Finding a Work/ Life Balance as a Teacher/ Writer (During a Pandemic)

A view from one of the many my many after-work runs that help me clear my head before writing

In the past year, I’ve had more time to develop my writing than I have ever had while working a full-time job. To be fair, I have only worked a full-time job for two prior years in my life, one as an Americorps literacy tutor and the other as a first-year teacher, and both were extremely mentally and physically demanding. So maybe this year I’ve just found breathing room that wasn’t present during those other two years. It also helps that I don’t have children to take care of, and I’ve been able to do my job remotely during this pandemic. It’s still been a difficult year, since I had to switch entirely to a different mode of teaching- distance learning- all the while coping with anxiety and grief over the toll of the pandemic. I recognize that these aren’t the best circumstances for creative output, and I am probably one of the few lucky people who has found the time and energy to produce more during this pandemic. For me, writing is an escape from the stress of my job and the difficulties of everyday life. I’ve used it as a coping mechanism, so it makes sense that I’ve leaned on it more during the pandemic.

I started this blog three years ago positing the question of whether it was possible to be both a public school teacher and a writer. At that time, I hardly knew anyone who tried to pursue both. They seemed like worlds that did not often cross, except for when my students were reading and writing themselves. However, during the past year, I’ve discovered a whole community of other teachers who write or writers who teach on places like Twitter or WordPress or among teacher acquaintances I know from the Bay Area or UC Davis. There are a lot of people who are making it work, pursuing their passion for writing while also teaching, whether it’s K-12 public education or working at private schools or colleges. Being in touch with a writing community has really helped me stay motivated to continue writing despite the difficulty of finding the time to write and the challenges of developing good enough writing to be published.

In the past year, I’ve been published 3 times online, and I have another story forthcoming in a print literary journal soon. It’s nice to receive external validation from being published online, but more important than that validation is the excitement that comes from sharing my writing with other members of the writing community. I’ve found a lot of joy this past year in reading literary magazines, whether they are new online journals or print journals I’ve had sitting in my apartment for years. It makes me feel part of a greater literary community that is having conversations about important ideas, discussing racism, capitalism, language, and culture through literature. It doesn’t matter that these pieces, whether it’s poetry, short stories, or essays, are ephemeral and won’t be widely perused by the public. As long as there is a community of readers that care about them and writers who want to create them, literary journals are relevant and important.

As I approach the end of my year teaching via distance learning, I’m looking forward to the beneficial aspects of teaching in person such as building relationships with my students and being able to cultivate a culture of learning and creativity in my classroom. But I’m also worried that I will lose some of the work/life balance I’ve had to work so hard to develop during this past year. It may take a while to adjust back to the routine of in-person teaching, and during that time I don’t think it will be easy to write. I’m just hoping that I will be able to apply some of the lessons I’ve learned during this past year about maintaining boundaries between life and work to my teaching career going forward.

First of all, I’ve gotten better at creating mental boundaries between my life and my work. I no longer dwell too much on thoughts of teaching and replay scenes from my classes in my head during my free time. Of course, some reflection is positive and necessary, but I don’t let it occupy my mind as much as a I used to because I need that time to rest. In this case, rest means turning my attention to other things that I value.

Second of all, I have also gotten better at prioritizing what I need to do for work in order to complete tasks outside of classroom teaching such as grading, lesson planning, contacting parents, and filling out paperwork more efficiently. Reading the book Onward by Elena Aguilar really helped me figure out how to make the most of my contracted hours so that I can stop working relatively soon after the school day is technically over. Of course, I still have to work outside of my contracted hours. Otherwise, I would not be able to do the things I need to do to teach well. But I have minimized the time I work on weekends and after school. I used to let teaching take over both days of my weekend, but now I limit it to Sunday, even if it means Sunday is rather stressful and rushed. To me, having a rushed Sunday is worth being able to relax on Saturday. I know not everyone feels that way or has the same work rhythm, so teachers have to figure out their own ways to make things fit into the time they have.

It would help, of course, if we didn’t have as ridiculous of workloads as we do. However, I don’t let my endless to-do list of tasks rule over my time. If I complete everything I need to do to be prepared for the next day, and then some ongoing tasks, even if I have more I could do, I cut myself off. The problem with teaching is that you often feel that no matter how much you do, it’s not enough, but it’s also toxic to keep working when you need to rest. I’m getting better at stopping myself before I’m completely exhausted.

During my free time, I’ve developed routines for how to use my time after work so that I get to do the things that are important to me. I usually work out right after I finish working, then relax and help prep dinner (I’m lucky that my partner does most of the cooking). After dinner, I write. I don’t write every day, but I’ve figured out that this time is the optimal writing time for me to write on a regular basis. When I was first trying to fit writing into my schedule, I tried to block it out at 4 PM on a couple days a week on my calendar, but I just found that timing didn’t work for me. I can’t focus on writing right after I finish work. I need some time to decompress before I can turn to what is basically my second job. This is what works best for me, but everyone has their own preferences for when they feel most creative. I could never do creative work in the early morning, or even exercise early in the morning, so all of the “life” part of my work/life balance has to happen after work.

Next year, when I’m back in person I’m going to have to adjust my routine by accounting for the time it takes me to commute to and from my job. I will also lose some of my precious evening time because I will have to go to bed earlier. No more staying up until 10 PM writing for two to three hours straight because I was struck by a good idea (well I might still do this every once in a while and then just go to work sleep deprived). I don’t know if the work/ life balanced I have now is truly sustainable. I just know that it’s working for now, so I will relish it while I still can. I am hoping that once I’m back into the classroom, after an adjustment period, I’ll find a new version of work/life balance. I just hope it doesn’t take too long to achieve it and doesn’t require me to give up too much.

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