Take it easy on yourself: A teacher’s guide

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Stress” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Firesam!

Disclaimer: This is as much for me as for anyone else. I hope that in writing this, I learn to listen to my own advice and give myself a break sometimes too!

  1. There is never, ever enough time in the day to get everything done. 
    Teachers continuously have a never-ending list of things to get done and deadlines loom almost all year, but learn to be realistic. Don’t beat yourself up for not marking those last few books or creating that Smartboard you forgot to do. You will never achieve everything you want to do but you will  achieve everything you need to do, everything else can wait. Try thinking about the impact of your actions, e.g. if I don’t do xyz, will it have a negative impact on my students? If the answer is no, then leave it until another day. Acknowledge that you won’t get it all done and learn to be at peace with that.
  2. Don’t compare yourself to others. I am terrible for doing this. I continuously compare myself to my colleagues thinking I’m not working hard enough or marking thorough enough or sharing ideas enough. You are not the same as your colleagues. You might handle situations differently, react to things in a different way or feel more emotional about something, and that is OK. Don’t compare yourself to others. No-one else has got it all together either, no matter how it looks from the outside. Some people have a great skill of being able to portray an air of serenity whilst being insanely stressed out. A lovely lady I used to work with was fantastic at this, it turns out. It was a really busy time at school and she appeared to be really calm about it all. I was envious of her relaxed attitude! When I told her I wished I was as calm as her, she revealed that really she was actually like a swan – serene and calm on the outside but kicking like hell underneath to stay afloat. I’ve never forgotten that honesty and it’s definitely how I feel about 80% of the time! But it just goes to show that everyone else is also busy, worried and trying to keep on top of things, so you are not alone.
  3. Prioritise you to-do list. A couple of years ago, a wonderful colleague (actually the same one as earlier), showed me her strategy of prioritising and I’ve used it ever since. This might not work for you, but ask around and find a strategy or a tool which does. Remember to put a few things on there you’ve just completed – it feels great crossing them off straight away and gives you the motivation to get going on the next items.
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  4. Talk about it. I cannot stress how important this has been for me. For the last couple of years, I have suffered with anxiety and a period of panic attacks. This was an utter nightmare to deal with as a teacher, especially when your anxiety can kick off at the most unhelpful of times, in front of 30 students! Not to mention going all guns blazing into a panic attack! (Thankfully, I’ve always managed to remove myself from the class before either of those have occured.) But the one thing which has really helped is seeing my psychotherapist. I am not ashamed to say it has been the best thing for me, talking through my emotions, my day and any issues which are worrying me. It might not be a therapist you need or want to talk to, but a good friend or family member can be just as helpful. Often just being open and honest is enough to help you feel better, the other person need not do more than listen and be there for you. If like me, you do suffer with anxiety, it might also be helpful to share how you’re doing with a colleague whose classroom is near to yours. That friend can be very helpful if you need 10 minutes out of the classroom to calm down.
  5. Learn to ask, Is it in my control? If it’s not in your control, then let it go. Waste no time worrying what other people think about you – easier said than done, I know. But it’s true. A lot of my anxiety comes from a constant battle with my inner self doubt and second guessing what my line manager thinks about me, if my colleagues think I’m being lazy or if my head of school is concerned about my teaching. All totally ridiculous worries because I cannot control a single one of them. Switching your focus from pointless worries to something you actually can control, puts the power back in your court.
    Self doubt is a tough one as a teacher because you have to find your own validation in thankful emails, happy students, progress, data etc. The times you are told you’re doing a good job are few and far between, but they’re there, you just need to look for them. I’ll come onto that in point 8.
  6. Be mindful. In a busy school, with your never-ending list of things to do staring right at you on your desk, it is often difficult to stop and make some time to just breathe and be. Find some time, even just 5 minutes, where you take yourself away from your desk and away from your classroom. At my current school, we have a rooftop garden I enjoy sitting in for 5 minutes at lunch time. Take nothing with you, no phone, no laptop. Just sit. Listen to your breathing. Refocus yourself. And when you’re ready, go back to the classroom. If possible, don’t eat your lunch at your desk. Try to find time to stop and eat with colleagues in the staffroom or canteen. Give yourself some you time away from the marking, emails and assessments you have to do.
  7. When at all possible, leave work at work. We all know teachers don’t actually work 9am – 3pm – wow wouldn’t those hours be amazing if we did! It can be tempting to bring your work laptop home, fire off some emails after dinner, finish off your planning or hunt for some resources whilst watching TV. I’m not saying any of that is bad, but it can lead to burn out. If you tend to do this every night, be strict with yourself. Give yourself a time cut-off, e.g. at 8pm, my laptop turns off. Or set yourself just one task to complete and focus on that, rather than doing 4 things at once. It comes back to, if I don’t complete xyz tonight, will it impact my students negatively? If the answer is no, then don’t do it tonight. Give yourself your evening back and don’t feel guilty about it. You could work every evening and still never get anything done, but you may well burn out and make yourself ill. Then that will have an impact on your students.
  8. Count the positives. I love this one but it is a tough one to do on some days! At the end of each day, take a few moments to take stock and count the positives moments you’ve had that day. They could be as simple as:I woke up straight away without snoozing 5 times.
    One of my students thanked me today for helping them.
    My ECA went well today.When you’ve had a bad day, you can sometimes get bogged down with the negativity and forget about the successes you’ve experienced, however small they might be. Try it. I bet if you think really hard, even on a rubbish day, you can find at least 3 positives.
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  9. Pass on the love. How happy do you feel when you receive an email from a colleague or a parent thanking you for helping them with something? It feels great right? Pass on that love yourself. Make someone’s day by thanking them for something they’ve done above and beyond, or thanking them for helping you with something you were struggling with. It feels great to say thank you and make someone’s day!

