Monday, August 18, 2014

A Balancing Act of teaching...writing...and being a family.


This summer, I have spoken a lot about balance and sustainability with Roger, my husband of 12 years. We are both writers and teachers, me for 17 years and him for 15, with big plans for what we feel we want to accomplish. And we are parents to 4 children: two sons, aged 26 and 25 who are off and on their own, and two girls, aged 10 and 7 who are still in the need of having parents who prioritize them. Our seven year-old is also a stroke survivor who has mild cerebral palsy, vision issues, cognitive delays and speech delays.

Balance is not something either one of us feels we have done well in the first 12 years of our lives. Our married lives anyway. So now, before we head into another school year, we want to have a plan.

He has just experienced a week of the Freedom Writers Institute with Erin Gruwell. A week he feels empowered him, surrounded him by people of a variety of ages and backgrounds and teaching levels, all searching for what I consider the Golden Ticket.  A way into making their teaching magical and powerful and everlasting. He immersed himself into the program so much so that we barely heard from him: he barely responded to texts; said goodnight to his children or me; and rarely checked in just to make sure we were all breathing. Sure there was a 3-hour time difference to contend with but it would have been nice to hear his voice more often anyway. And this is something he has always struggled with anyway … during the school year, he leaves for school often before the girls wake up and gets home shortly before their bedtime, most nights anyway. And summers he fills with professional development opportunities, curriculum development and overall “thinking about” school rather than recharging and reconnecting with family as the main priorities. It is something many teachers struggle with…balancing the need of your students with the needs of your family. 

He came out of this latest experience feeling he ‘found his smile’ like Billy Crystal in the City Slickers movie and that this experience surrounded him by a legion of people who made him feel like he was ‘not alone’ in his classroom anymore and that he was ready to use his new-found anger to make the changes in his inner-city school in a more powerful, aggressive, meaningful way.

I, of course, feel jealous and hurt that he had to find his smile elsewhere but he assures me that though he found his smile elsewhere, his happiness is with me. Aren’t those words sweet?

We met as teachers. In a Shakespeare workshop. What a surprise, right? Our first conversations were all about our philosophies in the classroom. One of his first statements that we laughed about was when he said, “I hope to see your room one day!” after hearing about how I described my classroom. He meant my classroom. I thought he meant my bedroom. And that symbolizes us. He is more about furthering his career and I learned from a failed marriage that I need to work on being there for the people who I treasure. Neither is wrong.

I have struggled with the balance of family and career as well, but maybe because I have had family before my career it is a different path for me. I had to go finish my teaching degree and master’s degree part time while raising my young boys, working and going through a rough soul-ripping divorce. I made sure I cooked a real meat and potatoes meal every night possible (now I’m okay with occasional cereal and sandwiches because I am around much more). I went to every one of the boys’ games and events that I could, even if it took me longer to get there and drive back than to actually stand there watching. I drove to pick them up from Ski Club –out of state—when it would have been easier to pick them up from their school after the bus dropped them off, and it would have given me time to do some of my schoolwork. Then I remarried and when we had the girls I stepped down from my full-time job and job-shared my position so I could be home to raise our children. When Kath was diagnosed I hunkered down and focused every waking moment into making sure she had what she needed---therapy-wise, attention-wise (she choked often when eating too) and then I tried to make sure my other children did not feel like ‘my other children.’ My classroom teaching was far from what I consider being an excellent educator … especially because I took forever reading and commenting on assignments, grading tests and so on. My interactions with my students were solid, I paid attention to the humans in front of me, I had good plans and ideas, but my follow through with turning back assignments was horrible because when I came home … I was Mom. I leave my school every day after school, no matter what by 3, so I can be the girls’ pick-up, I don’t stay until the students decide to leave. I have come to the realization that I will never be the Teacher I once thought I would be. I can’t be that person I dreamed of … because I cannot put my career ahead of my family. They need me even more than my students.

Even in how we handled our anniversary shows how we have grown to value different things. I worked for a week on a 5 page letter to him, re-dedicating myself to our marriage and our lives. He gave me flowers, let me nap, and cleaned the area in the garage where I need to go to reach dinner prep stuff. He had planned to make me a trellis for my garden but wasn’t able to get the saw and the wood he needed because he didn’t look for them until the day of, and after the hardware store had closed. We move differently and prioritize differently.

The man who grew his hair because I said I loved running my fingers through his long hair. The man who practiced a song for weeks to sing to me at our wedding. The man who surprised me with a horse drawn carriage from the church to our home reception ‘ran out of time’ to make me something or write me something. But he made sure he did things he thought I would treasure as a symbolism of our 12 years.

And I have decided that maybe that is our balance.

Balance. How on earth does one create a balance as a teacher---a job where one can easily get pulled into the lives of the 25-150 students in front of us…then come home and be mom and wife/father and husband in any real way? And write? And read? And keep individual dreams alive?

That is what my husband and I, as teachers and partners, are trying to understand. I contend that we need to understand what our goals are. And make a plan. I contend that we need to schedule and be merciless in that schedule and rigor … yes, in regard to our careers, but never to the detriment of our loved ones. We agree, at least until September. J

I don’t think that is possible for many of us—to really budget career and home. Yes, you see some teachers leaving when the bell rings, every day, and you know they are going home and not bringing schoolwork…but does that mean they are not attending to their students and their career in the same way? On the other hand, you see some teachers who leave late, lug home bags and lug them back…does that mean they are attending to their family?

Where is the balance?

Is it making sure to maintain eye contact, that visible connection, with family during dinner around the table every night? Is it in each parent trading off the responsibilities of planning and making the dinner? Is it in limiting the after school activities of the children so there can be time for homemade meals and sit down dinners with all of us? Is it in making sure each partner gets some time to explore their writing, their teaching, do their grading and planning…in a non-guilty take-turns way?  Is it in waiting for the kids to get old enough to swap in to take over some of the chores?

What if we…our family…could find a way to balance and take turns so that we can all achieve all of our goals and desires?

Is Balance sometimes deciding that maybe…just maybe…the balance is bigger? The balance is me stepping back so he can step up to do what he feels he needs to do and me stepping up in the home areas to take care of what I feel I need to do? Is maybe balance of family and work in a family of two teachers and writers…could it maybe be about reworking the boundaries and reworking the definitions so you can see if it can work and everyone can get what they want and need?

This year, with his new-found smile and legion-backing of the Freedom Writers and his desire to change the world, and my rediscovered storytelling world and desire to be Wife/Mom/Teacher and my desire to make my place, my here and now,a better place…maybe we can balance one another out, strengthen one another, not leave the other feeling disconnected and adrift? And at the same time strengthen our family? Maybe we can both reach our goals, sustain one another and balance our family out.

Stay tuned to see what we discover.

PS He helped me edit and clarify this post. :)

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