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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Ways To Find The ‘Right Balance’ Between School & Home

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 25, 2015 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

This week’s question is:

How can teachers balance and maintain both an effective professional life AND a healthy personal/family life?

Most teachers enter the profession to make the world a better place, and our students face many challenges and have multiple needs. Sometimes, though, it’s very hard to balance our idealism with a desire to have a healthy personal and family environment. Many of us, and I’m no exception, have said to ourselves or to others -- “I need to get a life!”

Today, educators Renee Moore, Debbie Silver, Julia Thompson and Vicki Davis provide us all with some advice to do just that! In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation Debbie and I had about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show. By they way, you can now access a list of all my previous shows - with links and descriptions.

I’ll be sharing comments from other invited contributors and readers in Part Two, and there is still time to send your comments in to me!

Response From Renee Moore

Renee Moore, NBCT, teaches English at Mississippi Delta Community College. She is 2001 Mississippi Teacher of the Year; member of the Board of Directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) and of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory; co-authored Teaching 2030 (2011) and blogs at TeachMoore:

Maintaining a balance between personal and professional life is extremely important for teachers, and extremely difficult. Part of the difficulty lies in the way the educational system in the U.S. has developed over time in contrast to what teachers’ schedules and workloads are like in other nations. Recent international comparisons revealed that the average U.S. teacher works at least 50 hours a week, 25-32 hours of that with students. On top of that, many U.S. teachers work second jobs or take on additional duties at school to supplement low teacher pay. Every teaching contract I’ve ever seen had the dreaded “other duties as assigned” clause that covered everything from having to work the basketball concessions to morning bus duty. This can be especially stressful for teachers who are parents of younger children or caregivers to elderly or disabled adults.

Too many times when my own children were young, I had to make painful choices between doing my best for my students and my role as a parent. As a high school English teacher, it was normal for me to have 100 - 150 students. If I only assigned and graded one page of writing from each student, that still works out to be a minimum of 5 hours of grading per assignment. My first year of teaching, one of my mentors told me: “Prepare to give up one of your breaks to grade the research papers--either Christmas or Spring break--but reserve the other to actually spend with your family.” Most of the time, I overtaxed myself and pushed my own health limits, trying to be there for my children, then working late into the night trying to get all the school work done.

One day, a family elder pointed out to me that my children were going to grow up--with me or without me--and they would only grow up once. Slowly, and sometimes painfully, I learned to make different choices. I finally learned that the world would not stop turning if I didn’t get all the papers graded in one night. I found out if I did not get to conference during writing time with every student in a particular section, they would still be okay. I also began to critically examine my teaching and realized I was not helping my students to become responsible enough for their own learning.

Today, there are several things teachers and schools can do to maintain a healthier and more productive balance between work life and personal life. For one, make working as part of a teaching team a priority. Collaboration spreads teacher expertise as well as the workload, and it’s been proven to increase student learning. These teams could be pairs of teachers, or larger professional learning communities (PLCs). Modern teachers can and should take advantage of various forms of technology to handle many of their administrative and repetitive duties more efficiently. I’ve also learned how to use technology to make my teaching time more efficient. I routinely use our school’s learning management system to help students who were absent catch up or to give individualized enrichment or remediation. Like many teachers, I’ve learned to use flipped models to give students information or lecture notes outside of class, freeing more of class time for learning activities that require more teacher attention or facilitation.

Response From Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver is the author of the best selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. She co-wrote the new book, Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Teaching. You can read more about at her website and follow her on Twitter at @DrDebbieSilver:

While I was a young classroom teacher I reared 3 sons. I thought I set a terrific example of work ethic as I worked countless hours at school, attended my students’ extracurricular events, and stayed up late at night working on all manner of things for school. I spent many a dinner hour glued to the phone talking with parents, other teachers, and even students. I felt great pride when I overheard some of the students tell my boys, “Man, I wish she were my mother. You’re so lucky to have such a great mom.” I did everything I knew how to do to be an extraordinary teacher. I just assumed that I was also an exceptional mother.

Later when my boys were grown I was talking with them about how important I thought it is to “give back” to the world. I expressed my concern that maybe they weren’t quite as altruistic as I had hoped they would be. My eldest son shook his head and said, “Gee, Mom, I wonder why that it.” He and the others laughed. I looked at them innocently and asked, “What are you talking about? I always worked so hard and went the extra mile for my students. Didn’t I set a good example for you guys?” My son replied, “Mom, did it ever occur to you that sometimes we didn’t want you to be everybody’s favorite teacher? We just wanted to have you for our mom. Whenever you took us to community events other kids would crowd in and demand your attention. At home you were always doing school stuff. We wanted you to relax sometimes and be with just us.”

It had never occurred to me that while I was working so hard to be Super Teacher I had let my own children feel that they were not as much a priority as my work. Even though in my mind my family members were the single most important entities in my life, my actions did not convey that to them. It seems that I took for granted that they, too, shared my passion for what I was doing and understood when they sometimes got a mom/wife depleted emotionally and physically from what she was doing for everybody else.

I have thought long and hard about how misguided I was to force my family to be inadvertent participants in my “most noble calling.” I am grateful that my sons seem to have forgiven me for my misjudgment and my missteps along the way. But now whenever I work with young teachers, whether they are parents or not, I caution them to find a better balance than I did. I still advocate for fully committing to this profession, but I think it is possible to be an excellent teacher and also to make time for family, friends, and oneself. In fact, in the long run having a well-adjusted life probably enhances the kind of job we do in the classroom.

I’ve questioned many teachers who seem to have found the right balance. Generally they advise to try and leave school at school and home at home. Bringing family drama and commitments to school depletes you of the focus you need for the classroom. Likewise, attending to schoolwork every night robs your family members of the attention needed to build strong relationships. If I had it to do over again, I would try harder to follow the guidelines I’ve learned from other educators:

  • Arrive early at school and stay an hour or two in the afternoon, if needed, but as much as possible finish schoolwork at school.

  • Take a careful look at your calendar. Ruthlessly cut any activities that are draining your energy and not contributing to your professional growth or family unity. Teachers are the worst about over committing. There are a lot of worthy causes, but there is only one you. Take care of your job, your family, and yourself first.

  • At least one night a week schedule a family night. No grading papers, phone calls, texts, or school work of any kind. Totally focus on having fun with the people in your home or close community.

  • Occasionally do things with friends and family that don’t involve school activities. Go to places where you are unlikely to run into students, former students, colleagues, or parents.

  • Do the things you already know to do - eat healthy, get plenty of sleep, drink lots of water, and exercise. Set a good example for others in your family. Remember that taking care of yourself is the least selfish thing you can do. So is investing quality time with loved ones.

  • On your ride home listen to books or songs that relax you, uplift you, or otherwise help you shift gears for your role at home.

  • Remember to be the patient coach, the reliable encourager, the active listener, and the pleasant grown-up you are at school to the people at home, too.

  • Arrange regular “date nights” with your significant other, even if it means just putting the kids to bed early and treating yourselves to a late night dinner in the kitchen or a movie in your bedroom. Leave off the school talk.

  • Check in with friends and family members periodically for an honest discussion about how your work if affecting them.

And finally, don’t beat yourself up over not being able to be all things to all students. Unfortunately some kids need far more than any one person is able to give them. It all comes down to what I call the “mirror test.” If you are able to look in a mirror at the end of the school day and honestly say, “With what I have available to me as a teacher and with what I know, I did my very best today,” then give yourself permission to leave school at school. Go home, and make sure you can pass the same test with your family.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide. Thompson maintains a Web site for educators and a blog, and can found on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

Many teachers have a strong sense of idealism that draws them to education. Many of us draw a great sense of satisfaction from the thought that what we do in our classrooms makes a positive difference in the world. However, that sense of idealism makes it easy to lose the balance between home and school. Avoid the unhappiness and stress caused by this imbalance with conscious efforts such as these.

  • Work efficiently while you are at school. Prioritize the tasks that you must accomplish and work steadily at them. Be sure to fully use your planning time and any spare moment that you have at school. The more you accomplish at school, the less you will have to do at home.

