Finding work-life balance is tough in normal times. When you add in a pandemic that has blurred the lines between work and home, the struggle is real. But you’re not alone—we’re all in this together. We asked the Free Spirit Advisory Council for their best piece of advice for drawing boundaries for work-life balance during distance learning.
You’ll find that many council members offered similar suggestions, like disconnecting when the workday is done. But you’ll also find some new advice, like stopping every hour to blow bubbles. Here are their responses.
Delineate your workspace and time within your home:
- Set up a workspace—if it has to be in the midst of other activity, cover it or hide it when it is not work time.
- Dress for work—not for relaxation.
- When the workday is done, let the work emails and texts go, and take care of yourself and your needs.
—Gail, district quality compensation program coordinator/instructional coach
Only do work on your work device. Use your school computer for all work-related emails, meetings, and documents. When you’re finished, put that work device away! Shut it down, put it in your bag, etc., and then spend time with your family, go on a walk, cook, watch tv, anything but work. Also, keep your personal cell phone for personal use only. While it may seem convenient at first to put your work email on your personal cell phone, resist the urge. It will save you time and stress in the long run!
—Nicole, 6th grade school counselor
- Work your contract hours no matter your location and set your (at-home) classroom work area up somewhere you can walk away from and not look at all the time.
- Add in your email signature line and your voicemail greeting that if the message is coming to you outside of school hours, you will answer during school hours the next day or within 24 hours (or 48 if you are comfortable with that).
- Give yourself and others grace as we manage these schedules/workloads and new routines.
—Shannon, special educator teacher
As an administrator, I’m on call 24/7, but I do use my out-of-office reply for weekends sometimes, when I have plans with family. Another thing I’ve learned to do is tell someone that I will not get back to them until the following day if I get a call or question after 12:00 p.m. That way I don’t feel like I need to step away from personal time in the evening to get the information or answers to everyone. It’s always a boost when the other person is very understanding and gives me the time to disconnect from work, knowing that they will have a response the following day.
—Andrea, assistant head of school
For me, it has worked best to focus on one week at a time. To not try and look too far ahead into the future because things change so frequently. Additionally, if you can, try and carve out at least 30–60 minutes a day doing something that brings you joy. Walking the dog, watching a show on tv—whatever fills up your bucket.
—Christine, college instructor and mentor manager
My best piece of advice for creating and maintaining boundaries is to have a routine. This will help everyone know how the day and week will progress. We keep a large whiteboard with daily tasks, appointments, and whatever needs to be done. Get up at the same time each day, and exercise, read, and do computer work all during dedicated times for fewer distractions. Consistency is challenging when we are monitoring our own clocks from home. Opening up the blinds and letting the light in helps set the morning mood (of course, with coffee) for another day indoors.
Some of the best advice I have for maintaining a work-life balance is to turn off email notifications on my phone during non-work hours. During distance learning, it can often feel like we are working 24/7. Taking intentional or scheduled breaks is imperative to a healthy body and mind. Take a walk, schedule outside time, or ensure you are getting exercise daily.
—Ashley, school counselor
I set boundaries for myself by removing my work email and the Schoology app from my phone. Before I did that, I was constantly on my phone checking and answering things up until bedtime. I also let students know that I stop checking and responding to emails at a set time each day (4:00 p.m. in my case); they are free to email me at any time, but should not expect a response until the next day.
. . . one thing I wish I had never done was share my cell number with my admin. Oops.
—Leona, English teacher
There are a couple of things I do to set the boundary between work and home. The first thing I do is set a timer for every hour. And when that timer goes off, I get up and leave my desk. I go outside and blow bubbles. That’s right, soap bubbles. If I don’t do that, I find that ten hours have gone by without me noticing.
I have a school computer, and I turn it off and 4:00 p.m.—that’s the time I would normally leave school. I don’t turn it back on until 8:00 a.m.—the time I would normally get to school. That’s a huge boundary for me.
—Nancy, 8th-grade online teacher (math and science)
I work from school but without students in the classroom. I leave my laptop in the classroom from Monday morning until Friday afternoon, taking it home for the weekend to do any catch-up, but this means I don’t work when I arrive home after the workday. I can walk the dog and focus on my kids, who have been distance learning at home.
I also commit to one yoga class and a 45-minute cardio class weekly. I do these no matter what.
I also say “one day at a time” and will not stress over planning out more than a quarter. There are just too many unknowns for the academic year.
The best piece of advice (which I need to take as well) when drawing boundaries for a work-life balance during distance (and in-person) classes is to ensure your notifications are not turned on, as your time is precious and valuable. Do not take your worries into your bedroom with you . . . which also means leaving the electronic devices in another room/space or silencing them. My other piece of advice is: Flip how we as educators usually care for others and our environment first before ourselves. We typically come last in our care plan, but through this pandemic I have learned to fill my bucket first, take care of myself, then take care of others, and then our environment. How to care for self? Breathwork (breathing) and stretching. I also suggest a good long bath. Bonus: chamomile tea.
As educators, we often allow ourselves to stay in our classrooms a bit longer, extend our lunches to help out students, or just come in a bit early to “get a few things done.” All of that comes to an end with virtual/distance learning. We can still go the extra mile and be of help to our students and our community, but when so much more of our time is spent in front of a screen—we need to keep to boundaries for our own health. A few suggestions:
- Arrange meets with student, staff, or colleagues during scheduled hours of work, not after or before.
- Use emails or school messaging systems to communicate outlines for upcoming meets or discussions.
- Make your planner your new best friend! Keep your planner out and close by throughout your day to jot down notes, reminders, appointments, etc. Scan through your planner at the end of the day and review it first thing in the morning (as you begin your workday).
