During my first few years of teaching, I happily stayed at school working until 5 p.m. I was a young wife whose husband didn’t return home from work until 6 p.m. We didn’t have children of our own. I wasn’t involved in any community organizations at that time, so I immersed myself in my work to learn the ropes and become the best teacher I could be. I was happy to advise clubs, lead after-school study groups, and attend evening events such as band concerts and science fairs. My work and my students were my priority, therefore I felt fulfilled giving so much of my time and energy to them. The idea of work-life balance wasn’t on my radar.
Fast forward some 14 years and you’ll get another story. As a divorced mom of twins, I’m constantly switching hats. In addition to mom and teacher, there’s president of the local Mothers of Multiples Club, Secretary of the PTA, Sunday School teacher, not to mention friend, daughter, sister, and occasionally Match.com date. With each new phase of life comes a new set of demands. It’s no surprise that we can end up feeling depleted and unsatisfied. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Don’t Believe the Hype: Reframing Work-Life
Why is it called work-life balance anyway? The term work-life balance is faulty in two ways. First, the image of a scale with work on one side and life on the other implies the two are somehow at odds with each other, to have too much of one means the other is short-changed. In a society in which more people than ever seek to find purpose and belonging through their work, it seems foolish to imply that investing time into career and work-related relationships means that you don’t have a life. As teachers we rightly believe the work we do is meaningful. We intentionally chose a career through which we can have lasting positive effects on individuals, community, and society as a whole. Not to mention, our teacher friends become our best confidants as well as our comic relief. In some fields it may be a fruitless endeavor to seek meaning and belonging through work, but for teachers it just isn’t so. Perhaps teachers need to stop buying into the idea that pouring ourselves into our work will result in a life that is lacking something. Maybe it’s time for teachers to acknowledge that we may be the exception to the rule and allow ourselves to accept that the purpose and belonging that are keys to a meaningful life can be found through the work that we do.
The second problem with work-life balance is the idea that a balance can and should be struck between the two. Perhaps we need to stop thinking of balance as a scale with two plates, but rather a balance beam like the gymnastics apparatus. The balance beam is a finite length of five meters, just like each day is a finite length of 24 hours. It’s a lack of clarity and/or commitment to priority that is leaving teachers feeling empty. And it’s time to take back the beam.
The Key to Satisfaction is Priority
Step 1- Determine what is on the balance beam. We must ask ourselves, what are the tasks, responsibilities and commitments that are taking time out of each day? Equally as important to ask is who are we allowing to place items on our beam? This step requires some work. Track how you spend your time for two weeks. Include both work and personal commitments. Be specific and HONEST. Don’t leave something out because it’s a “one-time occurrence.” You may find that these exceptions add up.
Step 2- Get clear on your priorities. We can only fit so much on the beam. Adding something new often pushes something else off. You get to determine what your priorities are regardless of what others expect of you. Again, honesty is required. Studies have proven that multitasking leads to lack of productivity rather than increased productivity. Trying to complete more than one task at a time is inefficient because of the time it takes our brains to refocus after each transition. Life is the same way. Time spent doing anything that isn’t in line with your priority is a distraction from it.
Step 3- Create a plan to make room for what you want. This will require you to: Eliminate, Delegate, Innovate, Communicate, and Anticipate. If editing the PTA newsletter used to bring you joy, but now it’s causing you stress each month, it’s time to eliminate it from your beam. Perhaps meal planning has fallen to the wayside since you started your grad work. A great way to delegate could be a subscription to a box meal service like HelloFresh or Blue Apron. If grading is taking up too much of your time due to increased class size, try using Google Forms to grade quizzes. It will both save you time and give your students immediate feedback.
When realigning our lives to our priorities we must communicate our goals to those closest to us. This could be our spouse, family, coworkers, and even our supervisors. It is critical to schedule time on your calendar to talk with those who can help you eliminate, delegate, and innovate. Remember that people always have time for what they make time for. You are simply communicating what you have decided to make time for.
The final step is the most important. You must anticipate obstacles. This includes resistance from those around us. If you are able to anticipate hurdles, you can plan ahead for how you will handle them. This will require learning to say no to tasks, projects, and even people who will distract you from your priorities.
Get clear on what you want. Imagine the fulfilling life you are creating by committing to the priorities. Pursue them without apology.
This piece was originally published in the September 2019 issue of ASCD EdAdvantage. The issue was dedicated to the topic of the Whole Teacher. You can check out the original and accompanying video here.