To Find Work-Life Balance in Teaching, Stop Looking for It?

Congrats, teachers, on making it to Thanksgiving!

When I was a teacher, it felt like a minor miracle to get to this point. After finishing first quarter grades for 115 students, getting through parent conferences, and teaching five classes a day for three months, all I wanted come Thanksgiving weekend was to eat and sleep.

But there was always more work to do. So I’d make half-hearted attempts to be productive on Friday and Saturday, forcing myself into grading and lesson planning all day on Sunday.

The rest of the school year followed this pattern of crushing amounts of work, then a few days to recharge during holiday vacations before it all started up again. I was never sure how I survived to the last day each June.

But recently, two comments on the blog made me wonder whether I could’ve made teaching much easier on myself — that is, less draining and more rewarding — despite all the work.

It started with a question from Michelle, who said:

I have tried to understand how some teachers, like [Marsha] the retired English teacher who posted her story on her memories of teaching, how they can live like that for so many years. How did they maintain any kind of balance in their family life?

Marsha, who taught in Philadelphia public schools for 34 years, responded. So did fellow veteran teacher Bruce7474, who taught in the Bay area for 33 years.

Their secret to surviving, and thriving, in teaching long-term was this:

Stop trying to think of work and life as separate things.

How?

Marsha explains:

Instead…of dividing oneself up to survive, think about ways to be more integrated — to be fully oneself in all aspects of one’s life. Fusion, after all, is more powerful than fission.

Whenever possible, make sure that your teaching is a reflection of your intellectual life. That is, make sure the things that you are teaching and the ideas that you are engaging with students are ones that are truly important to you, that you have an intellectual curiosity about.

This is harder in schools where you are handed a scripted curriculum. I am not sure I have much of a remedy for that, except perhaps to always engage in inquiry into your own practice, to take your own work seriously and always try to make sense of it and to do it better.

I know it seems like it would take MORE energy, but what I found after spending a lifetime in teaching is that the years that were more satisfying to me occurred when there was an interface between my intellectual life and my teaching practice — even the years I was in graduate school (and teaching graduate school, too!) part-time while I was teaching full-time.

Bruce adds:

After my first ten years in the classroom I agonized over the possibility that I’d never get to follow other passions because of the demands full-time teaching makes. I’m one of those people who goes all in anyway, so part-time was not an idea I’d entertain at all. I discovered that I could do more than teaching if I somehow involved those other passions with my identity as a teacher. In many ways it worked well. I produced some oral history radio programs, and got involved with a musical production about the life of Woody Guthrie for a time. These were things that gave me much personal satisfaction and both taught and honed skills I valued. Later, I began to write professionally for a thoroughbred horse magazine. Again, an alternate career that flourished summers and weekends.

This doesn’t mean that the grunt-work of teaching disappears or lessens, they admit. But it does become easier to bear when you have a full life:

Marsha:

During the years I was teaching and raising children, there was always at least one day of the weekend (usually Saturday) when I focused solely on the kids and did no schoolwork at all. And not working in the summers is a HUGE plus.

The other thing that helped me feel good about my life while I was a teacher was having meaningful and loving relationships with my students and colleagues. Human beings need to care about others and feel cared for. We need to know others and be known.

So again, while it may seem paradoxical, having many positive relationships, with students and colleagues alike, makes even the most difficult and challenging settings (like urban schools with few resources) potentially life affirming and energy producing rather than draining.

That and become a sponsor or a coach of some club, sport or activity that lets you get to know kids outside of the classroom. The relationships developed in these spaces pay off tenfold in the classroom. There’s also the satisfaction of mentoring students, helping them create something and be part of a team. Again, the energy that you GET from it is far greater than the energy you have to put in.

Bruce:

I’d like to say that I figured out how to handle the paper load that comes with Honors English classes and senior social science electives, but the truth is I brought home work. Lots of it. My students wrote…often. But the tradeoff was that the desire to have time for other things often motivated me to keep on top of my grading. Marsha’s comments about the link between your intellectual life and your teaching life is spot on. When you can bring that into your classroom as well as any other skills, abilities, and passions you have, your students will respond in kind.

This approach makes a lot of sense to me. The times when I successfully applied what I’d learned in grad school to my lessons were among my most satisfying moments as a teacher. I also noticed that even pretending to be passionate about what I was required to teach but didn’t personally enjoy (ahem, Romeo and Juliet) could help students appreciate literature.

That said, I also spent a lot of energy trying to maintain the boundary between my teacher self and my “real” self because I thought that was the only way I could survive.

Now I see that in doing so, I missed out on a lot of opportunities — to form better relationships with students, to make more of an impact on them, and to make teaching feel less like work.

At the same time, I’m not sure if this approach would have kept me in teaching for the long haul. This holiday weekend, I’m grateful not to have a lick of work to bring home, and I don’t think I would give this freedom up now.

Teachers and former teachers, what do you think about integrating teaching with life rather than trying to keep the two apart? And what are your best tips for work-life balance?

 

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12 thoughts on “To Find Work-Life Balance in Teaching, Stop Looking for It?

