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Great Expectations… why teachers need a break

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Teachers are diligent, hard workers, but like everyone else, they are driven by a set of expectations. In this blog, I focus on the two that are most prominent in a teacher’s work ethic: the expectations they set themselves and the ones others set for them. Using my own experience, I will reflect on whether the ‘expectation issue’ is adding to teachers’ anxieties during lockdown and consider some possible ways to gain clarity.

The feedback loop

By nature, teachers are very self-demanding; they have a high sense of responsibility to themselves and to their students. These self-expectations are confirmed (or denied) by a set of complex and long-standing school feedback loops. The silence in a class when you know your lesson is inspiring, the positive feedback received when parents pick up their children, the pat on the back from your head when your assembly hits the spot, or the flurry of debate when your leadership idea sparks staff debate are just some examples. Without these being readily available in lockdown, it is possible that teachers are beginning to doubt themselves. To compound this issue, parents are anxious, leaders are stressed and colleagues are tired, so teachers have to be careful that they don’t use their current reactions as new feedback loops. Teachers must continually remind themselves of the current reality and that the feedback they would normally expect may not be there.

This is NOT a reflection on their efficacy; it is just a product of these unprecedented times. Knowing this, they must also be emotionally intelligent to the needs of their peers and be a positive feedback loop for others, celebrating success wherever possible, no matter how small. Leaders too must publicly celebrate the efforts of the staff, either individually (and fairly) or collectively. They must also strive to build opportunities into the working week for staff to celebrate each other’s achievements, for example through discussions in staff meetings.

The national perception

There is also the national perception issue. Ask any teacher and they will tell you schools haven’t been closed. In fact, staff are working harder and are more stressed than they have ever been, yet this fact is unfortunately not always portrayed in the media. Through fear of the invisible label ‘wage stealer’, there is a worry that teachers create a false expectation to work even harder.

To combat this, schools, trusts and LAs must articulate to parents and the community the work that staff are undertaking in these difficult times. In the worst case scenario, where we can’t avoid negative press, the teaching profession has to learn to ignore it by focussing on feeds that understand what life is really like. Teaching magazines, Union articles and the positive #edutwitter community are better places to spend your online time. Most importantly though, teachers must be confident in their own work ethic and moral purpose, and continue to do a fantastic job.

The working week

My final expectation worry is due to the blurred boundaries between the teacher’s home and working week. There is a possibility that teachers are now ‘always on’, responding to emails, checking on students and creating plans long into the night. This is unhealthy. SLT has to strongly consider the timing of their communications with staff. They should be leading by example in switching off and spending time with family.

Teachers need to add structure and boundaries to their days too. When is the uninterrupted lunch break? When will the PC be shut off in the evening? If we do not decide and communicate the working patterns that work best for our own wellbeing and that of our families, we run the risk of burning out and becoming ineffective, or worse – ill.

Expectations are a tough issue for teachers, mainly because they are a hard-working and conscientious profession. However, if we recreate effective feedback loops, choose our media well and add structure to our week, we have a chance to ride this storm a little longer and keep our wellbeing in check.

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