Five years ago, in my first months as an assistant headteacher, I very nearly sank beneath a ridiculous workload.
I reached the October half term utterly exhausted, I had been working flat out and I still couldn’t keep up with my list of jobs.
I was also being a rubbish husband, and an absent and grumpy father because I was so tired all the time.
Once I’d had the chance for a bit of sleep and to reflect during the holiday, I realised that the size of the job and my working patterns were making me miserable, and this really worried me; up to that point I had prided myself in my work ethic.
Having recently been promoted I attributed at least part of my success to my willingness to put in the hours. I saw any problem simply as something that could be solved by throwing my time at it, and I had assumed I could keep doing that indefinitely.
To find myself unable to keep up with all of the jobs triggered massive worries. I was waiting for my lack of work to be found out, assuming that I was letting loads of people down.
During that October half term I wrote an email to my headteacher stating that I was really worried about my capacity to do the job properly.
His response was a surprise, it turned out that he was impressed that I had done so much, and far from being disappointed in me he was delighted.
I realised that my perceived job list was substantially larger than his expectations, and much of my workload were things I could be doing rather than things I must do.
I was beating myself up for not doing things that nobody really expected me to do, or things that would have been nice, but weren’t essential.
After the half term I went back to school and took a fresh look at my list of jobs.
I looked for essential tasks and made sure I did those, such as teaching my lessons and supporting those I line managed.
Then I looked for really useful tasks and did those, such as improving our data system. Beyond this I became far more cautious about how I spent my time, choosing not to undertake things that were not essential, and – vitally – not feeling guilty about the things I didn’t have time to do.
The result of these changes? Nobody noticed! The school still functioned, I was still effective in my role, but I now had more time to spend with my family, more time for myself, and was substantially happier in the job.
Make a choice
In the years since that traumatic half term I have seen others struggle with similar challenges. Because teaching comes with a potentially infinite workload teachers never stop work because their ‘To do’ list is finished.
Too often we stop work only because we’re exhausted, or because we physically can’t squeeze in more. We then beat ourselves up and wait for someone to find out about the things we haven’t done, increasing anxiety and stress.
Over time I have come to the conclusion that every teacher and school leader would benefit from remembering, or realising, that each of us is simply human, our capacity for effective work is finite and we are entitled to spend at least some of our waking hours not working or thinking about work.
So my suggestion is this: Choose what not to do. Do this at a school, department and individual level.
By actively choosing the things that don’t get done you take more control of the things that you do complete, and you can rest easier that the things you leave are definitely the least important.
By allowing yourself to choose what you don’t do you can take a big step towards a better management of your workload.
Kevin Lister is a former engineer and manager, who retrained as a maths teacher; now senior assistant headteacher, SLE, NPQ facilitator and author of Teach Like You Imagined It (Crown House). Follow him on Twitter at @ListerKev.
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