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Powering Through: What is Balance?

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I once had a 5-year-old camper who had some trouble remembering rules. His earnest explanation to me was "My thoughts just fall out of my head - I think through my ears."

I know what he means. I must admit, the only thoughts that don't fall out through my ears these days, are the thoughts that I've put a mental post-it on; multiple regression, the methods that promote high quality qualitative research, and anything job related. I guess that's how my sunglasses ended up in the refrigerator a few days ago, and my friends patiently say "yes, you told me that story before" on a fairly regular basis. Sorry friends, I seem to be out of original thought, which is why I've turned into a thought recycler. If it's sticky enough to not fall out, it's getting used over and over.

I had a very interesting conversation recently with a student here at school. He is fairly new at the school; he started in September. He is a joy. He is poised, shakes hands at the beginning and end of any visit, and is also an amazing photographer. He regularly borrows my office's digital SLR camera, sometimes overnight, and comes back with incredible photographs. But he recently took a job. One that has him doing heavy labor in a kitchen for 6 hours without a break. (I won't name any names...let's just say they make a lot of cake. Out of cheese.) So it's not a surprise that he has immense trouble getting up in the morning. Even though his first class is at 1:15pm, he still doesn't make it. Given his attitude when he is in school, I was shocked to hear him say a few days ago when he was in my office "I hate school." Ego bruise. Even our school? The one where you take photographs? And get to come in the afternoon? And have awesome teachers? Yes. Apparently school is one of those things that falling out of his head through his ears right now. For reasons that are personal to him, he has to work. That is his priority. But he also recognizes the importance of powering through school. He will get better job with a high school diploma. He can go to college. He'll be more stable.

I was really struck at his stamina, being able to power through something that he hates. I love my job, and going back to school was my decision entirely - not something that I had to do, something that I was passionate about. And I still get the urge to say "the least squares line equation fell out of my head. Probably through my ears. Sorry."

This used to happen to a colleague of mine. He works harder than anyone I know. His job is to advocate for students at the school. He calls parents, he makes home visits, he mediates between students and families, students and teachers, students and each other. He refers students to housing, mental health facilities, shows up in court for them. He hears the worst of the worst situations. Stories that make you want to throw in the towel, because there's no way that a child should have to deal with that. By May every year, he would totally burn out. Something is different this year. I asked him what it was, and he said "I have hobbies, and I turn my cell phone off at 5pm." It sounds so simple. After years of taking calls from students at 2am on his personal phone, bringing his work home with him, and letting it take a toll on him, he said "enough."

This is a topic that you hear all the time. The "work/life balance". Leaving work at work in order to recharge and produce higher quality results during the time you are at work. But as much as it is discussed, it's still not socially acceptable. At least not in education. There are a lot of teachers that come in at 7am, leave at 8pm, work on weekends, take phone calls. That's normal. Those that check out at 5pm and don't come back until the next day are viewed as lazy, or as people who don't care about students. And can anyone remember the last time a weekend went by where they didn't check their email?

This student is powering through. My colleague powered through for 5 years, and found that it wasn't sustainable. The fewer thoughts that are milling around in our heads, the fewer will fall out. But can we survive without all those thoughts? Will out students be left unaided? With our thoughts in such disarray are we really offering them quality help in the first place? Maybe my colleague is now able to offer better support so that his students don't need to call him at 2am.

What this means for me is: I have to find a way to help this student decompress during any minute of spare time. Maybe he needs the camera more, maybe he needs to come in, sit in my comfy chair and not talk. Maybe I need to do that too. Or maybe get some cotton balls for my ears so that I can start telling some new stories.


Posted by Nastasia Lawton on March 7, 2011 2:28 PM


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