Work vs. Not-work

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Although this was a long time ago, I don’t think I’m exaggerating. I taught all day, planned most weekends, served on three committees, and ran four after-school programs. I split my time between two schools, created an art curriculum for pre-K through 8th grades, floundered with classroom management, and hunted for free or cheap art supplies. Most days I felt like a failure. Out of a sense of responsibility to my students and to the other teachers, I did not take sick days. On my commute, I would daydream about getting into a minor-ish accident, one that would take me out of work for a day or two so I could recover.

For teachers in New Zealand and in the States, workload is a major source of stress. A teacher’s responsibilities—lesson planning, classroom instruction, parent communication, website upkeep, grading, making copies, bulletin boards, observations, administrative tasks, testing, data analysis, buying classroom supplies, professional development, behavior management, committees, clubs, sports, and meetings—will not fit into a 40-hour week. How a school or district addresses teacher workloads can mean the difference between a stable, healthy staff and a revolving door of overwhelmed teachers.

I’d heard about the healthy work-life balance in New Zealand, but it’s another thing to see it play out in schools. Take morning tea, for example. Every day at 10:30 A.M., students and teachers take time out to socialize and have a snack. Teachers do not use this time to catch up on work. They return to class focused and refreshed, having had the enviable (by U.S. teacher standards) opportunity to use the bathroom during the school day.

I’ve seen a similar balance in New Zealand teacher induction. New teachers do not teach a full schedule. They get release time to plan lessons, observe other teachers, and reflect on their practice. Schools with strong leadership support new teachers and protect their time. I spoke with a principal who emphasized that it was her role to discourage teachers—all teachers—from taking on too much: “Teachers are no good to the school when they are sick or burnt out. Their focus, especially in the first year, should be on teaching and on developing relationships with students.” In this school, the principal and mentors stop teachers from taking on too much, because they need to be present and focused on the students.

In New Zealand, I have a healthy balance between work and not-work. I’m researching a topic I love, and have time to learn it in depth. I’m learning about new teaching methods by observing and teaching small groups in Eliza’s school. I’m taking a class at the University and interviewing as many people as I can about education. I’m also traveling, reading, swimming, and spending more time with Geoff and Eliza. The challenge will be keeping this balance when I return to my usual teacher workload (plus a new baby). While I’m no longer daydreaming about car accidents, I still feel overwhelmed.


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