NQT Special: How to get your work/life balance right as an NQT

Written by: Kevin Lister | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As part of SecEd's autumn 2019 NQT special edition, Kevin Lister explains some simple approaches and techniques that can help teachers, especially those new to the chalkface, to protect their wellbeing and work/life balance

Around this time of season, the shine starts to come off the academic year as evenings get darker, weather gets colder and any honeymoon period you have had with classes subsides to a more day-to-day familiarity.

It is easy to find yourself overwhelmed, tired and demoralised and that can take its toll on your overall wellbeing alongside shaping your longer-term attitudes to teaching as a career. So here is some advice to help brighten these dark months and improve your day-to-day experiences as a teacher.

Nobody is perfect

Even though you are surrounded by students, teaching can be a fairly solitary profession. Opportunities to see other people teaching is limited so it is easy to get yourself into the mindset that everyone else in the school is delivering flawless lessons, has perfect behaviour and has no problems. It is really important to realise that nobody is as perfect as you might assume.

Despite my having taught for 10 years and holding a senior leadership role in my school I still have days when things go wrong for me and my classes just do not respond in the way I want them to. Every single teacher in your school will have a mixture of great and not so great lessons.

Even the “best” teachers will have lessons that simply fall flat, and everyone will encounter behaviour issues, or students who they really struggle to connect with. All of this is okay! In many ways it is what makes teaching so fascinating as just when you might think you have it all nailed down something comes along and tests you in a new way.

Look for the high points

To help you maintain a balance it is important to find time to step back and look for the positives. Even during the toughest day there will be positive aspects if you look for them, but often we forget and allow our feelings to be dominated by negatives. It can be useful to take time before you go home to recall the funniest, most heart-warming, or most successful parts of the day. Ideally find somewhere to make a note of these, so you can look back on them when you need a lift – it will help to restore some perspective on things.

Establish a balance with behaviour

Try to avoid logging negative behaviour events without also looking for and logging positives for another student. Forcing yourself to look for the good while dealing with the bad restores the balance. In any class there may well be a few students who annoy you and make you feel bad. However, in my experience, there will be at least the same number of students who are not disruptive, who do as they are asked and who really value your guidance. Do not forget about the positive students – remind yourself that they are there and of the impact you are having on their lives.

Marking and feedback

Marking can be the bane of a teacher’s life. There is always another book to mark, or a more detailed comment you could leave. Unfortunately the very best feedback can be completely pointless if the student does nothing different in response or, worse still, does not read it at all. Treat your teacher ink as a precious commodity, use it sparingly and deploy it in a way that it is going to have an impact; do not waste your time if it is not.

Taking the time to write in a book signifies an important learning point, and the student needs to take time to understand and respond to it. I am not talking about an “okay Miss” type response – they need to be given the opportunity to incorporate your feedback into their future work.

And do not forget that writing in a book is only one way to give feedback, verbal feedback is just as valid – and either approach only works if students respond to the feedback.

Consider as well how marking books might shape your practice – if a class has struggled with a topic then perhaps you need to reconsider how you deliver that topic rather than correcting every student’s work individually.

Plan times to switch off from work

In recent years I have found it beneficial to deliberately think about something other than work on my journey home. By listening to a podcast or audiobook that requires my attention I force my mind to switch off and concentrate on something else. Music is too often just a soundtrack to thoughts for me, so the spoken word is a vital part of this. Once home if I choose to switch back onto work then it is under my own terms. Having had a break from work I usually feel fresher and get more done.

When you stop, stop

When you stop work in the evening or at the weekend, really stop – do not keep dipping into it. Teaching has a never-ending job list and you will never finish your work, regardless of how many hours you put in. Remember that. While the work may never be finished, you are entitled to stop and have a life beyond the classroom.

When you stop work be present with your family and friends, do an activity that you enjoy – or perhaps do nothing at all, that is okay too sometimes. If you have access to school emails at home or are part of work-related social media groups then it is really useful to turn off the notifications so that you have to actively choose to log in to get updates and pick up messages.
You are not required to be available 24/7 – do not feel guilty about stopping and having a life, you are an adult and entitled to have one.

Prioritise – choose what not to do

Balancing the infinite workload with the need to have a life beyond work it becomes important to choose what does and does not get done. Spending a little time with your task list to consider the relative priorities will help you to decide what needs to be done first, what gets done later, and what you cannot do. It is okay to have things you cannot get round to, just make sure they are the least important. If you need help with prioritising talk to your line manager.

Help is out there

If you are struggling then do not be afraid to ask for help. Seek help from your mentors, line managers and colleagues – everyone needs help sometimes but they may not realise you need it unless you ask. Another source of support is the Education Support Partnership (see below). 

  • Kevin Lister is a senior assistant headteacher at a comprehensive secondary school in the Midlands and author of Teach Like You Imagined It (see below).

NQT Special Edition: Free download

This article was featured as part of SecEd’s 10-page NQT Special Edition, published as part of our June edition. To download a free pdf of all 10 pages, which offer advice for new teachers across a range of topics including behaviour, classroom practice, wellbeing and more, go to the SecEd Knowledge Bank: www.sec-ed.co.uk/knowledge-bank/nqt-and-trainee-teachers-advice-and-best-practice/

Further information & resources

  • Kevin Lister’s book Teach Like You Imagined It (Crown House Publishing, June 2019) offers tools for prioritisation and suggestions for lesson planning, behaviour management, leadership, CPD, and data. Visit http:/bit.ly/TeachLYII
  • For help or advice on any issue facing those working in education, contact the Education Support Partnership’s free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 or visit www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk


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