Sunday, 2 December 2012

Keeping teachers healthy

A while back I read a rather brilliant blogpost by the equally rather brilliant John Tomsett entitled This Much I Know About... Staff Well-Being. It was so inspiring that, like any good professional, I nicked it and tried to pass the ideas off as my own at our staff well-being committee the following week. Unfortunately, my DHT who chairs the meeting was trying to do likewise. Fortunately for us, if rather ironically, everyone else was too sick or busy that week to be there, so between the two of us we quietly buried the whole plagiarism thing and just decided to focus on the merits of the ideas therein.

I've written elsewhere in a post on Leadership and Integrity that the teacher is the most important tool in the education process. Technology is great, supportive management are too, but at the end of the day, the teacher is the tool which crafts the final product, the holistic education of a child: no tool, no product. The logical corollary to this is that teachers are the most prized asset a school has, and should therefore be looked after and enabled to do their job as best they can, rather than prevented from doing so. Staff well-being is a critical issue in this respect, but I can't help feeling we're often our own worst enemies.

OK, so, cards on the table. I'm not one of these teachers who gives everything in the service of the students and the profession. Don't get me wrong: During the hours of 7.30 - 6.00 while I'm in school, I'll be giving my best. And when I'm marking work and doing the other bits and bobs at home in the evening and at the weekend, those tasks too will have my undivided attention. But here's the thing. When I get all my To Do list done, I'm done for the day, and that's that.  I'm damned if I'm going to be one of those teachers who martyrs themselves for the job. Because you know what I've noticed all martyrs have in common? Their deadness. The fact that none of them walk away happy, or indeed walk any further at all. For them, it's all or nothing.

Now I know teachers who are like this. And believe me, there is a point up to which I admire their dedication. But here's my question: Who do you think you're helping with this sort of attitude? Are you seriously trying to tell me that your ├╝ber-dedication and consequent constant exhaustion are the best way to help your students? And if you're busy having a jolly good laugh at those martyrs, ask yourself if you've ever come in to school despite the fact you KNEW you were too ill to do so? Cover too much hassle to set? Kids can't do without you? Feel guilty about the cover you're causing? Leave it out! Someone ought to seriously try calculating the knock-on effect of that valiant act. For starters, how many other people did you infect? And how many days of work were lost through that? How many students lost time because of the same thing? (And we're never exactly enamoured of the fact that students miss our lessons, no matter how legitimate the reasons) and how many of those lessons you did deliver were actually good lessons? I can imagine the looks of horror on people's faces as I criticise their devotion to duty, but I can't tell you how misguided it is.

If you're dedicated to your job, you have a duty to look after your health. And to be honest, you've got a duty to look after your health full stop. If your life is one of giving to your students, then they deserve your best, and you cannot give that unless you take care of yourself. If you actually have other centres of interest in your life other than teaching, heaven forbid, like loved ones who need your time, then you owe them too. That means disciplining yourself to stop with enough energy left for those people too. The ones you love. Remember?

Anyway, I hate my own tendency to be critical, so here are my own ideas on how to achieve that balance which might be a bit more constructive. They are by no means perfect, but they really help me.
  • Reserve early mornings for yourself. Bit of exercise, deep breathing, meditation, whatever you want, but give yourself you time. It's not about "allowing yourself", it's about disciplining yourself. It's not an indulgence, it's a need.
  • Learn to cook. Properly. I love lots of sweet indulgences, but they don't love me, so I ditched them and tried to fill myself with good stuff, and find other things I look forward to eating just as much. Check out this banana cake recipe for starters!
  • Set time aside: I set aside two evenings a week for friends and exercise at the same time. My friends are great at keeping me motivated to keep fit. Surrounding yourself with good, positive friends who want the best for you also goes a long way.
  • I started learning t'ai chi the week I began teacher training, some meh years ago, and it really helps. Not just with staying calm under pressure, and giving me bags more energy than I've ever had before, but also with awareness of when I'm over-working my system, and when I need to slow down. It ended up doing me so much good I started teaching it. Now, several years down the line, those people I taught are keeping me from spending my energy unwisely, because they're now teachers in their own right. How cool is that?
  • Professional guilt: Get rid of it. Sacrificing your health for short-term gain isn't worth it, and is actually helping fewer people than you think.
  • Time for loved ones. If you can't spare your children an hour a day minimum, and more for your partner, that's not making you a good person. Why should they have to sacrifice their energy to make up for your lack of it all the time? Dinner times are sacrosanct in our house, and cooking together is an even better way to get time with the people you love. My brother even has a fab "cocktail Wednesday" which he and his wife never deviate from. Oh, and quit trying to multi-task. When you're dealing with people at school, you wouldn't be checking your phone or answering emails at the same time, so don't do it to your family.
  • Weekends: I know working at weekends is inevitable, but try to put aside a full day for yourself, your family, your friends and yourself: You deserve it.
  • Sleep. Lots of it, especially in winter. There is less energy around at this time of year, so you need to conserve what little you have if you're going to stay fresh. The rest of nature hibernates for good reason. If we, the so-called "superior animals", think we can ignore nature's cycles, then we're not as clever as we like to think. Try switching off from work at least an hour before you go to bed, and don't go to bed after eleven. Statistically it is far more difficult to get to sleep thereafter.
And if you look at the actual amount of time you're taking off work by completing the above, it's not too much to expect is it? Assuming you want to have a life, at any rate.

In conclusion, to paraphrase the greatest taoist master of them all:

Get a life. Do not get a life. There is no try.

This post is dedicated in memoriam of the greatest teacher ever, Trevor Edney, who taught me not only to love learning, but also to love the health I'd been given, and to enjoy my time on Earth. RIP