Sunday, November 30, 2014


Hello, I am a trainee teacher. I read the article. It was an interesting read. I have a question. How can a teacher attain a work life balance, given that she wants to do so much and that she is expected to do so much? 
                          --Meena Valli

Since it started running the Huffington Post, my piece about how teachers face the challenge of Not Enough has brought responses like this, asking if I know the secret to work-life balance for teachers. I've not responded to them for a while, mostly because I'm not sure that I have anything useful to say (and Meena-- you appear to be in India, so I'm really not sure how much of what I could say translates across cultural boundaries). So this post is personal, and may not be useful for anybody except me.

The short answer:

No, I don't know the secret. I'm not any smarter or wiser than the average shmoe.

The long answer:

I can pass along what experience and observation suggest works, or at least helps.

Don't Count on the Job To Fill You Up

It's okay to love your job. It's desirable and even necessary that a teacher love teaching. But you have to be careful, because as much as you love teaching, teaching will never love you back. Teacher lore is filled with tales of stirring moments-- the note from a student, the special recognition at a meeting, the stirring movie-style public honoring of a teacher at the end of his career. We all have these stories, and we treasure them precisely because they are as common as Sasquatch sightings.

My community is pretty supportive of teaching, but if I am counting on my school community to be so moved by my dedication that they devote themselves to giving me all the support, cover and assistance I could ever need to fill up my emotional tank, I are going to be running on empty. This is not because everyone is evil or stunted or awful. You're a lifeguard at a beach with a dozen other lifeguards and a hundred people floundering in the water. There's too much work for the lifeguards to do for them to be worrying about the other lifeguards.

The job is great, but it's only for a while. As beloved as I may be right now, three years after I leave my building, I will be "that guy who used to teach here." There may be a voice inside you that thinks, "I spend all my time at work nurturing other people. When is it going to be my turn to be nurtured?" The answer is the same for you as it is for every other working professional in the country-- you may have a place of nurturing, but it's not at work.

The Students Are Not There For You

How many teachers have I watched burn out because they viewed their students as their emotional support system? Too many. Almost as bad are the teachers who sacrifice their effectiveness-- once your students figure out that you need their approval or approbation to make it through the day, they know they're driving the bus (or they become uncomfortable knowing that nobody is driving the bus).

Have Other Passions

It doesn't matter what, but have something. I play in a town band, work with community theater, write for the newspaper, kayak, bike, read and other odds and ends. These have many good side effects, not the least of which is giving me a life outside of my classroom. How can I ever hope to teach my students about how to be in the world if I never spend any time there myself? How can I possibly relate to their struggle to acquire and perfect new skills when I haven't had the experience of developing new skills myself in the last twenty years? How can I bring anything into my classroom if I never really leave it?

Have Non-teacher Friends

Some things we deal with in teaching are unique to teaching. Some are not. Perspective is helpful. Some of the challenges we face come from being teachers, but some of them come from being human. Spend some time with your fellow humans to build your outside-the-classroom life. My relationships with people in other fields give me a useful understanding of what's going on in the working world my students want to enter as well as reminding me about the ways in which I have it pretty good. (Pro tip: don't ever, ever complain about going back to school after your twelve week summer break in front of your working friends who will only get ten vacation days all year.)

Work and Don't Work

Boy, was I terrible at this one when I started. I worked all the time, including the time that I was theoretically doing not-work. I knew that I needed to take some time to unwind, but I felt guilty about not working, so I would take work along for the not-working. Consequently, I wouldn't really get much work done and what was done was half-assed, but since I had been trying to work, I didn't really get the benefit of the unwinding time either. I managed to get the worst of both worlds. When you work, work. When you don't, don't.

Decide What Matters and Don't Waste Time on the Rest

When I started out, I thought I needed to say yes to everything, and so I acquired a lot of tasks that I just didn't care about. Your time is precious; use it for the things that matter to you. This is not always an easy call-- your friend Pat may love curling and you may not think that curling is important at all, but because you believe that Pat is important, you spend time on curling. You may want to earn some points with your principal, but do you really want to devote hours and hours to the Restroom Sink Cleaning Committee? If it's not important to you, don't throw away your time and effort on it.

And the primary relationships in your life? Take care of those. Teachers can become just as tunnel-visioned as any stereotypical work-obsessed executive in movies.

I'm often asked how I am able to blog so much. It's because the need to express what's in my head and gut in words is an itch I have to scratch (playing music is another must-scratch itch for me); working my thoughts out here literally clears my head. That matters, so I find the time for it.

Don't Buy Tickets for the Guilt Train

It will always be possible to compare yourself unfavorably with what you think you're supposed to be doing. Thirty-five years in, I can still list for you the areas where I am lacking as a teacher. I can give you a whole verse and chorus about what I ought to be doing that I am not. I could spend a lot of time feeling guilty about that. I could spend every single moment that I'm not doing classroom stuff (like this moment, for instance) feeling guilty about it, or I could just decide I won't ever do anything ever except teacher stuff, but neither stance is sustainable in the long run. This goes back to the original post-- I could give teaching everything 24/7 and it still wouldn't be enough. In fact, I'm pretty sure that trying to live without any life outside my classroom would actually move me backwards as a teacher. The trick is knowing how much I can sustain.

In fact, if I were going to boil everything down to just one line of advice, it would be

Know your limits and accept living within them.

But Also Stretch Them

I have to grow. So every year, I stretch something. I accomplish something or master something or change something or strengthen something. I believe that in life, in all things, there is only moving forward or moving backwards-- there is no standing still.And that's part of what insures that

Balance Is an Ongoing Process

Finding this balance is not like setting up one of those cool stacks of balanced stones. It's like walking a tightrope while juggling pumpkins while somebody keeps stacking bricks on your feet and head. I have to constantly self-evaluate and adjust and there are times still when I get that feeling that lets me know I've lost control. Plus there are times when some aspect of my life just blows up and I have no choice but to live an unbalanced life for a while. Getting a good work-life balance looks a lot different right now with grown children far away and a newish marriage here at home than it did when I was single dad of high school age kids, and it certainly looks different than when I was dealing with divorce.

In short, my balance is never something I get to just wrap up and say, "Okay, that's settled. I never have to think about it again." I can't balance on autopilot, and I don't think many people can.

Teaching is an awesome job, and I would never have been as happy doing something else. But teaching will take everything you have to give and then yell for more. You must have a well-built boundary between your self and the job, or it will simply consume you and spit you out. You are the goose that is laying the golden egg, and if you cut yourself open to get more eggs out faster, that will be the end of both you and the gold. Or you're a lifeguard and you can't save others if you're drowning yourself. Pick a metaphor you like, but like people in many human service work, you have to have a part of yourself that you keep safe and whole, or you'll be done. At least, that's how it looks to me.


  1. Sound, thoughtful advice from someone who has survived for a good long time. Well worth sharing. Thanks, Peter!

  2. Very wise. Thank you for making the time to blog and share the wealth so others can benefit.

  3. Well stated. I've said it before: In so many ways we have lead parallel lives. Be well, happy holidays.