This post has been in planning for some time. I use the term ‘teaching fitness’ fairly frequently and, like most of the terms that stem from running an Indie publishing house in my youth, they are rich in meaning for me, yet loose in connotations for others.
Teaching is physical job. This is fortunate because I still remember using a rudimentary career-matching programme when I was 13 which suggested working as either a policeman, or in the army. The idea of relying on my leisure time for physical fitness didn’t really occur to me. Of course, teaching doesn’t involve much in the way of lifting heavy goods (although I do lift boxes filled with copious marking.) It also doesn’t involve walking around much (although I do stand for large parts of the day.) My voice is often tested, although I rarely shout, and certainly not for prolonged periods.
Teaching does require a high level of mental fitness. My reading fitness, particularly with fiction, can wane. Although I read copiously, my fiction reading is certainly average at best. My preferences are for intense reads that stay with me, rather than appreciating narrative. My writing fitness, especially in regards to typing, is always high. I thank my blogs and my diaries for that. My emotional fitness is sound too, something which is benefited by my professional standing and extensive hobbies.
Fitness does, of course, require a rhythm of practice. A man cannot work as hard as he can all the time without risking burnout. I managed something like two and a half years of 70 hour weeks (and a six hundred mile non-stop drive for a holiday) before my body refused to shake a chest-cold for six months. Like any fitness routine, it requires some measure of when to rest, and not. This means only giving certain times to tasks (and, unfortunately, some of the most important tasks like marking and planning can fill up any amount of time you give them.)
Like I said before, the issue with too many hours is that you burn-out: in teaching fitness terms, you are injured. That is, not only will you not perform at your best, but in order to return to your minimum teaching capacity you require recharging (physically, mentally and – if you want – spiritually.)
Avoiding injury to your teaching fitness requires you to know, and accept, the sense of fatigue that comes with extended mental endeavour, especially when working with hundreds of teenagers. When I run, as when I teach, there is a sense of being tired that doesn’t stop you from continuing. Even now, I remember after my first few 10ks having not exercised for nearly a year: I stepped outside my apartment and walked to town. My experience of simply having continued was invigorating; I felt like I could continue indefinitely, even with my fatigue.
Of course, there is a sense when teaching moves beyond simply coping with fatigue – instead you teach (like you can run) with spring and bounce. Mentally, the more you are given the greater your response. Instead of fighting for words or an ability to mark, you feel as if there is an ease to what you do.
As I mentioned earlier, we were OFSTEDed this week (an interesting verb!) As I have built my rhythm of teaching since Christmas, the 70 hour week was not a problem. Even now, I have managed to enjoy a full weekend and cover the necessary work for my exam classes who come into their last stretch. In doing so, my stress is at a level in which I feel comfortable handling. I feel I have planned all I need to plan, and that any task before me simply requires an amount of time. Such stress becomes increasingly unmanageable, though, when the tasks ahead seem to require more time than can be realistically given.
It is at this point that teaching really requires a certain calibre of candidate. Marking, planning and the use of ICT – these are all regular tasks that need to be completed within realistic timeframes. Although observed lessons and the like require extra time and reflection, there is still a finite time (and mental space) that such things should take.
Of course, to maintain a suitable level of teaching fitness requires certain principles and values, of which perhaps the most important is the ability of knowing when to say, “no.” Not every task needs to be completed. The hours of extra work for a minor percentage increase in teaching performance needs to be judged. In particular, ongoing extra curricular activities need to be carefully monitored. This is especially true around exam time, where full teaching days can be sandwiched either side of a 10 minute lunchbreak. Too many days of those (14-21 or so) can quickly wear you down. Of course, clubs that can be self-running, or that you run with someone else are a better use of time, and a better way of maintaining your teaching fitness.
Playing sport does help with teaching fitness, but it isn’t the be-all. Every Friday after school I try to do some kind of sport (and social football seems the best to me.) Find something.
Teaching is a difficult job. Read the student teacher and NQT forum boards (for one) to see evidence of how it can smash people. However, if you are organised, and can put in the time in the evenings and weekends, then a level of fatigue can be suffered and a high level of performance sustained.
However, unfortunately, the job as it stands now has too many demands from too many directions, many of which seem futile and manifested from agents who do not have the best interests of students. To survive, and then thrive, in this climate requires the professionalism to know how much time to dedicate to such work, and what can be completed ad hoc. It requires hobbies and interests outside the job, and a carefully crafted persona to deflect the increasing responsibility for social-work issues that urban children face.
Get those in place, though, and you will do well. Like a marathon, teaching during OFSTED is not about the week itself, but rather about the months and years of training put in ahead of time.