Julie Greer

As if there wasn’t enough going on in the world, my back has been causing me a lot of trouble lately. Initially, the onset of lower back pain was at the start of ‘Lockdown 1’. This made me like a bear with a sore head, who is trying to pretend she doesn’t have a sore head, because everyone else has got a sore head too and they could really do without my sore head adding to their sore heads, but actually my sore head is really hurting!

The second onslaught came about towards the end of the summer holidays and was probably caused by the perpetual grey I followed about the country from Cumbria to Cornwall (whilst the rest of the UK was enjoying a heatwave). I am sure that sort of weather pressure can definitely affect the back. In truth, it started just a few days before I returned to work and this time it seemed to be deep muscle pain in my piriformis, radiating wherever it chose, ever present and continuous throughout this term. The timing hasn’t escaped me and I have been open to the impact that stress may be having on my body.

Fed up with listening to me regularly updating her on the level of my discomfort, my sister lent me a book on pain management (www.painisreallystrange.com) which made perfect sense. In short (and bear in mind this is my non-scientific interpretation), it explains that when there is an injury or a trauma, your body’s reactions include inflammation and pain to alert the brain and to protect the area. Your body is usually amazing at healing, but our brains aren’t so good at easing up the processes which initially helped. In other words, the additional nerve endings to gauge the pain don’t just shrink themselves and go back to normal. They can remain sensitive for a long time, causing pain when the initial cause in our bodies may have got better. The book suggests that we need to teach ourselves how to heal our overhealing body.

I love a good visual metaphor and it struck me that this journey I have been on with a pain below my right glute muscles (I’m resisting the temptation to phrase this differently) is not dissimilar to managing and creating a professionally acceptable workload. In other words, workload can easily feel painful, oppressive and overwhelming at times – a third of teachers leaving the profession within their first five years, most citing workload, is testimony to this.

With any pain, it is easy to lose sight of anything else. There is a joy to teaching; the difference we make to children’s lives and outcomes is enormous. We need to be better at retraining our brains (and our habits) to ensure the aspects of teaching that motivate us retain their hold and the aspects that try to defeat us are managed, reduced or better understood. If we can help our newest teachers to develop a professionally acceptable workload then we will guarantee a better education workforce into the future – we are going to need one as never before.

I’m reminded of lovely Jeff at college, who used to sit in the bar in the early ‘80s, lighting up a new cigarette from the last. I asked him once whether he thought he should cut down a bit and his answer has stayed with me (not least for the wonderful Rhonnda accent), ‘Buh ty like smoken’, he said, looking up and pausing his lighter. Knowledge and the law caught up with each other in banning smoking in public places and now, thank goodness, in cars with small children, but it takes a long time for this to happen when the economic gain is perceived to be a greater reward than the community benefit.

I do genuinely love working and I am determined that this shouldn’t be bad for my health. My professional identity is linked to being a hard worker, a good worker, someone who will deliver. I like the purpose that work gives me. I do get overwhelmed at times, but to a large extent I get to choose my workload, not let it choose me.

Writing a book on workload for early career teachers has given me the opportunity to rethink my own approaches to my workload and to relish the parts I enjoy even more. Each chapter emphasises ways to empower teachers to make choices or to better manage the less enthralling tasks. It is never too late to learn new habits, which provide more balance in our lives and less pain in the glutes!

Dr Julie Greer has been a headteacher for nearly 30 years and is a passionate advocate for initial teacher education. She is a visiting fellow of the University of Southampton and a Founding Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching. Julie is a member of the DfE’s Expert Advisory Group for the Wellbeing for Education Return programme. Her book in the Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers series, Workload: Taking Ownership of your Teaching, edited by NASBTT Executive Director Emma Hollis and published by Critical Publishing, is out now.



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