NQT special: Finding your work/life balance as a new teacher


In your first years as a teacher, it can be easy to push yourself too far. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how NQTs and second-year teachers can find that all-important work/life balance.

When Hugh Brenton’s girlfriend walked out on him two years into their relationship, he realised he had to change his lifestyle.

The couple had met during Hugh’s PGCE year and moved in when he got his first job as a geography teacher in a secondary school in the North East of England. 

“The problem was quite clearly my work and how it was impacting on our lives,” said the 32-year-old. “I was getting up at 6am to be in school for 7am and often not returning home until after 6pm. Then I had two or three hours of marking or preparation ahead of me.

“I can see now that this would test the patience of a saint, but unless you actually teach it’s hard to understand the pressures. We were spending less and less time together and Sarah would be going out with friends or just watching television on her own. The demands of my job where affecting her terribly, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.”

Workload remains one of the big areas of dissatisfaction for teachers of all ages and levels of experience. A survey earlier this year, which compared the working hours of teachers and MPs, found that secondary teachers typically work an average of 50 hours a week, while a secondary head could easily clock up close to 58 hours.

One of Hugh’s big mistakes, he admitted, was volunteering too readily to be involved in the life of the school. 

“I wanted to make a good impression by appearing keen, reliable, interested and one of the team, but all I did was spread myself too thinly,” he said. 

“During the first year I was involved in two drama productions, organising and participating in school trips and countless extra-curricular activities. It was too much and, as I later found out, not expected of me as an NQT. But if you offer to help out, of course, colleagues aren’t going to say no because all teachers are pushed for time and welcome help.”

Tom Sherrington, headteacher of King Edward VI Grammar School, in Chelmsford, Essex, who writes a blog under the name of headguruteacher, said NQTs needed to remember that classroom practice is their priority in the first year or two, and most other aspects of their work should take second place.

“The two most common things that NQTs do that lead to a poor work/life balance are over-marking and over-planning, which can both add significantly to workload, and which aren’t always necessary,” he said. “With marking, it is partly because they haven’t yet worked out a routine and so may feel that every single piece of work needs to be marked. In fact, this is more than most pupils can absorb.

“What they need to do is mark those aspects that will be most effective in their teaching to ensure pupils have an understanding and good feedback and know what is expected of them.”

Similarly, with lesson planning, NQTs should remember that heads of department and other colleagues will already have a stock of resources and ideas for lessons, and they don’t need to plan all the material or develop resources from scratch. 

“Typically an NQT may have 18 lessons a week so it just isn’t possible to plan so many lessons. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel because schemes of work will already be available. They shouldn’t even need to ask because this level of support should be available to them already.”

One of the big burdens facing teachers is the writing of pupil reports. For some, this could mean hundreds of individual entries. 

“Some teachers, especially NQTs, need to be supported during report-writing time,” Mr Sherrington said. “New teachers, in particular, won’t be used to the intensity of this exercise.” 

He added that while many schools now use sophisticated systems that allow teachers to do reports online from home, this is a double-edged sword when it comes to work/life balance. 

He advocates the use of statement banks that allow some corners to be cut in report-writing, without losing the personal touch and individual comments required to appraise each student. 

Classroom management was also an important issue which, if mishandled, could result in teachers increasing their workload. “NQTs need to think carefully about sanctions, such as detentions. If they give out too many they are effectively putting themselves in detention because someone has to supervise it,” Mr Sherrington added.

Anita Johnstone, a modern languages teacher in a Midlands academy, described how she almost suffered a breakdown during her first year of teaching because she took on too much.

“I wanted to show I was keen, able, professional and on top of everything,” she said. Now in her third year of teaching she has learned to “be good to myself” – that includes taking one evening off during the week, as well as either Saturday or Sunday, from any school work, whether it is marking or lesson preparation.

“I was in melt-down by the end of my first year because I was doing far too much,” Ms Johnstone, 26, said. 

“I had allowed myself to become embroiled in the complex domestic difficulties of one of my form pupils, without seeking help from more senior and experienced colleagues, which left me emotionally drained. This was a big mistake and I know now that I can’t be a teacher and social worker and everything else, to every child. All this was on top of the French and Spanish clubs I was running, and various school trips and other activities that I was helping to organise and run.

“I ended up with no time to myself at all. It felt like every waking hour was about work, and when I slept I dreamt about it. Then one evening I was invited to play netball by a friend. 

“I felt guilty going out when I had so much work to do, but I found the physical activity and meeting new people gave me a huge boost. When it came to work the next day I went in with a smile on my face instead of feeling tired and full of trepidation about what the day would bring.”

She advocated that NQTs try to maintain the hobbies they enjoyed before entering teaching, or to find new ones, and to be careful who they socialise with: “It’s easy in every job to socialise with people from work, especially if there are colleagues of the same age and you get on well. But I also make a point of seeing friends who are not teachers at least once a week so we don’t end up talking ‘shop’ all night.

“Sometimes you just need to take a step back from it all and remember that other things are important.”

Mr Sherrington agreed: “It’s very difficult to make blanket statements about how best to manage work/life balance, as this is more important to some people than others.

“Some teachers love their jobs so much they would devote every waking hour to it, but it’s fair to say that most teachers need that balance to have a fulfilled life in and outside of school.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

Further information
You can read Tom Sherrington’s blog at http://headguruteacher.com
NQT Special Edition
This article was published as part of SecEd's June 2013 NQT Special edition, produced in association with the NASUWT. The edition features eight pages of best practice and advisory articles aimed at supporting NQTs and trainee teachers across the UK. Download the free PDF of all eight pages here.


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