How often do teachers disconnect from technology? The effect of not disconnecting can be sizeable and far reaching. I saw a tweet thread on Twitter recently that said that teachers should not teach pupils about mental health and wellbeing because we pretty bad at maintaining our own mental health (this was mentioned in the thread but is not present in the screenshot) as well as being unqualified to deal with the potential outcomes of it. The lack of teacher-technology disconnect from our jobs affects our mental health and this is the source point of why teachers are unqualified to teach it. Original tweet below.
What struck me as interesting was the response from teachers. It was split in favour of teaching mindfulness because it benefitted the students and athose gainst it for fuller reasons than what the original poster referenced. Both sides had valid points – we are there to help our pupils, but we also need to adequately qualified to help them fully. But what many seemed to overlook was our own actions: we do not disconnect but will happily/ironically/naively tell pupils about their need to disconnect from technology. I suppose this could be neatly summarised with the airplane warnings: put on your own mask before you help anyone else.
The problem arises from our inability to discconnect. Whether it is in our personal or professional lives (or both), the impact of always ‘being on’ can affect our performance in work, our friendships, our family relationships, and our attitudes towards many parts of life.
The Looming Spectre of Technology
Technology can offer us ways to enable pupil learning that didn’t exist before. Learning is no longer confined to the classroom, according to the timetable. However, technology is also compromising the health and well-being of teachers, leading to a blurring of the already-indistinct lines between work and home. This leads to an unsustainable “always on” mentality, which can be very damaging to the teacher. It’s not an entirely new problem though. For decades, educators have laboured under the double pressures of the expansion of responsibilities at work and ever-increasing domestic demands. Dual-income families are the norm, which leads to less time for family-time. Factor in larger class sizes, more paperwork, and a gradual shift in caretaking duties toward school systems have strained the capacity of educators, encroaching on personal time traditionally set aside for family and friends. If both parents are teachers, then these issues instantly double the pressures at home.
Well before the pandemic came along, stress topped the list of reasons teachers quit. Many cite long hours, paperwork and parental pressures as major factors in them coming to the decision to leave the profession. Some face the burden of taking on second jobs to supplement income as primary factors in early retirement. Technology being introduced to this equation is rapidly pushing many toward a breaking point. The proliferation of computers, particularly smartphones, is attacking the last areas of personal space, which compels teachers to spend more time outside of school hours planning tech-enriched lessons while responding to nighttime emails and text messages. In my own job since the start of the new term, when I took up the role of Subject Leader, the notifications on my phone has trebled because I am a teacher in the Google Classrooms of the teachers in my department. I am seriously considering removing Google Classroom as an app from my phone so that I can carve out a little space for me.
These digital behaviours, which researchers have called “techno-invasion” or “pervasive connectivity”—can leave us with the feeling that we’re meant to be on call at all hours of the day and late into the night. For teachers, there are few places to turn to for respite. In a previous job I had to remove Outlook from my phone – some of my students would email asking that I review their work at 1:42am on a Sunday morning which would result in my phone being woken from sleep mode, which would then have the annoying effect on waking me also. The email would also say that they were waiting for my response (despite being woken by its arrival, I didn’t read the email until the next day and then we had a courteous chat about it in our next session). It wasn’t every student who did this, but there was enough to require a chat with the class about expectations and responsibilities. In my current job, I recently disconnected my email from my phone. When we think about the logic behind the ‘need’ to be accessible – what true/real emergency could ever happen that I would need to be contacted by email? What (genuinely) can’t wait until I get into school the next morning? If the answer is a person (for example, your principal), then I would humbly suggest you think about where you are employed and think about alternatives. I see this quote on LinkedIn quite often: people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers. If your manager/principal is behind you needing to be ‘always contactable’ then please think about what they really need from you, and what it is costing you.
