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25th May 2017

Delicate balancing act

Jogging is one way of relieving stress when you feel overwhelmed by work. Photo: Oupa Nkosi.

Getting your work-life balance right is critical, because working extraordinary hours without rest can be counter-productive and detrimental to one’s health

Richard Hayward

Perhaps you’ve chatted to such retired teachers or principals. I have. At the end of their long and distinguished careers in the profession, they tell you (sometimes at length!) of what they’ve achieved. They inform you of the thousands of children who’ve benefitted from their teaching skills. If they were principals, they maintain that they took the school to new heights of educational excellence. Congratulations! There are good reasons to derive pleasure from such great achievements. Yet those very same dedicated teachers might confess to a single huge regret.

Sacrificing family life

As one principal commented wisely but wistfully: “I’ve no regrets for what I did for my school, but I do have regrets that I could’ve found more time for my family. At times, I was too dedicated [to my school].”

So much happens in a school every weekday, and sometimes over the weekend too. It’s not only that there’s so much on the go; the hours in the day aren’t enough for all that needs to be done. Right now there are South African schools where the day starts at six in the morning. Children and staff are involved in early morning coaching of sports such as hockey and swimming.

Too much of one thing can be bad for you

Even if the school day starts an hour or two later, there’s still the late afternoon and evening activities. Don’t forget to add in the homework that still has to be done by the children when they get home. The teachers have their evening tasks of lesson preparation and the marking of schoolwork. Folk may understandably get short-tempered, highly stressed and the work environment can become unpleasant. Too much of a good thing — education — can be bad for you!

Henry Ford’s advice

If we know the reasons for such unhappiness, we can find the solutions to create happy classrooms and schools. A simple and powerful solution is to get the work-life balance right. Henry Ford, of car manufacturer fame, walked the talk of work-life balance. In 1926 he shortened the traditional workweek from six days to five. He reduced the daily work hours from 10 to eight. Ford famously became the father of the principle of the 40-hour workweek. He didn’t believe that the more hours one spent on a task necessarily improved efficiency and the quality of results.

Working without breaks affects the quality of one’s work

Business research conducted in the 1980s was to prove the truth of Ford’s beliefs. A point is reached where too many hours spent on a task reduces the quality of the work. Germany — which has one of the most productive workforces in the world — has some of the shortest working hours. The principle is simple: “When today’s work hours are over for today, forget about work until tomorrow.” German business leaders are discouraged from sending any work-related emails to employees outside of working hours.

You must be able to ‘switch off’

A mixed blessing for the dedicated teacher is modern technology. Yes, it’s good to be available 24/7 in a crisis situation, with easy access via the internet and mobile phones. Yet we know that this availability can be abused. There are those parents and even learners who try to contact teachers at night and over weekends about homework.

How’s a teacher able to “switch off” and forget about school when the day is over? Teachers who’ve successfully tackled this sort of challenge give practical tips such as:

  • Use your teacher-union diary to block off time when you’re exclusively involved with family and friends! Diarise those important family dates and functions when you’ll be unavailable to the school.
  • Dedicate frequent and regular time to doing your favourite hobbies and sport activities.
  • Every Saturday or Sunday in term time should be reserved for doing absolutely nothing that’s school-related.
  • Do physical activities such as Pilates, running, swimming and walking.
  • Take up meditation, mindfulness or yoga. These activities help calm the “restless monkey” mind.
  • Get into a regular sleep pattern. Recent medical research states that the average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep in a 24-hour cycle.

Don’t just be a ‘giver’, be a ‘taker’ too

By nature, teachers are “givers” to others. Yet we cannot give in a meaningful way to others, if we’re forever exhausted and highly stressed. We need sometimes to be “takers” too. We need time out for ourselves and for those who are important in our lives. We need and also deserve to get our work-life balance right.

Dr Richard Hayward is a former principal of two public Gauteng schools. Free downloads of his Quality Education News are available at either (click on Beneficiaries) or (click on Quality Education). The newsletter is sponsored by the South African Quality Institute




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