Teacher Work Life Balance – Top Tips
Achieving a healthy primary teacher work life balance may seem as unrealistic as having a unicorn for a class pet, but it doesn’t have to be a pipe dream.
Top 5 tips for achieving teacher work life balance
- Get organised
- Don't reinvent the wheel
- Employ effective marking strategies
- Avoid perfectionism pitfalls
- Keep healthy
Let's take a closer look at how you can put these tips into practice…
Organisation is a key skill if you’re going to have a sustainable teacher work life balance. With so many jobs to juggle, having an effective system in place to make sure you know what you are supposed to be doing and when is vital. It can mean the difference between staying afloat or taking on water.
Back when I started teaching, it was all about paper notebooks, printed checklists and post-its. Today, there are a myriad of organisational tools that can help you keep track of what needs to be done. Trello is a fantastic tool for creating daily checklists, collaborating with colleagues, storing ideas and notes, or keeping track of assessment records. Create a board with lists for each day of the week so you can see each task at a glance; create another for collaborative planning with your phase teachers; have a third for keeping class lists and activities. There are so many ways you can use it to keep organised.
We would also recommend storing all your school documents in the cloud. And we mean ALL your documents. Take pictures of answer books so that you have them to hand whether you’re at school or at home. Have online versions of all your class lists and assessment data. Make sure all your planning documents are online. Having everything in one centralised online portal, such as Google docs, Evernote or Dropbox Paper, instead of on school drives or memory sticks will save your bacon time and time again.
The best way I've found to have a good work/ life balance is to be organised, have sensible priorities and have a set time that you stop working every day. In my diary, I keep a list of everything I have to do and at the end of every day I decide whether the items on the list have to be done that day or can wait until the next day. In general, if a job takes less than 5 minutes to do, I do it straight away so they don't mount up.
Don't reinvent the wheel
Before you start any teaching-related task, it’s worth asking yourself if someone might have already done it. If so, how you can get your hands on it? We are all in this together. Teachers across the country all plan to the same objectives and activities so remembering this will help with the realisation that you do not have to do everything from scratch. If you’re looking for an assembly on something random, give a shout-out on social media. 9 times out of 10, someone will have done something similar before that you can pinch. Facebook and Twitter have wonderfully supportive teaching communities and are a fantastic first port-of-call if you’re looking for something specific.
Reaching out to other teachers on social media can help you out of a planning pickle
But this time-saving strategy doesn’t need to be purely ad hoc. In its statement on eliminating unnecessary workload, the DfE suggests that schools should provide fully resourced schemes of work for their teachers and that:
“[O]nce schemes are in place, and individual teachers understand that ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the curriculum, they can be freed to teach it in a way that best suits their professional judgement and experience.”
That’s where companies like PlanBee come in. Providing ready-to-teach schemes of work that have been written by experienced teachers saves massive amounts of planning time and gives practitioners more freedom to tweak lessons to suit the needs of individual children.
We are all teaching the same objectives across the country so it is utterly bonkers that teachers spend their evenings and weekends researching and planning lessons that have already been planned by experts who have more time to create thorough and meticulous learning experiences. Adapting existing plans saves hours compared to creating schemes from scratch, and can have a tremendous impact your teacher work life balance.
Work smart, not hard. Plan lessons that are easy to mark and where feedback can be quick and simple. Use worksheets if you have to; don't reinvent the wheel. Find the resources online and plan around that.
Employ effective marking strategies
We recently undertook a survey to see what some of the biggest factors affecting the teacher work life balance were, and marking was right up there at the top of the list along with planning. But fear not, tired teachers, for there are several strategies you can adopt to make your marking much quicker and more effective.
Marking is one of the biggest constraints on a teacher's time
Peer to peer marking and self marking are both good ways of reducing your book pile whilst at the same time providing children with a valuable learning experience. There are lots of ways to get children involved in the marking process:
- Provide children with a copy of the answer sheet so they can mark their own or a partner’s work. It saves time and enables children to immediately see where they’ve gone wrong while they’re still in the zone.
- For subjective questions, challenge children to discuss why one answer might be better than another, and identify where they have gone wrong or where they can improve.
- Tell children how many mistakes they’ve made but don’t show them where they are. Not only does this reduce your marking time but also helps children to develop their editing and checking skills.
