Taking the slow road

It’s no secret that one of the reasons I moved here was to slow down.

I used to get to my first job about 8:20, and I was one of the first. On Friday lunch, we all went to the pub. Usually, I left work by 5pm and was home by 5:30. I did some tuition and marking, but it was a standard 8 am – 5:30 pm day. We had time off when the Year 11s left after exams, and some of us marked exams in school. I got weekends to myself and holidays were long. I kept on top of my marking and still had time to run the girls’ football club and trips to the ice hockey.

At my second job, I left for work at 6:50 because it usually took me a good 50 minutes to get there. I was always in work before 8 am and the English department were always the first in school. I usually left at 5pm and got home at 6. We had cakes after work on Fridays, and before parents’ evenings.

My third job was on my own hours. I ended up leaving at 7 am and finishing around 5 pm. I worked weekends and hours around office hours. I also wrote and marked. In 2005, I didn’t have a summer break, except a week.

Then my fourth job was again in for 7 am, leave at 6:45 am. I was usually in school until the caretakers came round. I worked long hours and my weekends were filled with marking. I was in charge of a team of fourteen people, supposed to commit myself to three hours of one-to-one mentoring. I was responsible for 1,200 11-18 students and paperwork flew through my fingers. I was working at the Department for Education, writing textbooks, marking KS3, GCSE and A level twice a year.

Needless to say, it was too much, especially without any support from the highest echelons.

I balanced out hard work with hard living. I shopped at the ever-handy Trafford Centre, open until 10pm. I went to the gym, open til midnight. I spent a lot of money and I ‘treated’ myself to good clothes and make-up and shoes. I had some great holidays, too.

But the more I worked, the more I felt like a drudge. I began to feel like Boxer in ‘Animal Farm’, the hard-working horse who they cart off to the knacker’s yard. “I must work harder” was my motto. I just sucked it up and smiled. I think you always have a six-month period where you are really, really appreciated for doing this. You clear up other people’s messes. With the exception of one job, my first, I’ve spent the first six months clearing up other people’s messes. You’re worshipped. People think you’re amazing.

And then they expect you to perform like this all the time. They give you more and more and more to do. And you do it. You do it because you’re hard working and other people slack off. You do it because in public services, it feels shit not to do it because it’s always people who suffer. You do it because your halo tells you to.

Until you get to a point where you can’t do it any more. You say ‘no’ for the first time. You say ‘I can’t do it. I don’t physically have the time.’

And then you go from Miss Perfect to Miss Stubborn and Awkward. I might as well hand in my notice then and move on to the next job.

That’s what I did.

Same cycle.

Clear up mess. Wow everyone. Go above and beyond. Work harder. Work harder still. Work weekends and spare hours. Work holidays. Get to complete and full capacity. Say no. Piss everybody off. Leave.

That’s why I decided to work for myself. I reckoned if I worked as hard as I did in school, I’d be successful. And the truth is, I don’t work as hard as I did in school. I work as much as I can without killing myself.

No, I don’t earn much money. There are days when I eat egg on toast and beans on toast and drink water. It makes me laugh that another ‘frugal’ blog mentions ‘no spend days’. I have ‘no spend weeks’.

But I’m happier for it. So much so that I’m coming out of this huge cycle of depression that’s been eating at me since 2004. That’s a long time. It’s not all been sad, but it’s all been hard-going. It’s like being forced into a boxing ring to fight when you’ve only had three hours sleep and a pack of spangles for food.

So the main thing that’s important to me here is enjoying it. I don’t ever want it to feel like a grind. I only answer to myself, so I never have to feel bad for letting people down. I had a discussion once with a man-in-black something-or-other whose job it was to give me tips on how to deal with stress. We got in this discussion about mistakes.

“So, how would you feel if you made a mistake at work?”

“I don’t know. I don’t make mistakes at work.”

“But how would you feel if you did?”

“I have no idea. It doesn’t happen.”

“Would you feel like you’ve let people down?”

“I don’t know.”

“You must know.”

“I’ve no idea. I’m Miss Dependable. I don’t make mistakes.”

This is true. I once wrote ‘Monday 14th’ instead of ‘Monday 15th’ and two senior colleagues came into my office to do a dance because it was the first slip up I’d made. And no, it didn’t bother me. But the man-in-black was trying to suggest I was being a perfectionist and that I was afraid to fail. I wasn’t afraid to fail. I just didn’t fail. Do or do not do.

And working for myself is about the first time in my working life that I could say ‘Sorry, I’m fully booked’ or ‘Sorry, I can’t make that date’ or ‘Sorry, I’ve got too much on’ without people wigging out and expecting more. It’s the first time that I’ve been able to just do my own job without people giving me all of their job as well. And I like it.

Yes, it worries me that I don’t have a big pension pot any more. If I’d kept working like I did for another 25 years, I’d have retired on a big fat pension. Maybe. But I could have dropped dead of a heart attack or been killed in a traffic accident or died the day after I retired. Being a diligent ant always looking to the future means that sometimes you don’t stop to be the grasshopper and enjoy the here and now.

But, it’s results day for GCSE today. And already my blood pressure is up a few notches. Results are down, apparently, and the mighty Geoff Barton is suggesting the exams might be to blame. I feel another post in response to that comment, but having been in education since 1995, I have taught through 12 – count em! – syllabus changes at GCSE. Now how would footballers feel if every year, an entirely new game was brought in. Let’s not play football this year, let’s go for some windsurfing competitions instead. I imagine Alex Ferguson’s head would explode. Who’d want to be a football player if one year you were top of the league doing one thing, then next year, you had to do something completely different, like hockey, and some bureaucrat said ‘well, it’s all a test of physical skill, isn’t it? It should be easy!’

See how easy it is for me to get into it? And this was my 14-hour-a-day life, fighting from the inside. For now, I’m very happy to spend days as I did yesterday. I walked the dogs in lovely end-of-summer temperatures. We played under the water sprays over the fields. Tilly ran through the corn. I talked to my neighbours. I did a bit of script work, read a book, took a nap, then I went canoeing with my lovely friend and her lovely family, and some other lovely people. We canoed down the Charente, had a glass of rosé and grapefruit juice (lethal, gorgeous new favourite drink of mine now!) and canoed back. I drove home as the sun was going down over the sunflowers and had a happy welcome from my lovely animals.

Now, you tell me… it’s not exactly Hobson’s Choice is it? Getting het up over whose fault it is that kids don’t make progress (whilst simultaneously forgetting/undermining the majority who leave with a great of results) and feeling like ‘I must work harder’ is a mantra for success, or spending the day working on a great script and having plenty of time to walk the dogs and go canoeing with friends?

Yes, I miss the kids. I miss the challenge. Sometimes, tuition is almost too easy. I miss my colleagues. I miss the laughs. I miss the great things kids say and do. I don’t miss about three hundred things. And the things I miss? Well, I still get some of those. I just don’t have to kill myself to enjoy them.



2 thoughts on “Taking the slow road

  1. Oh my goodness, I love this post. I did a very similar thing in recent years, going from a high stress very senior corporate position with so much responsibility I could barely sleep at night for the worry, to a life where the practice of frugality is an art because my income has dropped dramatically. But now I have plenty of time to slow down and it is absolutely dreamy! I’ve never been so happy and laugh out loud when my friends ask me if I miss the old job. Though I do have thoughts of going back to it, because it was very exciting. But somehow being able to sleep at night always trumps the excitement factor!

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