  • Make time for yourself. This may seem obvious, but worries about school can consume your life unless you make an effort to take care of yourself. Eat well. Exercise. Count your blessings. Make time for yourself while you are at school, too. Scheduling just a few minutes every day to consciously relax will make it easier for you to keep life in perspective.

  • Focus on the tasks at hand. Too often teachers find it easy to second-guess their decisions or to replay troublesome scenarios from the day. Instead of endlessly rehashing what went wrong, focus on productive tasks, such as designing motivational lesson plans. Be sure to leave your problems at school, but to take your successes home.

  • Set boundaries. No one should expect you to be on call twenty-four hours a day. For example, it is not wise to give out your personal phone number. Although there will be many after-school demands on your time, learn to gently refuse those that will be too demanding.

  • Keep your career worries in perspective. When something goes wrong, ask yourself if you will still be affected by it in a year, in a few months, or even in a week. Try to focus on the big picture instead of allowing nagging small issues to rob you of your peace of mind.

  • Always have something to look forward to. Make a point of planning a weekend excursion or even spending time on a hobby. Looking forward to something pleasant in the future will help you maintain your equanimity in the present.

  • Be reasonable in your expectations. When you consider how to improve the way you manage your class or conduct yourself as a teacher, keep in mind that you can’t change everything all at once. In fact, there are some things that you just can’t change at all. Deciding to hold reasonable expectations for your performance is an important choice that can prevent stress and help keep the demands of your career in balance.

Response From Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full time classroom teacher in Camilla, Georgia. She is the author of the Cool Cat Teacher Blog and the books Reinventing Writing and Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds. You can hear her bi-weekly show “Every Classroom Matters” on the Bam Radio Network:

Think of your life like a pitcher of water. As a teacher, we pour our lives and energy into the lives of others all day long. But our pitchers are not bottomless. Here are some essential ways I keep my pitcher from running dry.

  1. A Strategic Morning Routine

Since 2008 I have been getting up at 5am.I pray, read my Bible, and journal until around 5:45. I listen to the sounds of nature on my headphones. Then, at 5:45 am, I have a quick morning workout routine of pushups, situps, and some reasonable weight lifiting and at 6 am I write.

The only part of my day I can control is my morning. You are a product of what you do every single day. Pack your morning with the things that energize your soul.

  1. Take Time to Just Be

Be a human being, not just a human doing. There are things you need to do just because you want to. There are songs to listen to just because they make you feel good. There are books you read just because you like them. Be guilt free and just be. I don’t call this “me” time because if I did I might feel like it is selfish. I call this “be” time. Time I’m just going to be human or be silly or be me.

  1. Spend Time With Your Important People

You need time to “be me” but you also need time to be “we.” Who are the important people in your life? Do you make time to be with them?

After my Mom had a cancer scare, I realized that we live in the same town but that I wasn’t seeing her at all. So, we have a Saturday morning date. I pick up breakfast from McDonalds and head over to her house at 7:30 am. There, we laugh and talk about whatever we want. She loves me for me and I love her for her.

We also take family vacations -- all thirteen of us -- once or twice a year. My smaller family of five plans trips to do things together several times a year. When we’re tired or cash is tight, we also plan “staycations” where we take the phone off the hook and just have a movie marathon. And - gasp - there are some weekends when I don’t grade. I’m a better teacher on Monday.

  1. Kill the Vampires

Austin Kleon in his book Share Your Work talks about vampires. Vampires are people, things, or activities that suck the life out of you. When you’re done spending time with them, you feel completely drained. Our profession is a vampire, we don’t have room for people or things in our lives that are also sucking us dry!

I have several books that have helped me make decisions about which things should stay in my life and which should go:

  • “Necessary Endings” by Henry Cloud
  • “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown

Slay those vampires. Get them out of your life if it is possible and the right decision for you, knowing that a life without stress isn’t life.

Balancing home and work is tough but to be a great teacher - you have to figure out a way. And finally, remember the Norwegian proverb: He who laughs, lasts. Keep that pitcher filled and fill your classroom and home with joy.

Thanks to Renee, Debbie, Julia and Vicki for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. Part Two will include readers’ contributions.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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