We are starting this series on habits of wholehearted teachers with a biggie – cultivating work-life balance as a teacher. This topic ranges in teachers mind from as illusive as a unicorn to as offensive as a curse word. Seriously! I know teachers who have such guilt over creating work-life balance you’d think they were committing a crime! Others want it, but think it’s impossible – like a fantasy.
But trust me – it’s not impossible, and it doesn’t mean you are a bad (or half-hearted) teacher. On the contrary – it makes you MORE wholehearted when you can maintain balance in your life free from guilt!
As long as we are talking about myths – let me lay another one on you: Work-life balance isn’t only for teachers with families. Single, biological-child-free teachers need to get this one right too. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!!
Hear me here – this is a serious issue that we need to be sure to get right. Having poor balance in your life – specifically when work runs over your opportunity to connect with others, engage in your passions outside of teaching, sleep, exercise, be present with your family etc. – can cause you some very serious problems. I have worked with people who did not learn this lesson until it was too late – they were diagnosed with major health concerns, were dangerously overweight, were on the verge of divorce, etc. It doesn’t have to get to that point in order for us to take this lesson seriously. Please.
And while I’m on my soapbox – if you are one who engages in bragging over only getting 4 hours of sleep because you were prepping for a lesson or grading or whatnot – please cut it out. That is a super unhealthy thing to be bragging about – and it sucks the life out of all those who hear it. They either want to punch you in the face, or pretend to be sorry for you. So can we all just agree to stop this behavior right now?! Poor work-life balance is nothing to brag about.
Cultivating Work-Life Balance as a Teacher
So, how do wholehearted teachers harness that beautiful unicorn and cultivate work/life balance free from guilt? They choose it, work at it, and stay committed to it.
Choose to Place Importance on Balance
If right now you are way out of balance, then this one is going to be the most important step for you. In order to cultivate balance, you have to believe it is important and you have to choose to make it a priority in your life. Here is an exercise to help you remember how important it is for you to stay in balance. Journal this if possible.
- Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of it. Write “Out-of-Balance” at the top of the left side of the page and “In Balance” on the right side of the page.
- Remember and reflect upon a time when you felt super out of balance. You were spending far too much time at work. Reflect on the answers to these questions and write your notes in the left column of your page:
- What were you doing?
- Why was that so important?
- What suffered because of this imbalance?
- Whom suffered because of this imbalance?
- How did YOU suffer?
- What did you lose because you chose work?
- What were all the costs of this imbalance?
- Now think of a time when you felt more in balance. (If you literally cannot think of a time except when you were on summer break – not ideal – then reflect on what you want balance to be like.) Write the answers to these questions in the right-hand column of your page:
- What was different?
- What were you able to do because your work was balanced with the rest of your life?
- How important is that for you?
- Who benefits when you have proper balance in your life?
- Compare the columns on your page. At the bottom or back of your paper, reflect on what the worse-case scenario would be if you did not learn this lesson. Write down your feared worst consequence or cost for imbalance. What is the best-case scenario outcome of learning this lesson and cultivating balance in your life? Write that down too.
That last thing you wrote down – the best case scenario outcome for accomplishing balance in your life – that’s your new target! If that doesn’t motivate you properly, then avoiding worst-case scenario might be something to keep in mind too! Find the thing that will motivate you and write that on a sticky note:
I choose balance for my life because/so that/in order to _____________________.
Place that sticky note in your calendar, on your computer screen, on your phone, or wherever you will see it frequently – especially when making decisions about your time.
Prioritize Your Time to Align with Your Values
Balance is not about finding some magical formula to get everything done. Rather, it’s about making the choice to prioritize the things you care most about, and developing the willingness to let the other things go.
Prioritizing the things you care most about can be harder than it looks. First, you really have to know what you care about. Typically, we place importance on the things we think we “should” care about. But if that doesn’t line up with our real heart and values, it can lead to resentment and negativity.
Since you’ve got your piece of paper out from the last exercise, turn it over and reflect on what you truly value in life. What are the things that you want to prioritize about all else? Here is a list of values words to help you brainstorm. You can print it and circle the ones that resonate. Keep narrowing the list down until you have your top 5 values.
Knowing your values will help you prioritize the way you spend your time. For example if family is something that is one of your top five on your values list, but you are not spending enough time with you family to feel fulfilled, then you need to realign how you spend your time.
And, yes, that may mean that you don’t give the amount of feedback to students that you’d like to on every single assignment. It may mean that you say “no” to participating on a committee that you feel flattered to be a part of.
This is hard! That’s why it seems as mythical as a unicorn! You cannot do everything, so you must prioritize and then make the changes necessary.
- Jot down activities that you’d like to prioritize in your week that align to your five values.
Make the Changes Necessary
This can be the tough part – the execution. You will now need to determine what your ideal balanced life will look like. And be specific!
Use a blank weekly calendar or dayplanner to write out exactly what a balanced week will look like to you. If it’s drastically different from what you are doing now, identify steps you can take to get there. I suggest transitioning slowly because the change will likely be a more lasting habit.
For example, if you currently don’t leave school until 7pm and you know you’d like to be home to cook a home-cooked dinner for your family and enjoy the process, that may mean you have to leave at 5:30. So instead of making a universal rule that you will leave everyday at 5:30 and make a home-cooked dinner from the get-go, start with one or two days per week, and gradually increase it until you feel more balanced.
By the way, balanced doesn’t mean you always prioritize home over school. Sometimes school demands more – like on parent conference nights, or when you need to work with a group of students during lunch etc. Balance doesn’t mean you become the worksheet queen and stop caring about your important role in students’ lives. So find a “happy medium” – that balance point – between the things you need and value in all areas of your life.
This can be hard – don’t hesitate to contact me or another coach or helping professional to work through this with you.
The key to cultivating work-life balance as a teacher is commitment. Keep your reason in mind (either the best or worst case scenario) for why you cultivate this behavior, and then strive daily to make it a habit. Focus on cultivating it until it becomes a habit – this may take several weeks or months. But it’s worth it!
Warning Sign: Keep resentment and negativity as warning signs that you are out of balance. If you start resenting aspects of your job, use that feeling as a cue that something is off. Redraw your boundaries to bring your life into proper alignment and balance. Cultivating work-life balance as a teacher is never completely finished. You will always have to check and recheck yourself. But it’s worth the effort!
The outcome is a more wholehearted life!
~Alison, A Teacher’s Best Friend