Still Time: Not Quite Back to School

I remember posting something similar a few years ago about Autumn term, but wanted to share how I prepare for term time mentally and physically so that I feel a sense of being ready, but also, that I won’t starve to death or end up living on spaghetti letters throughout October. Having juggled parenting and teaching throughout my entire career, I like to think I managed to get the balance right sometimes (I mean, we’re both still alive and neither of us have suffered from scurvy, so I take both as a win). I hope this is useful, particularly if you are newer to teaching and about to experience the rollercoaster of an academic year for the first time!

Don’t Feel The Pressure

You are now headed past the halfway mark of the holidays, and now that you start to feel a little lethargy from the lack of routine, it is incredibly tempting to revert back to some semblance of structure by opening up the to-do list. I am certainly not one to rest on laurels; I struggle with the lack of a work schedule, and often have a loose structure to my day on account of the little gremlins that insist of being fed every forty five minutes. If you want to go into school, fine. If you want to stay at home and watch Netflix in your pants, fine. If you want to have cake for breakfast, more than fine. Whatever your outlet, find a way to relax that works for you, and don’t succumb to the worry that you should be doing something else with your time. It’s YOUR time to spend as you please.

I go away  in the first week to aid with my ‘what do I do with all this time’ adjustment, and I do all the life admin in the week that we return- dentist appointments, hair cuts, school uniform purchases. I then diarise the follow up appointments for the October half term in the earlier part of the week so that I don’t get to half term and remember that I’m responsible for making sure everyone still has teeth, myself included. It really is whatever works for you that makes you ease any possible anxieties about the year ahead, but helps you to feel rested and ready at the same time.

Workable intentions, not best ones

The start of an academic year is a bit like after Christmas. You have spent the summer eating cake with everyone you know, had wine on a Monday and experienced a post 7am breakfast, which are all particularly decadent. But it’s back to business, and then we decide new year, new us: we’re going to buy new Tupperware, keep Berocca in our top drawer, walk to work and sit in the staffroom every day for lunch. It gets to November and you’re living on Pot Noodles (the fancy Itsu ones because the branding makes them feel healthy and less like a student on a hardship fund), chewing down dry Berocca solubles every third day when you remember they’re there, because the nearest water tap is at least a floor away from your classroom and no one has seen you outside of a department meeting since INSET. Be kind to yourself: the best habits are the ones that we are invested in, and that we have a regular time to incorporate them into the everyday. Charles Duhigg, writer of The Power of Habit explores the structure of forming habits through cue-routine-reward. The cue: the time of day, location that the habit takes place. This stems a routine that feeds the cue. The reward is what we created the habit for. His structure is really insightful for breaking negative habits, but we can use this to form positive ones too. I’ve written my book for example, by writing at least 1000 words at the same time every day. I’ve had other times available, but the time that I write regularly, I always write. Start taking your Berocca every day at the same time before school starts again, getting water at the same time every morning on the way to your classroom. Every Friday, walk to the staff room, where you will probably see the same people who only make it there on that particular day, who will come to expect to see your face and create a continuity of conversation from the previous week. Make your lunch at the same time every evening or morning (I usually meal prep Sunday night for two days, then Tuesday for the remaining two). It is estimated that it takes three to four weeks to form a habit, and so if I know there is something I want to try to achieve or a habit to form for the new term, I will try to start to integrate it into my routine in the final 1-2 weeks before I go back to work, so that it is less difficult to try and form the new habit once back in school.

Pockets of time

The first term is busy. Really busy. Every year, I would return to work pretty relaxed, a little guilt-ridden at waving off my child at childcare, but feeling pretty good on the whole. Two days later, my brain would be full up, I’d be exhausted at both sitting and listening or learning, prepping for the first few lessons or just at the prospect of everything I felt I had to do. Whilst I think some of these feelings can be avoided, and I have learned the marathon-not-sprint nature of teaching, I think it is hard not to feel a little worn out by the system shock of going from 0 to 100 mph. I also believe that that busyness of a new term is the nature of the beast in some respects. I also always feel as though I’m on the back foot when it comes to being organised, which does not work in your favour when things crop up at the last minute that you really don’t have the energy for. To counteract it, I prepare myself in a way that can only be likened to working on an oil rig: I anticipate where I can save time. I find marginal gains. I try to do all the ‘I forgot this!’ so that my future self thinks I’m absolute hero. A few examples:

