Working from home… or living from work? | Education Support
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home working survival guide for teachers

Working from home… or living from work?

7th January 2021

Emma Kell asked teachers and education staff to share their working from home survival tips. 

The sudden, unceremonious transition back to lockdown has been a shock for us all. I have spent the last few days talking to hundreds of staff about how they are coping. The majority – though it must be emphasised, not all! – are working from home again. The themes are familiar, with levels of resilience, stoicism, commitment to young people and positivity dominating, but the underlying frustrations also bubble over. ‘I feel as if the job I love has been taken away from me!’ said one new teacher. ‘I hate not being able to be in the classroom with them.’

Even during ordinary times, the spillover between work and home is a huge issue in teaching – it’s a job that’s very hard to leave at the gates; a noisy job, a hungry job and a job which is never ‘done’. Now that we, our students and their parents have refined modes of communication that would have seemed out of our reach less than a year ago, there is a sense for many that school staff spend all day and night at the end of a phone or email to answer every question and query. ‘It’s not,’ one teacher said ‘so much like working from home – it’s more like living from work.’

So how can you survive working from home with your wellbeing intact? I talked to educators about what worked for them. Here are some survival tips that might work for you:   

Be kind to yourself

If you’re feeling rubbish, that’s normal. This also applies to feeling distracted, unproductive and unable to focus. These are perfectly ordinary and understandable reactions to what is happening around us. So don’t beat yourself up, because you’re not alone.

Get dressed

I found myself chatting to Ros Wilson during Lockdown 1. ‘I can’t remember the last time I got dressed or wore a bra!’ I told her. ‘Always get dressed,’ she said. And since then, at least on weekdays, I have. Other teachers talk of wearing their work clothes during the school day then consciously changing into comfortable clothes when the working day is over. Others still talk of wearing shoes, doing their hair, putting on make-up. This may be a step too far for some, but the message you’re sending your brain is helping to draw a line between work and relaxation.

Ruthless compartmentalisation

This has become a go-to mantra when it comes to my work on teacher wellbeing. When you’re at school, keep your work stuff in one bag and make sure just that one bag goes back and forth. At home, it’s harder to draw the lines but it is possible. Allocate parts of your living space to different purposes. Have one space when you never do any work, another where you almost always work. Put signs on the door to avoid disturbances, put your phone and computer on aeroplane mode when you’re focusing on a task that requires concentration to stop it beeping.

It’s the same with time. Colour-code your diary with family time, work time, and time just for you – to exercise, beautify, call old friends or lie in the bath. The latter is especially important, because self care is both more challenging to keep up – and more crucial – than ever. Plan out your working hours at the end of your emails so parents and colleagues know they can’t expect immediate responses at 10 p.m.

Priorities and focus

Many of us are guilty of fragmented working – starting one task, being distracted by another, disappearing down an internet or email wormhole and then forgetting what we were supposed to be doing. This again requires a level of ruthlessness – to focus on this and just this is hard, but will improve your efficiency. The Pareto principle is a great way of harnessing the to-do list. Jot down ten tasks that are buzzing around your mind – related to home, school or anything else.

Which one will have the biggest impact? Do that first! Now identify the second most impactful action. The Pareto Principle or 80:20 rule suggests that by now you will have completed 80% of your most important actions for the day.

When I did this yesterday, I discovered that spending 15 minutes at the beginning of the day checking the children had what they needed and knew what to do earned me at least an hour of uninterrupted time.

Limit the noise and help re-gain perspective

The world is a disturbing place just now. It’s easy to be completely hooked on the news but just stepping away for a while – ideally into a different space – and switching it off can help us recalibrate and re-gain perspective.

Similarly with social media. Whilst the vast majority of communication is kind, generous, amusing and supportive, there is a tiny but shrill set of voices which seem set to provoke, criticise and belittle. You have a choice as to when, how or if you respond to them.

Value the positives and reach out

There are a few perks. Under my tailored dress for presentations is a pair of unmatched fluffy socks that nobody can see. If I need to sneeze, I can switch myself off for a moment. I can use the loo at will and have a cup of tea when I like. And, whilst most of the literature suggests that a regular alarm is a good thing, the lack of a daily commute might just mean an extra half hour in bed.

Nick Heard, Executive Head of the National College of Education works with thousands of teachers and leaders. He remarked upon a sea change in how schools interact with one another. ‘We’re no longer looking [suspiciously] at the school next door as a source of competition – we’re finding ways of working together.’ Whist this is not (yet) universal, from informal WhatsApp groups to Twitter networks to groups coming together to provide coaching and supervision, there are so many sources of support out there for you to tap into.

This bring us back to one of Education Support’s reminders about asking for support promptly and when you need it. Remember, as Dr Karen Edge says, ‘Rock bottom is not the place to come back from. You take your loved-ones with you.’ Or to quote from the wonderful book, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse (the best comfort-reading ever):

‘What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever said,’ asked the boy. ‘Help,’ said the fox.

Dr Emma Kell is a teacher, researcher, speaker and author of How to Survive in Teaching and co-author with Adrian Bethune of A Little Guide for Teachers: Teacher Wellbeing and Self-care.

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