Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Many trainees and ECTs (formerly known as NQTs) express concerns about how to find the right balance between work and life during their early years as a teacher. The truth is, there are no hard and fast rules as to how to find this!
There will always be times where work seems to take over during the academic year: the start of the academic year, assessment periods, data drops, student reports... and many more. The key, I have found, is to prepare for these times of the year.
The advice I always give to those I mentor is "plan". Planning is key to finding that balance. I'm not talking about an "insta-worthy" washi-taped, highlighted and decorated spread (although if that IS your thing, crack on!), more that you need to have an almost military level of organisation in your life. I do recommend following The Organised Mum - even if you're not a parent! Her tips on how to manage EVERYTHING are great - particularly when it comes to keeping on top of your house!
When I talk about planning, I'm talking about everything.
You need to obviously plan your lessons, and at first this will take up the bulk of your time until you get into a flow. Your department should ideally have ready-to-use lessons and you shouldn't be creating everything from scratch, but you will need to adapt these for your own classes.
You also need to plan what you will do in your PPA time... which PPA will you use for planning? Which for marking? Which for getting out and observing others? I recommend using a "double PPA" (if you're lucky enough to have one) for any marking/feedback that you need to do. I also recommend allocating a day per class/key stage/subject for marking - and stick to it. Also think carefully about when you're taking homework in or setting assessments/tests - try not to make these all on the same day!
You also need to think about how you are going to plan your school day... some schools require you to stay on site until a certain time, others want you out as soon as possible. Some don't officially specify, but it's a good idea to find out what the "expectation" is. I like to try, where possible, to leave work at work. I am a parent of a small child (she will be starting school this September!). When I get home on an evening, that is HER time. I therefore stay in school and work until (usually) 5:30pm and then normally, I don't take anything home with me apart from my planner, my laptop and my lunchbag. Once I've got home and spent time with my child, completed the reading/homework activities, done the bath and bedtime routine with her, it's then time for me to eat my evening meal with my husband and decompress our days. Once that's all done, we're looking at around 8:00pm on average. By this time, I just want to relax. I am not good to anyone worn or burnt out. I'm also an "early bird", so I am up and out of the house before 7am most days, in work by 7:30am. This then also gives me time to set myself up for the day and deal with any emergent or unexpected issues such as absent colleagues. It helps ME. When it comes to weekends, I usually allocate a morning or afternoon (usually Sunday!) to planning/prep and making sure I am set for the week too. Here my husband will either take our child our for a few ours, I work in my "office" (the shed at the bottom of the garden!) or I go out to Starbucks. This it what works for me and my family... but everyone is different.
You may prefer to leave as early is practical, permitted, accepted by your school and then work at home... this is also fine if it works for YOU. You should NOT feel the need to work at home and no school should EXPECT you to work at home or over weekends.
It's also a good idea to think about meals in advance too... for me, my staple lunch is a pack of Ainsley Harriet's flavoured couscous teamed up with the leftovers from the previous night's dinner! If you don't yet have a slow-cooker... these are a godsend! Especially in the colder months... set your meal up in the morning by chucking it all in and put in on "low"... when you get home, dinner is cooked! With extras for lunches or emergency "freezer surprise" dinners! Think about breakfast as well... I take my breakfast to work with me, I am simply not ready to eat at 6am and the usual is granola and yoghurt with a coffee. Think about "decent" breakfast that will keep you going. You can also prep things like overnight oats in advance too. I also highly recommend having a "snack drawer" in a lockable/secure location in school containing emergency chocolate, crisps, sweets, belvita biscuits... easy things to eat for that quick sugar boost or carb-craving.
When it comes to "life" - you need to have an element of planning in that too. You need YOU TIME and selfcare isn't selfish. Set aside time that is just for you with no work at a weekend. Keep that gym class, hobby club or gin night in the diary. Stick to them. Again, it's all about balance here. All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl and all that. But your mental and physical health are really important. Especially in your early years as a teacher. Not looking after these can lead to burnout - see my previous post on that.
The toughest part is learning to say "No". You can do anything, but you cannot do everything so think hard about what you are committing yourself to both in school and out of it. Use a wall planner, a diary or make use of your phone calendar but make sure you're not overburdening yourself. If you're not comfortable just yet with saying "no", try "not yet" and look to say "I can't do that today/this week, but I can do it on this date, does that work?" instead.
Ultimately, finding the right work/life balance is a little bit trial and error (I would say in your early career years, but it's an ongoing thing really!) and you need to work out what works for YOU. Try not to compare yourself to others, remember there are many Swans out there, appearing to be calmly gliding around on the surface, but when you look underneath, their feet are paddling just as frantically as everyone else. Find your tribe, find your support network (which should be a mix of teacher and non-teacher friends!) and reach out to people.