Who is responsible for teachers’ and educators’ work life balance?

As a child, I wanted to be a history teacher when I grew up. I pictured myself captivating groups of precocious (and well behaved) young people with my inspirational lessons that breathed life into history. I wanted to be their leader, their friend. I wanted to be like John Keating in Dead Poets Society.

I at least had enough self-awareness to know that this vision was probably romanticised and unrealistic, but I also saw some very practical and attractive benefits to teaching. In addition to inspiring and shaping the adults of the future, there would be the two months a year of summer holidays, the two-week winter break, all national and religious holidays off work, and just 20 hours of teaching per week. These were compelling features for someone who loves freedom, sun, leisure time, and rest!

As is the case with many people, life took me in a very different direction and so my teaching dreams were never realised. But, as a trainer, I ended up working with teachers and educators frequently and I quickly realised that what I thought were obvious, practical benefits to teaching were just as idealistic and ridiculous as my Dead Poets Society ambitions.

Quite contrary to my notion of short days and long holidays, I learned that teachers are among the most overworked people in the world and are at a particularly high risk for burnout. In the 10-month school year, they do so much more than just teaching classes. Lesson planning; creating exercises, resources and activities; marking homework; administrative work; and organising school events all eat into their time outside of teaching. And this doesn’t even touch on some of the most challenging aspects of teaching, such as dealing students who are having difficulties at home or in school, discipline, bullying, and the pressure to have students reach high performance targets.

So, how can we use work life balance principles to help teachers and educators?

Huge workloads, ill-defined boundaries between work and home, pressure for high student performance: these are all factors that bring about poor work life balance in teachers.

But what can be done?

Well, first it’s important to understand that, as CEO of WorkLifeBalance.com, Jim Bird, says, “work life balance is not a problem to be solved but an ongoing issue to be managed”.

Effective measures for establishing balance are also highly individual. For some teachers, it may mean immersing themselves in work for the duration of the school year and then completely disconnecting during the summer holidays. Others may benefit more from reserving time every day to relax or engage in activities outside of work. As with everyone else, teachers must figure out what works best for them in achieving balance. However, implementing these practices can be almost impossible if your work environment is unfriendly, full of constraints, or uninterested in ways to combat stress or burnout. Organisations, including schools and other education institutes, therefore have a responsibility to prioritise work life balance for their employees, perhaps even more so than the individual.

What can we learn from the non-education sector?

The challenge is that, while work life balance policies and systems are popular in the private sector, they don’t tend to be recognised or valued within education. Maybe it’s because teachers feel like they should be able to do it all, like John Keating in Dead Poets Society! Although I think it’s probably more likely that many complex factors are preventing progress in this area. However, the fact remains that an increasing number of teachers are leaving their jobs because of burnout, and so the education sector simply must start prioritising the wellbeing of their teachers, and quickly.

But what can school administrations actually do?

In this blog, I will share the experience I gained as moderator of the “Work Life Balance Policy Pillars” seminar, organised by The Responsible Business Forum in Poland. It comprised participants from many different sectors and resulted in the definition of the following “pillars” as the foundation of the wise work life balance policy:

  • Education
  • Responsibility
  • Individual approach
  • Flexibility and openness
  • Needs analyses
  • Work life balance in leadership

These broad headings were explored further though examining good practices, case studies, and practical steps for implementation. I am convinced that they can be applied to education institutes to combat stress and burnout in teachers and will explain how below.

1. Education

This focuses on increasing awareness about work life balance issues in teachers and other employees in education institutes. Specifically, it encourages understanding of the definition of work life balance, both broadly and for individuals, as well as the competencies necessary to manage balance effectively. It also focuses on the risks of poor work life balance and the symptoms of burnout. To promote this awareness, schools can provide online courses or invite experts to facilitate training on good work life balance and establish a working group in the school to focus on it and other methods of promoting wellbeing. They can develop informational resources, like leaflets, that outline some basic techniques for stress and time management. They can also internally disseminate opportunities to build competencies in the area of work life balance. At M-Powered, we have a course specifically for teachers that facilitates identification of individual work-life balance needs, as well as practical solutions that will support it.

2. Responsibility

As mentioned above, work life balance is the responsibility of both the individual and the employer, but a lot can be done at management level to facilitate it, including formulating internal policies on work life balance as part of their overall school strategy. Remember, it’s not about telling employees that they can do whatever they want. Management need to spend time defining what they can do to positively support balance and wellbeing, considering the specific circumstances of their school and the needs of their teachers, as well as budget, resources, and other practicalities. It’s ok to be clear that this is just a first step and not an immediate answer to everyone’s problems, but that together you will improve and progress.

3. Individual approach

Given how unique work life balance needs are to the individual and how they can change over time, it is impossible to develop a system that will work for everyone. However, what can be done is an analysis of the needs and expectations of staff. These needs can be categorised and some broad strategies that cover the most common challenges can be introduced. Also important is the adoption of a culture that emphasises and supports good work life balance for the individual. For example, at Hampstead Parochial School in London, they found that one of the most common obstacles to teachers’ work life balance was all the additional administrative work they had to do, such as stocktaking, cataloguing, photocopying, maintaining equipment and materials, minuting meetings, etc. They introduced more administrative support and a bursar to combat this and found it very effective. This won’t be possible for everyone, but where possible, schools can consider introducing similar supports, perhaps even sharing costs with other schools to make it more affordable.

4. Flexibility and openness

Work life balance policy should be agile and ready to change if the situation requires change. It is the role of managers to create space for open communication, where people feel comfortable to give constructive feedback, even when it is not positive. On the other hand, managers also need to be able to communicate school strategies with consistency and clarity. Flexibility and openness should be the standard for both staff and managers. Work life balance is a very delicate issue. It touches on one’s privacy, values, beliefs, and individual needs. Therefore, sensitivity and empathy are essential. It is important that the broad strategy and options for work life balance in schools are flexible and open enough to accommodate the most pressing needs. It should focus on the following factors:

  • Supporting teachers in their duties through delegation and good time management
  • Work-family reconciliation through supporting childcare initiatives and domestic support
  • Promoting healthy living practices to manage stress and burnout
  • Overall good practices in work life balance

5. Needs analyses

A needs analysis is the first step that management can take to start designing their work life balance strategy. Develop a questionnaire and collect information from staff or facilitate a meeting that allows staff to discuss their needs. The most important thing is to be clear about the purpose of the needs analysis in order to set clear goals and keep expectations realistic. Focus on what the initiative is about and how the results will inform school policy on work life balance going forward.

6. Work life balance in leadership

Finally, work life balance should also be emphasised at management level. If managers don’t take their own work life balance and wellbeing seriously, they are not communicating to staff that it is a real priority. Change starts from the top.

Effective managers are conscious of their staff workload. They monitor it and undertake appropriate measures to help teachers to manage their work. They act when they see evidence of a teacher’s workload being unrealistic, especially in the case of newly qualified teachers who tend to throw themselves into their work and often cross the delicate line between home life and professional life.

During our course in Tenerife (October 2019), we will explore these issues in more detail. We will design the needs analysis process and develop concrete solutions for work life balance policies in schools. We will also focus on our own individual work life balance needs. I believe that if you want to change something, you need to feel and understand it on a personal level. So, find your balance with us and inspire others!

This article is based on mine and M-Powered experience and the following sources: