Work/Life Balance as a Teacher

In my first year of teaching, some 13 years ago, a colleague gave me a great piece of advice. He told me to leave work at work. He must have seen me schlepping my over-stuffed teacher satchel to my car each day.

At first, I thought this advice was obvious – why would I take work home? At the time, my 22-year-old self took his advice to heart. I left work at school and enjoyed my newfound free time. I threw away more student work than I graded. My lessons weren’t very effective or engaging. Even though I enjoyed life more, my students and work were suffering. Something had to give.

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Teaching is perhaps one of the few jobs where you do not go to work to actually do work. The grading, lesson plans, planning, parent contact, endless paperwork can’t be completed during the school day because we’re teaching! More often than not, I arrive home from work and open my lap-top to complete tasks I did not have time to get to between my on-the-clock hours of 7:15-4:00. Still, there is never enough time.

As a more seasoned teacher, I’d like to ask that former colleague of mine how he did it – how did he manage to leave work at work? I can’t seem to completely do it. I think most teachers take work home, because really, it’s difficult not to do so. However, I have devised some stipulations for working at home, which give me some work/life balance without making me hyperventilate.

  • No work Saturdays –Give yourself one weekend day where you do nothing for school. Not even answer emails (I’m still working on this one).
  • Complete lesson plans during the week – My lesson plans are due Sunday evening, but I make sure I do them during the work-week so they aren’t hanging over my head all weekend.
  • Work Hour Sunday – I carve out an hour (or two) on Sunday to grade papers and get materials ready for the week. I usually do this while drinking a glass of wine before dinner. It makes me feel prepared for the week instead of frazzled come Monday morning.
  • No work on weeknights – I’m still working on this one, but I typically do not do work on weeknights, unless it’s preparing a handout or lesson for the next day.
  • Use planning time wisely – This is one that I struggle with. I often get absorbed with meetings, conversations with teachers or student issues that arise. I also spend way too much time checking in homework and completing paperwork, which actually takes up most of my planning time. (Look for a blog about homework soon!)

What are some ways you keep your work/life balance in check?

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How students learn vs. how schools teach

If you ask a teacher how students learn, chances are, their responses will not include what is typically seen in schools across the nation.

While the majority of my school learning was done seated in rows, taking copious notes and memorizing said notes for upcoming tests, (most of which I would quickly forget) as an educator I now realize what my schooling lacked – inquiry.

Instead of asking questions during class, students are often instructed to locate answers to questions that teachers, textbooks or worksheets propose. They are forced to learn calculus instead of more practical, real-world math, such as balancing a checkbook.

If I had received some practical instruction in my formative high school years that was both tailored to my interests and pertinent to my future as a working class adult, I suspect that my credit card debt would be lower and my vocabulary far superior than it is now. For, instead of spending hours trying to decipher what x equals, I would have been reading. I was a voracious reader as a young adolescent, but once I entered high school, I typically only read what was required for class, mostly because any free time I had involved sitting at the kitchen table with my dad trying to explain my math homework to me, all the while wondering, When am I ever going to use this in real-life?!

Even back then, an angst-ridden teen, I realized what I excelled in (analyzing everything/everyone) and what I loathed (numbers, the periodic table, the Macarena). So why then, nearly two decades later, are schools still fixated on educating students in a way that is not effective?

As an educator, I see the disconnect between common sense teaching and what schools consider teaching. Will Richardson’s TedX talk has many salient points, but this one stood out to me.

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In my mind, the “common sense” list is a no-brainer and is a truthful snapshot of how students learn. However, I often find myself adhering to many of the items on the “????” side because they are mandated by schools, districts, administration.

If you’re not a teacher, I’m sure this is difficult to grasp. You’re probably wondering, “Why don’t teachers take a stand? Let their voices be heard to their administration/school districts and boards of education? Couldn’t they just teach the way they know best behind closed doors?”

The truth is, I’ve done all of the above. I’ve taught social justice in secret and seen my students engaged, curious and pondering over real-world questions. I’ve spoken up when my views were not popular, despite pushback from colleagues and administration. I’ve held my tongue (to the point where it bleeds) because despite what I know is right, what I think doesn’t always matter. Also, I have student loans to pay, bills and need health insurance.

Common sense is not necessarily common, especially to those with power.

Richardson’s talk is convincing, but it’s nothing that teachers have not heard before or seen with their own eyes. As a former teacher himself, I am sure he understands the stress, pressure, and ridiculous amount of work that teachers put forth in order to ensure their students are learning in an organic, fun, inquiry-based setting.

However, the debate about how students learn best versus how school has been taught for decades is one that will continue until actual teachers are respected and given autonomy by states, government and politicians.

