Work vs. Life

Achieving balance is a struggle for many of us, but it’s a particularly acute challenge for teachers.

I know I usually write about travels or life in new and strange worlds, but permit me if you would to wander off topic this week. I’m bothered by a few conversations I’ve had in the past two weeks about striking a work-life balance, and I need the catharsis of writing to make it less stressful and more useful.

I suppose it’s not entirely off-topic in that when you move to a new country for work, things you took for granted in the past suddenly become bullet points on the list of ‘Things to Figure Out’. I’m not entirely sure what my work vs. non-work life would be like in Canada because I have never worked full-time there. How bizarre. I have never had a full-time job in my chosen line of work in my own country. I’ve always worked a collection of part-time or temporary jobs that included teaching English as a second language. So, is the imbalance of work and play in my life due to the fact that I’m a teacher? Or is it because I work in a foreign country? Or is it simply a reflection of my personality? And how can I change it?

Those who can’t do…

Achieving work-life balance can pose towering challenges. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Achieving work-life balance can pose towering challenges. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Teaching is one of those professions that will eat into your entire life if you let it. From taking home papers to correct, to spending hours trying to get a lesson plan to fit your self-imposed requirements of being clear, concise, and interesting all at once – it can turn into a social life-eating blob.

Looking back through the many teachers in your life, surely there were plenty of stand-out examples of people who had given up on caring long ago. I suppose that exists in a lot of career fields. However, I would argue it is much more noticeable with teachers because we have them as a constant presence in our lives from kindergarten until whichever level of higher learning we choose to complete. Let’s just say for the brevity of this article that we’re thinking about the sort who aren’t completely burned out, and those who still find a lot of satisfaction in their work.

At my current job I see an awful lot of textbooks dragged to and from home, long hours logged each day, and constant upkeep through observations and workshops. Today a co-worker confided in me about how her husband struggles with the amount of time and effort that goes into her work. Her parents are both teachers and she admitted to taking for granted the sort of life where work was brought home and tossed around the supper table as part of regular conversation. Her husband doesn’t understand why she brings anything home, and has absolutely no interest in talking about anything work related (other than the odd bit of juicy gossip here and there) across their meat and potatoes. “But I guess that’s just the kind of job we have,” she said at the end of our little chat. I had never really thought about my job in that way. But I talk about work quite a bit outside of work. Hmm.

Feeling at home when abroad

It has admittedly taken me an age to sort out my physical home this go around the mulberry bush. I am lying. I actually haven’t sorted it out yet and the near future holds no promises. I come home from work each day shattered and looking forward to a bit of mindless surfing around the Internet, or a chapter of a good book before falling asleep with my glasses mashed into the side of my face. I don’t always have the get-up-and-go after work to spend hours wandering through a home-goods store, looking for curtains. Sure, I’d love to add some plants to my living room. But if I’m completely honest, I can’t be bothered with looking up who is selling what for cheap in a moving away sale, and then trying to figure out how to get it from point A to point B during the few hours a week I have where I’m not obsessing over making the present perfect a verb tense that doesn’t seem oxy-moronic.

My cupboards are empty and cooking is a chore. Do you know how expensive (and heavy!) it is to have to buy everything for your spice/oil cupboard again? I feel like I’ve been going to the supermarket constantly and I still only have salt, pepper, chili flakes, and olive oil in my cupboard. I still haven’t managed to get salt and pepper shakers. Add it to the list!

Of course, once my partner in crime gets here life will become considerably easier. He’ll be in charge of keeping our house in order until he finds work. And attacking the pathetic pantry and barren living room is much easier as a team. At least you can roll your eyes at each other over the abysmal selection in the rugs section.

It’s not you, it’s me

Maybe this entire article up (until this paragraph) has been a huge cop-out. Maybe my terrible work/social life imbalance has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a teacher living abroad, and everything to do with the fact that I am a control freak. Perhaps freak is a bit harsh, but I quite like to be in charge of almost everything that I can be when it comes to my classroom(s). I often wonder what I would be like in a different field of work. What if I were a computer programmer or some other job where I didn’t have to be around such high quantities of people? I wonder if I would take work home with me, both literally and figuratively. I wonder if I would pour as much energy into being a more effective programmer as I do into being a more effective teacher.

The teaching abroad life can require some coping mechanisms. Photo by Nancy Cater.
The teaching abroad life can require some coping mechanisms. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Maybe it is me and I can’t change. I have been teaching for almost a decade now, and I have always pulled long hours at the office. I burn out sometimes and deal with it like most people do (or how I think most people do) by going on holidays or having a long whine over some wine. Sometimes I count down the days until the end of a week, or until I can take a break.

Having said that, maybe I work the way I do because I’m doing something I really love. I get to live in a new country every few years. I meet a wild variety of people and have an impressive amount of stories that have built up over the past couple of years. And when one of my six-year-old students who cried through the entire first class runs to be first in line when I walk toward the classroom each morning, my heart grows two sizes.

I take that work home with me, too.

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