She held back tears and fought against the panic as she knocked on the headteacher's door; her heart pounded and she felt sick. The silent return gave her hope; then the door opened. But this isn't a Halloween story and this wasn't an eight-year-old; it was a teacher. And this wasn't about getting a letter checked and counter-signed; or reporting a safeguarding issue - those things don't do this to her. This was about HER life; her family and her own wellbeing.
Later in the staffroom she attempted to analyse how the conversation went. The words 'Tell me about it...' echoed in her head. The ambiguity of that phrase. The irony. Sadly - for this desperate teacher - this wasn't an invitation to share her worries around her mounting workload; the lack of time to complete subject-leader jobs; around her deteriorating health and work-life balance; or about her mother's stroke and hospital admission. She didn't get the job in the school where it meant that. Instead, she landed a job in the school where 'Tell me about it!' didn't require her to speak at all; where her worries about the above were thrown into the pot of normalised hazards of the job. She was then forced to listen to how hard her head-teacher had things; how she's coping so well; how she should be grateful she doesn't work down the road; or that she should be pleased that they're not in special measures. All the time, she couldn't help but think about the history worksheets she'd forgotten to print for her afternoon's lesson. That and what it was like to teach down the road.
Luckily, this isn't reflective of all schools and their leaders or leadership teams. It wouldn't be appropriate to portray this as standard or even common. As I write this, there are school-leaders everywhere, looking at ways to support their staff; to reduce work-load; to review policies and work alongside teachers to improve work-life balance across school. School-leaders who listen; who hear; who engage and respond; and who do all this while - themselves - struggling to be heard or make even the slightest dent in their own 70-hour week. But let's not kid ourselves that this kind of thing isn't going on. You see, even in schools with the most approachable heads and principals; with a supportive and forward-thinking culture, there are still teachers who feel unable to express their concerns about their workload, work-life balance and wellbeing. We'll explore why later; but - for now - let's look at data obtained from teachers in our fit2teach Facebook Staffroom.
In total, 371 teachers responded to the question: Do you feel able to discuss concerns around your workload and work-life balance with line managers and/or head-teacher/principal? 58% of teachers claimed they did not feel able to do so. So with - potentially - over half our profession unwilling or unable to share their worries around mounting workloads and a deteriorating work-life balance, what are the reasons and what can we do about it?
No two schools are the same; so the reasons for not sharing concerns are difficult to pin-down. Our users reported being made to feel troublesome; a disruptive influence or - my favourite - negative. Negative. Tell me something positive about working every Sunday evening or until midnight through the week? Sometimes, being negative is ok. If me being pessimistic about marking books while my family visit the beach; or (even worse!) being critical of my workload for costing me a night in the pub with my mates; then - yes - guilty as charged. And don't get me started on it being a sign of 'weakness'. Then there are known personal or mental health issues which - according to some teachers - were too readily viewed (or too quickly used) as reasons for their struggle to keep on top of things. But my anxiety didn't write our marking-policy. Teachers expressed a clear 'What's the point?' mindset with many having tried on several occasions to express concerns - with little or no response or action. Then there's the genuine fear of going against the grain; daring to challenge institutionalised views that it's just how the job is. Yes; we've somehow managed to normalise working between 60 and 70 hours a week. And when we finally find the courage to ask for help, many of you are supported by a story of how bad other teachers have it: 'Yes I know you're really struggling but [insert teacher name] at [insert another school] is TOTALLY screwed!' My Dad was once attacked by eight seagulls while eating fish and chips on Scarborough beach. They annihilated him and stole his fish. It was the best fish I'd ever tasted. Straight after the attack, someone told him he should think himself lucky that they didn't take his chips as well - like some bloke last week. Dad was bleeding, fishless; his glasses were broken and he was covered in bird crap and feathers. But - hey - at least he had his chips...right!?
Terrible comparisons aside, there appears to be a genuine fear or feeling of panic from many school-leaders and teachers alike, when faced with sharing or discussing concerns around workload and wellbeing. It can't be a lack of empathy from headteachers as they're - at least -in the same boat; if not drowning in the water. I don't have the answers; but I feel I should (somehow!?) attempt to redeem myself after the seagull analogy. So here are five ways to help improve dialogue between struggling teachers reluctant to speak-out; and school-leaders.
