Work-Life Balance in TEFL
By Agnieszka Chapman
What is Work-Life Balance and Why is it Important?
It's hard to disagree that everything works best in equilibrium. The growing popularity of ideas such as slow living, mindfulness and hygge suggests that the world has finally woken up to the fact that one needs more in life than work.
According to Alex Clark, a researcher from Edmond University in Canada “We need to stop seeing hobbies and work as zero-sum games”, a view that is supported by the findings of the Corporate Executive Board in the USA, which show that “Employees who believe that they have a good work life balance are 21% more productive”. Clearly, achieving equilibrium between work and private life ought to be win-win for everyone. For a teacher this means having the energy and motivation to work, getting new ideas and being full of enthusiasm in class. This in turn gives students the best learning experience possible, and that should certainly make the boss happy. Of course, getting a good work-life balance is tough enough in an ordinary career, is it even harder in TEFL?
The Difficulties of Finding Work-Life Balance in TEFL
TEFL is not a typical 9-5 job, it's different, it's unusual, and for many that is the attraction – the unconventional lifestyle. TEFL contracts may include fewer hours – 20-25 being standard in most countries, but let's not forget that EFL teachers work when their clients have finished working or studying – afternoons, evenings and sometimes weekends may be the bulk of typical workload. Split shifts are not uncommon – the day may start with a morning lesson or two, followed by a break, then another few lessons later on. OK, it means working so-called “unsociable hours”, but is it only possible to go out on weekday afternoons or early evenings? One of the reasons for entering the world of TEFL is the possibility to travel, to live in and experience different cultures – often, the ones that socialise late in the evening. Just imagine waking up and going to the beach before work – yes, it's possible, just choose the right destination! Not a morning person, prefer to have a lie-in? No problem, schools tend to have the majority of classes in the afternoon or evening. The choice of the right place and school can make your day all the more enjoyable leaving time in the morning for hobbies or household chores.
Then there are holidays, which can be a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, there is lots of time off in TEFL. On average 2 weeks for Christmas, a week or so for Easter, bank holidays, and the summer break. A typical academic year is about 8 or 9 months long. On the other hand, summers are usually unpaid – ouch! Some teachers decide to take summer jobs, which can be another opportunity to travel and see different places, others decide to save up through the year in order to enjoy their time without work.
This is where the tricky bits start. Despite a relatively large amount of flexibility throughout the academic year, the fear of a period without pay makes some teachers try to work flat-out to put money aside. With some jobs being freelance – i.e., hourly paid; no paid holidays; and very changeable, it can easily become a slippery slope. Teachers can feel that they have no choice, especially the ones just starting their TEFL career, who may see scrabbling for every hour as the only way. It isn't! In some schools achieving work-life balance is difficult, if not impossible. Their timetabling doesn't take into account the simple fact that teachers are humans and have needs like resting, sleeping and looking after themselves. Ask about timetabling in the interview so you can make the right choice. There are plenty of schools who understand the nature of TEFL and the people it appeals to. They are happy to negotiate timetables with you letting you work when you prefer and teaching courses you like.
While there is still the need to plan lessons, mark students' work and tests, with some discipline and organisational skills, TEFL teachers can achieve quite a good balance between work and life. As any kind of teaching, TEFL is emotionally involving – teachers care about the progress their students make, their lives and their struggles. It is not always easy to take the teacher's hat off the moment we close the classroom door, but there are lots of moments of immense satisfaction when the students succeed, develop, grow up or advance in their career thanks to the skills they got in our class.
Steps to Better Work-Life Balance
Although it is probably not likely to get a clear 50-50 cut between work and private life, what matters is not to get overwhelmed by one side only.
- Set your priorities and stick to them. Decide what things really matter to you and aim to achieve them. Imagine that the job you have today, for some reason, ceases to exist tomorrow. What have you got left? Who are you beside working as a teacher? A friend? A parent/child/sibling? Don't neglect the people who matter just because you happen to work a different schedule to them. If it's hard to meet up, at least give them a call. For a colleague of mine lunch time is sacred – it's the time to recharge batteries for the rest of the day and to catch up with nearest and dearest. Take advantage of your timetable as much as possible, don't compare your routine with other professions.
- Basic needs such as sleep and nutrition are exactly that – basic. No one can survive on a diet of chocolate, coffee or energy drinks, and it's certainly impossible to thrive on it. Like in an emergency – tend to your needs first. A bit of regular looking after yourself – a good night's sleep and a healthy diet can go a long way. Some of my most disciplined colleagues prepare food for the week ahead on Sunday and freeze it, making sure they won't stray to the fast food chain next to school. Others tend to set a daily routine, even if their timetables are far from regular.
- Consider self-care as an occasion to socialise – a meal with friends or family or doing some sport together.
- Don't take work home. Although some teachers swear that they can only concentrate at home and that's where they prefer to prepare their lessons and mark students' work, it's pretty dangerous. It's very easy to end up working round the clock, time flies when we're busy and a quarter of an hour quickly becomes an hour, reading a work-related email turns into replying to it, and you have to check something else to do that... The mystery of why some other teachers seem to have more free time may be quite intriguing, but the answer is probably very simple. They leave work at work. If your staffroom full of colleagues is too distracting, find a quiet room, put headphones in, listen to music – you'll see how quickly you get used to it. And how much more time you have all of a sudden.
- If possible, follow your body clock. TEFL can be great for night owls as most lessons take place in the afternoon and evening. What if you're an early bird? Morning classes are common in some places; look into in-company courses, pre-school classes, swapping with colleagues who are not so keen on working in the morning, or offer to work in the morning, (especially on Saturday!) instead of late evenings.
- Get a hobby. Everybody's interested in something. And everybody's day is exactly the same length. It's OK to have a lounging weekend watching TV after an intensive week every once in a while. Long-term though, it's vital to have something else that will take your mind off work, help to forget about a lousy day, a lesson that went flat, a difficult student, or a boss' temper tantrum. Hobbies make us more interesting as people, give us more knowledge plus they are believed to increase our patience and concentration levels. I've worked with crafters, musicians, actors, climbers, cake decorators, dancers, various sports enthusiasts – and still counting!
- Settle for good, ditch perfection! That doesn't mean wing it, but remember there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Learn what your students need, how they learn best and create the right conditions for them. Shift some of the onus onto them though – learning happens by doing, not by getting things done for us. It may also mean assembling a portfolio of lessons or activities that work and can be tweaked for different levels, age groups, or needs. This will let you save time, but still teach good lessons that the students will benefit from and enjoy.
Remember - life's short, time's a limited resource – use it well. A job is after all, just that - a job and you probably became an TEFL teacher to experience life in another country, not just see the inside of a different building.
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