  • I do an online food shop four weeks ahead. We food shop every five days rather than seven after realising that we were spending more money on the ‘we’ve run out of everything’ shop on day five at the Tesco Express than we would if we just shopped smarter. In super old lady fashion, I am considering planning ten mid week meals that we just have on rotation for a while (for a while=until my household despair at another fajita night). Don’t judge me for my term time militancy. I’m proud.
  • I have a box that I keep at work of emergency stuff. pairs of tights, paracetamol, a phone charger, coffee, sugar, salt (after the salt black market section of our catering team disappeared, and chip Friday without salt is a devastating affair), some fancy water infusing teabag things, tampons, tissues, Strepsils. I’ve had to eradicate the emergency chocolate, because it turned out that I could convince myself that having break duty was an ’emergency.’ The box is just handy for all the stuff that I wish I had at work, is!
  • I use my morning time productively. I used to be a real morning-time waster. I would run around manically to get into work early, only to mooch about finding people to chat to, drinking coffee and procrastinating from the emails that I knew were probably waiting. Now, I adopt a bit of a Pomodoro Technique approach to aid productivity, as it suits the way I like to organise my time and work with a slight pressure to get tasks done. 25 minutes goes to marking, I take a break, before spending 25 minutes checking my prep for the day, reading or putting emails into folders, and writing my to do list in response. I’m not saying you should follow this routine by any stretch, and there’s definitely a place for mooching, but I have managed to only work at home when I want to, rather than needing to because I have tried to use the time I’m in school to complete tasks, as I find I work better with a sense of urgency. Not a fan of marking rotas or schedules for my classes, as I find it doesn’t quite align with the thinking behind whole class feedback, I use my PPA time to plan and mark before all else, because that’s the very core of what we do: all else comes second. If I need to work on something a bit meatier than an hour, something that needs a bit more head space, I will work until six one day each week when school is quiet and the only people that I will annoy with my geeky Hans Zimmer playlist are the cleaners. Your regular structure may be entirely different, but perhaps it is worth mulling over the useful bits of your day when you are more productive, and how when working with a limited amount of time, what you can manage to get done.
  • I buy in advance at home. My ten year old has a real flair for last minute ‘it’s so-and-so’s birthday tomorrow,’ and so I keep a stash of birthday cards, so much shower gel that we could probably get to 2022 without buying up, cleaning products, toilet rolls (I buy from https://uk.whogivesacrap.org/ : they are recycled, deliver as a regular subscription and donate 50% of their profit to improving sanitation in the developing world. We also have an emergency presents box with gift wrapping etc, and a post-it note on the fridge for anything that gets down to only one left. It means that I don’t need to worry about dashing around after work like a lunatic because I need to buy Lego for someone’s child so that mine can jump on a bouncy castle for two hours.

Recognise the ebbs and flows 

Whilst September comes with lots of advice about how to prepare, and what to expect, it is sometimes easy to overlook the impact that the rest of year can make on your energy levels and how by anticipating that too, it can feel more manageable. November and February are traditionally challenging times in schools, and it can help to prepare yourself mentally for this in how you use the October half term to replenish and conserve your energy levels. Many teachers I know deliberately book a break at this point to force them to take a breather, as they know how demanding the long term through to December can be.

The cold, dark nights are a huge companion to fatigue and low moods- it’s key to ensure that you expose yourself to natural daylight wherever it’s available as not only does it aid sleep and physical energy levels, but natural daylight in the workplace helps this process, particularly in winter months when daylight is minimal. Open up your blinds wherever possible or go for a five minute walk outside at lunch to remind your body that summer does exist, somewhere. If you can spend five minutes on Twitter, you can manage a bit of daylight for yourself.

It is also worth looking over the school calendar at the start of the year and recognising particularly hour-heavy weeks for yourself, so that you can factor that into plans you make or not to set up a lot of deadlines or self-imposed pressures on yourself. For instance, if parents evening features one week, block out the rest of the week from meetings with parents etc, or if you have an after school club that runs, drop an email out to see if anyone not attending the parents evening would be able to run the club for you that week. If you do notice that several workload-dense deadlines hit at similar times, it may be worth discussing them with your line manager to ask if there is scope to shift things around, or for additional support if you think the time will be tight to complete the particular tasks. For instance, if your mock exams had an incredibly short turnaround, how can time be provided to ensure that staff have a reasonable amount of time to spend on each paper? If appraisal paperwork is required at quite an early stage of the academic year, what can be provided to staff to support them with its completion before their meetings? Could time before the holiday be provided as reflection time for staff, whilst their accomplishments are fresh in their minds?

Beyond time amount, are tasks set in the best time possible to give an informed view? Do you assess as a department just after data is gathered for a particular year group, and  how could this be reviewed or amended so that the two entities have less of a disconnect? By considering these concerns in advance, it may help to pave the way for a change in structure that benefits others and enables them to manage their workload too. Sometimes, calendar items are booked in with a simple oversight of other conflicts or additional items that add to workload and so there is a possibility that by exploring the alternatives, you’re contributing to a more effective school culture for workload for everyone.

I hope this is useful, or perhaps just insightful, and here’s to August before we start thinking about all of this! * bulk orders baby wipes*

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