How can I give my all to both?
For committed and empathetic educators, achieving a healthy work-life balance can be challenging—especially now. But there are ways to limit stress, increase satisfaction, and find a sustainable middle ground.
When Keonaka Brown was in kindergarten, she decided that she would one day become a teacher. “My teacher at the time had that much of an impact on me,” says Brown, an elementary school master teacher from Texas. “I knew that it was my purpose, and that I was going to do whatever it takes, regardless of whatever the challenges would be.”
But seven years into Brown’s career as an educator, she hit a wall. The job wasn’t just challenging. It was consuming. There was never enough time to get everything done: paperwork, meetings, responding to parents, and teaching pre-K, kindergarten and first grade classes. Work followed Brown home, night after night, where her first child also needed her care and attention. “Raising a kid is not easy,” she says. “Especially when they’re very small. That’s a lot, and now you’re really trying to balance things.”
One day, it all became too much. So Brown quit her dream job—not because she had lost her sense of purpose, but because she was burned out, unable to square her career with the rest of her life. “I was like, ‘I am absolutely done with education,’” she says. “I’m not doing it anymore.”
Brown’s story is hardly unique. For educators, finding a healthy balance between work and life has long been challenging: after all, there is always another assignment to grade, lesson plan to prepare, parent to speak with, or student to tutor. During the pandemic, the demands of remote and hybrid learning further blurred the lines between job and home—contributing to high levels of daily stress, job dissatisfaction, psychological burnout, and ultimately, career attrition among the people who run our schools and teach our children.
“When you’re working in education, truth be told, all of the work is not done in the school building,” says Miesha Medford, an elementary school assistant principal in Texas. “On many days, if we stayed in the building until everything was finished, we’d be here until 10:00, 11:00 at night.
“So it is a challenge. You want to be there 100 percent for your work, but then you also want to be there 100 percent for your family. It becomes like, ‘how can I give my all to both?’ And if there’s not a balance between work and home, it becomes draining—emotionally and mentally.”
That’s the bad news. The good news? According to Leah Marone, a psychotherapist who has worked with schools in the Charlotte area to address the mental health needs of early-career teachers, it’s possible for educators to find a sustainable middle ground in the tug-of-war between professional and personal demands. “There are so many layers to being an educator, and so many responsibilities,” Marone says. “So it’s imperative to set yourself up with things that really fill you up and rejuvenate you.”
The Atlantic recently surveyed more than 200 educators who work in pre-K through high school about work-life balance and career satisfaction. Here’s what we found:
After two years of working as a researcher performing background checks, Keonaka Brown had an epiphany. She missed teaching. “I was like, ‘you know what? This is not what I’m supposed to be doing,’” Brown says. “I’m supposed to be doing what I always wanted to do. I need to teach.”
But Brown didn’t need another episode of burnout. So when she applied for teaching jobs, she was careful to select a school where administrators made work-life balance a priority—Rolling Hills Elementary in Lancaster, Texas, where principal Cherish Pipkins has created a culture of care and support.
“I chose this campus because I knew what the team was like,” Brown says. “There are things that you are typically taught to leave at home, like if you are dealing with a sick child or having financial issues. But here, if I have a problem, I can actually talk to the people I work with. They’ll be supportive. They’ll pray for me. That’s good.”
Now a master teacher who coaches other educators—as well as a mother of three children—Brown is as busy as ever. However, she has better ways to cope with the demands of her job. Brown uses a planner to write up a daily schedule, the better to organize her work duties and still make time to take one of her daughters to after school dance lessons. “I’ll write all of my work things up top, and then my home life things in a different color,” she says. “It has helped significantly.”
Every two weeks, Brown takes a self-care day; every month, she and her husband, a police officer, make sure to go on a pre-planned date. “In the summertime, where most of my free time comes, we try to take at least three trips—one with my family, one with just my husband, and a third with some girlfriends,” she says. “I had to realize it’s okay for me to take time off.”
Today, Brown is happier in the classroom—and happier outside of it, too. Work-life balance, she says, remains a challenge. But Brown is confident she can continue to meet it. “In order for it to work, I have to be very intentional,” she says. “But I can definitely say that my passion overrides any stress.”