The Rhythm of the Teaching Life

Teachers work in a rhythmic way. Our work moves in patterns and processes that are arranged systematically into half-terms, terms and academic years. In one sense this might seem mundane, yet, like a piece of music, without an episodic pattern, our work would make no sense…or their wouldn’t be any of us left. 

There’s something special about this, I think; that’s why I’m writing about it now. People from other professions are quick to criticise our working lives, knowing how much ‘holiday’ we have compared to them. They are puzzled when we say that ‘we work hard’ in teaching, thinking that the simple fact we have so much time off means it shouldn’t matter how hard we work – we have so much time off.

The arithmetic of this criticism just simply doesn’t add up. Because none of us are machines, none of us are robotic organisms who check in, check out, eat, sleep, go again – particularly teachers. 

I’m desperate to meet the teacher who ‘doesn’t think about his students when he’s not at work’. I don’t think they exist. 

This is why our rhythms as teachers matter and recognising them in our lives is important. 

As teachers we swing from fifty-five hour weeks of intensive work six weeks in a row, to one week of stillness; if we’re honest with ourselves we all work a little in the holidays. This might range from an hour to a few full days. I don’t believe that the ones ‘who work all the way through the holidays’ are telling the truth. If they are, they won’t be in this profession for more than a few years. Or they choose to live this way. I also don’t believe the ones who say ‘I didn’t work in the holidays at all’….it might happen every so often but the general rhythm is that some thought, some planning, some moments of that holiday were spent reflecting on the classroom, the colleagues who are by themselves, the vulnerable child and how they’re holiday has been, the Christmas and the safeguarding concerns and the precious community that they are part of, called school.

By the way, I don’t think any of this is wrong per se, I just think it’s the way we are made as human beings and the way we are as teachers.

As leaders we do the same thing, we might think less about the individual students in each and every class and more about the wellbeing of our colleagues and those who we serve. We might begin to spiral into thinking about whether we have done enough, what our colleagues think of us, whether our plans and visions for the future are right and what if we might be wrong. In the current climate, we are trying to forward plan and be more prepared but this is not possible. At least not for the moment. Maybe it will settle down sometime soon. 

I always feel slightly nervous on the first day of term. I thought this might go away once I was an RQT. But it hasn’t. 

A rhythm is a strong, regular repeated sound or movement. A rhythm is going somewhere. It’s going to the next bar, the chorus or the final crescendo. A rhythm is moving towards a goal and an aim, like a quartet of rowers on a boat, led by the cox driving them forward on a perpetually moving lake or river. A rhythm is always measured and managed; you cannot go full gusto at the very beginning of the song and then end within a few seconds. That ceases to become a song at all. Neither can you begin a piece of music with a particular riff and then continue it for the next three and a half minutes. It would become dull, boring and monotonous. It certainly wouldn’t sell to the masses. Neither can you do this in a rowing boat as a rower. You can’t always thrust the oars backwards; you must recover them and then go again, doing this motion thousands of times. There must be large bursts of energy to propel the boat forward and then a short recovery ready for the next burst. 

Teaching is neither like a piece of music or a rowing boat but it is rhythmic. We teach the same classes several times a week, for six to seven weeks, then we rest, become still, prepare mentally or in front of a screen and then we go again. There are peaks and troughs: there are days where our lists are too big to manage and we don’t feel like we will ever get them done and there are days, although few, where we find ourselves finished at four o’clock.

These are pivotal days where we must make wise decisions; the days that we are ‘done early’ within term time.

We have a choice: we can press on, do more, get ahead and tick everything off the list. Feeling pleased about ourselves when we drive home that we’ve been what we might define as productive. We can be seen to be working hard because the corridor of teachers or department we work in is ‘still at school’, with the light on in their rooms. Or we can go home. And rest.

I’m not suggesting here that this is always the right choice; i’m just saying we need to be wise and knowledgeable about the nature of our work.

We work in rhythmic motion. A steady beat pulsates through our profession; our intense oar stroke to propel us forwards along the river of the academic year must always have a recovery phase; we must try to have those days where we go home early in the frantic nature of a term.

And in the holidays, we must rest.

We must be ourselves when we’re not a teacher.


1 thought on “The Rhythm of the Teaching Life”

  1. Very informative post ! Teachers should not be made as the teaching machines of school system. Knowledge transfer to student’s brain should be focused in the classroom. Cognitive science of teaching theories is defective in producing high performing students in education. It is necessary to change the system of knowledge transfer in schools.

    Thanks! Be happy and stay safe.
    Happiness Classroom


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