Taking time out might actually save you time...

Working in a school isn’t quite like working anywhere else. The inflexible nature of the school day means that classroom staff have no choice about when and where they work.  As a result, everyone is always hyper-conscious of time. Every minute of every hour is accounted for, both in and out of the classroom.

Within the lesson, every good teacher knows exactly what the time is and when they need to hit the next stage of their lesson. And they are always poised and ready for when things might take a different turn, or when there may be someone or something which could throw out their careful planning.

Outside the classroom, breaks and lunch hours are spent trying to cram as much as possible into a space that is too small to fit all those additional tasks. Many staff joke of the decision made each day: ‘Tea or pee?’ Managing both can be a luxury!

Permanent state of high alert

When staff are at their best, schools can buzz with the energy and enthusiasm created by this battle with time.  But a high energy approach can take on a life of its own and can lead to a situation where everyone is more and more busy but less and less effective.

As the term progresses, staff can find themselves living in a permanent state of high alert, which can result in raised levels of cortisol, the ‘fight/flight/freeze hormone.  When this continues for days or weeks, it can lead to anxiety, exhaustion, sleep problems and lowered immunity. It becomes impossible to switch off.

Planning, preparing and marking

Once the high octane day is over, teachers often need to spend many additional hours a week, planning, preparing and marking. In complete contrast to the reactive nature of the day, they must find within themselves the ability to switch on their concentration to work through piles of marking and assessments in the evenings.

However, the more ‘high alert’ you are feeling, the harder it can be to access the deep levels of concentration that are needed to complete this work effectively. It is easy for a vicious circle to develop, where the work in the evening takes longer and longer to do, leading to further anxiety and frustration.

Choice, control or time limit

When you are under excessive pressure, it can be made more bearable if you know if you have at least one of three things: choice, control or time limit. Either you are under heavy pressure because you chose to be there, or because you can decide how you are going to manage it, or it can be bearable because it’s only for a short time.

Many teachers push themselves throughout the term, because they feel it is ‘only for a few more weeks.’ They bargain with themselves that they will get their life back in the holiday. However, school terms are too long and the workload is too great for this to be a realistic prospect. In fact, when they most need to factor in short breaks, is when it is least likely to happen.

How to break the cycle

So how can you break the cycle? Ideally, there needs to be a point in every day where you consciously and actively unwind. This triggers what is known as the parasympathetic response, allowing your brain to assimilate what you have learned during the day, to lay down memories and quietly problem solve.

Regular down times throughout the week will:

  • limit the build-up of stress hormones
  • make it easier to relax when you need to
  • enable you to switch on your concentration in the evening when facing that pile of unmarked books
  • make you feel less forgetful and better able to make decisions
  • enable you to break the cycle of reactive rather than proactive responses. In a classroom, this can be the difference between how well- or how badly- you handle a tricky moment with a challenging child.

The simplest and most effective way of lowering cortisol levels and triggering a parasympathetic response is to just go for a walk. There are innumerable, well known benefits from being outside – changes of light, changes to the way you breathe and contact with nature, all will slow your heart rate and clear your mind. You may find that you are better able to summon deep concentration later, meaning you can work faster, finish earlier and put your working day behind you, before you go to bed.

If going for a walk doesn’t work for you, other possible ways of ‘actively unwinding’ include exercise classes, yoga, sport, spending a little relaxed time with friends or family, meditation or power-napping. Each of these allows your reactive mind to slow down and can be genuinely renewing.

There are two key moments of transition:

  • between finishing at school and starting again in the evening
  • between finishing working in the evening and going to sleep

What you choose to do with these transitions will significantly impact upon how effectively you are able to work, relax or sleep. It may be better to stretch, to spend a bit of time playing with your child or to allow yourself the luxury of a phone call with a close friend, rather than resorting to the anaesthetic of ‘screens.’ It can be tempting to try to unwind using television or going online but this can sometimes have the effect of just pushing a ‘Pause’ button in your head, until you go to bed. And as soon as you try to sleep, your brain presses ‘Play’.

Teaching is a job that is never finished, run by a people that demand huge amounts of themselves. The workload in term time is enormous, help yourself to manage it.  You may find that as a result, you are better able to cope, to make decisions – and to get through that pile of marking in the evening in such a way as to leave yourself a little time for life!

Sue Hugo is the National Associate Coordinator at Education Support Partnership and a former secondary school teacher.

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