Loving you… The joys and challenges of loving a teacher

Emma Kell takes a light-hearted looks at how it is to love a teacher. She also look at what our loved-ones can – and can’t – do when things get tough.

Articles / 6 mins read

It may come as no surprise to those who love a teacher that we’re not always the easiest people to live with when we’re stressed-out from overwork, marking, observations and targets.  

This one’s not for just for you, teachers. It’s for your nearest and dearest too. So have a read, then pass it to your partner, child, friend, parent or other relative for a light-hearted look at how it is to love us. We’ll also look at what our loved-ones can – and can’t – do when things get tough.

 

The most important job in the world

The chances are that, deep down (like me) most people who work in schools do so because they genuinely believe it’s the most important job in the world. It’s the job that creates all other jobs. It’s heart-work, soul-work, world-changing, difference-making work and most of us won’t hear otherwise.

So while it is a job (and I’d argue that we are, as Mary Myatt says, ‘humans first,’) it’s rarely just a job.  Stern reminders to this effect aren’t likely to be particularly helpful. In fact, the drive and passion is probably one of the things that makes you so proud of the teacher you love.

A job that’s never done

The to-do lists might take many forms. The kitchen table might be full of post-it-notes of inscrutable acronyms. Is  compulsive multi-tasking a dominant component of everyday life?

They may constantly seem to be emailing themselves and waking up trying to remember what on earth ‘AR TBC IRL’ means at the crack of dawn.

Does life admin get neglected? The emissions from the car exhaust pipe might be getting embarrassing. The minor but persistent medical issue remains untreated and the cat’s  had fleas for the last five weeks!

They’re in the room, but they’re not. ‘I can hear you!’ they state with confidence as they tap away, on their laptops. Three days later, do they swear blind that nobody told them you were having friends for dinner?

There’s just too much to do.

Every evening brings a new urgent responsibility, task or initiative. ‘Why can’t they just say no?’ you might wonder, with a modicum of justification.

There’s a clear answer to this question. Every new initiative that comes into schools - from literacy to safeguarding to ‘closing the gaps’ - comes with new thinking and new tasks on top of the existing workload. People working in school have to soak all this up.

It’s worth opening a non-judgemental conversation about capacity and boundaries. Instead of ‘no’, the term ‘reasonable’ is powerful. Is it reasonable to be asked to do more at this time? De-personalising and moving away from the ‘what if they think I can’t cope?’ mentality into the language of capacity is helpful. Encourage them to open up the to-do list – and have a conversations with their line-manager along the lines of ‘This is what’s currently on my plate. What can you take off in order to enable me to take this on?’

 

Every evening brings a new urgent responsibility, task or initiative. ‘Why can’t they just say no?’ you might wonder, with a modicum of justification.

They’re currently a bit tired*

*frazzled, knackered, on their knees, braindead, worn-out-husks

See, teaching is weird. There are many reasons for this, of course, but one is that everyone working in schools gets exhausted at the same time. Have you seen that shot of your loved-ones team, shining and bursting with positive energy on the first day back in September? Fast-forward to November and the tiniest thing can cause snapping and sniping. The fact that the lid won’t come off the ketchup is the last straw leading to floods of tears?

You might suggest a Christmas excursion, point out that it might be time for a few decorations (the neighbours have had theirs up for weeks). You might remind them we still don’t know what Dad wants for Christmas.  The response might take the form of:

‘I just want to sleep until Spring!’ Or something less polite.

The bottom line is that listening to our bodies is one of the best things we can do for our wellbeing. If your teacher loved-one needs to sleep for three days, the decorations can wait. The supermarket is still open on Christmas Eve after all.

Thinking ahead to next term, what term-time plans and treats can you put in place to help them feel human during term time? A weekend away? A mid-week theatre trip? They might protest, but a change is as good as a break and they’re likely to get energy from it.

What else can you do to help?

You may have already sussed out the pattern and mastered a few hints and tricks. A special meal to congratulate them for making it through the term? A reminder that you’re proud of them and the work they do? A moment to reassure yourself that their tears, anger, exasperation and desperation aren’t personal and aren’t directed at you?

Tough love 

They might not appear to be listening, but they love you. What you think, feel and say matters. By the tenth week of tears on a Friday, a serious conversation about what really matters and what options are out there might be needed.

If the marking is out again during the one hour you get together to watch some TV, making it clear that it really, really can’t be that urgent might not get you the politest reception, but might just need saying!

If they’ve lost their mojo and your ‘how’s work?’ enquiries receive no more than a grunt, they might need a tough conversation to which you come with your whole heart.

It’s ok to ask them to close the laptop, to unsynch their phone from their work email and to actually look you in the eye and listen to how your day has gone.

It’s ok to pass them their trainers, say you know they want to hibernate but, really, a walk will help, so let’s go.

But remember, ultimately, we are autonomous adults – the only person who can really make a change is the individual.

Working in schools is tough just now. Really tough. But being human is tough too. And being tired isn’t a badge of honour or a competition.

And we’re sorry if we’re not always as reasonable as we could be, and we love you too.

Life is short. Let’s focus on the people who really matter.

Have a wonderful holiday.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT

Many school staff are suffering with stress, depression and anxiety just now – more than the population overall (TWIX statistic). The system is struggling. Those who are supporting our most vulnerable learners are at breaking point, and there’s little acknowledgement of the profound impact of the pandemic.  

Teacher retention, a perennial issue, could become even more of a challenge. Whilst there are small tweaks and changes that most of us can make to support our own work-life balance and gain perspective, there are some situations which are untenable. If you’re in one, and you and your loved-ones know it, please call Education Support helpline  – there are always ways forward and always alternatives, even if it doesn’t feel like.

Note: this piece is written based on my own experience, my own mistakes, and from conversations with my own loved-ones, as well as my ongoing research on school wellbeing. It is a light-hearted piece which in no way detracts from the huge challenges we know are faced in schools every day and the colleagues who face unreasonable expectations daily.

Emma is a teacher, coach, speaker and writer specialising in teacher wellbeing.

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