The Myth of “Balance” as a Teacher

So, before I get started, I want to give a short message to any teachers who happen to be watching this. And that message is, “You can skip most of this, because you already know it, because you’ve lived it.” So, fellow teachers, thank you for your service, and you can scroll down to ‘What Can Help‘ for some practical ideas for how to juggle all of the expectations that are placed on us. 

Students are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t expect English class to be their top priority. To me, this just seems like basic rationality. Demanding that MY CLASS be the most important thing in anyone else’s life would demonstrate levels of arrogance and entitlement that are at the very least, unhealthy.

My point when I say this is not, of course, to say that my class should be unimportant. It’s just that it’s not the only thing that’s important. There are a lot of things that are important, and they don’t all have the same amount of importance. So in order to make sense of how to best deal with that, we need to prioritize effectively: putting what’s most important first, and so on down the line. But in order to do THAT, we need to figure out what sorts of things are more or less important to us. Figuring out our values is part of figuring out who we are. And the students I teach are often right in the middle of that process. 

What makes this more challenging is that not everyone around you will agree with your priorities. So you need to be able to navigate those relationships, to be able to be true to yourself, while at the same time showing respect for the different values of people you care about.

The reason this is important is that it doesn’t go away. These choices are ones we face as adults, throughout our lives. There will always be conflicting demands on our resources – time, attention, and energy, in addition to our material resources. And that conflict creates stress.

The past year has brought an increased awareness of mental health issues. There has been encouragement to prioritize self care. However, “self care” isn’t just about bubble baths and exercise and meditation, although those are important too. Self care is about establishing, respecting, and maintaining boundaries.

But navigating this is especially difficult for those in caring professions, such as teachers. Caring professions tend to attract those who are passionate and enthusiastic. Unethical employers take advantage of these qualities. And this has gone on for a long, long time. If you read some of the articles I’ve linked in the description, you’ll see that dealing with the extra demands and lack of support during the pandemic have increased challenges for teachers, but also that stress and overwork was a significant problem before the existence of COVID-19.

Teachers regularly deal with a lack of compensation – not just financial. In other professions, there may be the opportunity to work unpaid overtime in the hopes of earning a promotion. In teaching, the main way to get promoted is to leave the classroom. You don’t get promoted as a teacher. Contracts often include language like “additional duties as scheduled / assigned by administration.” How many uncompensated hours should teachers work per week?

It’s a cycle; there’s an expectation that teachers will be glad to take time away from their own friends and family and spend their paychecks on material for school, that teachers should actually ASPIRE to doing that. That’s what makes somebody a good teacher. And that expectation is so common that it’s easy to accept it as reasonable, even though it’s not. We get bombarded with these toxic messages and expectations from every direction, day in, and day out, and eventually we start wondering if maybe we’re just wrong to expect boundaries. So we cave, we give in, and we give and we give and we give, even when it gets to the point of being really unhealthy.

And what’s worse is that we definitely want to provide engaging lessons with challenging content that’s effectively scaffolded so that students can achieve meaningful success. We want to keep parents updated on student progress. We want to confer with our colleagues. We want to give students detailed, meaningful feedback. But the truth is that there’s only so much that one person can do, and there will always more that you could have done.

Result: exhaustion and despair. No matter how much you do, it’s not enough. You come up with more ideas that you can’t use because there’s no time. You have to choose how specific and detailed to be with your feedback on student work, because that takes time, which means the feedback is less timely the more that you give.

And adding to the psychological burden is the guilt we get to feel no matter WHAT we do. Because if you set and reinforce and hold on to healthy boundaries, and you spend time with friends and family, and pursue interests outside of your JOB, well, then you could have spent that time on doing things that would make you a better teacher, which means you’re NOT a better teacher, and that means you’re a bad teacher, and a bad person, because don’t you care about your students? Don’t you want what’s best for them? But on the other hand, when we go beyond the work day, when we sacrifice our other relationships and even our own health, we are helping to perpetuate and strengthen the unreasonable expectations that are placed on teachers. So THAT’S our fault too.

What Can Help

Understanding ourselves, including our values, our capabilities and our limits, is crucial for a healthy, fulfilling life. Before we can act in ways that support our values and maintain our boundaries, we need to establish what they are. What do we care about, and how do those principles fit into our lives?

The Eisenhower Matrix is one familiar way to sort through this. It proposes two scales by which we measure things that matter two us: importance, and urgency. And then, it uses those two scales to create a chart that may be familiar to you from math class: the X/Y graph.

