone around me) and it takes a lot to try and keep calm. My mum’s advice to me has always been, take one thing from the top of the pile at a time. Deal with that one thing, then move on to the next. Don’t tackle the whole pile at once. I think that’s pretty good advice.

Lesson 4: Speak up!

If you are struggling, you need to speak up! That can be pretty daunting, but your colleagues and employers will never know you need help if you don’t tell them. A school team should care about each other and support one another, so check in on your workmates regularly. I’m in a couple of Twitter DM groups for my role as SENCO and also as part of the Senior Leadership Team and these have been hugely helpful to me and very supportive. Twitter is a great source of support and there are people I’ve met there that have been fantastic connections, have taught me to think differently (@adamjames317 @TeacherPaul1978 @hazelpinner) and have become good friends that I couldn’t do without. Talk to other teachers and educators because they understand what you’re going through like no one else can.

Lesson 5: Make the most of weekends and holidays (you need them!)

You can’t pour from an empty cup, so make sure you use holidays, weekends and evenings as much as possible to spend time with your loved ones, rest and recoup. If you’re not on top of your game, you can’t be the best teacher possible and you certainly can’t give your family and friends the attention they deserve. Put yourself first in order to be the best version of you for the people you care about and look after.

I say all of this, but of course, I am still actively learning each of these lessons and have to be frequently reminded that it’s time to switch off and relax!

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The author

Penny Whelan is a Primary Assistant Headteacher and SENCO. She has a Psychology degree and a PGCE. Penny works part-time and is also EAL coordinator, an SLE, Coach and the Operations Manager for the Schools Linking Network in her Local Authority. She is passionate about SEND, inclusion, community and diversity.

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