Increasingly, the teaching profession is following the HE/FE model, which looks like the private sector, in particular in relation to demands around working time, and the development of the ‘always on’ culture.’ Having now taught in both sectors, and with numerous citations from other employees through Twitter, the problem is all too real. The existence of time budgets are further evidence of this. Staff have become so worn out and over-worked that this is seemingly the current answer to having too many tasks in a job that will always require more. In what amounts to a broken promise, the expectations keep growing on teachers, but the salary hasn’t kept up the realities of the job (and this was years before any issue of inflation or cost of living increases existed). Without any new policies from government to defend teachers’ fundamental right to disconnect—to reclaim time with their families and friends, and to relax and replenish their own energy levels—the outcomes are, unfortunately going to be all too predictable: rising job dissatisfaction, deteriorating mental and physical health and burnout. These issues can result in the teacher leaving the teaching profession. The issue is continually growing, and it requires an immediate solution. Teachers of course, are not entirely blameless. The effect of “doing it for the kids” or ‘permitting’ (yes I have heard a principal recently using this term) action short of strike, as long as it doesn’t affect the children, exacerbates this problem and increases the demands on teachers.
Where principals continue to play on/exploit teachers’ professionalism and desire to aid pupils achievement and development as much as possible – and while they also hold the keys to full-time employment (which we know they use to push teachers to work harder and get) the possibility of creating an environment of positive mental health and well being and allowing a teacher to feel like they can disconnect is really no more than a wishful passing of a dream.
Digital Job Creep
Online communications have led to a subtle increase in work on individuals’ time off through always-on connectivity. The mere expectation that an email or text may arrive from a principal or student, and require a response, is an intrusion into a teacher’s personal space. Talk about theoretical emails and times will eventually become real ones. While this isn’t true of me, the average teacher can receive up to 100 emails each day, which is a staggering amount when you also remember that the teachers’ first and main role in a school is to teach—and the pressure to reply quickly can feel irresistible.
A 2019 study found that employees started responding to emails 6 seconds after receiving them. Whereas, in a 2015 study, researchers found that employees experienced “significantly lower daily stress” when limiting the frequency of checking email to three times a day, when compared with those who had no restrictions on checking email. There’s also a significant cognitive penalty to checking emails or other notifications. According to this 2017 study, the endless onslaught of notifications ringing out from phones are almost impossible to ignore, even when the phone is off and turned upside down on the table. The mere presence of our smartphone can occupy the limited-capacity of our cognitive resources. The researchers of the 2017 study concluded, that this leaves fewer resources available for other priority tasks and therefore lowers our cognitive performance. Turning the smartphone off and leaving it in another room might just be the only way to restore sanity. Many parents will limit their teenagers’ phone use, but not think to review their own usage levels. It’s not teaching related, but a friend told me a number of years back (pre-Covid), that he met with a number of friends in China for dinner. They set their phones in a bowl at the centre of the table (not that type of story) and the first person to check their phone had to pay the bill for dinner. The rise of phone use has reached dangerously obsessive levels. I know of a student in my last job, who had an IT apprenticeship with a local large company. The apprenticeship was to last three years (with an all but assumed job at the end of the apprenticeship), but the student was dismissed from the position because he was always on his phone. The company went through their disciplinary procedure and then dismissed him.
There are no doubt countless stories of the impact of not allowing a technology disconnect, but the point is always the same: we need to disconnect from our technology for our own well being.
The Never-Ending Digital Learning Curve
A deluge of new technologies, which comes unsupported by adequate training—from learning management systems to new apps, videoconferencing software, or multimedia lesson-planning—will undermine teacher competence and professionalism. In 2021, researchers analysed over a decade’s worth of studies and found that teachers had been pushed into adopting technology in their classrooms without the “technical resources and equipment necessary for its correct use in the classroom.” This is a particularly insidious problem that culminates in conflicts between teachers, colleagues, managers and in their personal lives due to increased stress and fatigue. In a study published in 2021, researchers found that nearly half of the teachers involved spent 20 or more hours per week creating new lessons, adapting materials to online classrooms, and troubleshooting tech issues. Notably, this pattern is expected to continue beyond the pandemic as schools begin to commit to a deeper integration of technology and some are planning to offer some form of remote instruction permanently.
