How do you balance personal/professional life? #ELTchat Summary 28/11/2012

A PLN for ELT Professionals

How do you balance personal/professional life? #ELTchat Summary 28/11/2012

This summary was contributed by Phil Longwell @teacherphil and is reproduced here from his blog 

How do you balance personal/professional life? – An #ELTchat Summary


The first #ELTchat on Wednesday 28 November, suggested on the website by Mariana Manolova, posed the question of ‘How do you balance your personal and professional life as a teacher?’ This, for many, referred to the much discussed idea of obtaining or managing a ‘work/life balance’ (later referred to as WLB).  Too much focus on work can affect your personal life, whereas too much focus on the latter can have consequences on your chosen career.  Here, I will not digress too much into any wider discussion on this topic, focusing instead on the actual chat and what was said in relation to the role of teacher.  I do, however, highlight some quotes shortly from two sources mentioned early in the chat.

The chat was moderated by @Marisa_C and @TheTeacherJames who brought their own opinions to bear on a topic which espoused the benefits of creating a work-life balance.  Common themes were the importance of doing things outside or perceived to be outside of work, the pressures faced by workloads and the mistakes that get made in prioritising work over leisure and a number of techniques that individual chatters had for switching off and relaxing away from their jobs.   This summary provides a snapshot of what was said and does not claim to be a comprehensive review, so apologies if your spectacularly insightful comment was not included.

Early in the chat, @MrChrisJWilson highlighted a blog post by David Petrie – a.k.a. @teflgeek – ‘Can you have a normal life and work in ELT?’ – link at the end. In this post, @teflgeek, who was also present for the chat, questioned the actual number of hours required to do a particular teaching job:

I’ve had contracts which only specified the number of teaching hours I was expected to fulfil per week – but the expectations of the school were that I be at work for a set period of time per day and made no mention of the extra-curricular activities the school expected me to take part in.

@Teflgeek highlighted the demands of the ELT industry which can be evidenced by taking on a new class at short notice, or the obligations of the job which exceed that of the job description:

If the parents of a failing child want me to help their child with extra homework or even extra tutorials – am I obliged to do so?  The answer of course is “yes”.  I am obliged to do all of these things and of course as a consummate professional I do them with a spring in my step and a smile in my heart.  (most of the time…)

He reasons that working in the ELT industry seems to be diametrically opposed to the concept of “a normal life”. He is later critical of those who bemoan the industry for not being particularly lucrative:

We don’t teach, it is argued, because we want to be rich – we do it because we care.  We do not exist in the realm of material things, we serve an ethereal higher purpose.   We are the ones who meld the minds of the future generations, we challenge and shape opinions, guide our charges to critical thinking, we help our students become more than the sum of their parts.

@Teflgeek later highlighted a TED talk by Nigel Marsh (May 2010) on work-life balance, in which he claimed to have found it very easy to balance the two, provided he didn’t have any work!  He goes on to address some wider issues, framed particularly by the needs of providing childcare:

The trouble is so many people talk so much rubbish about work-life balance.  All the discussions about flexitime or dress-down Fridays or paternity leave only serve to mask the core issue which is that certain job and career choices are fundamentally incompatible with being meaningfully engaged on a day-to-day basis with a young family … The reality … is there are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate, to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like!

Marsh was talking more generally about the issue, rather than that of teaching or the ELT world.  But there are some parallels with the larger EFL companies, institutions or employers who might resemble ‘abbatoirs of the human soul’.  Commercial companies, which could include some language institutions, are ‘inherently designed to get as much out of you as they can get away with.’  He says that worthy it is to have, for example, proper childcare facilities at work, it is up to employees to make small but significant changes in your life outside.

image licenced from Cartoon Stock – ref: forn2220

The chat began with a number of participants stating that they either don’t think they’ve got the balance right or that their personal life, taken as being things outside of work, is impacted too often by things directly or indirectly related to work.  @Teacherphili, for one, felt he was guilty of not getting it right.   Others felt they were ‘guilty’, if that is the right word, of spending too much time reading up about EFL practice in their own time.  @MrChrisJWilson, for example, thought there can be too much continuous professional development (CPD) and that maybe people need a minimalist approach.  @esolcourses agreed that too much CPD can be counter-productive. She added that she was getting better at limiting time on and switching off devices, presumably, to avoid too much work-based distraction. @ELTExperiencesadded that ‘switching off’ and spending a day away from everything was a good idea.


