A little while ago, I participated in a Twitter chat about work/life balance (my first Twitter chat, I might add). Overwhelmingly, the tweets pointed to the fact that teachers struggle with finding balance between their work lives and their home lives. This, I'm sure, is not news to any of you. And while I don't think that this struggle is limited to teachers (many professionals work very long hours and regularly take work home), I do think that the nature of teaching can make it very hard to walk away from the job. After all, inspiration for great new teaching ideas is everywhere (those salmon in that stream? A lesson on life cycle. That art project that your kids did in after-school care? Pretty sure you could adapt that one to use in your class at Christmas. Oh, and did you see that book in the window of that book store? You just know that so-and-so would love it.) Turning off your teaching brain is next to impossible, even when you are miles away from the school. So how do you do it? How do you honor the teacher in your head that just won't shut up while still making time for your family, friends and, dare I say it, you?
Read on, friends, for some tips on staying sane, being true to you and managing your commitments. After all, there is more to life than work and you will be a better teacher for having a rich, fulfilling life outside of school.
Tip # 1 - Know When to Get Off The Hamster Wheel
When I casually mentioned to my husband that I was going to write a post about work-life balance he laughed and asked "Have you found that yet?" I would have taken offence except for the fact that he is not wrong; we are in a very busy season in our lives. As two full-time working parents with two active little girls, we find ourselves running here, there and everywhere on a daily basis. What we have learned, however, is that you need to consciously choose to get out of the rat race every now and then. When work is no longer fun, when you are resenting the people and the place, it's time to step back. Pick an evening, a day, a weekend and dedicate it to nothing more than enjoying time with your family and friends. Do whatever it is that you enjoy (and yes, this can include things like yard work and getting projects done around the house. If it makes you happy, it counts) and do it for as long as you can without stressing yourself out. If all you are doing is worrying about the pile of work sitting on your desk, then you are defeating the purpose of being away.
What it looks like: In our family, my husband often works 7 days a week. In the winter, though, we spend most weekends up at our family ski condo. Although we can take work up with us, we tend not to, choosing instead to spend the time skiing, skating and building snowmen with our kids. Knowing that we will have this break for an entire season helps get us through the times when my husband has to be at work so much. And when he is at work every single day of the week? He makes every effort to be home for dinner and bedtime, ensuring that he sees his girls for at least a few hours each day, and will take a weekend to come up for air as often as he can. And I make sure that I make time for me, for a ride, a coffee, a visit with a friend. It ain't perfect, but it keeps us chugging along.
Tip # 2 - Build a Support Network
I am very much a believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. I also think it takes a village to keep each and every one of us sane, healthy and happy. The only way to maintain balance in our lives is to ensure that we have people that we can count on for a night out, a good laugh, a cathartic cry, a late night chat, a cup of tea, a run, a kiss, a hug, a kind word. When life seems to be spinning so fast you're pretty sure there's no way you will ever be able to keep up, your support network is there to help you grab on or get off.
Tip # 3 - To Thine Own Self Be True
Knowing who you are and what gets you up in the morning is so important to maintaining balance in your life. So often, people are told they have to do this or do that, behave this way or that way in order to lead a balanced life but all too often these suggestions just don't work. Why? Because they go against the grain. In order to be successful, the way that you maintain balance in your life must work for you and yours. If this means that you work early in the morning and go to bed early, do it. If you are a night owl, that works too. If checking your e-mail on your phone causes you to pay more attention to your phone than your family, it might be time for a change; then again, if a quick check of your e-mail every now and then allows you to spend more quality time with them, by all means, go for it. The key is identifying the practices that allow you to feel at ease, comfortable, balanced. Try starting by making a list of all of the things that make you happy and all the things that drive you crazy; how can you maximize the happy things and minimize the irritating ones?
