Keep your purpose in perspective

Osley Cook loves music. He loves sharing his passion with others. But ultimately, that's not why he has been an educator for 28 years—teaching through a heart transplant and currently working as a music instructor, band director, and tennis coach at a Dallas high school where many children are from low-income families.

“I’ve had opportunities to go work at private and charter schools, but I work here on purpose,” Cook says. “It’s not just a job for me. It’s about, ‘how many people do I reach? How many students am I able to help turn their lives around?’”

Ask educators about what they do for a living, and most will tell you it’s a calling. This sense of purpose helps explain why they are usually so excited to go back to school each fall; why they’re creative and resilient through disruptions and tough times; and why they consistently go the extra mile for their students.

However, this mindset also can work against work-life balance. Educators’ identities become enmeshed with their jobs. Even in their free time, they remain mentally and emotionally engaged. “What people don’t understand is that, as an educator, you take on your students,” says Damon Pitt, a high school principal in Detroit. “What I mean by that is that you take on their experiences–their happiness, their sadness, all those things. I might be on a golf course, trying to relax, and I’m thinking about a particular child: ‘man, what can I do to really be a vessel to help them? To assist in any way, shape, or form?’ It is extremely difficult to let go.”

Balance tips:

Remember that while who you are and what you do overlap, they are two different things. In the long run, you can’t nurture the latter by neglecting the former. “My first year of teaching was really hard,” says Elle Wilson, a middle school history and social studies teacher in Maryland. “I felt like school pretty much consumed everything that I did. It has gotten easier as time goes on—I try to put a limit on how much time I’m spending on school while at home. That takes self-discipline, because it’s very easy to fall into a habit of having great experiences with your students and spending all your time trying to create perfect lessons.” 

Cultivate habits and activities that take your heart and mind fully away from your job. Leah Marone, a psychotherapist who works with educators, calls these activities “bookends”—and says that they are essential to maintaining a healthy perspective. “It’s anything that you’re present with and that is for you,” she says. “It could be going out for a run in the morning, or just having your coffee with no distractions. It’s being present and mindful with what you’re doing, avoiding multitasking, and setting boundaries so that you are not bombarded by your phone and emails. It is a time to rejuvenate and begin the day with a positive mindset, not urgency.”

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GE-4936485.1 (09/2022) (Exp. 09/2024)