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Repainting the Work-Life Line – Faculty Focus

When I started my encore career as an adjunct professor, I threw myself into the one class I was teaching, eager to update myself on theories and concepts I hadn’t paid much attention to since grad school (which was a long time ago). I read course materials, created assignments, and graded student work in my free time. It was only one class, after all, and I could do a lot of the work while my daughter was at school and my husband was at work. Besides, I told myself, this is temporary—something I need to do to get the class up and running. 

Then, one class turned into two, then three, then four, though not all at once. I was asked to offer one of my classes online during a summer session and, before I knew it, the work-life line had become so covered in the detritus of school work that I could no longer see it. Not a big problem at first because this all coincided with my daughter going to college, and keeping busy was beneficial in a suddenly empty nest. 

Then came Covid, and the shut-down that was supposed to last two weeks lasted more than half a semester, practically shoveling layers onto the personal/professional line of demarcation. By the time we returned to the face-to-face teaching I’d initially planned for, a bigger problem had emerged. 

Not only was the line practically invisible, I was no longer even looking for it.  

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I got out my shovel, but I know it was later than it should have been. Now, after more than a year of consciously digging, I’m ready to repaint that line. I’m not sure what color I’m going to paint it (bright fuchsia, perhaps), but here are a few key pigments that will color it. 

Setting a schedule. One of the first steps I took when I decided to actively repaint the work/life line was to remove work email notifications from my phone and set a deadline for responding to emails. Next came a simple concept: Setting an actual quitting time. (Yes, it’s embarrassing that it took me this long to do it). Admittedly, this schedule gets blown out of the water around midterms and finals—I’m still working on that—but, most days, it allows me to be present for meaningful interactions with my family, as opposed to grunts, shushes, and signals to give me a minute. And, when it comes to email, I no longer feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs. 

Letting my mental health be my guide. Some days, it’s worth it to work past my deadline if it will lead to my truly setting work aside until the next morning. Other days, I might quit sooner than planned because I’m tired and/or grumpy and none of my students really want me grading their work with that frame of mind. Some nights, when my schedule permits, I might choose to go back to working on a project I’m especially excited about, recognizing that this is a conscious exception, not an expected part of my routine. 

Making sure my prime time isn’t always work time. I’ve learned the hard way that planning and grading can fill all hours of the day. I’ve also discovered that some hours are more suitable for planning, others for grading, and others for responding to emails and other similar tasks. But, when I use all of my prime time on work (when I’m most awake and ready to take on a task that requires a particular level of mental energy), none remains for other things I’d like to plan, like trips, writing projects, and creative endeavors, let alone simple down time with my family. 

Simplifying assignments. Do I really need them all? Turns out, I don’t. Over the last two semesters, I’ve been experimenting with simplifying assignments and even eliminating some entirely. Keeping my course objectives front and center ensures that I hit all the high points. Do I really need to hit all the low points, too? I think both my students and I appreciate it if I don’t. 

In the end, it all comes down to simplifying—finding the best way to help my students learn the material in the most thought-provoking ways. And, if my work-life balance sets an example for my students, so much the better. 

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is a retired elementary school counselor enjoying an encore career as an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania.

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