Until then, teachers try to squeeze as much “common sense” beliefs about teaching into the “????” side of teaching and learning. If this means we turn a blind eye to the “????” of teaching, then so be it.

Unperfect

The female group, TLC, coined the term “Unpretty” in a song with the same title in 1999. I was a senior in high school that year. The song was authentic and relatable because as a teenager, I often felt inadequate – not smart/pretty/outgoing enough. Some may say these are normal teenage emotions. But perhaps I felt (and honestly, still sometimes feel) this way because society conditioned in me that being imperfect and “unpretty” is not the status quo for girls.

“We’re raising our girls to be perfect and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”

Reshma Saujani, an education activist, gave a TED talk where she made some salient points, including the aformentioned quote.

Then Saujani hit me with another point -“most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure;they’re taught to smile pretty. play it safe. get all A’s. Boys on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and just jump off. Head first. And by the time they’re adults…they’re habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it.”

In today’s society, it seems that many girls are socialized to believe that perfection will reap them rewards, while risks are scary and should be avoided whenever possible.

I should know – I was (am?) one of those girls. How many times have I smiled pretty instead of standing up for myself when a strange man shouts obscene cat-calls in my direction? Play it safe, look the other way.

Despite my desire to be perfect, I will say that I consider myself rather brave. After college I moved from Ohio to North Carolina on my own. I did not know a single soul in North Carolina, but it seemed like a good idea. And it was.

But I bet you there are other women who have similar stories of taking risks. However, these are not the stories being broadcast on magazines while I wait in the check-out line at the nearest grocery store. Headlines such as “How to get your exact dream job” and “The easiest 5 lbs. you ever lost” brainwash girls into thinking perfection is key. Sure, your dream job exists, but you’ll likely have to work a few non-dreamy jobs before you get there. And you’ll likely have to take risks. Because oftentimes, jobs can be comfortable and offer a sense of stability.

How, as an educator, can I instill risk-taking in my female students when the image flawless girls is everywhere? How can girls become comfortable with imperfection?

Striiiiike

If you read anything other than your Instagram feed, then you have most likely heard of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) strike that is happening across the ocean. School budgets are the main reason for the strike, but pay and teacher workload are also a concern.

No surprise there. Teachers have been working in under-resourced buildings with little pay for years. So, there’s that.

Of course, teachers are the bad guys here. Because the strike is really hurting the children. Then again, using textbooks that are not relevant  and have pages missing is preferable? Hm.

The Queen makes a good point:

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Perhaps my years as a teacher have hardened me. Or maybe I really am the Ice Queen. Regardless, none of is news to me. People, especially media, policy makers, and those who have zero educational background, yet make serious decisions about education, like to blame teachers. It’s fun, really. Teachers are easy targets and everyone knows we can’t afford top-notch lawyers, so we will never fight or sue. And let’s face it, we’re replaceable. There are millions of recent grads who are dying to nab our jobs for much less pay.

Unfortunately, striking is the sometimes only way the real issues teachers face will ever get publicized. Even then, some view it as a form of complaining. I’ve never personally participated in a strike, but I have done my fair share of complaining.

The problem is, in order to eradicate change, there needs to be a shift in power. The people who hold the power (and the money) are not teachers; most of them have never been a teacher. That’s like me being a chef despite having no formal cooking experience or knowledge of how slice an onion (there is a specific way…youtube it). Would you trust me to create a menu for a 5-star restaurant? Better yet, would you eat it?

Until people wise-up and realize that teachers are the best people to lead teachers, strikes will remain a constant. However, with teacher action groups, unions and the like popping up all over the world, perhaps the state of education will slowly continue to glean more attention.

Aren’t all practices subjective though?

My Facebook feed is filled with a bunch of useless information, but given that I have a great deal of teacher friends, there are times when my newsfeed is bursting with newsworthy bits of information that only teachers find interesting.

This was the case recently, when a colleague of mine shared the article, “What Doesn’t Work: Literacy Practices We Should Abandon.” As a literacy teacher, this obviously piqued my interest. Yes! Finally someone is going to tell me what works and what doesn’t, because even after 12 years in the classroom, I am still trying to figure this out!

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I read the article. I agreed with some points and disagreed with others. Many of the points were common sense to any veteran literacy teacher. I wondered what sort of teaching experience the authors/researchers had.

No, I’m not an expert when it comes to teaching literacy. However, I wanted to weigh-in on some of the practices this article says literacy teachers should abandon.