What it looks like: I find it much easier to receive e-mail on my phone and check it throughout the day rather than leave it all for later; it just seems so daunting to have so many e-mails at one time. I make a point of putting my phone away at meal times and any time my children really crave my attention, but otherwise I check it and make quick responses regularly (I usually leave longer responses for a time when I can type them on a keyboard larger than a cracker). If I get teaching ideas during family time, I quickly jot them down in my phone so I can come back to them later. I check my Twitter and Facebook accounts periodically throughout the day; I know myself well enough to know that leaving them will only make me feel disconnected and irritable. I am working hard at the moment to fit in regular exercise, which I know is fundamentally important to who I am and how I feel, but I give myself some grace and continue to see it as a work in progress.
Tip # 4 - Make Systems & Routines Your Best Friend
This, I realize, is not a new piece of advice. Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter abound with suggestions of how to maximize your daily routines, fine-tune your family schedule and meal plan like a pro. You know what? The people writing those posts are on to something. The more that you can get running like a well-oiled machine in your life, the more time you have for the things you enjoy. Although it may seem burdensome and awkward at the beginning, establishing routines makes such a difference to leading a more balanced life. A little bit of front-end loading goes a long way. And with the extra time you have because you're not trying to make your sleep-deprived brain figure out dinner every day, do something spontaneous, like go out for dinner. Your schedule can take it, I promise.
What it looks like: This has been perhaps my steepest learning curve when it comes to leading a more balanced life. I am not by nature a super routine person but I have come to accept that I have to be in order to stay sane. I now meal plan weekly (monthly is a bit a stretch for me), check my (shared) calendar daily and plan my lessons as far in advance as possible (Planbook has been my absolute saviour in this regard, giving me the flexibility I crave with the advance planning capabilities I want. Check it out.). At the end of a long day, when I'm tired and the girls are hungry, knowing what's for dinner is a heck of a lot more appealing than wandering around the grocery store. I'm not gonna lie, it gets a bit addictive too; recently, I have been dying to create a weekly planner that reminds me to do little things like clean out the fridge the day before garbage day. Seriously, does it get any dorkier than that?
Tip # 5 - Give Yourself Grace
No matter how great your support network and how well-planned you are, things are going to go sideways. That's life. And the busier you are, the more opportunities there are for things to change at the last minute. Approach it all with a sense of humor and you will feel better in the long run. Accept that there are going to be days when the kids are cranky, the lesson you slaved over falls flat and you forget your keys as you rush from one thing to the next. Pour yourself a glass of wine, pull out the chocolate, go for a run, whatever makes you feel better, and breathe. Call a time out and get off the hamster wheel for a little while. Honor yourself and the hard work you do every. single. day. by acknowledging life's little imperfections. Sometimes a little acceptance, a bunch of grace and good dose of humor are all you need to see things in a different way.
What it looks like: Ok, so maybe I lied just a little bit when I said that the planning piece was my steepest learning curve; I actually think maybe this one is. I am incredibly hard on myself in a number of areas, areas in which getting help is actually pretty easy (restaurants are there for a reason). Luckily, I have a teaching partner and other wonderful friends (who, let's be honest, are just as hard on themselves as I am) who counsel me regularly on the art of giving myself the grace to be less than what I aspire to be all day, every day. Don't get me wrong, they push me and challenge me all the time, but when they see that I need it, when I'm nearing my breaking point, they tell me to let it go. One moment, one day of less than (my own, self-imposed version of) perfect, is ok. My children will still get fed, my students will still do something and I will pick myself up and try again tomorrow. And I will be better off for having taken the pressure off for a little while. Grace.
In the end, finding balance isn't about leading the perfect life. It isn't about making it through every day unscathed. It is about putting all of the pieces together so that, on the whole, life is enjoyable. Fun even. It is about finding moments of calm amidst the storm, learning to roll with the punches, feeling satisfied and filled up by what you do every day. Work-life balance is as much about perspective as it is about organization. Sure, you can ease your load by being a bit more organized and a bit more prepared, but when push comes to shove, what really matters is that you are happy with your crazy, messy, busy life. And sometimes, what makes us the most happy is to put our lives in perspective. That, and a good glass of wine.
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about literacy, collaborative teaching and finding new and innovative ways to engage & motivate all kids. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!