About time


01 March 2022

Excessive workloads are more common than not these days, stretching out the 9 to 5 and even encroaching on our home lives due to family demands. The pandemic hasn’t helped, but we all need to find a way to take back our time, says Joy Coates, a music teacher at Beaconsfield Primary School in northern Tasmania.

“Too often we conspire against ourselves by not being able to say ‘No, I will not do this extra work or attend this function’.”

Coates says this is common in many professions, and tends to occur among people who see themselves as peacemakers and don’t like confrontation or conflict, or where empathy is a prerequisite for being good at the job.

One skill worth perfecting is the ability to set boundaries at work, which can give teachers room to reflect and reset so they’re more positive about their ability to achieve professional and personal development, says Coates.

It’s a common problem among teachers, especially women, and she’s seen it often during her 25 years as a teacher in primary and secondary schools, and as a union delegate.

Coates was able to put more meat on the bones of her anecdotal thesis when, in 2018, she was awarded the AEU’s Rosemary Richards Scholarship, a $10,000 grant for women aimed at increasing skills and experience in the union’s work.

Give yourself time to think

Coates examined the inclination for women to acquiesce more often than men.

“Women are primed to be agreeable, and to keep accepting more and more requests,” says Coates, who believes the trait is partly to blame for high levels of stress in a profession known for high rates of attrition and Workers Compensation stress claims.

She has some practical tips for teachers ready to put limits on extra-curricular activities.

First, delay your response. “We often get flustered when someone asks us to do something, so we say yes without thinking,” says Coates. “Instead, practice a phrase like ‘Let me think about that and get back to you’.”

Another approach is to think how you might advise a friend under pressure to take on, for example, staying late to help organise a fete. “We’re often wiser in our advice to friends than to ourselves.”

When you do decide to say no, Coates recommends replacing “I can’t …” with the more assertive “I don’t …”.

“For example: I don’t check my emails when I’m not at work, I don’t do school stuff on the weekend because that’s my family time, or I don’t have any extra time now.”

Say yes to self-care

Assertiveness also applies to knowing when to ask for help. “Don’t wait until you’re at breaking point,” says Coates.

“If you’re stressed out and overburdened, you can’t be the teacher your students need. Because of the complex needs of so many of our students, self-care is crucial to ensuring you’re at your best in the classroom,” she says.

Additional funding would, of course, ease the burden for many public school teachers.

“Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” says Coates. “It’s not a selfish thing when we fight for better conditions. We want the best for our students.”

By Cyndi Tebbel

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Summer 2021