November is a notoriously challenging month in teaching in the UK. It’s so very dark, the workload is relentless, and half-term can seem like a distant memory. House moves, relationship breakdowns, illness of close relatives, unemployment in the family, written-off cars… these, off the top of my head, are some of the challenges outside the work bubble faced by those I’ve come across.
I’ve asked around, watched and listened, reflected on the past, and come up with a list of things we might do with and for our colleagues to help one another through to Christmas. It’s not exhaustive. It’s not guaranteed to help. We all know that what might make one person’s day might well irritate the hell out of another, but here are some thoughts.
- Food and drink. These feature regularly in the suggestions. Not, as may be tempting, a quick vodka around the back of the hall, but spontaneous offers of cake, biscuits and tea to brighten up a challenging day.
- Take the time to smile and say good morning. Say thank you! Stop for a quick chat if you can. It sounds so simple, but it’s very easily forgotten when our head full of slippery ‘to-do’ lists and places to be. It makes a huge difference.
- Show appreciation. People go a ‘above and beyond’ all the time in schools. Take time to say thank you to those who help to tidy a classroom, offer helpful input on a lesson, share a resource, make you laugh. Thank students as well as colleagues – and never forget the support staff, in all their forms, without whom we couldn’t do what we do!
- Go for a walk. Visit other people’s lessons. Mainscale teaching can be remarkably isolating, especially when you’re on a full timetable for the day. Always a believer in the power of ‘open doors’, I think it’s great to get in there and join in with lessons. It has the added bonus of getting us out away from the ‘to-do’ list and the marking pile for a few minutes – and students seem to take particular pleasure in the spectacle of teachers interacting with one another like actual humans (rather than like bats, who hang in dark cupboards when not actually teaching).
- Most of us will tend to agree, frequently to the bemusement of our non-teacher friends, that teenagers are a rather fascinating, amusing and even likeable bunch. Getting out and engaging with them on pretty much anything, from the wisdom or otherwise of piercings to the latest episode of Educating the East End, to their most recent fishing trip to their take on the recent charts (sometimes quite refreshing!) always helps to cheer me up, not least because it reminds me of why I’m there.
- On which note… there is almost always a reason to laugh. Seeking out colleagues – and indeed students – with a similar sense of humour, be it ridiculously dark or ridiculously silly is often helpful. Seeing the funny side of the most stressful situation, because hey, if you didn’t laugh… Or being able to laugh at yourself in the classroom because being a stand-up performer for several hours a day invariably comes with comedy moments. There is a law somewhere which says I will trip over at least one bag a day…
- ‘Scratch any teacher hard enough, and you’ll find they’re in it to make a difference’. The vast majority of teachers are utterly devoted to making a difference, through learning, to the lives of our young people. When such dedication meets growing exhaustion, tussles can start to develop. Not, as some may have society believe, in the stampede to get out of the car park at 3.30, but because we may have different ideas about how things should be done. Because sometimes we feel undermined by others, or under-appreciated when our suggestions aren’t acknowledged or our hours of extra work not acknowledged. Also, our resistance is low when we’re tired and we tend to take it out on those closest to us – colleagues, friends, family…. Two things from this:
– be humble, be attentive. Say sorry for oversights and moments of impatience. Get it out in the open. And notice – notice when people are looking tired or stressed. Talk. Listen. Bring cake. Bring tissues.
– Avoid what my previous head used to describe as ‘toxic whingeing’. We all need to vent occasionally. That’s fine. Find a safe place, a trusted person, and get it out of your system. But don’t be the person who sees the negative in every situation. Suggest solutions rather than dwelling on problems. And if you’re really not happy, then take action. None of us is more important than the young people we’re there for. This is both reassuring and hugely daunting.
- Be pragmatic. Be realistic. If you have a full day, you can’t dance around the classroom and be a stand-up entertainer all day.in front of a PowerPoint for all of it. I love the new ideas around ‘spaced learning’. A couple of lessons of intensive input, then give them a chance, quietly and in a focused way, to apply the ideas, digest, be independent, whilst you get away from the front. Guess what? You can even use the time to breathe, reflect and offer students valuable face-to-face feedback.
- Finally, be kind. This has been the conclusion of all of my work on teacher well-being so far. Be kind to yourself and kind to one another. Be patient. Teachers can be notorious perfectionists and are frequently highly reflective. This can be the biggest strength and the worst downfall. Let that disappointing lesson go. Forgive the colleague who snapped at you over the missing pile of books. Ask the one looking drawn how they’re doing. Bring cake.