The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I've been mulling over a post about how teachers deal differently with the stresses of the job - the greatest stress of which is that the job is prone to bursts of seasonal rush, it seems, rather than evenly paced.

Commenting on anger management over at the ever brilliant Tales from the Chalkface reminded me of my vague intentions:
My most satisfying anger management strategy has been boxing. I'm not kidding when I say that it has done me, Jared and Joel a power of good that I spend three evenings a week imagining their sweet faces on a punchbag and kicking the crap out of them.

The next day I can cope that little bit more with their 'interesting' classroom personalities.
I'm not kidding. If you don't learn to achieve some balance in your career, then the tiniest infraction can send you loopy.

Teachers are doolally enough as it is. Think about how many mentallists you've seen in the staffroom muttering to themselves, or holding pointless conversations, or holding down a senior management post of some authority, or retiring with a gold clock in exchange for their sanity.

Think how many utter mentallists were at one point your own teachers.

There are a lot of little tricks to giving yourself more time in a day, and you have to use them all to even make a dent in the space you need.

For instance, reports, following up discipline referrals, register maintenance, and so forth - I find it easier on the soul to do those jobs during lunch time, eating on the move.
If you can possibly leave work before dark, or at least keep your evening to yourself, your productivity begins to climb surprisingly. The psychological benefit of clocking off during daylight hours far outweighs the stress of not sitting and relaxing halfway through the day.

Marking is a heavier workload in the humanities than in most other subjects. (Hey, don't bluster at the screen; I teach Media and RE, I know how light the workload is for those other guys, okay?)
If you can think ahead about why you're grading a piece of work, and what you're grading it for, you save literally tens of hours in marking work. Again, I try to do this in my free periods.

Mostly with papers, I try to think hard about assessment methods when I'm planning - there are many ways to assess work without taking home a sheaf of papers from every lesson - you can grade verbally delivered reports, you can ask students to use a rubric, you can do a round robin exericse, each child grading for a different feature as they pass work around, you can define in advance what single feature you are grading for, etc.
Was the point of the work that the child experienced the task? To get a formal grade? To obtain a short term target? To check comprehension of an abstract idea, or of logical expression? No essay is intended to hit every base, so don't mark for it. It's not like your students read anything but the number at the end. (Look up the literature. It's true. If there is any numerical mark, however nonsensical, it is the only thing a child recalls reading. Those delicately phrased supportive blandishments are wasted. Utterly. Stop doing them just to feel noble.)
Allowing yourself time to recharge isn't a luxury in this profession - it's a downright necessity. Spend all your time lesson planning, and you'll be about ready to kill the kid who casually wrecks that precious lesson for a laugh.
Plan the basics then head off for a pint with some friends, and they'll give you the breathing space to react differently. Perhaps even to head the recalcitrant lesson-bomber off at the pass before they can destroy your lesson plan of purest gold.
At one point in my career, I became addicted to asking to see other teachers' planners and diaries, to asking them what time they went to bed, whether they ever actually made it out of bed in the morning at the weekend, how long during the holidays it took for equilibrium to return.
My favourite discovery was the sociology teacher whose first task in September was to colour in all the holidays AND the weekends on his planner.

You think that's silly, huh?

Try it. It makes you feel happy to be alive.

Teachers get amazing holidays.
As for sleep: I go to bed at midnight or so. It's taken me years to get that down from two in the morning. I used to be up at six for the commute through London, leaving me with a serious sleep deficit that the weekends and holidays had to carry. When I averaged a year, my sleep patterns could find a mean normal total. Pity that isn't how sleep debts work for humans.

Moving nearer to work so that I no longer commuted made a huge difference. Setting an alarm clock for ten each night made a huge difference. Adopting regular exercise habits made a better difference.

I once wrote rather flippantly about the ease of the job, the lightness of the hours, the lazy length of the unfilled afternoons and twelve weeks of holidays, and received rather a lot of e-mail for it. I quote from a long conversation with another thoughtful and dedicated teacher of underprivileged kids, Fluxion:
Yes, I realise I was being somewhat unfair in my post, but wanted to dispel the image of overwork that we teachers, sometimes a little petulantly, cling to.

For any teacher beginning their career, the drain on personal time during the first three years is enormous. It isn't inevitable, however, and gradually, you learn to reduce it.

I wanted to give somewhat of an impression that it's highly reducible.
I think - and my experience here is of English schoools - that sometimes we set up a culture of pride in our overwork, as though it's a badge of honour.

Think about that. A badge of honour. That's rather than seeing it as unpaid, unfair, and in the long term insupportable (mental health *requires* that you vary your work patterns to relieve stress at some point in your life) or silly.

I'm rather in agreement with the TUC that reducing one's hours to thosethe job *should* take is a worthy aim. However, it's not an aim your administration will ever take up on your behalf. Neither is it an aim that students whose needs are insurmountable will recognise.

Only we as teachers can choose to make decent working habits a target for ourselves. As long as we get into bragging contests about who works longest, we deny our young teachers the space to realise their long hours culture is one they need to work to overcome.
Yet still, the issue is your attitude to the job - nobody can get all of the job done. In fact in my opinion, getting everything done is NOT the job.

The real job is juggling - no one person can meet all the demands of such a day. The trick is to never let any one thing fall short for too much of the time - rotate your failures, and try not to mind.

Writing this, I realise my possible future-post has become an over long over-tired post-parents' evening wild ramble.

So I'll say that again: rotate your failures, and try not to mind.