The Self-Care Myth: Why I Don’t Like the Term “Work/Life Balance” and You Shouldn’t Either

Greetings fellow Physical Education friends! It has been a while, hasn’t it? I suppose not much has changed–well, other than the global pandemic that completely turned education and schools upside down. As I’m sitting here by myself on Day 3 of my own isolation–and honestly being a little surprised that it took this long for COVID-19 to finally get its grip on me, I started to finally go through my notes of all the things over the past couple of years I’ve wanted to talk about and share. One of the best things about maintaining this website is the ability to go back and look at the last 10 years as a time capsule. I appreciate reading the About Us section on the website and one key nugget in particular:

Everyone who contributes is a volunteer who does so at their own pace and their own time.  Additionally, much of what we write or organize are things that are very personal to us.  We do not operate by deadlines or through traditional norms.

Ain’t that the truth? Well anyway, let’s talk about self-care a little bit, shall we?

Full disclosure before I begin, after announcing I was no longer going to engage on social media as a professional in April of 2019, I’ve held true to that. I don’t lurk and I don’t even know my password to log in to Twitter. Suffice to say that I suppose several of the things I decide to talk about could be relevant or they could be completely out of touch and irrelevant. Honestly, I don’t really care. Lately, I have seen numerous publications, organizations, etc. discuss ad-nauseam about topics like teacher self-care, teacher burnout, and work-life balance.

This isn’t new and honestly, I think it’s a toxic mentality.

Heck, I’ve written about this before starting in 2016, then doubled down in 2017, and then I said it again for the people in the back in 2019. There are a lot of other themes that exist in those writings, and I want to touch base on many of them–but, that will come over time and over several blog posts.

I want this post to focus specifically on one single thing.

Self-Care for Teachers is a Myth

I suppose I’ve never been shy in taking adversarial positions. So this one should be fun. Locally, I am witnessing unprecedented numbers of teachers who feel burned out. I have numerous friends and colleagues who have left the profession in the past couple of years. There isn’t an end in sight at this point, I expect this trend to continue. Teachers are not ok. But most of us are well-meaning and problem solvers. So we try to help. We say things like: “Practice some self-care, 10 minutes of mindfulness every day.” or, “Make time for your exercise, maybe consider Yoga.” or, “Pick a day and make it a device-free day!” or, “Here are some tips for achieving that work/life balance we all need.” or, “Teachers, you’ve been working hard all week–feel free to go home and start your weekend early as soon as student contact time is over.”

I think you get the idea. I’m here to say–while we may mean well–we are causing more harm with these approaches. We are putting a band-aid on the problem instead of addressing the root cause. So what is the root cause?

In my opinion, the root cause is allowing ourselves and our self-worth to be defined by being a teacher.

Teachers are very altruistic people. Teachers are people who work hard. We always think about others and our students before ourselves. We’ve been conditioned by society this way–going back to our very first educational methods class when we were all sold the bill of goods that we were doing this for a greater purpose and it would never be about the money. I’m generalizing–but, we all have a similar origin story to that one.

The problem is we have allowed society (especially in the United States) to take advantage of this and then we continue to lie to ourselves that it’s “just part of the job.”

I can think of no other way to illustrate this than when we hear our politicians after a tragic mass shooting depicting us as heroes who sacrificed our lives to be a human shield. The idea that we literally would do anything for our students, including sacrificing our lives is baked into American culture.

Our desire to be the best we can be in serving our students has, over time, caused us to specialize so deeply that our identities as people are wound incredibly tight with being a teacher. The inability to separate from that identity combined with the incredible stress of the current level of work is what is causing people to leave.

I’m here to say that our profession needs to let go of that mindset. We are not “teachers.” We are people, who also happen to teach.

So what is the solution? Instead of spending so much time investing in our teaching, we need to spend more time DIVERSIFYING our lives as people. Why is this so important? I’m going to drop a teacher cliche on you for this one. It’s because it’s all about the kids. In my opinion, far and away the most important factor for quality physical education is having quality physical education teachers IN THE CLASSROOM. I’m not trying to offend anyone who has left to become a teacherpreneur, consultant, instructional coach, administrator, or something else related. I will never judge someone’s choice to leave the classroom because that is a uniquely personal thing. However, if you are not in the classroom, you can only have a secondary or tertiary impact on our profession. The primary influence will always be the physical education or health education teacher in the classroom. These are the people who will impact the perception of physical education and health education for the next generation. Frankly, we need as many of these champions in the classroom as we can get. So getting back to my point, how do we choose to stay in instead of choosing to get out?

Be a 3-sport athlete, instead of specializing in 1

I will dedicate about 9 hours a day to teaching Monday-Friday. Sure, there are always exceptions when I absolutely have to do some level of work outside of that–but, it really is rare. If I can’t get it done during that time, it can wait until tomorrow. Sorry, not sorry.

I don’t work on the weekends, I don’t work on vacations, and I won’t really work during my summer vacation. I start thinking about the year about 2-3 weeks before the year starts and start doing some initial planning. Can I do all of the things this way? Nope. I’m ok with that. It has caused me to focus on what I can do and allowed me to do those things really well. Just like when we unpack and prioritize power standards.

When I am not teaching, I spend my time listening to and creating music, jazz record collecting, amateur DJing, exercising with a community (shout out to Peloton), and working towards officiating college football. I have a wide variety of interests outside of teaching and I’m going into year 15 and I’m pretty happy where I am at. Sure, some things about the system of education can be stressful–but, I’m not on the verge of leaving the profession anytime soon. I am not defined by being a teacher and you shouldn’t define yourself by that either (or feel any guilt in feeling that way).

My goal every day is to be consistently good from the hours of 7 AM – 4 PM (coffee helps) and I do not desire to put in more time than that. I feel I am more effective with my students that way and I give them a better physical education experience.

When we hear the quote, “A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none” we have always viewed that as a negative. But, we always leave out the other half to that quote which is, “A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

Sage advice, we’d be wise to heed it.

6 Comments on “The Self-Care Myth: Why I Don’t Like the Term “Work/Life Balance” and You Shouldn’t Either

  1. I appreciate your insight. Thank you for sharing. I need to embrace that philosophy. I am teaching at the college level and also volunteer and teach physical education one day a week at the elementary level and I feel like all I do is WORK! My husband is always commenting that I work so many more hours than him and his pay check is much larger.

    • Susan, thank you for the comment. I do hope you consider something that works for you–the one thing I feel confident in sharing is that when you feel like all you do is WORK–something isn’t right. We never get out of this life alive, right?

      For too long and for too many people in our culture–if we aren’t “busy” we aren’t productive, or worse we are deemed “lazy”, and that’s just not true.

      I am very passionate about teaching PE and I work very hard at it–but, I’ve drawn very strong boundaries on when enough is enough. I am a much happier person that way…and I approach each teaching day with much more energy and happiness there too.

      Less is more and I’ll take that to my grave with me. This is a long game, that’s why we call it a career.

  2. Yeah, I guess. And good for you for dropping out of Twitter (tho not sure physedsummit is all that different).

    • Hi Pete,

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by comparing Twitter to the PhysEdSummit. Regardless, we haven’t helped to facilitate a summit since the Spring of 2020 when the pandemic first started.

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