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Teaching Profession Opinion

That Tricky Work-Life Balance: How One Teacher Found a Solution

By Quan Neloms — December 31, 2019 4 min read
Neloms FirstPerson art cGetty

For years, I’d been working long hours at school and shortchanging time with my family. Finally, at 4:30 a.m. one morning, my son made the imbalance painfully clear.

I had gotten up before dawn to work out, like I do on most days. On this morning a few years ago, my oldest son, who was 8 then, woke up, too, and we chatted while I was getting ready. As I headed out the door, my son turned to go back to bed. He stopped and said: “I love you dad. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

See you tomorrow? I thought to myself. I was stunned. I knew my son wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. He was saying something about his experience, and it was true. I often didn’t make it home before my kids went to sleep, so I wouldn’t see them until the next day. I knew something had to change.

As an educator, I know how important parental involvement is in a child’s life. And yet, here I was, as a parent, letting my commitments at school rob us of important times together at family outings, ball games, and dinners. My wife was extremely supportive of my work, but she had to manage the void created by my absence. Indeed, something had to change.

Trying to Do It All

Ironically, a powerful blend of positive things in my own life as a child led me to overwork as an adult. Growing up in Detroit, I was fortunate to have the support of a nurturing family, a host of concerned and involved educators, and an engaged community. This trifecta ensured that I was exposed to life-changing experiences and opportunities, and that my education, both in and out of school, was full of cultural pride and awareness.

I knew how blessed I was. And when I became a teacher, I wanted to do everything in my power to provide my students with the same kinds of experiences and support.

So, I got to work. In addition to teaching social studies, and later, becoming a school counselor, I created the Lyricist Society, where students can find their voices through creative media. I’ve been thrilled to see my students win awards and travel internationally to share the creative content they produced. I’ve worked on other projects, too, like helping to design 9th grade academies, providing supplemental extracurricular classes, and planning school camping trips.

In the back of my mind, I knew I was spreading myself too thin. But I kept on, because I felt personally responsible for the success of my school and our students. With that feeling of responsibility, mixed with my desire to give back what I received as a young person myself, my time and energy became unbalanced, totally given over to school-related endeavors.

Often, I wouldn’t leave work until late evening. I found myself doing more for my students than for my own children. I’d meant well, but my altruism had become a monster that devoured all of my time.

A New Approach

As I pondered how to regain a healthy balance, I thought about my experiences as a young man in Detroit. How were the concerned adults in my life so long ago able to raise children and have family time and seemingly be able to leave room to live life? And why wasn’t I able to do this?

I realized that I was doing important work alone. I didn’t seek or want help, so my job completely devoured my time. I realized that as I tried to replicate my experiences as a young man, I failed to replicate the trifecta of support—families, educators, and the community—working together to help all of us young people. Instead of working together with my community, I’d selfishly and paternalistically worked alone.

I knew I had to continue the work I cared so deeply about, but I committed to asking for help as well.

First, I asked parents and teachers who were as concerned as I was about the well-being of our school to help plan for the upcoming school year. We broke our big ideas into phases and tasks that could be completed by volunteers. Next, we got our plan approved by the school’s administration.

Finally, we got buy-in from other parents. A small group of teachers and I spent the summer visiting them at home and telling them about our innovative plans for the next year. We asked for their support as volunteers and their commitment as parents. We also built support and got volunteers from the community by reaching out through social media posts and visits to churches, and by activating the personal networks of our school’s parents and educators. The idea was that investing in recruitment on the front end would pay off during the school year.

And you know what? I was moved by the outpouring of help and support we received. Our educators, families, and community members flowed in and out of the school daily to help provide students with a wide range of experiences and opportunities. The trifecta of support was in full effect. I was able to spend more time involved in my own children’s education and in their extracurricular activities, which eased the burden my wife had been carrying. And, because there was now more of a family atmosphere at the school, I was able to involve my family in my work; it became an endeavor that we invested in together.

“Well-oiled machines don’t grind.” —Phonte

Spending marathon hours at school, without enough time for our loved ones or self-care, leads to grinding. Many T-shirts glorify the grind. But grinding indicates system failure.

I’ve learned that by asking and accepting help from the trifecta of support, I can have more time for my life outside of school. I’ve since also taken the team effort approach with my other endeavors in supporting the youth of my city. I urge all educators to see their communities as assets. We must rely on the entire village to support students. The task of inspiring and promoting their success is too daunting for educators to handle alone.

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