(1) The appointment of a staff well-being lead
Many teachers like the idea of being on a school's senior leadership team; without ever wanting or intending to be on a school's senior leadership team. Simply put, they want a voice - or at least to know or feel like they're being heard. The appointment of a school 'Well-Being Lead' could - potentially - answer their call. They exist in most schools - just without the title. I could name you twenty well-being leads in our fit2teach staffroom who don't even know that they're already operating in this role. In fact, I'm willing to bet that everyone reading this has someone in mind right now. A link between school-leaders and teachers; someone staff are more likely to open up to; to relate to; someone just like them. But who supports the wellbeing lead? We do. If you'll allow us, let us work with them; help you set targets; measure, monitor and report on your progress. If not, then appoint that wellbeing lead anyway. It'll demonstrate intent and a commitment to at least find some common ground in your quest to reduce workload. And many teachers claim that this alone would give them a lift.
(2) Regular Check-Ups
If there's one thing I've learnt over the last eighteen months it's not to shy away from hearing the truth. When we lost Caroline, some people would opt-out of asking how I was by crossing the road before we passed. Some would ask but you'd know they were just being polite. Others would look you in the eye and ask - really ask. It's so easy for us to presume (even convince ourselves) that our teachers are ok because they replied 'Good, thanks!' when we paired good-morning with how-are-you on the way to the photocopier this morning. So make a point of asking each other. Create a culture of really asking. It should start with governors and filter down. Start checking in; preempting the possibility that 58% of staff might not admit that they're struggling, by asking different teachers in different ways. Ask what they're chuffed with this week; ask about the biggest threat to their work-life balance; and the one thing you might be able to do to help. Drop a compliment in there somewhere; and watch them smile - one because who doesn't like a compliment?; and two because they've just bagged a cheeky five points towards today's fit2teach score!
(3) Consider a staff 'Workload Worry-Box'
Note the term 'consider' because this will divide opinion. In theory, a collection of anonymous posts emptied and explored by your - newly appointed - wellbeing lead; and delicately fed back to a genuinely interested SLT should be an insightful task with huge scope for workload reform. We've had teachers credit these boxes for bringing about change - perfect for some of that 58%. Then there's the flip-side; where they don't work. And where they don't work, they really don't work. But in their failure there are lessons to be learned. Imagine your wellbeing lead gathering concerns for a given period and sharing one potential goer with your headteacher. They'd be doing this verbally across term anyway. But this method is for the 58%. Have fun with it. Embrace it. Have SLT use it and model its potential impact; and if it still doesn't work then you've got a ready-made raffle-ticket box for your Christmas or Summer Fayre - happy days!
(4) Become a fit2teach School
We've built a platform to help see and quantify concerns around work-life balance. We're already supporting thousands of teachers with our fit2teach App and online community. But we've so much more to come. From mid-November, we'll start working with interested schools and their wellbeing lead(s) to support you in your efforts to reduce workload and improve teacher work-life balance. It all starts by using the free fit2teach App across school which in itself will open up lines of communication. Once you're happy - and if you fancy taking f2t to the next level - then the fun can really begin. Our tiered support packages give schools opportunities to introduce unique fit2teach App codes to allow us to track your progress and provide updates and reports. Let us help you create mini-action plans and code your own exclusive in-App stickers and rewards to help you work as a team to reach your targets; seeing your action plan evolve with each success. In time, collaborate with other schools to share good practice and map your progress against schools around the world. We've already been on the road; we've done our homework and are acutely aware of school budgets. We'll be putting something more concrete together in the coming weeks; but we're ridiculously excited and welcome any interested schools to get in touch early and register their interest via their headteacher or wellbeing lead.
(5) Termly Staff Meeting
Now, imagine a termly wellbeing staff-meeting without tenuous links to workload and work-life balance. No more token gestures, 5-minute bolt-ons or other meetings bizarrely renamed to include the term workload - when they're really about risk assessments and the state of PE stockroom. Instead, picture one driven and informed by the outcomes of any - or all - of the above. You see - things are already starting to take shape.
Start waving goodbye to that 'What's the point!?' reason for accepting the situation so many of us find ourselves. Today 58%; tomorrow 57%; next year...who knows!?
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. If it strikes a chord, floats-your-boat or interests you even slightly, then (please!) consider tagging your teacher-mates and sharing with those who might also care. To learn more about fit2teach or to start tracking your work-life balance then follow our Facebook page or download the free fit2teach App from iTunes and GooglePlay. Interested schools can contact us through our website's contact form, or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Let's do this.