Now, don’t worry, we’re not going to be plotting coordinates or graphing equations. In fact, those of you who are mathematics aficionados may notice that the X-axis is actually backward in the typical setup for the matrix; things that are more urgent get placed toward the left side, while things that are less urgent are on the right. 

You have my sympathies, but really, this just goes to show you that mathematics, as a field, is truly a study of abstract thought and how we choose to represent those thoughts is, in many ways, somewhat arbitrary. But at the same time, we need those distinctions in order to be able to discuss complex abstractions without having to rebuild the frameworks we use to have those conversations every. single. time. So that sort of mathematical “grammar” does serve a purpose, just as syntax, punctuation, spelling, and other conventions of language help to streamline communication in much of our daily conversations. It makes it more possible for us to argue about things we really care about, rather than arguing about the order of our words. (Although, in some cases, we really care about that, and that’s what we WANT to argue about. Which could, in theory, be a valid argument to have.)

I’d apologize for that tangent, but I’m not actually sorry for it; the point that mathematics and language are actually very similar, despite being thought of as not only different but just about diametrically opposed to each other, is something that *I* really care about, and will probably do a video about. At some point. In the indeterminate and probably not-very-close future. Because I have ALL KINDS OF FREE TIME AS A TEACHER, AMIRITE?

Okay, tangent over, for real. Back to the Eisenhower Matrix!

So, first interesting point, I knew this was named for president Dwight Eisenhower, but figured that it was something that somebody else came up with. I thought that Eisenhower, as a well-known general and then The President of the United States of America, used it and found it effective, and that was what gave it his name and made it as well-known as it is. But no! Apparently Eisenhower himself came up with the concept while he was in the military and he had a lot of different decisions about what needed to get done each day. 

Pretty nifty. Anyway, the idea is that you evaluate tasks and decisions based on their level of importance, which means the level of consequence they carry, as well as their level of urgency, which means how time-sensitive they are. 

Quadrant 1 is for things that are very important and very urgent. These are things that require your personal input and need to be taken care of as soon as you can. Checking on your injured child, answering a phone call during your shift from your supervisor, completing a project with an impending deadline – all of these are things that need your attention, and need it right away.

Quadrant 4 is for things that are minimally important and minimally urgent. In many articles about the Eisenhower Matrix, this quadrant is labeled ‘Eliminate,’ but I disagree with that. Honestly, if something isn’t important or urgent at ALL, it shouldn’t even be on the board to begin with. This quadrant should be for “hey, if we get a chance to do this, it would be great!” For me, this includes practicing languages, reading, getting a bike rack for the car, folding towels, learning to French braid, and changing which student assignments are displayed on my bulletin boards. “Playing video games” and “surfing social media” are often listed in this quadrant as things that should be eliminated, but to a lot of people, they have value for entertainment and connecting with others – both of which matter. However, a lot of these tasks can be ongoing, so it’s often wise to schedule them with limits. Now, things that have no value at all to me, like getting a set of matched silverware? Those just aren’t even on the matrix. 

Where things get tricky is with quadrants 2 and 3: things that are important, but less urgent, or urgent, but less important. Now before I go further I want to point out that different people arrange the quadrants in different ways. Sometimes it’s one-two-three-four, left to right, sometimes one-two-three, four, up and down first. So if you’re reading articles about the matrix, be aware of that, and check the labels (which is always a good idea in general). 

Quadrant 2, according to the Eisenhower website, is things that are important, but less urgent. These are things like professional development, home repair, networking and building relationships, exercise, and personal fulfillment. These are things that you plan for. You deliberately schedule them and set time aside for them so that they don’t keep getting pushed aside by stuff in Quadrant 3 or even Quadrant 4. 

Important note: Scheduling things that are important but not urgent (Quadrant 2) should be done before DOING things that are urgent but not important (Quadrant 3). Prioritize importance over urgency.

Quadrant 3, then, is things that are urgent but not important. The label for this one is ‘Delegate.’ For example, almost everything we do in class is online, since some of my students are in-person, while others are remote. So even students who are physically present still need computers. There’s one cart for our department, so each morning, I send a student to the department head’s classroom to sign out ten computers for my classes for the day. Then, at the end of the day, students from that class sanitize their computers, and take them back to the cart and plug them in to charge. It’s something that definitely needs to be done every day, but it’s not something that has to be done by me. This is a quadrant that is a challenge for a lot of teachers, because we are restricted on what we’re allowed to have someone else do. If you remember “hand your paper to a neighbor” and marking each other’s work – nope. Student privacy concerns (not to mention the specter of possible cheating) make that unacceptable. And you certainly can’t have someone else look at the grades you’ve marked on projects and enter them into the computer. Can’t have someone else call parents for you. And you certainly can’t have someone else deliver instruction or grade assignments for you. Those are definitely Q1 tasks.

