We’ve all been there. It’s been a frantic and productive day in the classroom, and now there is only silence.
The teacher takes a moment, before considering what job to do next. But there’s nothing urgent outstanding. No books to mark, no planning to do, no meetings to attend.
And it’s only 4 o’clock.
Elsewhere, she knows that everyone else is very busy. They must be because they always are.
The day started at 7:20am on-site as always, following a drive through the dark and sleepy streets. With a bowl of cereal in hand, the day’s teaching was resourced, tweaked and meticulously prepared.
After a busy first session, playtime flew with barely time for a toilet dash before the whistle went and the daily reading session had begun. Lunchtime was the same.
But now it’s “home time” and a radical thought suddenly crosses the teacher’s weary mind.
If today’s work is done, what is to stop me from leaving?
She knows that she’s worked hard, but is she working as hard as everyone else? The sun has been shining outside all day and she longs to go home. There’s lots of talk about wellbeing and there’s no doubt that some time spent at home, sitting in the garden, would help her to feel great. She would also be able to wake up feeling ready and recharged for tomorrow.
She could spend some time calling friends and family, to check in. It’s been a tough term so far, with little opportunity to see daylight. Evening meals are usually briefly consumed, not before 7:30, and with the laptop whirring away in the background.
She looks at the door for a moment. It leads directly to the car park. It would take seconds to make her guilt-ridden exit and leave. She puts on her coat and switches off her laptop.
But the accepted practice is that she has to sign out via reception - a process that was made clear as a fire safety protocol. She also knows the unwritten rule, that most staff leave well after 5 o’clock, and the headteacher knows this, too.
She did once leave early for an appointment. It was a tough time in her life, when she worried for the first time about her health. As she signed out, one of the ladies in the office joked to her colleague about the fact that she was going home for the day.
If she was to leave early today, what would the headteacher think? What would colleagues say?
This is a situation that can unknowingly occur. It’s not that anyone ever told the staff that this is how it had to be, or specified what time when they could leave. But nobody ever encouraged them to go early, either.
It often suits school leaders to see this kind of commitment because this is also what they do, too.
I would have to hold my hand up to say that this is sometimes the way it was in our school in the early days. I never set out for it to be like this - it was something that just happened. Working long-days seemed the only way and it could make leaving school in good time very difficult, because it was all about appearances.
It’s important to define your expectations so that the arrangements can be comfortable for everyone. The priority is only ever going to be the outcomes in the classroom.
It is not right to assume that the longest days equal the best pupil outcomes. As the headteacher, if you know that the provision is both good and sustainable in each classroom, then the individual teacher work patterns can be different and should become much less important.
Working late does not guarantee positive short or long-term outcomes and it should never be a badge of honour. And it is well worth remembering that all of this applies to the headteacher, too.
David Rushby is a former primary headteacher and director of Nautilus Education.