Work/life balance doesn’t mean creating a total separation between teaching and everything else.
To me, balance is about integrating work with the rest of your priorities in a way that allows you to give appropriate time and energy to each.
Balance IS possible and worth striving for, even when teaching remotely from home for the first time. If you feel like you’re tied to the computer 24/7 and working more now than ever before, these 11 reminders can help.
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1. Treat this like the start of a new school year, and be prepared to work longer hours in the beginning.
There will be far more teaching of routines and procedures than you’d normally be doing this time of year, and that’s to be expected. You’re setting up a new normal, with an entirely different approach to teaching with brand new expectations for students.
Additionally, students and parents are likely to be more distracted and overwhelmed right now than normal. This will be particularly true if — in addition to all the other upheaval and inconsistencies in their lives — kids have multiple teachers all using different tools and having differing protocols.
So, expect to spend extra time answering questions and giving reassurances right now that you will be flexible with families and do what you can to make this simple for them. You will be able to taper off the additional support over the coming weeks.
2. Focus on investing time into creating systems that will save you time later.
I always tell 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club members not to expect to reduce their hours during the first few weeks of school, because they need to invest time into setting up systems. The idea is to create a self-running classroom where routines and procedures are automated, so you’re free to focus on teaching and learning.
The same thing applies to the sudden switch to distance learning. Invest time into setting up systems and processes that will simplify your workload later. Take the extra time to show kids how to submit assignments the way you need them submitted, and showing kids how to get questions answered in a timely manner without you having to respond to hundreds of emails.
Take an hour or so to step back from your workload and think through some time-investment strategies. For example, if you’re getting the same questions over and over, create a short screencast of yourself answering them, and send folks the link to those screencasts instead of typing out the response every time or re-explaining. If this cuts down the number of times you repeat yourself by even 50%, it was worth the time investment.
3. Speak up if your district is requiring too much synchronous teaching — if it’s too much for you, it’s likely too much for many kids and parents. You may be surprised at the outcome.
I will forever beat the drum that our number one goal during a global humanitarian crisis should be keeping students and staff healthy. If you are just getting through the day and trying to survive, then you’ve done enough. That’s where the bar needs to be right now for teachers and kids.
We should not allow things to get more dire before we realize that academic rigor is necessarily lower on the list of priorities. We need to recognize NOW that focusing on physical/mental wellness is a preventative, life-saving measure, and the most important thing for teachers and kids to do.
This must be a time where we center on the whole teacher and the whole child. Insist on that from your school leaders. Set the precedent now that flexibility is non-negotiable, and you will not try to carry on like everything is normal. You will prioritize your mental and physical well-being and that of your students above all else. It is not only the right thing to do for kids, it’s the path to our collective recovery and survival.
You may have seen the district in Wisconsin that required teachers to secure childcare for their children so they can be online the entire day for students without disruption; the public pushback was so massive that this was walked back almost immediately.
But this doesn’t necessarily have to be a national incident. Remember what I told you in my book Fewer Things Better, about how to speak up with solutions rather than complaints, and not assuming your school leaders know what you need? That applies here. Admins and superintendents are not mind-readers: they don’t know what’s on your plate at home, and what might seem obvious to you, might not be to them.
Here are two quick examples of 40 Hour club members who successfully had the remote teaching expectations altered.
In one district that was requiring teachers to conduct hours of live instruction every day, which was proving impossible to balance with caregiving, around 10 colleagues banded together and wrote an email to the superintendent with the subject line, “Teachers are parents first.” The expectations were changed the next day.
Another example: A handful of teachers who had a supportive administrator asked for a reduced workload and suggested a different approach that would be beneficial for their student population and also manageable for teachers. The principal then went to the superintendent on behalf of her teachers, and the superintendent changed the expectations within 24 hours.
Advocating for yourself and kids does not have to involve national press and a yearlong, union-backed formal protest. Start by asking for what you need. Just ask. Many school leaders understand the importance of supporting teachers right now, and even those who don’t are not looking for the negative press that comes from doing anything that endangers the health of students and kids.
If what you’re being asked to do is too much for you, it’s likely a burden on kids and families, and it’s worth asking for change rather than assuming if “the district said” that it’s written in stone.
Nothing is written in stone right now.
4. Develop a minimum viable product (MVP) rather than trying to replicate everything you see in a well-developed, long term online teaching initiative.
It takes months to years of planning to create a distance learning program that meets the needs of all learners. Don’t hold yourself to that standard. Adjust your expectations for the reality of short-term, crisis-initiated remote teaching.
I’ve seen the recommendation floating around on Twitter to halve your expectations for how much curriculum you can realistically cover, and then halve that amount again, and even so, you may not be able to fit everything in. This is not a time to be overly ambitious. Even if you can handle the additional workload right now, that may not be true in the future, and it doesn’t mean your students and their families can handle it.