Students, like teachers, have a lot of expectations placed on them. In order to avoid overwork, reduce stress, and prevent over-promising on commitments, we all need to make sure we’re aware of what alllll of those expectations are, and what the consequences are, both for success and failure, as well as where the expectations are coming from. It’s a lot to figure out, which is why it’s important to have an effective strategy for doing so. 

I recommend multicolored pens. Set up your quadrants, and then place the tasks in them. You can color-code according to quadrant, or based on the category of the task. Or, you can just use whatever color you feel like using at the moment.

You might also want to use pencil at first, because that way, once you’ve got everything down, you can look at where you’ve placed each task and re-evaluate. Is each task where it belongs? If not, what led you to put it where you did? Why do these tasks matter as much (or as little) as they do? Because everything that’s actually ON the matrix should be something that does matter, even if it’s not super-important. 

Additionally, you should consider where the expectations for each task or decision is coming from. Are these related to work? Family? Self? Friends? Society? Thinking about that is going to show you a lot about your values and how you choose to prioritize them. It will also help you to recognize what’s important to you, and what you choose to prioritize because it’s important to other people who have expectations for you.

And I want to be really, really clear on this, for teachers, for students, and for all of us. It’s OKAY to choose to prioritize things that you don’t actually value all that much, just because they’re valued by someone in your life, and you value that person. But it’s also important to recognize that they’re that person’s values, not yours. Ultimately, each of us is responsible for setting and maintaining our own boundaries. Doing so will probably lead to conversations that may be difficult and uncomfortable. But it’s possible to have these conversations in a way that is kind while still being honest, and ultimately, it makes those relationships stronger.

Chances are pretty good that you are expecting too much of yourself. That you’re stretched thin. Maybe you’re managing, but you can feel that tension. That it seems like it’s always one more thing, and one more thing, and one more thing, and you don’t see an end in sight. Or, maybe you get along by looking for that temporary end: the end of the day. The weekend. Your next “day off,” which will no doubt be crammed with all of the work you don’t actually get paid to do, like laundry and home maintenance and cooking and yard work and cleaning the bathrooms and getting groceries and one more thing and one more thing… 

The truth is, I don’t have an easy answer. It’s something I struggle with myself. Time is the one truly finite resource that we have. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back, and once you’re out of it, you don’t get any more. That’s it. So I’m really, really aware of how I choose to use my time. I get frustrated when things take longer than I think they ought to. Or when I haven’t used my time as effectively as I might have. When I don’t meet deadlines that I’ve set for myself, I feel defeated. And when I don’t follow through on something I’ve told someone else I’ll do, that’s even worse. 

The unpleasant truth is that in my lifetime, I will not get to do all the things that I’d like to do. I have an ongoing battle with acceptance of that fact, and I’ve found that humor helps, as in the poem “Never,” by Shel Silverstein: 

I’ve never roped a Brahma bull,

I’ve never fought a duel,

I’ve never crossed the desert

On a lop-eared, swayback mule,

I’ve never climbed an idol’s nose

To steal a cursèd jewel.

I’ve never gone down with my ship

Into the bubblin’ brine,

I’ve never saved a lion’s life

And then had him save mine,

Or screamed Ahoooo while swingin’ through

The jungle on a vine.

I’ve never dealt draw poker

In a rowdy lumber camp,

Or got up at the count of nine

To beat the world’s champ,

I’ve never had my picture on

A six-cent postage stamp.

I’ve never scored a touchdown

On a ninety-nine-yard run,

I’ve never winged six Daltons

With my dying brother’s gun…

Or kissed Miz Jane, and rode my hoss

Into the setting sun.

Sometimes I get so depressed

‘Bout what I haven’t done.

So, to everybody, but especially to my students, and my fellow teachers: Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself for all those things you haven’t done. Identify what’s highly important and highly urgent, so that you can reap the benefits of opportunities you have and avoid negative consequences. 

And if you’ve figured out how to do that? Please leave a comment and let me know what you did!

This blog post is an adaptation of a video I created, available here.

The following links helped me develop the ideas for this post: (2019)

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