My teenage son won a Scholastic Gold Medal in “Personal Essay and Memoir” for a piece called “Behind the Grey Door.” It recounts what is was like to watch his father — my late husband — dying of Sickle Cell in the last months, weeks, and days before death. It is honest, poignant, and heartbreaking in many ways, but I confess there were two lines that I found more disturbing than all the others as his mother:
“My mother is not around until the late afternoon. Her new administrative job requires her to work as late as 6 pm, and while she pursues her doctorate degree she continues to work at home.”
This fact — and it is a fact that I worked very long hours both at work and at home — is sandwiched in between the good times he enjoyed when his father was well and the terror he felt as his father worsened. I don’t make another appearance in my son’s memory until it’s time to tell him the ugly truth about his father’s soon-to-come death in the waiting room of the MUSC ICU.
I want you to let that sink in for a moment, particularly if you are an exceptional educator committed to being the absolute best at your work at all times.
His Memoir Is Not About Me
I acknowledge that this memoir, a snapshot of his teenage thinking about the pain of losing his dad, is not about me. It’s really about how the two of them made things work until things couldn’t work at all. I also acknowledge that it’s written by a teenager, which means that the perspective is — by nature of his development at the time and the intensity of the emotion —centered on what happened to and within himself. I mean, it is personal.
But it was really hard to read past what I felt was a grand summary of how he saw my involvement at home during the suffering. He didn’t write it as an indictment against my parenting. He didn’t write it as a complaint. He didn’t write it with any intent to hurt me. He simply wrote the truth: Mom was working. Maybe I shouldn’t have felt any kind of guilt in retrospect because I had to work to maintain the semi-normalcy and financial stability of the family, but I did feel guilty and immediately.
But, His Memoir Is About Me
I was guilty — then — of overprioritizing my work. Too often new educators are trained to accept the inevitability of unpaid overtime while veteran teachers are chided for learning to avoid it, but I would like to clarify for all stakeholders what it means when you’re too great of a teacher and too mediocre at everything else.
- It means you are waking up too early and going to bed too late to maintain your self-care and your at-home relationships (with your parents, children, spouse/significant other, siblings, friends, etc.).
- It means you are skipping meals to supplement insufficient planning time at work. Maybe you aren’t even eating lunch during your lunch break. Maybe you don’t have a real lunch break. Maybe you’ve given up on even making a lunch, and you’re eating chips and cookies — and drinking a soda— from the snack machine every day. Maybe you’re grabbing fast food for dinner because you don’t have time to cook. Maybe you’re skipping dinners.
- It means you don’t remember the last time you did something for fun (not to see if it would be fun for your students).
- It means your weekends are spent marking and returning messages to parents.
- It means that even when you sleep, your dreams are filled with teaching moments, lesson plans, and replays of classroom management incidents.
- It means you refuse to travel for any significant length of time (more than a long weekend) during the school year. Maybe you don’t travel at all.
- It means that you haven’t kept your annual or follow-up medical appointments, or that you are keeping them and your doctor is continually telling you to cut back your work hours and change your diet.
And this is just the short list, but I feel confident that I have already gotten the attention of a wide swath of teacher readers who are just going too far for the profession.
Self and Family Care: The Ethical Thing to Do
Diana Jeffries in her article on ESL/EAL instructors suggests that teacher self-care is an “ethical imperative,” that we are “obligated to ensure that we are not damaged by our work” (par. 9). Our families, our students, our schools are directly impacted by how we manage ourselves day-to-day. That means that my schedule cannot be determined by administrative expectations (federal, state, or local). I can’t determine how I spend my Saturdays based on personal guilt or obligation I feel about students’ needs. I have to make time-management and self-care decisions based upon my and my family’s actual needs as they present themselves.
My school day has to be my school day, and my home time has to be my home time. And *gasp*… situations might arise — emergency or other — that require me to take a few days off work.
And If You Neglect Self and Family Care?
You’ve heard your fill of cautionary tales about overwork and inappropriate work-life balance, I’m sure, and those tales are not particular to Education. People from all walks of life are tempted to put career before self, before family, before life. But in the end, your kids — the ones you are working for — forget you. Your spouse or significant other becomes bitter (and sometimes leaves, or sometimes dies). Your health deteriorates, gradually and unnoticeably. And your students… they go on to their next teacher.
Be Excellent in More Ways Than One!
You can be an excellent educator and an excellent parent, spouse, child, person, but you have to set real boundaries and stick to them. For me, that means working from 6:30 am to 3:00 pm but not a minute over. For some of my colleagues, that means working from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm, but you must PUT A CAP ON YOUR OVERTIME. There are better ways to run your school day that will allow you to mark work on sight, plan in tandem with instruction, and walk away from the school burden-free each day. Use those strategies.
Don’t be an afterthought in the memories of those who mean the most to you. This change — to better self and family care — is a change that can be made, and you should make it.