One Tuesday evening, I had a required professional development Zoom call scheduled at the same time as my daughter’s school basketball game. Initially, I was naively optimistic that I could interact on the Zoom session while also watching my daughter’s game. At first, I secretly congratulated myself for my work-life balance hack. I thought, “I am nailing this! I can be a basketball mom and a professional educator at the exact same time!”
I wasn’t really listening to my Zoom call, and I wasn’t watching the game with my usual enthusiasm. My attempt at balancing by multitasking resulted in “no-tasking.” Without any hesitation, I made the decision to end the Zoom meeting and turned my full attention to the game. At that moment, I chose to “stack” my tasks rather than attempt to balance them.
Maybe because I am a teacher with thousands of hours of paper-grading experience, I think of the concept of “stacking” as a stack of papers that are waiting to be graded.
The student’s paper that is on the top of the pile is the paper I am currently grading—the paper that gets my attention. This does not mean that the papers under the paper on top are ignored; rather, right now I am focusing on the top task only. I am being intentional and present with this paper on the top of the stack. Stacking is a practice of mindfulness.
Ann Klotz, headmistress of Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, discussed her views on chasing balance in an NAIS Member Voices podcast interview. “I don’t like the word balance,” Klotz said. “It implies that there is a perfect state where all the plates are in the air.” Klotz went on to say that she teaches her students (all girls) to use the word sequence instead of balance. She described sequencing as “what your priorities are and what needs your attention.”
Writer and psychotherapist Katherine Morgan Schafler, LMHC, shares Klotz’s sentiment when it comes to the myth of balance. In an interview on LinkedIn’s Hello Monday podcast, she stated, “Nothing boils my blood more than hearing people give that directive [to find balance] to women.… We’re sending women on this wild goose chase to find balance when it doesn’t exist.”
An Elusive Concept
The concept of work-life balance might be too elusive for the reality of a busy teacher’s lifestyle.
Bored Teachers’ “10 Habits of Teachers Who Nail Work-Life Balance” advises (among nine other tips), “Deciding to no longer take work home is a great way to find work-life balance.” This is a fantastic goal for teachers but not totally realistic. If a teacher has an unusually busy week and must take work home, is she “out of balance”? It’s inevitable that work will occasionally seep into personal time and vice versa.
Defining balance with hard rules such as “No work email on the weekend” can feel quite unbalanced when you unexpectedly have to prioritize a personal task, such as having to meet the plumber at home during work hours. Work and life are not a zero-sum game. A March 2022 Psychology Today article, “Why Work-Life Balance Is a Myth,” warns, “Work-life balance is a binary way of framing the problem.”
The Eisenhower Matrix
Teachers are often faced with multiple “urgent” tasks that need to be at the top of the stack throughout their day. Knowing which task is the priority takes careful discernment. The Eisenhower Matrix, a system that requires you to prioritize tasks by urgency and importance, can be helpful in determining which tasks need your attention now.
The matrix consists of four quadrants framed by an x-axis labeled “Importance” and a y-axis labeled “Urgency.” The top-right quadrant represents tasks that are both high importance and high urgency. This might be something as extreme as accidentally starting a small fire by placing a plastic DVD case in front of the projector bulb on a cart. (Yes, I actually did that years ago. And yes, extinguishing this small flame immediately was at the top of my stack. Don’t worry, only the DVD case was harmed by my negligence.)
Alternatively, a task categorized in the low importance/low urgency quadrant might be adding decorative images to your classroom newsletter. A task that will eventually make it to the top of your stack but not until the proverbial fires are put out.
The matrix can help you determine how the tasks of your work and personal life should be stacked. It can get frustrating when a new urgent and important task gets added to the top. That can feel overwhelming because the numerous less urgent and less important tasks are getting buried.
Some days our stacks will be high, and some days our stacks will be shorter; however, avoid aiming for the goal of maintaining a “balance.” If taking a moment to have a short walk outside is at the top of your stack, then that’s where your focus should be. The rest of the tasks in your stack will be there when you’re ready.