Keep in mind that a lesson that might only take 30 minutes of planning for face-to-face instruction may take you hours to build out, in the form of reinventing curriculum, converting assignments to a remote format, recording videos, typing out explanations, typing out the answers to students’ questions via email instead of verbally in class, etc.
So, pace yourself in learning new tech tools and approaches — don’t try to learn and master everything at once in the middle of a pandemic. The exception to this is if your personality type enjoys the distraction and finds the work energizing.
Let that be your guiding principle: If it’s energizing for you and doesn’t create additional expectations for others, go for it. If the work is draining, scale it back.
If you’re in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club or have read “Fewer Things Better,” you know about the MVP principle when it comes to lesson planning, and there’s never been a more important time for it. A minimum viable product in lesson planning means to get the bare bones in place, try it out with students, and improve on it over time.
You cannot make a lesson to be exactly what all your students need when you’ve never taught this way before. This will require experimentation. You’ll discover what works for kids by trying out different approaches and iterating from there.
First, make it work, then make it work better.
This is especially important given that district expectations are changing rapidly. I’ve talked to way too many teachers who have spent hours filming lessons, only to discover they’re not allowed to teach new material, and others who spent hours creating optional projects only to be told they’re mandated now to teach the regular curriculum.
So, don’t sink a ton of time into creating things that you may not be able to use. Start with the minimum viable product.
5. Do not try to replicate expectations from face-to-face instruction to an online format, or spend excessive time on “accountability” for students.
Your first priority right now should not be holding students accountable for their work. Remember that you have no idea what life or death situations families are dealing with right now, more than ever.
Please do not spend your time calling parents about kids not showing up to virtual class or trying to enforce punishments. There is a time and place for teaching kids about “personal responsibility.” A global pandemic is not it.
Similarly, it’s important to adjust expectations for virtual classes. Children do not need to dress up for a Zoom meeting, or maintain eye contact with the speaker, or lose participation points if there are interruptions from family members or pets. The norms for virtual meetings are always different than in face-to-face meetings.
Examine your beliefs about holding students accountable and personal responsibility, which you might remember me describing as third rail issues in “Fewer Things Better.” Make sure you are not creating extra work for yourself and your students because you believe you “have to” enforce a policy or rule.
If there was ever an opportunity to reimagine norms and let go of attempts to control and micromanage students, this is it.
6. Be flexible and gracious with families, but do not try to make everyone happy.
Some parents will not be happy with your approach to remote teaching no matter what you do. This is also the case during your regular face-to-face instruction.
Give parents grace if they’re overly demanding right now, as they’re likely very stressed and worried about their kids. Be especially patient with those who feel like their children are being required to do too much. Ease up on expectations when asked.
However, you don’t have to bend over backward to please each person, particularly with parents who are asking you to work harder. Make sure your approach is aligned with what your district and union have put in place, and develop a solid, easy to understand rationale for your approach “(I am doing __ because I believe it’s helpful to your child in the following ways…”).
Thank them for their understanding in a time when you’re trying to completely reinvent instruction, and say you appreciate their cooperation. If they feel like you could be doing more, that is okay. They are allowed to hold that opinion. You don’t have to reinvent your crisis teaching curriculum in order to accommodate that opinion.
7. Set office hours, and let go of the guilt from not being available 24/7.
Even doctors and nurses — who are undoubtedly some of the most stressed and overworked, as well as endangered people right now — do have periods of time when they are allowed to be off the clock. As much responsibility as you might feel, remember that your instruction for students is not literal life-saving care. You are not obligated to wake every two hours at night to check for text messages from students and parents.
There is a time to be on the clock, and a time to be off.
Remember that kids and families should not be thinking about school work in the evenings or on weekends right now, either. Everyone needs more time to rest and reset their adrenal system from the additional stress.
So, let families know your “conference hours” when you are available online for immediate help (via chat or Zoom, for example) as well as your “work hours” when you are checking email, instructing, planning, grading, and otherwise officially working.
Your work hours are likely your contracted hours, such as 7:30 am to 3:00 pm. Obviously your district requirements will shape your conference hours, but they might be something like 8:00-10:00 am, and 1:00-3:00 pm. You might also offer additional conference hours in the evening to support working parents, perhaps setting aside 7 -8 pm to respond to any chat/meeting request and return emails.
Introduce these office hours as something you’re doing on a trial basis and plan to adjust as the weeks of remote teaching continue. Tell families that you may scale back later, or move some of the time periods around to better accommodate their needs and your own families’ needs.
