The time of my life

I’m spending a lot of time this weekend trying to catch up on my marking and get ahead on my lesson planning. Because I’m teaching Science for the first time, I’ve been sending a few emails checking on different details. From two different teachers I’ve had emails back almost immediately, answering my questions and apologising that they couldn’t do so in more detail, or fix other things, because they were out. They promised to get to it ASAP.

But it’s the weekend! When you think about it, it’s really disturbing that they felt they had to respond while they were out, and even more disturbing that they also felt they needed to apologise for not doing more. ON THE WEEKEND.

Unfortunately, this is normal. Not merely in education. Most professional roles seem to expect people to be on constantly, at least as long as they’re awake. To some extent we have done this to ourselves with our fervent embrace of the smartphone, but in other ways the “productivity” expectations of our workplaces have done it to us.

I love my smartphone, I have to admit. I have close friends interstate and overseas, and with a smartphone those friends are in my pocket all the time. I love that. I can reach out when I feel stressed, tired, lonely, or when I have good news to share, and have someone reach back. That’s priceless.

But it was months ago that I turned off work email notifications on my phone. Last week I also turned them off for my personal email. Because when I saw those emails come through, I felt obliged to respond to them immediately. An immediate response was almost never truly necessary, but as soon as I saw it, it nagged at me until I responded. Which led to me walking out of my daughter’s school after the drop off in the morning, answering email. Or pausing in the supermarket to reply to a query. Or waiting in line for the cinema typing frantically in response to an email that could very easily have waited until Monday.

Some time ago an article showed up on Facebook about how Universities wouldn’t be able to sort the diversity issue until they accepted 40 hour weeks as reasonable. A friend shared it along with a comment about how people get treated when they are part time. And it struck me (although my friend didn’t necessarily mean it that way) that 40 hours per week has, indeed, become part time. That a full time workload sees many of my friends working 60 or 70 hour weeks – and that’s just the ones who try to have a life. 80 hour weeks are not uncommon. And this is taken for granted as normal.

Indeed, people who try to advocate for more reasonable workloads are often asked if they are really serious about the job, or the organisation. “Do you want this job?” can be both question and threat.

The thing is, we know from many studies that this is both bad for workers and bad for the organisation. There have been numerous studies showing that real productivity goes up when working hours go down. Longer working hours, with their accompanying tiredness and stress, lead to bad decisions. Lack of work-life balance damages both work and life. We know this. But as far as I can tell from looking around me, working hours and expectations are both on the rise.

We’re slowly killing ourselves in the name of doing bad work, and lots of it. Heart disease and other stress-related illnesses are on the rise, and our response to that is to push harder. It’s like an arms race. When everyone else is working harder it’s hard to dial back without both feeling guilty and looking bad.

It’s time that we all banded together and said “this is not ok”. France has made a good start, by legislating the right to switch off. Organisations can take control for themselves, by banning out of hours email and placing limits on working hours. As individuals, we can stop contributing to the problem by not sending out of hours email ourselves, and by not replying to it until we’re next at work. We could even be really radical and not read them until it’s work time (but that one will be a challenge for me, at least!).

Let’s face it, urgent requests that are actually urgent don’t come via email. No-one will die if you don’t read your email until Monday. Not finishing a report or not getting your marking done this instant has never been listed as the cause of death on any real life death certificate. But working too hard can literally kill you.

State of Emergency

I hate running late. I feel dreadful showing up later than I said I would, even if I am meeting someone who I know for sure will be half an hour late. I get super stressed about it. For years I built so much contingency time into every timetable that I would show up half an hour early for everything and had to carry a book with me to fill in all that wait time. Even if I am running to time and expecting to arrive precisely on time it stresses me out, because there’s no wiggle room. What if there’s a train cancellation? Or a traffic problem? Or I forget something and have to go back? I like to have plenty of time to spare to cover not just one of these contingencies, but all of them.