- Use your breaks wisely! Get up, do some stretching, have a snack, gaze out of a window, pet Fido or take him for a short walk, try chair or floor yoga, get some tea or water . . . basically, be AWAY from your screen. Use your breaks to give your eyesight a new view!
—Tara, educator of 19 years
You create the tone! You must establish rules and boundaries about your availability. If you don’t want to read emails on the weekend, then don’t send or reply to them on weekends.
—Donna, speech pathologist
I believe clear expectations and agreements need to be shared with your team. A team needs to set work hours and script out what the expectations are during those hours. I plan my day and then shut the laptop when I’m done and focus on what I and my family need. I found that if I don’t do so then I keep thinking about what more I could do (which is not helpful) and take energy away from myself and others.
—Debbie, early childhood educator
I have the choice (per my district/union agreement) to work in-building or remotely. I have chosen to work in-building because it helps me have clear boundaries between work and home. It is my form of self-care!
—Emily, school counselor
My biggest advice for drawing a boundary for work-life balance is to have a cut-off time. Working from home can exhaust a person if there is no happy medium; one must disconnect at a set time.
—Bianca, residential services supervisor
I find this very hard myself with the pandemic and working from home. My only answer is you must be very conscious and set boundaries. This is a very hard thing to do.
—Jeni, director of an early learning center
Unfortunately, this is a tough one . . . everything seems to blend together, and we create our own 18-hour workday. I have heard, from colleagues who are in the same boat, that setting aside an end time, and marking it with a beverage (of choice), is a good way to signal the end of the workday.
The technique that I have found to work, for me, is to shut down the laptop, store it away, and turn off email alerts on my phone. Out of sight, out of mind works every time.
Over the years, educators’ work hours have become more blurred as parents and administrators communicate through emails, texts, and phone calls during off hours, at night, or on the weekends. This grey zone of communication has now become even more complicated. Many parents are reaching out to teachers with technology questions to help navigate their students to a new online learning experience. In order to preserve my home time and keep it separate from work time, I try hard to carve out certain hours. I let my students’ families know what my schedule is and when my office hours or drop-in Q&A times are in Google Classroom. This reminds students and parents that there are designated times for communication.
—Jenny, elementary school psychologist
My biggest piece of advice is DO NOT bring work home. If you have to work, do it at school, even after hours. There should be a break between work and home life. I did not start out this year this way, and it caused me to miss three weeks of school because of illness. As much as we do, we really need to take care of ourselves, or we will be no good to others at school or at home.
—Dana, high school English teacher
To create a work/life balance, set a time limit for how long you will work. Once your time is up, put work items away and focus on your family.
—Melissa, voluntary pre-kindergarten teacher
Divide your to-do list into four quadrants:
- Urgent and important: Prioritize getting those things done each day and feel successful after completing them all.
- Important but not urgent: Make a plan for completing these tasks and put them on your calendar to hold yourself accountable.
- Urgent but not important: Delegate this task to someone else!
- Not urgent and not important: Cross this off your list and let it go!
—Allegra, director of special education
I am working currently in a remote environment at home. The best piece of advice that I can give is to keep your work time and leisure time separate. Set your schedule and adhere to it. Make sure to take breaks during the day. Allow yourself 5–10 minutes every hour to use the restroom, stretch your legs, or get a snack. Get up from the computer during your break. Take a lunch break every day and walk to the kitchen to prepare your food. Make your lunchtime screen-free. Allowing some time away from the computer is just as important as getting the work done.
—Gina, music teacher
- There have been massive amounts of phone calls/messages from parents this year—some as late as midnight. I had to stop replying after 4:00 p.m. to maintain sanity.
- I do things I enjoy in the evenings, such as watch favorite reruns with my husband to unwind. Read, walk, play with pets—do what makes you feel relaxed!
- Leave work at school if possible—stop carrying home loads of things to do! I’ve made myself do this at least three nights per week.
To allow yourself breaks is most important. This can mean taking a short walk, putting your head down and relaxing after you set a timer, eating a snack, or just getting outside!
Students need to know your availability for office hours and when you will respond to email.
Most of all, be early for class with the students. The ones who sign on early usually want to chat!
Maintaining a work/life balance while working from home is so hard but so important! Students (and colleagues) contact you at all hours of the day and night and it can feel like you HAVE to respond right away. But setting boundaries and walking away are necessary. My number-one tip is to maintain a schedule. Start and end your workday when you typically would if you were going to work in person. Try not to check emails or messages when your day is done. Also, get dressed. Just like putting on work clothes can help motivate you to get to work, wanting to get into these sweats at the end of the day helps to wind down and switch gears!
—Jacklyn, school counselor
Stick to working during your workday and being with family when the workday ends. Make your boundaries firm so that you can channel both your work hours and family time to make the most of each.
—Adria, director of curriculum development
The best way for me to draw boundaries is to turn off my cell phone and emails when my workday is over.
—Deb, sexual assault program manager
Remember that just because you can be accessible 24/7 doesn’t mean you should be. A silver lining of the pandemic is that we have learned how to use technology tools such as Zoom and Meet to stay in touch when we can’t be in person with our colleagues, students, and families. A negative side of this is we may get requests from those people well after hours, and we may feel like we can’t say no. One thing you can do to set a boundary around this is to set an automatic reply to let people know that, while their message is important to you, you won’t be checking your email until the next day. You could make it a habit to enable this setting at the end of your workday and on weekends.
—Lauren, school counselor
The Free Spirit Advisory Council of Educators is a group of professionals who provide feedback that helps make Free Spirit books even more beneficial for kids, teens, and the adults who care about them. Interested in becoming a member? Recruitment is ongoing! We are especially looking for elementary and middle school teachers. For more information about the benefits and responsibilities of membership, download our Free Spirit Advisory Council flyer and our Free Spirit Advisory Council application.
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