Nothing we’re doing right now is supposed to be permanent. So, just figure out something that is workable for your home situation right now and helpful for your students’ families for this week, and try it out. You can always adjust next week.
Keep in mind that people email and send other messages when it’s most convenient for them, or when a question pops into their heads. This does not mean they expect an immediate response unless you train them to do so.
Let families email you at 11 pm — maybe that’s the best time for them. You will then respond at the predetermined and pre-communicated time the following day.
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8. Try to work in a designated place or have a visual “do not disturb” signal so your family knows when you are “at work.”
If you have a room you can use as your office during this time — even if it’s just a dining room or laundry room — that can help set a boundary between work and home. When you’re in that spot, you’re working, and family disturbances should be minimized unless there’s an emergency. When you leave that spot, you leave thoughts about work behind as much as possible, and try to be present with your loved ones.
If this isn’t possible, try to have another visual clue about when you can be interrupted by other people you share your home with, and when you’re concentrating and need to work. This could be turning on a particular lamp, hanging a sign, etc.
I always recommend to club members that when they’re working from home, they focus fully on work so they can knock it out and be done, and I think that advice applies in many remote teaching situations, as well. If you’re watching TV with your family members at the same time you’re lesson planning, it’s going to take longer and you’re going to be distracted.
It’s often better to do a single task at a time: go to another room if possible and get your work done, and then come out and enjoy relaxing with your family.
Try to stick to this when possible, with lots of room for flexibility as needed, of course.
9. Set up new morning routines that are energizing.
One of the tough parts of trying to create a normal routine in this pandemic is not having any appointments, social engagements, fun activities, and other diversions to break up the workweek and add an interesting rhythm to our days. It can feel a bit like being stuck in that “Groundhog Day” movie, where every day and night are identical. For teachers, this can mean being on the computer nonstop, seven days a week.
I recommend creating an energizing morning routine for these days at home, the same way I recommended having one when schools were open (see episode 116 of the podcast.) The idea is that you’re doing something to care for yourself when you first wake up, rather than just scrolling endlessly through your phone or diving right into work.
I’m finding that a morning routine is even more essential now that going online right when I wake up means facing extremely grim and depressing news. I cannot expose myself to that first thing in the morning.
So I have a variety of routines that I choose from instead. Sometimes I read a book in bed, sometimes I get up and do yoga, sometimes I call or Vox with a friend who I know is positive and uplifting, sometimes I go for a quick walk. I don’t like to do the exact same thing every day, but I like having a toolbox of options–like a menu of choices I can select from that are energizing.
I encourage you to do the same, and get dressed or initiate some other physical signal that helps you get ready for the day mentally. I have my “at home ready” weekday routines like brushing my teeth, washing my face and putting on moisturizer on my skin, putting my hair up out of my face, and changing out of pajamas into something more comfortable. It’s a little less than I’d do if I were going out in public, but more than I’d do on a weekend where I might stay in pajamas.
What this routine looks like for you will depend on what you need in order to feel ready for your day and prepared to work. Some folks find wearing “real clothes” or putting on makeup is essential, others don’t — find what works for you.
10. Create routines that break up your day and build whatever level of structure you need to thrive.
Another thing to consider with daily routines is taking a true lunch break. Give yourself at least 20 minutes to clear your head and eat. Step outside and get fresh air if possible. This midday break is absolutely essential for my productivity in the afternoon and I think it will benefit you, as well.
If you’re teaching live classes via video, build in lots of breaks for the kids and yourself. An entire day of Zoom meetings can feel way more taxing than a day of in-class meetings, so get everyone logging off for stretch breaks, independent work, and unstructured times frequently throughout the day.
You can also try rigging up a makeshift standing desk with a laptop stand or pile of books on a table or countertops, and moving back and forth between there and a chair so you’re not sitting all day.
11. Give yourself something to look forward to when school hours are over.
Because your social activities are so limited at the moment, it’s important to have something to look forward to each day. It might be a relaxing dinner, a good movie, a book, time for a hobby, and so on. It might be the same thing every day, or something different.
But it’s important for your mental health to have a reward at the end of your workday. You don’t get the satisfaction of closing your classroom door and heading home, so there has to be some other signal to your body that you can rest and refocus on your life apart from work.
If there is anything we know for sure from this experience, it’s that life is fragile and precious. Don’t waste it being stressed out about work all the time or constantly trying to be productive. Enjoy your evenings and weekends. Do things that are nourishing to your body and soul.
Remember, prioritizing your physical and mental well-being is not optional: it is a life-saving preventative measure. Self-care is not selfish, it is essential for managing stress and keeping your immune system functioning. Building in time for rest is essential if you want to be able to keep doing all of the wonderful things you’re doing for your students, loved ones, and community.