How my work life balance went wrong and how I got through it

Kathryn Lovewell is a teacher trainer specialising in emotional resilience and author of 'Every Teacher Matters – Inspiring Well-Being through Mindfulness.'

I trained on the job under the licensed teacher training scheme. I had a pretty full timetable and worked across three departments; Drama, Art and English. I reported to four mentors; my department Heads and the Deputy Head. I received some external training. I was very fortunate. My subject mentors were brilliant and guided me professionally and compassionately through the myriad of jargon, schemes of work and legislation.

I am naturally relaxed in a classroom with a bunch of students so classroom management wasn’t too stressful, although obviously had its moments! I was fortunate to be in a comprehensive that, although had a very broad range of ability and social spectrum, strongly emphasised discipline.

One of the most stressful things about my first year was not having my own classroom. I taught all over the school; in the drama studio, various art studios, in the library, the conference room (totally unsuitable for drama!) and several other classrooms including a biology lab for art!!! I also taught one lesson of IT as they had a gap in the timetable which needed filling. Needless to say my timetable was a logistical nightmare. It was very challenging to get to my next class on time and nigh on impossible to get to class before my students – which I learnt to be an absolute necessity! I would be seen dashing across the vast school grounds laden with books, bags and resources desperately trying to reach my next destination before all hell broke loose without me!

Then of course there was the huge amount of evidencing that generated pressure. It wasn’t enough to write reams of lesson plans and fabulous schemes of work; I had to evidence my teaching and learning journey from beginning to end. Drama had never been on the curriculum in this school before, which was why I was brought into the department as a specialist. Consequently I was working closely with the HOD to finesse the programme she had created. I had to speed-learn A ‘Level Theatre Studies and create activities for KS3. We were inventing the wheel! It was wonderful and gave rise to some fantastic creativity, however along with it came lengthy meetings, exam rehearsals, practical and theory revision sessions during the holidays and creating the joint school production. I took on co-directing, set design and stage management. I also supported other after school or lunch time clubs such as the Special Needs Group.

Department meetings were tricky as I couldn’t be in three places at once. This sometimes caused friction and meant I was always playing catch-up with information that I needed to know as a member of each department. This was quietly stressful! I was often the first one in and always last one out. The lovely caretaker rearranged his rounds so that he could kick me out last to give me those precious extra 20 minutes. I would stagger home, attempt dinner, and then drag my way through more prep and marking. Often I lacked the head space to do any more when I got home and the overwhelming feelings of guilt that I should be doing more but just couldn’t, would gnaw away at me until I either started again or fell asleep.

Signs of stress

Needless to say there wasn’t a great deal of space for family and friends, socialising or quality time with my husband! And so the hectic nature of full time teaching, marking, parent’s evenings, staff meetings and after school student support began to take their toll. I ignored my body signals – earache (which turned out to be TMJ from grinding my teeth unconsciously due to stress), headaches and joint pain. General exhaustion symptoms were just part of the teaching package so I believed. I thought all teachers felt this shattered. After all I was deeply nourished being a teacher. I loved teaching. I had great colleagues, supportive mentors and I adored the connection with my students. I felt profoundly fulfilled helping my students progress and develop into confident young people. My heart was singing but my body was not.

By the end of term two I knew something was wrong. By the end of term three I was diagnosed with a serious condition (undoubtedly brought on by suppressed stress) and was admitted to hospital for major surgery. I missed my long awaited and well deserved summer holiday and was not fit to return to school until the second half term. Looking back that was way too soon, but I didn’t want to let my colleagues and students down any further. I had plenty of time to reflect on what I had done to myself. I had ignored my body signals and let my mind override common sense. I had literally burnt myself out.

Finding a work-life balance

I knew I had to find a way to balance my passion for teaching with sensible healthy choices about working. I needed to rest! I needed to establish a personal practice that would ensure my health and well-being and sustain my teaching career. I learnt meditation, deep relaxation techniques and began to study personal development, cellular healing modalities and Mindfulness. Over time I incorporated these strategies into my everyday life to help support my mind and body – having learnt the hard way that it was essential mind and body worked together – each listening to the other.

Year after year I watch teachers cough and sneeze their way to Christmas, drag their bodies to Easter and crawl their way through the exam period to the end of the year. It is common practice to skip lunch, rarely get a drink, take a break and wait till the very last moment to go to the loo! It sounds ridiculous – but I wonder how many urine infections occur because of this bad practise? Teacher’s immune systems take a hammering just by the very nature of their environment. I could teach up to 210 students a day – that’s a lot of germs to fight. Teachers rarely take time off sick because of the impact it has on their colleagues and student learning. Instead they soldier on, like it doesn’t matter, like they don’t matter - just like I did, until it is too late.

This is one of the reasons for writing my book 'Every Teacher Matters – Inspiring Well-Being through Mindfulness.' It reminds teachers that they are the most valuable resource in education and how important their well-being is to the effectiveness of successful learning in school. Teachers deserve to be in a supportive structure that helps rather than hinders their well-being. If teachers are fit and well in mind and body then they can teach and inspire young people to the highest standards. I know I’m a much better teacher (kinder, calmer, more patient) when I’ve had a relaxing evening, been to a yoga class, had a hot bath and a good night’s sleep. It’s time to bring all teachers back into balance....

How we can help

  • Help for individuals  
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, an Ofsted inspection, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That’s why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Help for organisations 
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone’s wellbeing.