1.) “Look up the list” vocabulary instruction – I agree that this is not a useful tool when teaching vocabulary. I’d rather weave vocabulary instruction into class via the literature students are reading in class. However, this is not always feasible, especially when many schools have a mandatory vocabulary program (separate from novels) that teachers are required to use. This year (and in some years past), I used Sadlier-Oxford with my students. I found that, 1.) It was rather difficult for students who were reading below grade-level; 2.) Some students (only those reading at or above grade-level), used the words in their writing or everyday conversation. While this type of vocabulary program fit well into my schedule (used during homeroom as morning work), it had very little impact on the majority of my students. The bottom line – teachers don’t always have a say when it comes to vocabulary instruction, but in my experience, students learn (and use) words when they have more exposure and meaning to their work (used in class in novels, articles, etc.)

2.) Prizes for reading. This year our school decided to have students complete the Six Flags reading log. If they read 360 minutes, they would receive a free ticket to Six Flags. As I suspected, many students just filled out the log and their parents signed it, regardless of if they actually read 360 minutes. This method does not instill a love of reading in children; rather, it sends the message that there should be a reward for something that should be rewarding itself – the act of reading.

3.) Unsupported Independent Reading. This is an area where I disagree with the authors. I begin each class with 10-15 minutes of silent reading. Not only does it set the tone for the class, but it calms down a rowdy bunch of middle school students! Do I do this for my sanity? Of course! However, I also read with my students. I read YA books as a way of showcasing books they may like to read themselves. Could I do a better job of this? Yes. In my perfect classroom, I would conference with students about their book of choice. I would hold book talks so students could discuss their choices with others. I think it’s extremely important that students have this little slice of time where they make the choice on what to read. It’s a time of class that I’m still trying to perfect, but it’s a sacred time and the students get that. They respect it. I want them to know that reading doesn’t always involve discussing the main idea or completing a plot diagram. Sometimes, you just read because you enjoy it.

While researchers around the world try to figure out the “best” practices for teaching literacy, everyday classroom teachers are really the researchers. We try new initiatives daily; we fail; we try again. Eventually, we find something that works, if only for one year for a specific group of children. And the cycle of teaching continues. All practices are subjective – what makes a practice a “best” practice? Whatever works in your classroom!

You have to attend to be present

“Being present is what you experience when you are completely focused on this very moment.” This is a popular definition of present, especially given all of the research on mindfulness. However, while being mentally present is something everyone could work on in their daily lives, some students have difficulty being physically present at school.

NPR’s recent article, “What One District’s Data Mining Did For Chronic Absence” got me thinking about my students – past and present – and their attendance. It also made me reflect on school attendance policies, which, surprisingly, can vary from district to district and oftentimes, school to school.

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The article makes a few salient points, one being that it’s difficult to teach students when they are not in school. Sure, missing a day or two here and there will not put a student behind. However, chronic absences can (and do). But what is a chronic absence?

I’ve looked this up and it varies. Some schools consider 3 unexcused absences a year chronic. Others state that 10 absences without a doctor’s note are unexcused and chronic. As a teacher, I have often wondered why attendance rules are so murky in some schools and strict at others.

As a high school student growing up in the Midwest, it was considered an excused absence if you chose to go hunting during a designated week in the fall. Clearly, the attendance rules need to be tailored to the ways of life and norms of the community in which the school resides; however, when chronic absences are left alone, the only one who suffers is the student.

In many urban communities, students neglect to come to school due to circumstances beyond their control: family trauma, transportation and working parents are often major factors in whether or not a student shows up in a classroom. Over the years, I’ve had more students miss school who actually did not want to miss school. However, circumstances out of their control forced them to stay at home. An early bus. A lost transit pass. A parent who overslept. The list is endless.

While some of my students would (and still do) email me for missing assignments when they are absent, these usually are not the students who are chronically absent for days at a time. They are also not the students who struggle the most. The students who sporadically come to school are the ones who find it difficult to keep their heads above water in their classes. This leads to frustration, anxiety and a myriad of other feelings because they have so much work to make-up and have missed a great deal of instruction.

For a teacher, this chronic absence problem is also frustrating. We spend our prep time re-teaching lessons to students, gathering make-up work and trying to get students caught up, only to have them be absent the next day. And the cycle continues.

Perhaps the city of Grand Rapids was onto something. Involving parents and holding them accountable, not by blaming them, but by educating them. Students will follow their parents’ lead. My parents were always of the mindset that “early is on time.” I’m usually super early to everything. But late? Never. This is not something I learned in a classroom, but something I witnessed at home.

More districts and schools need to reach out to the people in the community in order to improve attendance. Letters and phone calls home about chronic absences is impersonal and probably makes parents feel ashamed. Perhaps the solution to the attendance issue is schools and communities working together.