I was leading a group whose conversation had shifted to sustaining yourself as a teacher; I wanted to focus the discussion elsewhere, while simultaneously emphasising how important I believe this issue is – so in response to a teacher’s commitment to take Saturdays off, I strongly agreed and tried to move to a close: “Definitely take Saturdays off, it’s really important, I don’t work on the weekends at all.”There was a shocked silence, broken by Sam: “What, even Sundays?”
Definitely Sundays. There, I’ve said it. I feel deeply committed to social justice and transformational teaching, but after 4.30 on a Friday, I almost never do any work until 8am Monday. Nor from six on weekday evenings until 7.30 the next day. I’m re-writing this now, on a Saturday – and I do other things which help me improve as a teacher in ‘my own’ time, notably reading history books and educational research. But I don’t count them as work – they are done freely and for pleasure – opposed, in my mind, to taking home lesson planning. (I find lesson planning fun too, but I’m not keen on doing it at home).I’ve never said any of these things very loudly: to friends and close colleagues, but not to the world at large. It’s something I almost feel the need to apologise for: a lot of teachers in Britain are working very, very hard and are taking home masses of work; a lot of the teachers who have really inspired me, notably those in Teach For programmes around the world, are working exceptionally hard, often in extremely challenging circumstances. So I’ve gently struggled with this dilemma – is it ok for me to have and prioritise looking after myself, sometimes above teaching better?
[I have a suspicion that my audience, such as it is, will divide into two tribes here: Tribe 1 will think the question ridiculously masochistic, because it is obviously fine, and I should stop this middle-class guilt. Tribe 2 will be shocked at how self-centred I sound, given I’ve signed up to a movement to overcome massive social injustice .]
Can you sustain yourself as a teacher?
I believe the strong argument for looking after yourself and ensuring you have a good life is one of sustainability. Here are some points I’ve made or thought in the past:
– teachers need to maintain their energy across weeks, months and years; I will be doing my students more of a favour if I can still be in a demanding teaching role in two, five, ten years time.
– looking after myself makes me a nicer, more cheerful person, which helps me be positive and warm in the classroom – building relationships – a key element of teaching
– most of the things I do for pleasure make me a better teacher: I share ideas with friends about classes and individuals, I read, visit museums, learn new things
– I don’t expect my students – nor would I expect anyone I was leading – to lead an unbalanced life – I should model this
– the opposite of sustainability – what Narayani Menon calls ‘kamikaze teaching’ – is no solution to national education problems; how will we find 438,000 teachers willing to do this their whole careers?All of these arguments have helped me to justify looking after myself and have assuaged much of the guilt I feel about it. But I’d like to go beyond this here, because all these reasons are predicated on looking after myself in order to be a better teacher and I’d like to consider whether they are the right thing to do in and of themselves.
A fantastic teacher I met in Delhi offered this simple and profound insight about herself and her teaching three weeks ago:
I’ve realised – one of my values is comfort. Sapna Shah, Teach for India
…and I’ve been thinking about it since. I certainly value sustainability – I just wonder if actually, like Sapna, I really value comfort more than anything else.By comfort, I mean looking after myself, more or less getting enough sleep, seeing friends, living well as I see it, having fun. No one is going to object to that as such, but I wonder how much better my lessons might be if I spent the whole of Sunday each week planning them. Or how much my students might learn if I spent two evenings a week marking their work.(Some of the sustainability points above apply immediately to this – I struggled, for example, if I had a bad day at school, went home and worked, then went straight back into school – I felt pretty negative and carried that into classes. Nonetheless, let’s set that aside again…)At this point this post almost runs out of steam I feel, because what are the possible conclusions:
1) Given the massive social and educational injustices we are facing, anyone who recognises the problem and is prepared to act on it should be working full time on that. This is perfectly illustrated by a Guardian article on a US Charter School:
…a teacher asks Mr Verrilli [the principal] about work-life balance, and how teachers are expected to put in 12-hour days on top of weekends and holidays – and give their numbers for parents and pupils to contact them out of hours. There is no need for work-life balance, he says. “This is a civil rights movement, as if to say Martin Luther King didn’t need work-life balance, why should they?”
2) Comfort is a good in and of itself and it’s ok to pursue this. Here are just two arguments in favour of this:
– Kevin, on being asked, many years ago, what we should do as individuals to make the world a better place, said he was most concerned to get married and bring up kids well with the person who he loved. I don’t know whether or not this happened.
– Anna, on being asked about this last night – I think her argument was that comfort and living well are aspects of self-actualisation – becoming better humans, making them the right thing to do. (If this seems a little vague, appropriately for this post, we were out in a loud table-tennis bar and I couldn’t hear all she said – but if that wasn’t it, it’s still a good argument).
Lives to envy or lives to admire?
A conversation with my headteacher about this reminded me of Patrick Grim’s philosophical response to the problem in a lecture I listened to a couple of years ago, entitled ‘Lives to Envy, Lives to Admire’. In looking at what makes a good life, it might be ‘enviable’ – good ‘from the inside’ or ‘for the bearer’ or it might be ‘admirable’ – ‘lives of virtue’, good for others.He contended that for a life to genuinely be enviable, it would have to be, at least in some part, admirable – because it would require struggle, engagement and achievement. Conversely, a life which was wholly admirable might not be one we would ever envy (he offers Lincoln, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as possible examples) – a life of sainthood would see us denying ourselves genuinely good things.He concludes that a good life is mixed – but that the balance is far from static. If we set aside weekends and evenings to live enviable lives, the part of us living a life to admire remains conscious that we could be using the time for more admirable things – and seeks to push the enviable out.
Paradoxically, then, the best life to live will be one that is constantly struggling to become a different sort of life.
If you can better this conclusion, or help me reconcile myself to it, please let me know…