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Teacher Wellness

A New Way to Think About Work-Life Balance

A school leader shares how he came to understand that work-life balance looks different for different people—and there’s no need to feel guilty about that.

December 3, 2020
Illustration concept for finding balance
Brian Stauffer / The iSpot

We’re constantly told that we need to make sure we have a good work-life balance, and that we need to embrace self-care, to the point where a quick Twitter search will provide you with literally thousands of self-care, relaxation, and #InvestInYourself tips.

I have a bad work-life balance. I used to feel extremely guilty about every aspect of that. I wasn’t investing enough time in teaching, leading, and learning. I wasn’t investing enough time in my family or our friends. I wasn’t spending enough time on my graduate work. It didn’t matter what lane I went down, the other two were glaring at me: “When do we get our time?”

But I’ve learned that work-life balance is a myth because everyone has different responsibilities and values in terms of their work and their personal lives. “Balance” for one person might be a nightmare for another.

The guilt that comes from the pursuit of work-life balance is not a myth, however, and I’ve found that in order to manage that guilt, I need to think of my obligations as more a juggling act than a balancing act.

Like most busy educators, at any given moment I’m juggling a million obligations: a report due, concern about a student, the needs of my own children, working out to stay healthy, books I need to read. I’ve noticed that burnout and exhaustion come when I try to keep everything in the air—when I try to do everything. As I wrote in a previous article, teachers do best when they know that they can do anything, but not everything—and certainly not at once.

So it is with juggling: I can juggle anything, but not everything. So what helps me prioritize? I think of the things I need to juggle as different types of items: glass cups that will break if they drop, plastic balls that will bounce, and “ghosts”—items that I think are there but really aren’t.

Glass Cups

Glass breaks. I know that shouldn’t sound like a profound statement, but if we’re going to come to terms with the fact that there are things in life that are more important than others, we must identify them. If I drop a metaphorical glass cup—like missing my kids’ events repeatedly, forgetting an anniversary, or not completing a report—the effects will be permanent, so I’m conscious not only of which items are glass but also of the fact that I can juggle only so many at once.

At some point, you’ve undoubtedly heard someone say that you can’t pour from an empty cup. You also can’t pour when you don’t have a cup left to pour out of. Our glass cups are complex, but they’re the things that make us who we are. They’re the cups that we have filled with the things that are most important to us, the things that are core to who we are; what we have in our cups we also pour into the cups of other people, just as they pour from their cups into ours.

There is intentionality in identifying the glass cups first—and some conflict in admitting that some things are more important than others. No matter how hard I’m pushing myself, I often have to remind myself that work is almost never a glass cup; almost nothing in my professional life cannot get dropped for at least a short period of time.

Plastic Balls

Plastic balls bounce, and, more important, they make a noise when they’re dropped. Sometimes the only way we can prove to ourselves that something is a plastic ball—that it is real but unbreakable—is to let it drop and see what happens. When we drop something plastic, there are inevitably consequences, but we have to reconcile and understand that the payoff is greater than the consequence.

The majority of the things we’re juggling are plastic, and the fact is, it’s OK to continue to drop them and pick them up, repeatedly, because they won’t break. We just pick them up when we’re able to, and we limit the number we have to manage at any given time.

I think every educator has worked to master the art of multitasking, but I also know that when I multitask too much, I run the risk of having OK results across the board rather than great results anywhere. When I recognize that I can juggle only so many things, I find that it’s easier to focus on a few smaller tasks at once. Instead of simultaneously focusing on lesson planning, grading, getting new decorations up, and an upcoming observation, I let a few of these plastic balls drop. Then I’m more efficient and proficient with the things that remain.

The focus, however, isn’t just on figuring out how to juggle everything else; the focus should be on setting boundaries. When we recognize that our glass cups are more important than plastic balls, we can set boundaries that are reflective of that. Allowing ourselves to strategically drop the plastic balls gives us the space we need to truly invest in what is glass.

For me, that means putting the phone away, finishing the report tomorrow, setting aside the work so that I can be present. Whether it’s watching my girls show me a new dance they made up, actually engaging in a conversation with my wife, or sitting uninterrupted through a meal without compulsively checking my phone, I have to both model what I preach and remember that the present is always fleeting.

Ghosts

Then there are the ghosts, which typically feel like they’re the most important of all but exist based on the stories I’ve told myself—that I’m only as good as the last project I completed, or I’m not the principal or educator that I see among peers on social media, and I only provide value by doing and not by being.

It’s easy to confuse glass cups and ghosts—to confuse the nonnegotiable responsibilities I have to myself and others with self-imposed, deep-seated, but nonessential expectations. So if I’m not careful, I rarely allow myself to drop the ghosts and instead work desperately to keep them in the air. But they’re not real. There is nothing to drop. The only person who sees them or is impacted by them is me, whether that’s crafting the perfect tweet and building my following or constantly feeling the need to check off more tasks in a day than someone else. Perfection is a ghost.

When I learned to drop the ghosts, I realized that they don’t make a noise—and that there is nothing to pick up, and there are no real consequences. When I see self-care tips or get told I need to recharge, the things that get in the way of doing those things are ghosts 90 percent of the time: I don’t put my phone away because I think I must respond to that email immediately, or I don’t disconnect from a project because I need the affirmation that I am providing value.

Ghosts keep me from letting plastic balls drop, which increases the chance of a glass cup breaking.

Whether it’s a walk or time with family or a book, finding time for yourself is a glass object. While it may not shatter the first time it gets dropped (that’s called luck), it probably will the second or third time. Then the shards get stuck in every other part of us. If we want to do our best for our families, our students, and our colleagues, we have to become more aware of when and what we’re juggling.

This is where everything comes full circle, and we must recognize that investing in ourselves is a glass object. Investing in ourselves personally, professionally, and emotionally is essential to our continued growth and success. I get frustrated when I see blanket “self-care” tips because they often become still more items (and often ghost ones at that) in the messy juggling act.

The trick is to continually remind ourselves of the enduring importance and fragility of the glass cups: We need them for ourselves, but also so that we can share what’s in them with our loved ones.

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