Finding the balance

This post is based on a session I gave at the sixth #WomenEd unconference on 2nd October 2020 – this one online, for the first time (but international – and amazing!) Hope you find it interesting and that it encourages you to reflect on the balance in your lives.

“It seems to me, reflecting on my life and my career, that, in so many ways, BALANCE is key. Finding a manageable, sustainable balance can be challenging, in so many different aspects of our lives. I’m not just thinking about managing workload and dividing your time between the personal and the professional. I’m thinking about balance in our relationships, in our focus and priorities – which can change at different times in our lives – and in our mental and physical health. If things are out of balance, it can be destabilising and stressful, but recalibrating and finding balance I know isn’t easy.

Even recognising that things are out of kilter and need addressing can be hard. Just to give you an example: in my leadership development work with leaders at all levels, including with teachers who are leading learning within the classroom, I often talk about how we all need support AND constructive challenge. Children certainly need it in their learning.

Without the right degree of support, we can feel stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, and angry. It can lead to us giving up. But without come constructive challenge in our jobs, and for children in the classroom, we can feel undervalued, demotivated, bored, ineffective and angry – do they not think I’m capable of more than this? – and, again, we may give up.

When teachers are struggling with individual pupils, or when leaders don’t have the most positive and productive relationship with a specific colleague, I’d always ask them to consider whether they are striking the right balance of support and challenge with this person or this group. If not, how do you need to adjust your relationship?

And are YOU getting the right balance from those who lead you? It may be your Middle Leaders, your Senior Leaders, your head, your Trust, your Chair of Governors. And if not – if there’s too little support, or too little challenge – you need to have a conversation. I’d suggest it’s behind closed doors and it needs to be calm, polite, respectful, constructive – but assertive. Explain what you feel is out of kilter and what you need from them.

There was a recent exchange on Twitter, started by Mal Krishnasamy who tweeted this:

This led to a Twitter discussion where several educators said how their governors had supported them, but in some cases the encouragement and the checking-in on how things are going, and how leaders and teachers are feeling and coping, hasn’t been happening. I suggested that if this is true for you, there has to be a conversation. If you talk about what you’re unhappy with, but you don’t talk to the person or people who can bring about change, then the danger is that things get no better. I don’t underestimate how tough those conversations can be, but they are crucial.

So finding the balance is key to our success and to positive well-being and a sense of purposefulness.

Just stop for a moment and ask yourself a few questions. If it helps to clarify your thinking, jot down your responses.

  1. Where are you currently getting the balance right in your life? It may be at home, at work, or outside home and work, but recognise where the balance is working and give yourself credit for the part you have played in that.
  2. Where could the balance be better, helping you to feel more effective and more at peace with yourself and your life?
  3. What exactly could you do about that? How could you use your agency?

In terms of your career, as we know, you may want different things at different stages, depending on your priorities, your circumstances, your context. That’s fine, and understandable. Though I would just advise that you ‘never say never’. I used to say “I don’t want to be a head,” until the time when I really did, and I loved it – the best job of the seven jobs I had across 30 years. Be aware of how your feelings may change: ‘I used to want that. Now I want this. In the future I may be ready for something else entirely.’

I want to encourage you tonight to think more broadly – to look at your professional life as a very wide canvas. Think about the idea of flexible working across your entire career. It reminds me of when we realised that focussing on ‘the lesson’ probably wasn’t the most useful way of thinking about planning, or progress. We began to realise that considering whole sequences of lessons was likely to take us further. The individual lesson was the wrong unit.

Relating this to our careers, I can see that, perhaps inevitably, where you are right now is bound to occupy your thoughts and energies, but can you see your current position, whatever that is, in the context of the broad sweep of your professional life? Can you think about the flexibility across your whole career journey? What led up to this point, and what is your current professional – and perhaps personal – context based on? What might it lead to? Can you achieve balance across your whole career, so that when you look back in years to come you feel a sense of fulfilment and an appreciation of what you’ve achieved over the decades, and you have an understanding of how each individual component contributed to the whole – especially the disappointments, false starts and failures. These make us what we are, as much as our successes.

As some of you will know, I finished full-time work in education ten years ago, following ten years of headship. Time is an interesting phenomenon – I feel as if I were a head for ages, and that it’s just two minutes since I stopped! But the two periods of time are actually balanced. I understand that the choices I made aren’t necessarily desirable for many, or perhaps possible for some, but this has worked for me. I have a different (arguably better) balance in my life now. I do know people who really worry about stepping down from a full-time professional role, whatever that is, and I think this is partly to do with our identity. Our personal and professional identities are clearly linked, but they aren’t – or shouldn’t be – fused. I always knew that if you took the ‘headteacher’ out of me there would still be a fully-functioning human being remaining! Teaching and leadership in education is an important job, but it IS a job, and not the whole of what we are.

So embracing this flexibility worked for me. I wrote a post about what I call #lifeafter here. I called it ‘And exhale’, because that’s what it felt like – finally breathing out after several years of perhaps holding my breath! It was an attempt to reassure people that life can be rich, full and joyful after full-time work, when you may still have several years of professionally useful and satisfying activity ahead of you, if that’s what you choose. But of course it may NOT be what you choose – and that’s fine, too. You may decide you want to focus on something completely different from education.

One of the things I hope #WomenEd has taught us is that we should be respectful of other women’s choices, especially when they are very different from our own. Whatever you do, and whenever you do it, think about finding a balance which is right for you at the time. Think about what you need to sustain yourself. And think about what you have to offer to sustain and support others.

In the busiest years of your life – some of you may well be at that point now! – just don’t lose contact with those you care about, whose company you enjoy and whose conversation you find energising. There may well come a point when you, and they, have more time to give to each other. If you’ve lost contact, that can be harder to re-establish. If you’ve kept in contact, so much is possible. And think about the contribution you might like to make to the communities you are part of, which will bring reward and a sense that you are paying forward, because you now have the time and greater opportunity to do that.

As circumstances change, we need to be flexible and we need to recalibrate the balance in our lives so that it continues to work for us. As an example, I wrote this post earlier in lockdown, about ‘Adjusting to a different rhythm’ which helped me to recognise how I needed to adapt to a particular challenge, but how I could still make a positive contribution, feel gratitude and find joy. Writing it helped me to process and come to terms with this new experience.

So, finally, that’s what I wish for you: find the balance, and find the joy.

Thank you for listening.”

And many thanks to #WomenEd for giving me the opportunity to be part of this wonderful online event. If you’d like to watch and listen to my presentation at the unconference, it’s the last 20 minutes of this recording on YouTube (Session 1, 2nd October).

Photo credit: John Berry

3 thoughts on “Finding the balance

  1. Since last Friday your words have stayed with me and wound round the events of my week. I particularly loved the balance theme of support and challenge in those we work with and for. I am blessed to have an emotionally literate line manager and was wondering if an effective line manager is one who manages the line between the two- support and challenge. I’m in the later stage of a job in educational support in my 50s so hearing your suggestion of going back to those who energised me and rekindling their connection really appeals. Thankyou


    1. Many thanks for your comment, Vanessa – and best wishes as you navigate the next, exciting stage of your life! So pleased the session/blog resonated.


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