  1. First, let me just say that it’s more important to bring yourself to the classroom than it is to take papers home from the classroom. LEAVE THEM AT SCHOOL! I’m a 31 year veteran of High School English, and will be retiring in 5 years. To make those last five years bearable, I’m doing three things immediately:

    FIRST, I JUST BOUGHT A MUSTANG CONVERTIBLE. Hell yes. Because I earned it, and ain’t nobody else gonna buy me one. I drop that top before I pull out of my assigned space, and by the time I’ve hit the second traffic light, work is FORGOTTEN.

    SECOND, I’VE COMMITTED TO TAKING NO WORK HOME. NONE. They say that you learn best when you have to teach what you know. So, I teach my students the rubrics, they apply them to something I’ve written first, then they grade themselves and each other. All I have to do now is dipstick for accuracy. They write directly on the rubrics which are attached directly to their papers. On summative assessments, they’re not allowed to use their own paper. I supply it, from the copy machines, lined paper all exactly the same size, no frayed edges, etc. and nothing brought from home and sneaked in. I even code the papers at the bottom, so there’s no duplication going on outside the classroom. I DESIGN MULTIPLE FORMS OF TESTS AND QUIZZES, AND WE EITHER GRADE IMMEDIATELY IN CLASS, OR THEY’RE SCANTRONED. Sometimes, I even have them call out their scores as I enter them into the grade book. Immediate dipsticking & feedback, scores on the internet for parents to see, and nothing to take home.

    FINALLY, I AM CHANGING DEPARTMENTS. I’m done with Common Core and all its tedium. They’re only focusing intently on English & Math, so I’m taking my CSETS in French & Spanish (I lived in France for a year, and my BA was in Spanish), and saying goodbye to ERWC, CIA’s, anchor papers, etc. FOR GOOD!

    I’m going out on my terms, in style. If you’re stressed about your admins, get your tenure! Then, remember, you have a union. They don’t. If you’re close to retirement, MAKE THEM PAY. THE FULL AMOUNT. GET YOUR RETIREMENT. I almost quit, but then realized I had more personal power than I was exerting. Five more years is now do-able, where it was unbearable just a few short months ago. So if it’s not your cup of tea and your early into it, run like hell! If you’re almost done, find a way to hang in there. Get creative. If you’re somewhere in the middle…may God have mercy on your soul!

    • Hi Preston,

      Good for you for realigning your priorities so you can better take care of your students and yourself. I agree that veteran teachers like you owe it to themselves to earn the full retirement they’ve worked so hard for, though I know it’s easier said than done!

      It’s harder for me to get on board with students to taking over grading, but the ample scaffolding you provide and quality control measures you use sound promising.

      Thanks for your insights and encouragement to teachers young and old! And congrats on your sweet new ride. 🙂

  2. I agree that teaching and life outside of teaching are not dichotomies. The best teachers I had as a student were those who were never anyone other than themselves. The best teaching I did was in the classes in which I was fully integrated AS MYSELF, not as a teacher-puppet. I “managed” to write two novels during the last 15 years of my career — and I painted and exhibited my work, I hiked an average of 6 miles/day, traveled and dealt with many difficult life things while, at the same time, teaching at least 7 sections/semester of various writing classes at the college and university. level. It helps a LOT to LOVE teaching. I retired in July of this year (2014) because I could and because NCLB and Common Core have created a student with whom I had immense difficulties relating. It seems those two “programs” have stolen the joy out of learning and have eliminated curiosity from students. I faced the fact that, as a teacher, I was “over”. Because I always lived my life, retirement has, so far, been just having more time to spend on things I was already enjoying. I think that’s important. I’ve known many teachers who retired and were suddenly lost.

    • Thanks for sharing, Martha. Your creative energy is impressive — and now, having read the anecdotes of the other teachers, I understand a bit better how writing, painting and hiking vigorously must’ve helped you get through personal and professional challenges during those years.

      I’m also learning how to cultivate a life I enjoy outside work — that is, trying to remind myself that I am not my job! Kudos to you for “getting it” all along…

      • I don’t know if you are drained by teaching or derive energy from it, but for most of my career it gave me energy. Toward the end, no.

        And you’re completely right; while the classroom was almost always great for me, the other elements of teaching were not. Having a life outside of school made it easier for me not to be unduly affected by the politics and so on that come with the job. I even learned to take a day off if I just needed to do my own thing. It wasn’t often, but knowing I could was really helpful.

      • I was usually pretty drained after a day of teaching, but I also remember the thrill of having an amazing class, e.g. when the conversation took off and the students impressed me with their insight.

        And yes — consciously building a life outside of school — rather than mostly preparing for school or recovering from it — would helped me deal with all the unpleasant/dispiriting parts more readily…

      • I’ve only been away from teaching since the end of July. The last few months have been very busy with selling a house, packing, moving, finding a house, moving in — NOW (mostly in dreams at night) I revisit school. I realize that 35 years in the classroom, and more than 10,000 students can’t just be walked away from. As I sort through this, I might be interested in submitting to your blog. It seems there is still THIS teaching experience to, uh, experience.

      • I definitely will — I see you saw the teaching blog I just started. I’m glad you will be following — if you see anything you want for your blog and if you’d like it revamped in some way, also, I’m happy to share!

  3. Pingback: Thanks for Making 2014 the Best Year Ever. | Those Who Teach

  4. Pingback: Life After Teaching, Part Six: Five Things I Learned in Year Two | Those Who Teach

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