Something seems to have changed, though, over the last few years. Now I leave at the last possible moment. I still hate to run late, but I also don’t want to risk hanging around waiting. I want to do everything hit and run style. In and out before the dust settles. The ideal child pickup or drop off involves barely slowing down (kidding! I do stop, but I wish I didn’t have to!). The last thing I want is to waste time waiting. Which is odd, because busy teacher, mother, and researcher that I am, a little time to breathe should be a precious and treasured thing.

I could rationalise it away saying “of course I like time to breathe, but I want it on my terms, in my comfy chair in the sun” – which would sound all very plausible, until you take into account that I never build that breathing space into my day. Instead I build several days into each day, and spend time hurtling from one double booking to the next, constantly churning over in my head all of the things I need to remember before the next crisis hits.

There’s been quite a lot written about over-scheduling our children, but I don’t have time to over-schedule my kids. I’m too busy rushing to my next meeting (on my day off). We rarely seem to stop and consider the idea that we may be over-scheduling ourselves. It might not even be a case of over-scheduling. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “over-optimising”, and it’s rooted in the belief that we don’t have time. We don’t have time to waste. We have to be productive. We are too busy to waste time doing nothing.

In the first half of this year I stopped walking across to the local cafe for coffee while at work, because I felt I didn’t have the time. I stopped going to the staffroom at lunchtime because I always have students to see or meetings to run. My friends outside of work didn’t get a look in, and my friends at work and I became ships that pass at recess, shouting brief dopplering greetings as we fly by.

And guess what? I’m burning out. Melting down. Stretched beyond breaking point. And all because I’m regularly pushing everything to the limit, and limiting nothing.

So now I’m trying to build the slack back into my day. Leaving early for meetings and appointments, and staying off the smartphone when I get there early. Instead I take the time to breathe, look around me, maybe even chat to passers by. I’m riding to work when driving would save me 10 minutes, so that I get both exercise and breathing space. I’m still going to meetings on my days off, and helping students at lunchtime, but I’m also trying to schedule coffees and call friends. Some days don’t quite work out, but hey – I’m a work in progress. And I’m making some progress. On a good day. When I remember to breathe.

How do you carve out your own breathing space?

Work a week in my shoes

I’ve been struggling lately with the requirements of my job. I need to produce a whole lot of documentation – important, valuable documentation, without question, but for those very reasons, time consuming to do properly. I have a lot of marking to do, sections of my courses I want to rewrite, and upcoming lessons to prepare for. I have competitions to run, organisations to liaise with, and struggling students to help. I am feeling a little overwhelmed, so it was a shock when a friend recently said to me: “I didn’t think your job was particularly stressful.”

Since then I have spent considerable time trying to unpick my stress – is it me? Am I simply not coping with what, after all, is an easy and rewarding job? So I started to audit how I spend my time. And time is definitely the issue. But that probably doesn’t mean much to you if you’re not a teacher. So I want to explain to you what my working week looks like. Bear in mind that I am half time. On my days off I swan about drinking margaritas, watching television, and entertaining in my  palatial mansion, of course. After I have finished the work I couldn’t do in my working hours.

I am paid for a 19 hour week (half of the standard 38 hour week). That’s 1140 minutes. Of that time, I teach scheduled classes for 675 minutes. We have 75 minute classes, so I frequently teach for 150 minutes, then get a 50 minute lunch break, followed by another 75 minute class. (Bear in mind that I can’t leave to get a cup of tea or even go to the loo in class time, as I am on duty and required to maintain minimum staffing ratios in that room.)

For my 3 work days, I get 50 minutes lunch break  a day – 150 minutes in total. This is “my” time, so on Tuesdays I help with the choir, Thursdays and Fridays I meet with students who need extra help, as well as doing a 25 minute yard duty.  If you add those “free” times, together with the 25 minute tea breaks in the morning, also usually spent on yard duty or helping students, we’re up to 900 minutes. After school on Tuesdays I meet with my teaching team for up to an hour, planning curriculum, organizing competitions, planning excursions, and making sure we are all teaching the same things. Now we’re up to 960.

