Handle With Care

Photo by Alex Geerts on Unsplash

“Don’t care was made to care.” (My mum, usually just before she reached for a wooden spoon.)

I trained back in the dark ages before blogging, before mobile phones, before the internet even. Back in 1989 my course tutor at St Lukes School of Education at Exeter University was a man who was a bit of a maverick. Paddy Creber would rather take us down the pub rather than run us through seminars on government educational policy. The one thing I remember him saying to me when we were both three sheets to the wind was “Teaching is a caring profession but the first person you need to care for is yourself.” It’s something that has stuck with me and I haven’t failed to repeat this sage advice down the years to the many trainee teachers I have mentored.

As we enter the dark days of winter, the light dwindling this advice is worth repeating. Take care of yourself. We are very good at presenting assemblies on Movember, men’s mental health or sundry other worthwhile and essential life lessons for the pupils but how many of us are paying attention to ourselves – the life lessons lost because of a marking pile, an incipient cold or the dread mocks around the corner. The last thing we think of is ourselves.

When was the last time you popped into a colleague’s classroom to say hi and for no other reason? In a recent exchange on Twitter it was saddening to see how many said that teaching is a lonely job, we can spend five hours a day in a room with thirty kids at a time but feel like we haven’t talked to anyone all day. Dispiriting to think that the best job in the world leaves people feeling lost and alone because we’re all too busy to notice each other. All too busy waving while drowning.

So what’s the solution? Firstly I think we need to recognise when we’re struggling and talk. It has been heartening to hear a number of men openly discussing their anxieties in the press, but we have a long way to go before this taboo is broken in the staffroom where any such chat fills people with worry about how much extra cover is going to be generated by ‘going off with stress’ (what a great euphemism that is!) Talk to people you trust, share your stress and do not feel embarrassed.

Next we need to manage our expectations of what is possible. Of course there are those teachers who never seem to sleep, produce remarkable resources and collect armloads of gifts from kids come Christmas, but for most of us it doesn’t matter how much we love the job that kind of commitment is impossible and it’s not desirable. One of the things that worried me this summer was the number of Edutweeters who didn’t seem to take any time off, banging on about teaching in August. Be realistic. Give yourself time off from the job. Book out time that is inviolate, whether it’s no marking at the weekend or stop by six o’clock. And stick to it. The work will still be there tomorrow. As a good friend once said to me, “your head stone won’t say he got his marking done quickly.”

And while I am on this theme – give yourself a digital detox, especially if you follow people who are also teachers on social media. There has been some toxic stuff in recent months and reading the aggressive, oppositional and depressing name calling after a day at school does nothing for keeping that work/life balance even close to some kind of equilibrium.

Finally, you are not only a teacher, you are so many other things, do not allow yourself to be
enfolded by the classroom at the expense of the others. Whether it is a sport, a club hobby or just lying on the sofa watching Netflix, do not ever feel guilty for doing something other than teaching. We all say we have things we want to do but we just don’t have the time. There is no time, there’s only now, as The Specials sang “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think!”

Remember this isn’t about being selfish, self-care will allow us to care properly for those in our care and for them to make the best of their time in our company. Any less is doing no-one any favours, least of all ourselves.

Dan Jenkins is an SLE in the Agnus Dei Teaching School Alliance

Dan leads on T&L at St Thomas More School in Westcliff. Alliance SLEs have a number of days allocated each year for Alliance work. Please contact agnusdei@stbons.org if you would like Dan to work with your school, check out his profile here. He is on Twitter as @dantjenks