The question ‘Why be a teacher?’ seems to be asked with increasing regularity in the media, where we hear repeated concerns about teacher recruitment and retention. Much of the blame is laid at the door of teachers’ workloads and the lack of work-life balance in the profession, making it unattractive to entrants and unsustainable for those already in it.
It is true that teaching is a high pressure occupation. Towards the end of last term staff throughout BGS were certainly feeling the strain of the busy life of our school community – a picture that will have been replicated in schools across the country.
Quality schools are vibrant, engaging and busy places because this is what children need in order to thrive: they need to be engaged, stimulated and responded to. This requires staff time, energy and dedication and will inevitably lead to periods of high intensity for the staff who are delivering these rich learning experiences as well as seeking to ensure exceptional quality of care and progress.
I always encourage teachers to think of their work-life balance across the whole year. School term-time is always busy and demanding, yet we are fortunate to enjoy relatively longer holiday time than is found in most places of work. While all staff do work in the school holiday periods, the pace and challenge of work are distinctly reduced. During term-time, when work is very busy and stressful, it can be difficult to see ahead but as teachers we do have ‘decompression’ time to come. It is difficult for those who haven’t taught to appreciate just how important these breaks are to allow teachers to balance the demands of the profession with their own family and home lives.
This is not to say that there are no issues at all with teachers’ workloads. Teachers’ time, expertise and energy are the most valuable resources we have in our schools, we need to think carefully about how we should deploy and commit these resources. Schools need to ensure their staff are engaged in the right activities at the right times and differentiate between initiatives and processes that deliver positive outcomes for children and those that absorb time and energy for negligible results.
We should accept that teaching is a high intensity activity on a day-to-day basis, and that even in the best managed schools there will be times of pressure and stress. Simultaneously we need to always remember that teaching is a rewarding and enjoyable profession. If we focus only on the tough times, the message all too easily becomes negative and self-defeating. In allowing such a view to proliferate, we risk making matters worse. Not only does it give a false impression to those thinking of joining the profession, it can also undermine the resilience and resolve of existing teachers at the inevitable times of high pressure.
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School