- When peer marking, ask children to identify two or three things they think have been done really well, and one or two ways in which their partner could improve their work. The ‘two stars and a wish’ model always goes down well.
Marking during the lesson is also a great way to reduce evening marking sessions. Arm yourself and your TA with a pen, and feed back and mark as you go around the classroom. You may not get everything ticked off but it can make a big dent.
You may also want to enforce stricter rules about the pieces of work children submit for marking. Encourage children to edit and check their own work thoroughly before handing it in. This skill can take a while to develop but once children become familiar with the process, it can save hours of correcting careless mistakes that the children could have spotted themselves.
Try providing children with clear checklists of things to look out for before handing in a piece of work, or checking through a partner’s writing before allowing it to be submitted. Most children can’t resist the idea of being the teacher and pointing out other people’s mistakes! Allowing children the chance to rectify these before you see the final piece can save a lot of time.
Avoid perfectionism pitfalls
Most teachers care deeply about their job and are acutely aware of the responsibility they have to their pupils. Wanting to do the best job possible is natural for teachers, but it can also lead to anxious feelings of inadequacy and a fear that you are not doing as good a job as other people when things invariably don’t turn out quite as you hoped. It can also be extremely time consuming.
Wanting to make lessons mind-blowingly exciting can often lead teachers down the rabbit hole. Planning an elaborate lesson to start off a topic is all very well and good, but make it a general rule of thumb that if it takes you longer to plan or resource the lesson than it does to teach it, then it probably isn’t worth the time. See if you can simplify your Grand Plan of Greatness to something more achievable. And don’t forget, children don’t always need bells and whistles to get engaged in a topic. Most often, their natural curiosity will be sparked by letting the subject matter speak for itself.
I remember when I taught the Rocks and Soils topic to my Year 3s. I hadn’t had time to make the planning more exciting and I was sure the children were going to hate such dry subject matter, but they were enthralled from the start and it was their favourite Science topic of the year.
Over-the-top classroom decoration is another pitfall of the overly-perfectionistic teacher and something that can take up huge amounts of time if you don’t rein it in. Creating Insta-perfect reading corners may well give you social media kudos but will it actually make your children enjoy reading more than if they just had a comfy cushion to sit on while they get engrossed in a story? It’s surprising how quickly children become blind to their surroundings, so before embarking on an ambitious, time-consuming display, ask yourself what the true value of it is and how much time should be dedicated to it. If you end up spending three days of your half term up a ladder dangling thousands of individual strips of tissue paper from the ceiling, it may be time to reassess. If you want a healthier work life balance, be strict with what you want to achieve versus what actually needs to be achieved.
I set myself a time limit twice a week where I have to leave school by 5pm. Additionally, I've started to set off to work slightly later making sure I'm more efficient with my time in school, rather than gossiping - I save this for lunchtime.
This is the part where we tell you to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep and make time for you. Trite but true, I’m afraid. As appealing as shovelling a packet of digestives down your throat (washed down with a bottle of wine) may appear while you’re frantically trying to get your marking done and planning tomorrow’s literacy at 10.30 at night, it’s really important to remember that keeping yourself in tip-top condition can go a long way to improving how you feel about yourself and your job.
Keeping yourself physically healthy can have a massive impact on your mental wellbeing, which in turn can help you keep on top of your workload. Getting overwhelmed, exhausted and sick can make the simplest of tasks seem unachievable, so it’s important to remember that a happy you means a productive you which means you are more likely to be able to balance your professional and personal lives effectively. Get plenty of sleep, eat well and find some time for exercise each day, even if it’s a quick walk around the block when you first get home. These simple tasks may well seem the most challenging, but if you can nail these wellness tasks then a healthier work life balance will follow.
Do not overdo and over complicate planning and assessment. Keep focused on time management and clock off at a sensible hour. Leave work at school (whenever possible) take time for family and enjoyable activities.
So there you have it. Our top 5 teacher work life balance tips that will hopefully help you to keep your workload achievable so you can carry on being the amazing teacher you are. Thank you to our Twitter friends who contributed and shared their own time-management tips @_mrmorgs @MrKTops @SarahFarrellKS2 @MrCJ248. If you have any helpful hints of your own, why not let us know or share them on our Twitter page to help disseminate your wisdom to other teachers!