Life – Work balance

We took our daughter, Louisa, to her first day of kindergarten this morning. We took pictures as the morning sun lit up her blond hair and reflected off the damp grass. We followed the bus to school in our car. We stood in the back of the classroom with other nervous parents we didn’t know and watched her settle in. 

We watched Louisa play her first soccer game as a seventh grader this afternoon. We cheered with the other parents we now call friends. We stopped for pizza on the way home. We talked with the Louisa about her new responsibilities and independence.

We will say “goodnight” to Louisa with nervous anticipation some evening soon.  We will think about how it will be to have her spend the last night sleeping in her own bed before we take her to college in the morning. I hope we will feel like we took advantage of every opportunity to be with her – to truly be present with our daughter. I hope she will feel the same way.

I expect I’m not the only one who sometimes feels like life’s moments are slipping away while I’m working a job that is hard to contain in a regular schedule. Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoy my job. I feel like I’m good at it. I feel like I make a difference. I want to do everything I can to help my students – but sometimes that comes at a price. So the question is…how much am I willing to pay? Perhaps a harder question is “How much should I be willing to pay?” And how do I know when to say “no”?

There are plenty of reasons why maintaining appropriate boundaries with work is so challenging. Teaching is personal; teaching is a passion. Students seem to have higher needs every year. Saying “no” or doing something for ourselves can produce feelings of guilt. Our culture has an obsession with busyness – sometimes it can feel like I must not be working hard enough if I’m not working all the time. And then…aren’t teachers supposed to spend evenings and weekends planning and grading? Shouldn’t our vacations be spent working through the projects we assigned? Shouldn’t our summers be filled with classes, workshops, and professional readings? 

Just in case you’re wondering, I haven’t figured out how to contain my professional responsibilities within a clearly defined workday. It’s not possible. There are late nights and early mornings of grading and planning. There are weekends and vacation days spent reviewing student work and reading books about grading practices and implicit bias. There are summer days spent taking classes and reviewing and designing curriculum. And by the way – I don’t have any complaints about this (mostly). I find meaning in my work. I enjoy learning and growing as a professional. If I ever reach the point that I don’t enjoy it anymore, then it’s time to move on to something else. Hopefully I win the Lottery before then, but I guess I have to buy a ticket in order to have any chance at winning.

I sit writing this up against the deadline because my workday has been so full I couldn’t even find time during my lunch to write over the past two weeks. My afternoons and evenings have been filled with coaching my son Lincoln’s soccer team and cheering on Louisa from the sidelines. It’s now early in the evening and I have found a (mostly) quiet space in Louisa’s school to write as I wait for her to complete her basketball tryouts. Despite this impending deadline (and several others breathing down my neck) I didn’t stay late at work to write. I could have stayed late to work – there is plenty of it. But I didn’t. I didn’t because today was the only afternoon this week that I will have the chance to ride my mountain bike. So I rode. I did it for me. I didn’t stay late at work today because I am trying to follow the advice I wrote for Louisa upon entering middle school this year – “make yourself a priority”. 

It is essential that we take the time to take care of ourselves. So how do we do that on a regular basis? How do I do it? 

Not well, but I have a growth mindset about my life-work balance. I’m getting better, and living a life that aligns with my core values has been a boon for my wellness.

My core values drive my decisions and actions every day. When something doesn’t feel right, it is usually because I’m living a life that is incongruous with those values, some of which include “Family first” and “Work hard, play harder, play often.” Perhaps I should add a core value – “Make myself a priority”. Here is how I explained this to Louisa: 

This is a big one. We spend so much time talking about not being selfish, that sometimes we lose sight of [taking care of ourselves]. You are important. What you want is important. What you need is important. Advocate for yourself with your teachers. Don’t let others be mean to you or walk all over you. Make sure your relationships (yes, even any romantic relationships) are built on trust and respect. Don’t let anyone pressure you to do something you don’t want to do.

I’d like to leave you with the advice my department chair, Carl, offered me on my first day as a new teacher. Carl was the consummate professional. He worked hard for his students. The quality of his work was always top notch. He had high expectations for himself and the members of his department. He struggled with his life-work balance. The advice he offered was to “Take care of yourself first so you can take care of your family. Your distant third priority is this job.” 

I encourage you to find ways to take care of yourself. Take that mountain bike ride right after work every now and then. Feel the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your face. You’ll breathe deeper at work the next day. Find ways to feed the fun in your life – you’ll be glad you did.

John Painter (@802Painter) is a 2014 Rowland Fellow whose work has focused on advisory. John has partnered with the Flyin Ryan Foundation to bring the writing and sharing of core values into Vermont schools. He is currently the Curriculum Area Supervisor for the Mathematics Department at South Burlington High School.

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