On Wednesdays we have professional learning in the afternoon, but I’m only there for 50 minutes of that once a fortnight, due to the way my hours have worked out this year, so let’s call it 25 per week. 985. Thursday afternoons I run an hour of extra programming help for my year 11 students, where they can ask questions, get help with particular problems they have, and go over some of the trickier stuff that they might not have fully understood in class. 1045. Not including those extra meetings that arise when excursions need to be organized, or extra activities run, like competitions, guest speakers, training sports teams, organizing school events etc. It also doesn’t include attendance at Parent teacher interviews (after hours), school formals, open nights, presentation night, valedictory dinner, etc. All of these events come out of my own personal family time. Oh, and school camps, which we are expected to attend, but of course there is no such thing as time in lieu for non-work hours spent at work.

So that leaves me with 95 minutes of my working hours, per week. 95 minutes to plan 7 classes (2 of my face to face classes are covering for teachers who are away, so somebody else plans those), mark assignments for 78 students, track the progress of 78 students. Contact the parents of any students who are struggling. Meet with those parents to try to plan a way forward.  Meet with students who have particular issues. Catch up with students who are no longer in my classes but will always be my students, who come to me for advice. Keep up to date with advances in my field. Plan new classroom activities and learn about new ways to engage my students. Meeting the teachers I team teach with to make sure we are on the same page for upcoming classes. Writing progress reports and end of semester reports. Completing mandatory Education Department requirements, and doing enough professional learning to maintain my registration. And a hundred other activities I haven’t even got time to remember, much less complete.

Let’s cut that to the bare minimum, throw away all those extraneous activities, and assume that the 95 minutes is half marking, half planning. And we’ll round up, to be generous, and say 48 minutes for class planning. That’s 7 minutes planning per 75 minute class. As to marking, I have 78 students on my rolls. That’s around 37 seconds per assignment, assuming no toilet breaks or time to breathe. To be fair, that assumes that every student submits an assignment every week, which of course they don’t. But they all do work every week, which I need to check on to ensure that they are making progress. And those students who don’t submit their work need to be followed up on, to find out why, and put special measures in place to ensure that the work does come in eventually.

The result of all of this, of course, is that I spend far more hours than I am paid for, and still feel that I have not got time to do my job properly. I use my own computer, paid for by me, which I am required to have but which is not provided by my employer (unless you count the wonderful opportunity to pay for an education department computer out of my own pay – the generosity is overwhelming, isn’t it?).

Oh, sure, I could be spending my holidays planning classes, which leaves no room for taking individual students’ needs into account, and no possibility of coordinating with team teaching partners.  That would make that 95 minutes all marking time – just over a minute per assignment. Tonnes of time.

So let me ask you this, all you parents out there: Do you want your kids having 75 minute lessons that were planned in 7 minutes? Do you want their work marked in a minute?  Of course not. And that’s why teachers work far more hours than they are paid for, and collapse into the school holidays almost insensible with stress and exhaustion.

That’s also why, if you have friends who are teachers, you will barely see them during term time. Because taking time off for eating, breathing, and sleeping seems excessive. Having a life as well would be pure hedonism.

I love my job. Teaching is the most intense, most rewarding, and most under-appreciated thing I have ever done. But before you tell me it’s not stressful, and that I am so lucky to have those generous holidays, work a week in my shoes. Better make sure you get the soles reinforced beforehand, because they’re almost worn through.

Teaching – Why I won’t suck it up

Last night I posted this to facebook: “and for today’s $64,000,000 question: is it possible to teach in a satisfying, rewarding and effective way without feeling crippled by the workload?”

A touch on the self-indulgent, self-pitying side. Bit of a first world problem, you might say. The status attracted this comment: “So breathe, smile, suck it up and remember how lucky you are to be able to choose.” My friend also pointed out that I was almost certainly trying to do a full time job as a half time employee, and this was a life choice.

My first response to being told to suck it up is never pretty – particularly when I suspect it’s justified. But then I thought about the whole idea of  sucking it up. Essentially that means “sit down, shut up, stop complaining and appreciate where you are.” And it occurred to me that there are times when sucking it up is a bad idea. In the case of my toe, sure, it’s time I did suck it up and stop sooking about it. And certainly I am lucky – I love my job and am passionate about it. I have an awesome workplace and the students are astounding. I am incredibly lucky to be where I am, and that’s nothing to complain about.

