How do we protect teachers from being overused during a time of shortage?
The impossibility of invincibility.
Capable. Hard-working. Reliable. Do you recognise these qualities in teachers you know? All too often, it is our strongest, most resilient teachers who get taken for granted; we sometimes forget they are not invincible. They can’t perform amazing feats if they are too overloaded with extraneous bureaucracy or burdened by multitudinous additional responsibilities, which add extra layers to the perimeters of their roles.
In recent years, I have witnessed the most reliable teachers being asked to pad out the gaps with supplementary work to account for shortages. Whilst it can be enabling for some in their career progression, it can also be overwhelming and arduous if asked to take on too much at once. I’ve seen many teachers who simply feel they cannot refuse. Do we run the risk of taking advantage of them? We know they want to be strong, successful and to fulfil their roles effectively. They certainly don’t want to let others down or feel they have become a burden. Most keep quiet and try to persevere.
And yet it is unsustainable. I have found I am increasingly having to be protective of my team to ensure their workload is balanced up in an achievable way. Allowing teachers valuable time and space to flourish can often be undervalued and forgotten.
Over the last few years, I’ve had to learn the hard way. A particularly difficult period of my life was when my father became very unwell. I tried to manage my time between work and hospital visits. After a long day at work, I would rush off to the hospital, often with a bag of marking which I would try to complete during the quieter periods. Trying to stay afloat and care for a loved one at the same time left me feeling exhausted.
On another occasion, I was left understaffed. In not wanting to add to the burden of an already stretched team or make the students feeling abandoned in the lead up to their exams, I found myself taking on the workload of two teachers. I embarked on teaching a class of 65 students, by amalgamating two Year 11 classes, whilst simultaneously teaching the full A2 course when the second teacher went off on long term sick. I lived on five hours sleep a night, lost hair and looked fatigued. It paid off for our students in the end but not without a personal cost. My health suffered and I discovered there was a limit to what I could achieve.
Looking back to June 2013, I have come to realise that I used to have a clear divide between work and my life beyond it. Work didn’t define who I was. I was a very committed teacher but I allowed time for my health and wellbeing too. Exercise used to be a part of my weekly regime. I was a member of a running club, had completed several half marathons and even used to get up at 5am on a Saturday morning to swim in an open water lake! My greatest achievement was my Olympic triathlon, which was just before it all stopped.
I’ve come to realise from these experiences that we need to be kinder to ourselves, as well as caring for the wellbeing of others. Let us not reach the point where we only notice someone is struggling when they finally crack or feel they have to hand in their resignation. We need to be vigilant in looking out for warning signs. Teacher wellbeing should be a fundamental part of our code of practice. We need to set ourselves goals to ensure #teacher5aday becomes a reality.
I will be hosting the #teacher5adaySlowChat on Wednesday 30th December 2015 which will focus on protecting the wellbeing of our staff. We would love to hear your views. Please remember to use the #teacher5adaySlowChat and #ScotEdChat hashtags.