The Work-Life Balance Fallacy

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Is work-life balance actually achievable in teaching, or is it just a fallacy?

The fallacy of work-life balance is best summed up in the Department for Education’s recent attempt at addressing teacher workload. There were lots of great ideas steered by those within the profession, but there was no change in structural policies from the DfE to eradicate issues at the core. Marking, lesson planning and worse, data crunching for OfSTED and league table purposes, continue to blight recruitment and retention for those working in the classroom. Funding must increase in order to reduce a teacher’s contact-ratio, and that’s just not going to happen. So, what can we do about it?

Recently, I watched a TED talk by Nigel Marsh.

Throughout this film, I questioned why and at which points I felt frustrated with my job in teaching.


In Marsh’s presentation a simple question [for teachers] is posed: are you working too hard and are you neglecting your family? More importantly, he says if you do not define your own work-life balance, your employer will. It was this sentence that provoked me to think and write this post.

Why James and The Giant Peach you ask? Well, you’ll have to watch the video in full. Here are some take-away highlights:

  • If society is to make any progress with work-life balance, we need a serious debate. All the discussions about flexible working hours or dress-down Fridays, or maternity/paternity leave only serve to mask the core issue, which is that certain job and career choices are fundamentally incompatible with being meaningfully engaged on a day-to-day basis with a young family.
  • We need to face the truth that governments and corporations aren’t going to solve this issue for us. We should stop looking outside. It’s up to us as individuals to take control and responsibility for the type of lives that we want to lead.

If you don’t design your life, someone else will design it for you, and you may just not like their idea of balance and this is particularly important that you never put the quality of your life in the hands of a commercial corporation. Because commercial companies are inherently designed to get as much out of you [as] they can get away with, even the good well-intentioned companies.”

  • On the one hand, putting childcare facilities in the workplace is wonderful and enlightened. On the other hand, it’s a nightmare — it just means you spend more time at the bloody office.
  • We need to elongate the time frame upon which we judge the balance in our life, but without falling into the trap of the “I’ll have a life when I retire …”
  • The small things matter. Being more balanced doesn’t mean dramatic upheaval in your life.

You can watch the presentation below; it’s worth every second … and it’s an idea worth spreading.

The Giant Peach:

Well, what I am going to do now?

Well, it simple really, I’m off to read a story and this video will explain why. Here’s what I’m aiming for this academic year:

  • Go home from work earlier.
  • Stop working at the weekend for others.
  • Spend more time with my family, on days out, away from the computer and the mobile phone.

With the smallest investment in the right places, you can radically transform the quality of your relationships and the quality of your life … it can transform society. Because if enough people do it, we can change society’s definition of success away from the moronically simplistic notion that the person with the most money when he dies wins, to a more thoughtful and balanced definition of what a life well lived looks like.”



In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of being most influential in the field of education. He remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing resources and ideas online as @TeacherToolkit, he has built this website (c2008) which has been described as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the UK Blog Awards (2018). Read more...

12 thoughts on “The Work-Life Balance Fallacy

  • 19th September 2016 at 7:43 am

    If work sustains you and supports you in your life then there is a balance, a trade off, even if you spend more time at work than at home, or more time thinking about work than thinking about other aspects of your life. It ceases to be a balance when work dominates and does not support your physical and emotional needs, when thinking about work brings feelings of anxiety or you experience stress (defined as situations you feel you have no control over or no voice in).

    We often get caught up in the aspect of balance that is time, how long we spend on work and home life. There are things we can do about this and the most effective is to set limits. Writing a set of reports is not a task that should take infinite or unlimited time. Marking papers is the same as is lesson planning etc. If the time that we can allocate does not allow perfection then stop chasing it. In my work in coaching teachers who are struggling with work/life balance this is the hardest thing for them to acknowledge or to come to terms with. Set yourself limits and stick to them, no matter what. It is not a sign of weakness, quite the opposite. It is a sign of being in control.

    The second hardest thing we experience is getting work/life balance in perspective is to leave school work at work. If we don’t there is no distinction and work becomes life and life becomes work. Often teachers will take home work and it either stays in the car and gets taken back the next day untouched or it gets put in the home in a prominent place and acts as an marker for things undone, of not enough time or by pervading everything and everywhere an emotional weight.

    Accessing e-mails out of school hours and thinking you have to respond straight away is also a problem. I could go on.

    Teaching is one of those careers that will take as much time as you will give it. There is never enough time to do everything or to do it perfectly. Once we loose the balance we become ineffective, things take longer or are not done as well. This is a self defeating spiral. Those managing teachers need to also recognise this and stop expecting the impossible and settle for the reasonable.