But in the case of a typical teaching workload, I think it’s time we stopped sucking it up. It’s when we spit it out that we effect change. And if spitting it out only means that I talk, blog and tweet about how hard teachers work, that in itself may eventually change a few perceptions around what teachers do. There are still people out there who think teaching is a great family job – after all, you work 9-3:30, you only work during the school term, and the rest of the time is your own, right? (My apologies to all the teachers out there who are now turning purple and emitting steam from their ears.)

Last time I blogged about teaching it attracted a comment from a recent graduate about how unattractive the picture I painted of the teaching profession was to aspiring teachers. John complained that I made it look as though being obsessed with your work, having no work life balance and working yourself into an early grave was the only way to be a good teacher. “Are you not simply perpetuating the idea that to be a “good teacher” you need to work so hard it leads to burnout?”  

Unfortunately, under our current conditions, this is what it takes to be a teacher, as far as I can see. An experienced teacher for whom I have great respect replied to my facebook status with ” Nope the crippling workload comes with the job.”

But does it have to?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead.

At my school a full time teacher teaches 14 periods per week. Our periods are 75 minutes long, which leaves just 5 periods per week to do all planning, marking, meetings, and extra student help. Most of the teachers I know are running extra activities most, if not all lunchtimes, and after school. They run extra-curricular activities, workshops for struggling students, and extension activities for advanced students. They stay late for exhibition nights, sports competitions, meetings, parent information nights, parent teacher interviews, musical performances and productions of various types. They stay late and arrive early to give students extra help. And in and around all of that they fit in all of the marking and preparation that never gets done during the school day, on laptops they have paid for themselves.

During the last round of negotiations the union “fought off” an attempt by the government to increase our workloads, but it has finally dawned on me that we need to do more than fight off higher workloads. We need to talk about what we do. We need to show the doubters how hard we work, and we need to fight for a lower workload, just to give us time to do justice to each and every student.

I teach a year 11 IT class of 26 kids, and every student is at a different stage in his or her learning. If I teach one middle of the road course then at least half of my students will fall by the wayside. So I put everything I have into providing options for every student – and I don’t always get it right. But the more time I have, the better the resources I can provide, the more I can differentiate the curriculum to meet everyone’s needs. Every week it comes back to the same problem – I just don’t have time to do it properly.

Before I was a teacher I had great respect for them, but no real clue about how hard they work. Nobody wants to be labelled a whinger, and we don’t have time or energy to go on about the workload anyway. And sure, every profession has its dead weights. Everyone is ready to tell a story about a teacher who didn’t bother. But maybe it’s time to start spreading the stories about the teachers who work themselves to the edge of burnout and beyond. Maybe we can change the world to the point where teachers are given precious time to do their jobs without burning the candle – and themselves – at both ends.

Martin Luther King once said: “Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter.”

I think this matters. So I am not going to suck it up. It’s time to spit it out!

Part time is a mug’s game

Recently some of the Powers That Be at my workplace made fair and equitable adjustments to policies to cater for those staff who are part time. Without being asked. Without anyone kicking or screaming and without the presentation of carefully constructed business cases. Simply because it was right. Those of you who have ever worked part time are now gasping with incredulity. Those of you who have not may be wondering what the fuss is about.

Ever since I went half time after the birth of my first child I’ve been saying that working part time is a mug’s game. It’s only partly true. I choose to be part time. I want to be able to devote more time to my family, and to preserve my health and sanity in a way that would not be possible for me as a full time worker and part time parent (not that others can’t do it, but I know that I can’t). I am exceptionally lucky that my husband is also part time, and he shares the school drop offs, pick ups, shopping and dinner duties with me in a way that, truth to tell, is almost certainly more than his fair share.

