Finding your balance in the mad new world of teaching

Written by: Martin Matthews | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Finding balance in your professional life as a teacher has been increasingly challenging since the pandemic began. Martin Matthews offers some empathy, advice and encouragement…


Currently in teaching, finding a sense of balance has never been more important, for both teachers and their students.

As student and staff absence rates climbed across the UK and we moved into a third national lockdown, the pressure has continued to grow on all teaching staff to support all students with their learning.

This pressure stems from an honourable and professional premise that students have a right to a good education, despite these tough times.

Yet this leaves teachers with a mounting to-do list that has all the classic tasks: lesson-planning, book examination, marking, resource-creation and the usual admin tasks. However, this new breed of to-do list also contains novel beasts, such as remote, online learning, increased parental phone calls and emails home, and, of course, the big one – lessons require planning in a number of different ways:

  • For students physically in class.
  • For those locked down or self-isolating at home with good computer/wi-fi access.
  • For those at home with limited access to technology.
  • For lessons being delivered simultaneously to those at home and those in class.

And of course, some teachers will even be at home themselves, isolating but perfectly well enough to work and therefore attempting to manage their classes from afar.

All of this is in the context of schools using bubble approaches that require teachers to circle school buildings in a strange merry-go-round existence. Many teachers will be facing new lesson processes:

  • Sanitise teacher’s desk, keyboard, mouse etc.
  • Ensure that students have sanitised their desks.
  • Open windows for ventilation.
  • Log into computer. Load up email. Load up Teams (other online platforms are available). Load up Sims (or similar). Load up resources (PowerPoint or similar). Load up safeguarding software.
  • Give out physical resources to students in the classroom. Ensure students at home have electronic versions.
  • Possibly plug-in the camera and microphone to stream the lesson.
  • Hunt for projector remote.
  • Realise you haven’t taken off your coat.
  • Take off coat.
  • Realise it is cold due to windows being open to support ventilation.
  • Put coat back on.
  • Take a breath. Teach lesson.
  • Repeat up to five times a day and then plan for the next day, answer emails, analyse data, create new resources, phone/email parents…

In the midst of all of this, balance might be far from a teacher’s mind.


Prioritise

Being an effective teacher has always been about balance, but this has become increasingly true in contemporary teaching and even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ensuring you take time to monitor and balance your stress levels is important in order to teach effectively, and to support the young people in your care.

So prioritise what matters. This could involve making a to-do list in your diary or planner or a series of sticky notes somewhere convenient. List the jobs you have in order of importance and cross them off when done. If you have a physical list, it can help immensely to see the list diminish (although be careful as it often grows at the other end simultaneously). If you get a new job, add it to your list so you can organise your priorities.

As well as work priorities, ensure you make time for yourself, whether that is having a tea break, getting some fresh air or spending time with family. Striking that balance is important.

As well as being fantastic, teaching is a difficult job; it’s busy and can be stressful. Teachers run the risk of trying to do too much in their work lives which has the potential to cause problems such as burn-out. This is an increasing danger right now.


No such thing as distance learning

Remember what you are there for. To cut down the stress and time-consuming nature of planning for classroom learning, home learning and everything in-between, ask yourself: what is it that I need these students to do and what do I want them to get out of the learning sequences I plan and set? Here is a scenario from last term…

I was teaching A Christmas Carol to year 10 as part of their English GCSE. I had a number of students at home; some of those had full access to a laptop, others did not. Those year 10s needed to keep up with the reading and annotating of Dickens’ novel and the completion of various writing tasks to support their exam practice. I had three lessons to plan:

  • My classroom lesson.
  • An assignment to set via an online learning platform (Teams).
  • A middle ground between the physical teaching space and the cyber space connecting students that could join the live lesson.

I spent a lot longer than usual creating my resources to support those at home. I set them on the online learning platform. I entered the classroom and logged in.

The main premise of the lesson was to explore how Dickens’ presented the character of Scrooge. There were lots of technical things for the class to learn. There were assessment objectives to discuss and language terminology to learn. My PowerPoint and booklet that I had set for home learning were all apt, but something was wrong. There was connection with the students in front of me, but not those at home.

Visualiser out. Plug in. Camera on (pointing at the board only). Mic on.

There was a flurry of activity on the online platform. One student joined, then another, then another, then another. I had six students “live” on Teams with the rest of the class in front of me.

What next? Oh dear. Oh my. Oh yes. Read the novel. Teach the class. Enjoy the learning. With all my planning I had almost forgotten that there is no distant learning. Learning is best when there is a connection with students.

Just because it was through a camera made little difference. The students at home had all the right, well-prepared resources (which are important), but they now also had a connection to the classroom. Granted, it was an image of the whiteboard and my voice reading and analysing the novel, but it was suddenly less distant.

That being said, it clearly is not always a utopia. When setting up online learning think about:

  • What has been set as an assignment? Can all students access the work? Do they need a PowerPoint with 500 slides, or is less sometimes more?
  • If you are live on an online platform think carefully about where your camera is pointing and watch what you might share. Make sure no students in the class are visible and ensure that the students at home have their cameras and microphones off – questions should come through the online text/chat. Your school will have a policy regarding live online lessons and it is important that it is adhered to in order to safeguard students and to protect yourself.
  • There is pressure on teachers to keep students’ level of learning high. With all of the targets set, it can become unclear as to what you are there to do. Whatever the guidance (which should be followed) do not forget that fundamentally you are there to teach young people and engage them with learning. Sometimes less is more.


Finding balance

In our busy lives, time can seem like a precious thing. There needs to be time for work and time for yourself. Take a breath and prioritise.

More than ever, remain positive in your approach. It is not always easy. It is important to reflect, learn from mistakes while allowing yourself some slack or wriggle room.

There seems to be many news articles out there highlighting the long hours that teachers work. A lot of this is unavoidable, but we perhaps need to ask questions of how we work and why. There are pressures there, but a balance must be struck. If we do not take time to have a break or reflect, we sometimes cannot see the obvious and we end up being less effective for our students.

No-one can deny that it is important to be a hard-working, reliable colleague, however it is essential to focus on what we need to do to help keep strong, both physically and mentally. It’s about finding the right balance.

  • Martin Matthews is an experienced secondary school teacher in Cheshire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2Fi0G15


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