    • 2nd January 2017 at 12:11 am

      This is very true however – the sad reality teachers face, especially in this dog eat dog educational culture of target setting is that if targets are not met, you are deemed inadequate and considered as being a let down. The only way to have a successful PMR is to work your socks off to meet targets to get some kind of recognition and not feel as though your job is constantly on the line for being ‘inadequate’. You can set time limits on marking, mark books for one class really well and provide personalised feedback. Rush the next set of books and lo and behold the next random work scrutiny is of your worst set of books. Now, I’ve worked in leadership long enough to know that this will not reflect well on the teacher. Teachers are perfectionists and slog their guts off to be so because they will get criticised like mad when something which isn’t perfect is uncovered! what’s your next PMR target? -to ensure personalised impactful marking and feedback on a regular basis

      How does this then transpire in teacher behaviour? They then slog their guts off to ensure marking is perfect to the nth degree to meet that target.

      Anyone else feel the same?

      • 2nd January 2017 at 8:14 pm

        If you were given a gun and told to shoot yourself, would you? I am not being flippant but if you were given a task that would result in physical or mental harm to yourself would you do it. Or rather under what circumstances would you do it?

        Teachers are for the most part compliant. They were successful in the school environment because they were compliant and often remain so as teachers. Meaning they readily accept responsibility, all too readily. They take responsibility for struggling to action an idea or strategy even if they can see its flaws. It is about re gaining control in order to sustain efforts at a reasonable level (a level that is often a personal choice). My recommended strategy is to ask “What would you have me stop doing in order to do what you are now asking me to do?” It is a question a good leader should be able to answer (see article about leadership:

        I believe we should always ensure the word “perfect” is quantified. Nothing is ever perfect because we do not infinite time or resources to make sure it is. Ask yourself given a two hour task is it as good as I could get it in two hours? If it is move on, if not be aware you are robbing time from somewhere else, some other task or duty and perhaps time you need to recharge if you continue. If it is claimed that somebody can do a better job in the two hours or even in one hour then my response would be “Show me how, I obviously have a training need and it is your responsibility to fulfil it”.

      • 2nd January 2017 at 8:16 pm

        A reality is only a perception held by a person. We need to challenge that reality. I have replied to your comment within the original web page article.

  • 22nd September 2016 at 10:02 pm

    After 15 years in a challenging school I quit! I decided I would rather be a part time teacher on less money with a blood pressure of 135 at the age of 49 than a Head of Geography on 56K with a blood pressure of 190. Have I made the right move ? Not sure, but even though I let my students down over the last two years since my father died, I feel better now. I think I might make 60 as a teacher rather than end up in a box. I have started to redefine my life and career. Still feel like I failed as I only lasted 15 years in a tough school.

    • 23rd September 2016 at 8:34 am

      Sounds more like you’ve worked your socks off to me and deserve to slow down. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s a tough gig working in a challenging school.

  • 24th September 2016 at 9:49 am

    Teaching completely lacks any project management concept – an end-point (year 11 all pass their GCSE), a deadline, a series of tasks with estimated person-hours, an allocated project team and the idea of trade-off – if I do more task differentiation, what do I NOT do? or who gets added to the team to meet the extra project hours needed?

  • 27th September 2016 at 10:02 am

    Maintaining work life balance is very important to lead healthy relations with your family and employer. But this task is not that as it sounds. Many people just mess up their life just of because of their inability to maintain work-life balance.

  • 17th October 2016 at 4:11 pm

    In order to accept a decent balance involving spending more quality time with family, you HAVE to accept being a worse teacher than you would otherwise have been. As others have said, there is always more you can do (more planning, more marking, more learning about your students SEN, more understanding of course or pedagogy, more phoning parents. I have taught and been mum for 15 years and I have had to accept not being as good/well organised as others, and long ago accepted not moving up into management. I thought about doing more hours to keep up with the workload better, but my husband always pointed out that ti be “good” teacher also involves staying in the profession, and not having time off for stress or having a nervous breakdown – these things involved accepting at times that I was not doing my job “properly” by the standards of others. I have seen “good” teachers, and those doing the job at their “best” come and go in my years – generally in about 2 to 3 years!!! If you genuinely want balance, you have to genuinely accept doing a “not as good” job!

    • 2nd January 2017 at 12:17 am

      This makes perfect sense. But how long will you last in your school before being shunned for ‘not doing such a good job’?

      How long before you’re made to feel ‘you’re crap’

      How long before you’re asked to observe or shadow a young single new to the profession colleague who has all the time in the world ? And pick up some ‘ideas and tips’?

  • Pingback:The Burning Teacher

  • Pingback:A Teacher Wellbeing Oath | TeacherToolkit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.