Many organisations are reluctant to allow people to go part time. Despite rhetoric about work-life balance and family friendliness, bosses harbour deep dark doubts about the ability of part timers to appear and disappear at a whim. They believe part timers will be uncontactable at crucial moments, and will abuse their shorter hours in egregious ways. Ultimately they seem to suspect that part timers are not wholly committed to the organisation, and are therefore an inconvenient risk not worth taking.

All this despite countless studies showing that part timers are actually an exceptionally good deal – we give great bang for our buck. We tend to work more than the hours we are paid for, and commit ourselves to projects and schedules that are not reasonably compatible with our specified time fraction.

My suspicion is that this is because we all believe that we are part time on sufferance. That if we make too much noise, rock the boat too often, or actually take a stand and insist on fair treatment, our “luxurious” part time jobs will be withdrawn like a petulant two year old retrieving her toy when you don’t play by her capricious rules.

Certainly part timers can be inconvenient. In a school they can be a timetabler’s nightmare. In a corporate organisation there is a risk they may not be available at key times. They tend to miss staff meetings and cause difficult exceptions in otherwise straightforward policies. But as society struggles with the complex issue of work-life balance, part time work is an increasingly attractive option. More parents, both male and female, want to do more than visit their kids on weekends and kiss them goodnight occasionally. More people are caring for older relatives, as our population ages and resources fail to keep pace. More workers believe there is more to life than long days at the office.

I have had bosses in the past who have argued that my workload couldn’t be changed, even when my time fraction reduced by a third. I wasn’t naive enough to stand still for that one, but the stress of having to fight for fair treatment was particularly unpleasant, given that my daughter’s ill-health was the reason I had reduced my fraction in the first place. Part timers wait longer for promotions, and have to be ever vigilant against policies that don’t take them into account. Policies that mandate set hours of extra work regardless of time fraction. Policies that measure promotability by productivity, calculated always against full time hours. Policies that require attendance at staff meetings and other events that often fall outside working hours. Policies that forget we exist, and when they notice us say “well, that’s your problem, you’ll have to make it work.”

I am fortunate that I have an accommodating, thoughtful and supportive workplace. But part time is still hard. Sometimes I feel like a fly-in-fly-out worker, buzzing through the building and buzzing out again, never staying still long enough to be a full part of the organisation. It’s still a choice I choose to make, and on balance it’s worth it. But next time you envy me my “day off”, remember the flip side.

Partly working

Ever since I first went part time, returning to work when my baby bear was 11 months old, I have joked that being part time is a mug’s game. In many ways that’s not a joke. Even in these enlightened days most companies don’t handle part time workers very well. Promotions, bonuses, and achievements tend to be calculated based on a full time load. Occasionally it’s possible to get them recalculated to take working hours into account, but you have to fight for it every time. Workloads tend to err on the generous side – generous to your employer, that is. I once had a boss who tried to argue that my workload should be the same, even though I was officially half time.

Meetings are scheduled without regard to working hours. Urgent emails get sent on your “day off” (and you are fully expected to read and respond, day off or no). Work gets more difficult as you try to schedule things into a compressed format. Many workplaces aren’t good at calculating part time workloads, and it can wind up a constant struggle to draw lines around your home life. You have to fight simply to maintain your on-site working hours, never mind the expectations that you will work at home, answer calls and emails, and generally pretend to be working 24/7.

It’s not easy to calculate a fraction of full time work when these days so much full time work flows outside working hours anyway. The 38 hour week is a laughable myth. My full time teacher friends work hard on weekends and in the evenings. They start early, leave late, and work at home, including during those oh-so-generous holidays. What is 0.6 of “always”??

Somedays won’t end ever and somedays pass on by,
I’ll be working here forever, at least until I die.
Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t
I’m supposed to get a raise week, you know damn well I won’t.

Huey Lewis and the News – Workin’ for a living

Sometimes I wonder whether working is actually worth it. I have to admit, being a stay at home mum did not work for me. As an extreme extrovert, there simply wasn’t enough company or mental stimulation in being home with the kids, much as I adore them. I love my job. It is a vocation, with all the passion and intensity that implies. I am incredibly privileged to work in a place that is chock full of people who are passionate about what they do – and the price I pay for that is to work in a place that is chock full of people who are passionate about what they do. It’s a thrilling and stimulating environment but it can, at times, be a roller coaster ride that’s a little short on balance.