Teaching abroad easier than in the UK?

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Travel the world monuments concept” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by SalFalko

As many teachers begin to unwind and enjoy the start of their holidays, for some it is the end of a chapter. Many teachers are losing faith in the education system in the UK and newspapers are continuously reporting worrying figures about the mental health of teachers in the UK. If the papers are anything to go by, they are leaving the profession in search of something less draining on their emotional and mental health and in the hope of a better work/life balance.

So, could teaching abroad be the answer?
When I left the UK for Thailand, I went under the notion “how bad can it really be?” Back then, I was sharing a house with 5 other random people, having been forced out of my home due to a relationship break up. I couldn’t afford the monthly costs of living on my own; rent, running a car, food, as well as having enough to enjoy some sort of a life. I endured a miserable year in a shared house in the Midlands before throwing it all in for the sunny beaches of Thailand. Or rather, Bangkok. And I have not looked back since!

That was 4 years ago and since then I have lived in Dubai as well and now am in the process of moving to Singapore.

Here are some of the realities I’ve experienced whilst working in an international school abroad.

  1. You will work hard. Standards are usually very high, as are the expectations on you to perform well and give 110% to your job. If you like to leave early from work and do the minimum workload, international teaching may not be for you.  However, a work/life balance is possible! I have worked in schools where managers would actively encourage you to leave promptly on a Friday and enjoy a work free weekend. Although many international schools have a campus which is accessible all evening and weekends, which can make it easy to just ‘nip in’ and end up spending all of your day off there!
  2. The parents can be challenging. Paying for an education means that parents expect a lot from you. This can mean you experience some tricky parents with a lot of demands. Usually these parents just want to an open door of communication and so are reassured quickly by establishing this communication early on in the year. However, you aren’t on your own and line managers are there to support you. Ultimately, an understanding of the culture and of the school will certainly help you to relate to the parents you will encounter.
  3. The holidays are amazing. I enjoy more holidays than I did when I worked back in the UK. Usually speaking, in addition to 13 weeks you have in a state school in the UK, I enjoy an extra 2 weeks. These vary from school to school but they tend to fall in the summer and at Christmas. And there are always those lovely public holidays where a nice 3 day weekend can be enjoyed on a beach somewhere!
  4. The wages are better. Disclaimer- they have been for me but wages differ from country to country and school to school. Overall though, I earn maybe twice as much abroad as I did in the UK, as well as enjoying some added extras as part of the benefits package provided by the school; Private medical insurance, end of year bonus, housing allowance, shipping allowance and an annual flight allowance. You very quickly get used to a better lifestyle and enjoy eating out, holidaying and many teachers are able to save for the first time in their careers. This is certainly one of my reasons for being abroad.
  5. It’s an opportunity to travel the world. One of the main reasons for moving away for me was to see the world. And I have! It’s easy to nip to another country for half term or to a beach for the weekend, and cheaper too! If travel is one of your motives for moving abroad, consider where you’d like to visit and perhaps consider a country nearby. That way flights are cheap and short.
  6. I’ve developed a lot as a teacher. I have learnt so much from working alongside outstanding teachers. It really has been fantastic to share ideas and learn from a wealth of experience. International schools tend to be much bigger than UK schools and so have more staff. Some of the best CPD I’ve had has been through learning from all of the fantastic colleagues both within my department but also school wide. I have also worked in a school where they have paid for external PD opportunities, such as having Paul Ginnis visit the school. However, a PD programme is worth asking about at interview, as schools work very differently from each other.
  7. Resources beyond belief.  I remember being in the UK and trying to make glue sticks last for a whole term (no mean feat!) So when I moved to Thailand and my department had a whole resource cupboard, it was like Christmas had come early! What’s more, I could actually request more pencils, glue sticks and even Blu Tak. It would appear a few days after. Wow! I’ve worked in schools where students could work with wood to make moving models, used canvas in art and had some great IT resources. However, not all schools work in the same way and whilst some have plenty of resources, other do not. It depends on a variety of reasons, some being whether the school is for profit or non profit making and if year groups have their own budgets for resources or if they are dealt with centrally.

I have loved working internationally and as I begin my third post abroad, I am in no doubt that this is the right thing for me. I work hard for my students, and I do work some long hours occasionally, but I also enjoy much more of a life. When I’m sitting on the beach during a long weekend, I know that I’ve made a good decision! I have already booked my first long weekend away and am planning my October half term. Priorities!

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