The Work-Life Balance Fallacy

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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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.”


19 thoughts on “The Work-Life Balance Fallacy

  1. 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.

    1. 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?

      1. 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”.

      2. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

    1. 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’?

      1. Yea that is a classic one… I find myself really really missing my 25 year old teaching self… how fantastic to have all the time in the world to work. I now look on with envy… we are all judged at the same level, even when we have different constraints on the time we can use

  6. Join the NEU. Understand that you are paid to be directed/timed for 1265hrs of “service” over 195 days. That’s it! If you find yourself doing loads more to provide this, sorry, but more fool you. You won’t change the world but you’ll be a positive influence on the children you teach IF you’re happy, energetic and enthusiastic. That’s impossible if you’re knackered, look miserable and leave after 3yrs!

    Learn to say NO! beyond your contracted hours and you’ll find a happy you will be more effective than an over-prepared “busy-as-bee” you.

    TAKE responsibility for yourself: STOP sitting in a puddle and complaining of a wet arse! You’re virtually unsackable if you do the contracted hours – actually your management are more at fault for making unreasonable demands. SOLIDARITY BROTHERS & SISTERS!

  7. It’s a big issue but with the way education goes, and the demands placed on you by others and yourself, it’s easy to see how folk can tumble.

    Its 5.42am here, I’ve just replied to a tutee who has got himself into a spot of bother, sent five emails to colleagues and preparing for a meeting with the Head at 8.00am – bizarrely about workload.

    I’m actually loving my new job in a boarding school but demands/expectation, pushed by myself, are to blame. I find that mobile phone/MED is useful as I deal with more over a spread of time. I get approx 100-150 emails a day (direct message, isams notifications, social media updates etc.) and mobile tech helps me spreads the load.

    Family asleep now, a quick half hour of emails relieves the burden of office time until midday – gives me a chance to have a wander around school, coffee and chat to colleagues and students. The important stuff!

    The biggest hit is having to come in on Sat or Sun to clear backlogs…but I try to time it so I do so when my family are otherwise engaged (sleeping, gaming or having a girlie Netflix session – I have two teenage daughters). I can certainly look to improve my work-life balance hence my meeting soon…. but to change habits after over 30 years in the profession?

    Not easy but I accept that that does not make it right.

  8. Teaching can be a stressful and difficult job, especially when working from home. This became especially clear when teaching online became more common this past year.

    Finding ways to maintain a work-life balance when working from home is challenging. The absence of a separation between work and home can put a real strain on any relationship.

    Hopefully, as working from home becomes more prevalent, new ways of maintaining a healthy lifestyle will emerge as there isn’t a single solution for all people so many approaches are required.

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