Having a vocation is a dangerous thing. If I give myself to it entirely, my family suffers. It can make me a difficult workmate, as I struggle to compromise on what I believe is important – sometimes, I admit, losing perspective in the process. Add being part time and I find myself feeling guilty about working, and guilty about not working. I feel I should be doing more work out of hours, and I feel guilty about time spent working at home when I should be with my family. It’s a tough balance to strike, and on days when I used up all my patience at work and wind up shouting at my girls, I wonder whether I am doing the right thing.

I carefully divide my time between my job and my family, and sometimes I am so busy making sure that no-one gets shortchanged that I leave myself bankrupt. Being part time is a mug’s game. But as my husband said to me last night: “Can you think of anything better?”

Things they didn’t tell me when I signed up

Regular readers will know that this year I became a high school teacher. I am privileged to teach in an exceptional environment, with incredibly talented and motivated kids. I used to be an academic, so I was used to teaching at a university level. My PhD was in computer science education, and I thought I was already a teacher. I had no idea.

I suspect most people share a tendency to think we know what teachers do. After all, we’ve all been to school. We’ve seen what they do. They teach our kids, and we hear about some of their finest moments, together with some not so fine. What’s to know?

Wow. Where do I even begin?

For starters, the only reason I have survived this year is that I am part time. I officially work 3 days per week – and only two of them are teaching days (one is officially study leave). This means my formal work hours are 9:30 til 2:30 three days per week, and all day Wednesdays. In practice, I start earlier, finish later, and regularly work at night and on weekends, and I still don’t get everything done. Those much vaunted school holidays are spent doing marking, curriculum development and generally trying to get my head above water. And this is with a much lighter teaching load than most of my colleagues.

Sure, I am new to this, and as I get more experienced some things will get faster and more efficient. But I will always be developing and refining the curriculum and materials of any subject I teach. The day I stop doing that will be the day I quit teaching. There’s no point in being here if I’m only going through the motions.

Every year, indeed every different class, comes in with a wide range of different skill sets, different knowledge bases and different interests. Part of the thrill of teaching lies in engaging and enthusing students in your subject, and to do that you have to get to know them, know their abilities and their interests, and engage with each student personally. That is thrilling and satisfying, but it is also an immense  effort. The emotional investment is huge, exhausting and utterly draining.

About two weeks before the end of each term I hit the wall, and feel as though there is no possible way I can make it through to the next lot of holidays. I know that I will need to temper my emotional input if I am to stay the course, and yet even the experienced teachers around me are deeply invested in their work – why would we do it if we weren’t?  For the low pay, the lack of community respect, the long hours and the vast amounts of take home work? For the holidays that we spend getting ready for the next term?

Early this year my 8 year old decided she didn’t want me to be a teacher anymore: “You work too much, Mummy!” And it’s hard to blame her.  I suspect that many teachers find their families get the short straw to some extent. And yet… and yet… I am happier and more fulfilled than I have ever been in my life. The days when I really connect with the students, and feel as though I have made a difference, are euphoric. Not every day is like that, of course. Many days I am painfully aware of my shortcomings, and the kids I haven’t reached. I want tangible measures of my success, and there aren’t any.

I can’t point to an object and say “I made that.” I can’t look at a mountain and say “I climbed that.” Perhaps one day, if I’m really good, when I have been teaching for years I will have students come back and say “You inspired me.” And I know I will want to frame those moments. Right now I live for the more immediate moments when a kid grins at me and says “Now I get it!” Or when I mark a batch of assignments and see that they really do get it.

We are a week and a half away from the end of term 3, and I am dragging myself towards that finish line. They tell me that term 4 is easier, but I’m pretty sure they’ve said that every term. I’m too tired to argue. Teaching is a hell of a ride. Fortunately it’s worth it.