What if Chicken Little Started Knitting? by Nick Gehl
I am thrilled to introduce my first guest blogger! Nick Gehl is the Department Chair of Fine Arts at Evanston Township High School. Nick and I worked together many years ago and I am happy to say that we made the transition from “work friends” to “real friends” due to our shared enthusiasm for talking about worklife, leadership, and good BBQ. I appreciate Nick because he is a thoughtful, analytical, creative thinker who is constantly challenging himself and others to learn, do, and be better.
Thank you, Nick!
My friend Chris is a teacher…and a runner…and married with children…and a cross country coach…and he works with an organization that supports at-risk youth…and he likes to knit, sometimes. Chris clearly has a very full schedule and several facets that make up his life. Now each of these things don’t all happen at once and the commitments vary, however, he is actively involved in each to some capacity on at least a monthly basis. When Chris and I go for long runs we typically go through each of these aspects of his life (because you can only talk about Netflix shows for so long) and he shares the various ups and downs. But I have noticed there is always at least one area that is currently successful and bringing him joy. He has never expressed dissatisfaction with everything at once. Chris is someone I would hire to work in my department.
After working at four different schools, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of different people. One of my observations has been how people handle themselves at work; Their values and expectations, how they respond to situations, challenges, change, conflict, etc. And over time and with enough interactions, I could categorize the people into those I enjoy (or enjoyed) working with and those I don’t. To be more specific, I enjoy working with people who can have an honest conversation about a subject without going off the deep-end. Someone who can collaborate well and who doesn’t overreact and go all Chicken Little on me. You know the people, you can’t even present them with an idea because they’ve already thought of the five reasons it won’t work or their expected reaction alone makes you not want to even share the idea. Sharing feedback with them is equally unsuccessful and their ability to reflect poor.
When I think about the people I don’t enjoy working with and what I know about how they balance their work and life, they typically aren’t Chris. They don’t have multiple facets of their life and typically only have one or two: a teacher/administrator at the school and perhaps a member of their family (spouse, dad, etc.) And I get it, making time for anything else can be challenging. Both roles are extremely important and take a lot of time, energy, and emotion. But when something happens at work that is challenging Chris, he is stabilized by several other aspects of his identity that are going well. He might have had a bad day at work, but a great session with his at-risk students and a strong running workout. His work-life balance allows him to maintain perspective, which helps him respond more productively and positively with adversity.
When our Chicken Little is presented with a challenging situation, they often respond negatively because much of their identity and self-worth is being threatened and they have little else to balance themselves out. Their reactions can also have ripple effects on the larger organization and staff. For example, decisions can be influenced by their difficult behavior and not what’s best for students. Or the staff lost respect for a leader because of their negative reaction and behavior.
Everything about American culture and education would lead us to discredit this perspective on work-life balance. We’ve been taught that ‘first to arrive and last to leave’ is the definition of hard work and commitment. Education has told new teachers not to say “no” until they’re tenured. And administrators are continuously putting the needs of the school ahead of the needs of themselves. But this work culture is leading to burn out, undesirable jobs and high turnover rates, and toxic work environments that don’t support anyone, including students. Here are a few things we can do to support our staff and a better culture in the building:
- We can model and support work-life balance for our staff. Encourage staff to take time for themselves and be cognizant of adding events to the school calendar, evening/weekend email expectations, and summer responsibilities. Continuously model that you are not a school-robot and you don’t expect them to be either. Share your stories and success from other aspects of your life and ask about theirs.
- Hiring staff with an effective work-life philosophy can be critical to creating a collaborative culture. What if we asked interview questions like, “Can you give examples of how you are successful outside of teaching?” or “How do you balance the physical and emotional demands of education in your life?” We might be more likely to hire people who still care about education and will be more successful in the long run.
- Helping young educators learn coping and time-management strategies and shaping their perspective will lead to a more sustainable and high-performing career over time. The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Be direct with your new staff about the importance of work-life balance. Tell them to leave the building, to not respond to your email on Sunday morning, and set clear goals for their first few years.
Hopefully with more attention on work-life balance, we can continue to provide our students with a solid education and improve the cultures of school buildings. If work-life balance and educator sustainability interest you, I’d encourage you to read Peak Performance by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg and listen to Adam Grant’s “WorkLife” podcast episode, “When Work Takes Over Your Life.”