Educators rarely leave the profession because they don’t love teaching. As a leader, that was one of my lightbulb moments. They leave because they don’t feel loved, they don’t feel balanced, and everything becomes too much. These are feelings every educator can relate to, and these are the feelings that I have been trying to overcome for a large portion of my 20 years in the field.
Over the years, I have tried to find that elusive work-life balance. I beat myself up because I wasn’t achieving it, and I felt like I was failing personally and professionally. Once I realized that being “balanced” didn’t mean that all facets of my life were supposed to be equal all the time, I started to see that I was actually much closer to balance than I had realized.
There are ways to balance the needs of my school, my family, and my mental well-being. I have also realized that I need to make sure that I am giving my teachers the opportunity to have that balance. There are a few things I have found most useful, and that I encourage my colleagues to try.
Create Expectations for Yourself—And Stick With Them
For me, it’s easy to get sucked into creating that perfect lesson, fixing just one more scheduling issue, answering just one more email, calling home for just one more student. It’s easy to get caught up in helping the students, the teachers, the staff, and getting home after my kids have gone to sleep. However, I haven’t forgotten how much I hated the amount of time that my parents spent at work and away from us. I have never forgotten how awful it felt as a child to feel like I was second place to my parents’ chosen professions. There are days that I have to work 10–12 hours, but those days should not be the norm for any administrator or teacher.
Create a to-do list for the day—and include a time to go home. The clock should be what sets the time to go home more than the to-do list. The email that was sent to me at 4:00 p.m. can be answered the next day. The phone message that was left at 5:00 p.m. can typically be answered the next day. I limit my “long” days each week as much as I can, and I try to encourage my teachers to do the same. There should not be a teacher who is on campus longer than the administrators. As I am getting ready to leave, I do a quick scan of the parking lot to see who is still there. If I notice that there is a staff member who is there longer than me more than once, that person becomes a priority. I work with that teacher or staff member to find ways to be able to go home and try to leave work at the school.
Be Present in the Moment
Much like it is easy to get caught up while at work, it’s just as easy to bring work home. No matter how hard we try to get everything done, there will always be more to do. And who among us doesn’t get a little anxious when we see that email alert?
At some point, there are diminishing returns. Turn the email alerts off. Put the phone down. Stay off the computer at night. Take the time that you are home from school and spend it with your family, with your friends, on your hobbies. We encourage our staff to take breaks to rejuvenate, and we must practice what we preach.
I have to admit that I haven’t found a way to leave the lives of my students “at the office” yet, and I don’t know that I ever will. That is where the next piece to finding balance comes into play.
Know When You Need To Get Extra Emotional Support
I, like most educators, take my students’ struggles to heart, and it’s nothing short of impossible to leave them at the schoolhouse door. The struggle was only amplified once I became an administrator. What nobody in my leadership preparation program told me was that in addition to knowing about the triumphs and struggles of the 150 students I saw each day in class, I would now be learning about the struggles and triumphs of the other 850 students, all the teachers, the support staff, etc. It can be overwhelming.
I try to find the celebrations as much as possible, and when that isn’t enough, I find someone to talk to. My emotional support comes from colleagues, friends, or a mental health professional. It is impossible to take care of others if you are not taking care of yourself. But that self-care is often the part that educators and administrators skip over.
Build and Maintain a Support System
Professionally, I rely on my administrative team, including our office staff, and would be completely lost without them. Our relationship has been built on shared experiences and the willingness to be open with one another. We are honest with each other about when we are feeling overwhelmed, and we step up to help each other when needed. We make sure to celebrate each other’s successes, as well as support each other when there are personal or professional setbacks. I have a network of teachers and administrators who I respect and contact if I need a fresh perspective. I have maintained friendships with people who I have previously taught with, and I frequently reach out to them.
But the theme here is balance. There has to be a place in my world that doesn’t revolve around my career. For that reason, I rely on my friends who aren’t in education to help provide perspective, and my family to tell me when I need to take a breather. As a supportive leader, sometimes I have to be that person for a teacher or staff member.
Give Yourself Grace
Most importantly, I have had to realize that my path is littered with “mistakes,” but that doesn’t mean I have failed. Accept the mistakes, figure out how to learn from them, and get better. That is how we can reach the pinnacles of our profession and be the model for others. When those around us can see that we aren’t afraid to acknowledge a misstep or adjust our policies based on feedback, that is when we garner support and trust. Acknowledging that we are human and that we don’t know everything is what makes us even more human.
This year, I have realized how important the practices I have cultivated have become in allowing me to have the best of both worlds: loving what I do and still being able to have a life outside of my job. In this day of high teacher and administrator burnout, it is more important than ever.
What practices do you use to find a “balance” in your life? How do you encourage and foster balance in your staff?