Advice to educators on life-work balance: You're a teacher, not a savior

Among the presenters at this week's National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention in Atlanta will be Dave Stuart Jr., a teacher at Cedar Springs High School in Cedar Springs, Mich. He writes a weekly email newsletter that goes out to 12,724 educators.

Stuart will serve on several panels and roundtables at the four-day Georgia World Congress Center event that starts Thursday. One of his panels is titled "Doing More Isn’t Doing Better: How to Be a Teacher and Have a Life."

In this column, he addresses how teachers can achieve a better work-life balance. (It's also good advice for non teachers.)

Speaking of the convention, I'm going to interview education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch Thursday night. She will be speaking via Skype to the 6,000 literacy educators, advocates and authors at the gathering.  I am looking forward to it.

Now, here is Stuart's piece:

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Having a life and being a teacher isn't optional -- for most of us, it's the only way that we can stay in the profession and perform at our best.

Unfortunately, with teacher attrition rates growing nationwide, survival mode is overtaking our ability to think clearly about what it is that we do and how we ought best to do it.

Below are some things that we need to keep in mind:

Promote, not guarantee: No matter what grade or subject we teach, our work is to promote the long-term flourishing of kids. That verb, promote, is important -- we cannot guarantee, force, or omnipotently deign that our students will go on to lead great lives. We are teachers, not saviors. Each year, we ought to get better and better at creating lessons, units, and classrooms that promote the long-term flourishing of kids.

Getting our identity straight: When we use what Warren Buffet calls the "external scorecard" -- getting our sense of self from how well the kids perform, our administrative evaluations go, the standardized test results look, etc -- we are going to tend toward overwork and emotional inconstancy. Just as a doctor ought to be emotionally constant in the face of difficult, complex, and grave decisions, so too must we as teachers. But we won't be, and we can't be, if our identity is rooted in the sandy soil of how things in the classroom are going.

Quit at quitting time: I can imagine future history students smirking at our society's wide acceptance of "multi-tasking" the same way that my history students smirk at the widely accepted medical practice of bloodletting in the Middle Ages. Teachers, if you are "relaxing" at night with a loved one and a stack of papers on your lap, you are not relaxing -- you're working! Only when we set rules for ourselves -- for example, I stop working at 5 p.m. every day, and I don't take work home -- can we begin to ascertain which of our tasks are necessary, which deserve our best efforts, and which can simply be abandoned.

The modern teacher is worried about everything from creating a pretty classroom to managing mental health crises to planning effective lessons. Some of these deserve our finite time, and others don't. Unlike with money, there are no credit cards for time. We have what we have, and there's none more to spend.

In short, the first step to having lives as teachers is to thinking clearly and rigorously about the things that seem to preclude us from living full, well-rounded lives while also being the best teachers we can be.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.