Teaching Profession Opinion

Teaching Work-Life Balance: Be the Worker You Want to See

By John T. McCrann — May 25, 2017 4 min read
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Happy Labor History Month!

I have been thinking this month about my own history with the labor movement and what lessons it has taught me about the work I do in my


Growing up, I really didn’t hear or think much about labor as a movement. Sure, I knew people who worked and I must have known some people in unions (though it wouldn’t have been very many since my home state, North Carolina, has the lowest union participation rate in the US).

Now I’m an active member and leader in the nation’s largest local, the United Federation of Teachers.

Collective bargaining has done a lot for me in my career and I’m a firm believer that a well-supported, professional corps of teachers is a necessary part of meaningful education reform in this country (research showing that unionization correlates with increased student achievement here, here, and here).

However, I’m not bringing up the labor movement to rehash tired arguments about unionized versus non unionized labor forces.

I’m more interested in the answer to this question: What do you want the world of work to be like for the young people in your life?

I meet and read stories about so many people in today’s economy who are overworked and overstressed (here’s one about Amazon that I found particularly shocking) and think “I wouldn’t want that life for anyone, particularly not the students I care about.”

I want the students I teach to find meaning and passion in their work as well financial stability, but that’s not all I hope for in their future. I want my students to be wonderful mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and godparents. To be the stars of their adult softball team and award-winning bakers. I hope they are kind neighbors who stop to check in with the people on the street and active citizens who show up at town hall meetings or run for office. My hope for them is that they can achieve a balance in their life, devoting significant time to meaningful work and time to families, hobbies, and their non-work communities.

Yet, for much of my teaching career I didn’t hold my own work life to these standards. I let my career eat up far too much of my attention and focus to the detriment of my other commitments and my own happiness.

As one of the professionals whose work life they know as well as almost any other, I owe it to my students to model what healthy labor looks like. Here’s an annotated list of a handful of ways I try to teach them about healthy work through example.

1. Let lunch be lunch.

Duty-free lunch was a hard fought victory in the early days of teachers’ unions, but I’m sad to say that for the first part of my career I rarely used it. In a misguided attempt to utilize all the time I had with students, I tried to do tutoring through my lunch period or meet with students about other issues. I now realize that a break in the middle of the day from one another is good for me and my students. Recently, I’ve been working out during part of my lunch period. This example not only promotes work-life balance but healthy living in general.

2. Don’t be on call.

Students have my email address, but I do not return their emails outside of work hours. When a student with an early evening (or late night) question expresses frustration about this particular policy I talk to them about the boundaries I set and why I set them.

3. Be up front about money.

It’s important to be honest about the fact that our school is a place that I am paid to be. That’s part of work and while it’s not always the most polite conversation topic, I shouldn’t hide that aspect of work life from my students. When students ask how much I’m paid I tell them. I also tell them about the extra pay I get for doing things like tutoring and covering class. If students think we are martyrs who doing our jobs out of the goodness of our hearts alone, they will not see this aspect of work and we’re not being fully honest with them.

4. Don’t let your work day creep.

At the beginning of my career, any new thing I tried at work was an add-on to my regular load. Now, if my principal or a colleague approaches me with an additional opportunity I find a way to balance that time out by not doing something else. Sometimes I really want to try the new thing and it means papers go ungraded for another week or a lesson from last year is taught without edits. Other times, it means I can’t do the new thing because I have too much on my regular work load. In leadership team meetings, I try encourage our school leaders to “balance the time budget” by asking us to think about how much time an initiative will take and think about recommendations we can make for things that teachers can abstain from in order to come up with that time.

These are some things that I try to do but they are certainly neither exclusive nor exhaustive. I’d love to hear how others are modeling healthy work-life balance for your students in the comments and on Twitter.

Photo from Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=131378. Labor movement activists like these union activist in the 1912 Lawrenceville textile strike fought and won victories for workers in this country. We owe it to our students to model how to utilize these victories to achieve a happy work-life balance.

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