The Price to be Paid
This new source of anxiety is not only linked to decreased job satisfaction, motivation, and competency but is also a health and safety concern, which can cause a list of physical issues, including (but not limited to) headaches, back aches and high blood pressure. It’s not technology that’s the problem—it’s that technology erodes the boundaries that have historically constrained teachers. There will be a feeling that if we don’t get a task done, our students will suffer or programs will fail. However, if we become mentally exhausted, overtired, or drained of energy, we risk a complete shutdown mentally or physically—and at that point, no tasks will get completed. According to a 2015 survey, 78% of teachers feel physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day, and while technology isn’t the sole source of stress, it is “one of the most significant contributing factors to increasing stress levels,” adding that teachers routinely report that continual “invasion of privacy” is a “significant source of work exhaustion.”
Pushing Back - Without Going Back
At no point should we suggest that solutions like banning technology be pursued; technology creates enormous efficiencies and is here to stay, but it must be carefully managed. We need to establish and adopt policies that will support the healthy adoption of technology outside of school hours by both teachers and students.” There are examples within industry that show promising steps forward in this area. Volkswagen have banned internal emails from being sent or received through its servers during off-work hours since 2012, following complaints that staff’s work and home lives were becoming blurred. In 2016, France adopted new labour laws that gives employees the right ‘to not have to take calls or read emails related to work during their time off.’ The law’s stated goal is to ‘ensure that the employees’ non-work hours, vacation time, and personal and family life be respected.’ By ring-fencing this time to disconnect, it also works in favour for the companies – staff will be energised to work and not feel like it has taken over their life. So what should be under consideration for schools?
- Model better practices: Schools should consider developing policies or guidelines that encourage school leaders to avoid sending emails after school hours, except in the case of emergencies. What might first appear like a simple question or request can have bigger implications as teachers will feel the need to regularly check email outside work hours to avoid appearing non-responsive or even worse(!), to appear like their not pulling their weight in the evenings.
- Give “permission to disconnect”: School leaders can provide explicit guidance by giving teachers the right to disconnect from work-related communications outside of normal school hours. The policy should be normalised for all stakeholders in the school and honoured with no questions asked.
- Ask your staff: By simply asking staff about their work-life balance will help to gauge staff well-being. Ask questions such as “How often do the demands of your job interfere with your family life?”
- Keep your smartphone work-free: Teachers should definitely consider removing access to work emails from their smartphones, and school leaders should actively encourage it. You may find it more helpful to only check email on your computer—that way, when the school day ends, you can close your computer and walk away from the notifications and resist the temptation to check your inbox.
- Be transparent about the requirements of your job: By blocking visible time on your calendar for typically unstructured tasks like writing emails, grading papers, and planning lessons. Clearly demarcate your work hours on your calendar as well, and set up out-of-office messages that state your work hours and indicate when you’ll respond to late emails.
It’s a simplistic conclusion that would simply say to switch off in the evenings, but lets be honest, it won’t/can’t always happen. There is always something that needs done, and perhaps what is needed, is an overhaul of a teachers, non-contact time duties, which would need to go hand-in-hand with a salary increase – but not one that involves evening work, unless time in school was mandated towards a 5:00pm finish. This would perhaps allow for extra time to complete tasks and as a result, eradicate the need for staff to work in the evening.
I appreciate that this solution needs to come from boardrooms and negotiation meetings well above that of a humble EdTechist, but in the short term, look at the simple, easy steps that can increase the disconnect from the classroom. I’d recommend that you start with email – take it off your phone. I don’t believe, or am yet to hear of any school-based employee who needs to be contactable at all times (even if this was the case, the perosn needing you would just ring). Within the school walls, you can force yourself to take time for lunch-chat with your colleagues and get away from your desk. I took email of my phone again (for the last time) this week and have noticed a better disconnect from teaching. When I go into school, I’m ready because I’ve genuinely been away, there’s no longer a feeling of continued blurred lines. I do work in the evenings (I’m a newly appointed subject leader) but I am able to schedule it and (mostly) stick to the schedule.
When we go beyond the boundaries of the school, look at the simple steps you can take to disconnect from the job, so that you can maintain a better work-life balance: setting screen boundaries; doing some thing you enjoy: like going to the gym, meeting with friends for coffee, or something lo-fi (non-tech based); spend time alone: meditate, read a book, listen to a podcast or go for a walk.
But whatever you choose to do, do something to change your day. One small change can make a difference to your well being and be the difference between an average day and a good day.