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Work/Life Balance 101

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Self-Care Is the Educator’s Core Standard” by Christopher Doyle in Education Week, February 17, 2016 (Vol. 35, #21, p. 20–21).
In this Education Week article, Connecticut educator Christopher Doyle worries that many educators are not taking very good care of themselves – not balancing the intense challenges of work with family, friends, love, sleep, vacations, exercise, good nutrition, emotional health, and civic engagement.
“Like American society at large,” says Doyle, “many of us are overworked, stretched thin financially, and torn between roles as spouses, parents, and employees… Not unlike other professionals devoted to nurture, such as doctors, teachers are measured – and measure themselves – against an idealized image of excellence that involves incessant work.”
Adding even more pressure, there’s the stereotype of the lazy, unionized teacher with a cushy, tenured job and long summer vacations. In an attempt to counteract this degrading image, school and district mission statements include verbiage like The relentless pursuit of excellence. “Such single-mindedness rings false,” says Doyle, “but it, too, pits teachers against an expectation that they will spend all their time working.”
And then there are economic pressures. Teachers occupy the middle to lower tiers of the American middle class – whose wages have been stagnant for some time. Many live from paycheck to paycheck and dread being swept into the underclass of the working poor. Doyle says he knows all too many teachers living a “Dickensian” existence teaching full time, juggling second and third jobs, taking graduate classes at night, and constantly struggling to arrange for child care.
Stressed, workaholic educators are not in the best position to help students achieve some kind of balance in their overscheduled lives. All too many secondary-school students don’t get enough sleep, rarely read for pleasure, don’t regularly eat dinner with their family, and are looking ahead to their post-college lives with foreboding. Three of Doyle’s students recently told him they didn’t think they’d be able to fit marriage and children into their futures.
How can educators take better care of themselves – a “core standard” in Doyle’s estimation.
Here are his suggestions:
• Put overwork in historical perspective. “Hunter-gatherer societies and subsistence-farming cultures worked far less than do modern Americans,” he says. “Many averaged three to five hours of labor per day.” Industrialization brought much longer hours, but unions have been effective advocates for setting reasonable limits on work hours – basically supporting work-life balance in the new era.
• Prioritize balance in the school schedule. This means building in time for teachers to prepare, think, meet with their colleagues, eat lunch, and pay an occasional visit to the bathroom. It’s also important not to burden teachers with unnecessary meetings.
• Get student loads, preps, and grading under control. Teachers and school leaders especially need to focus on teachers’ workload if they are reading assignments from 80-130 students. Are there simply too many students? Is too much work being assigned? How much responsibility are students taking to assess and improve their own work and get peer review? And how much time are teachers spending, sometimes late at night, correcting papers?
• Negotiate reasonable time off. This includes sick leave, care of sick children, parental leave, personal days, and sabbaticals.
• Set limits. “We need to put down our laptops, stop grading papers, and go for a walk,” says Doyle. “We have to read books that challenge and deepen our intellects. We should make dinner for our families and find time to enjoy it with them. We should get together with friends and share a laugh. We must ask ourselves questions about how much money we really need. We should show our students, through the examples of our own lives, that they can lead healthy, multifaceted existences and not be slaves to their careers.”

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