@FrancesEales joked that even out-of-work use of Twitter had increased her ‘professional’ time’ before adding it is more difficult to get WLB right when you are new as, for example, planning took longer.  @Teflerinha agreed but noted that it should be a way of life.  A typical EFL life abroad contributes to a poor WLB, she felt.  Some commented how they were trying to limit their Twitter time, and the stream of links that ensue.  @ELTExperiences was amongst those who found Twitter too addictive. @David_Boughton, meanwhile, suggested that being a good (quick) lesson planner was key to saving time. This is something that comes with experience, added @Teflerinha, although at least one teacher,@7Mrsjames prepares it all at home.  @7Mrsjames believed an effort needs to be made otherwise it consumes family time and that time left for oneself.  ‘Always a struggle,’ replied @TheTeacherJames.


@Teflerinha believed the daily exercise, meditation and boundaries are all important, but wondered if teaching attracted the kinds of people who can’t say no or care too much.  @BobK99 pointed out that too much caring can burn you out.  ‘Are we born victims?’, asked @Marisa_C, one of those, due to Delta assessments, who stated her personal life was currently ‘zilch’.  @Esolcourses suggested that ‘teachers tend to be nice and others play on our goodwill.’

Having a ‘not to do list’ was suggested by @MrChrisJWilson, as well as a ‘to done’ list to show what you have achieved.   He also added he had learned the value of being still and productivity not being the be all and end all.

@Dragonfly_edu thought the answer could be found in Jim Smith’s ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook – How your pupils learn more when you teach less’.

@Teflgeek wondered whether teachers had any kind of life that isn’t professional? before adding the annoyance of the presumption that ALL his time be at the disposal of his employer.  He stated that he separates between ‘job’, ‘professional life’ and ‘personal life’. ‘Compartmentalising’ can help, although for @Ratnavathy and @yitzha_sarwono it was ‘tough getting work off the mind’, especially during term time.  Esolcourses tried to keep professional and personal spaces separate, especially Facebook, which is one of those platforms where the two areas have diverged. @dragonfly_edu felt personal lives are overlapping with all the microblogging going on.  Many friends are also colleagues or members of one’s personal learning network and so the boundaries are not always clear.  Teaching isn’t just something we do, believed @Teflgeek, it is something we are.


@ELTExperiences stated that he is constantly thinking about lessons, materials and teaching when away from work. Constantly blogging doesn’t help either to separate the two Ps.  However, he enjoys it, and manages to mix in family time successfully.


@Marisa_C asked the question whether it was more difficult for freelancers, those without an employer, to strike a balance.  @Esolcourses thought so, with part of the problem being that there is no such thing as ‘out of office’ time. @ELTExperiences agreed that you can’t be out of the office when plugged into Twitter. @TheTeacherJames thought this an advantage because you have more freedom to do things the way you wish, to which @ElaWassell agreed, saying she had choice over when to take holidays.  Both @AnnaMusielak and @PatrickAndrews said that it is difficult to turn work down if freelance. Unfortunately there are rules, added @AnnaMusielak, about being in touch even on days off and that it was ‘hard to stop’ thinking about lessons. Meanwhile, @ELTexperiences wondered how to become freelance in the first place.

@7Mrsjames asked for tips for being more productive with time, asking for the number of hours per day required for planning, marking etc.  @Teflerinha suggests that she tries to build in time for other things.  @yitzha_sarwono agreed the life needs enriching with many things far from work. @ChrisJWilson advised to stop multitasking.  Otherwise, tips were not forthcoming.


@Teflerinha asked whether the industry attracted people who can’t say ‘no’, another extension of @teflgeek‘s post comment about caring too much. @Esolcourses suggested it is easier to say no when you have an in-demand skill.@Teacherphili said this was important if you didn’t want extra work to eat into your private life. @7Mrsjames said you should be aware of limits.  @Telferinha has started to be more ruthless. Meanwhile, @TheTeacherJames reminded us of an experiment he did where he just said ‘yes’.


@Phil3wade suggested having a strong union, to enable sit down or ‘pen down’ strikes.  @esolcourses offered that it was better to resist explotiation than simply to strike.  Joining a union was recommended, but that passive resistance can work too, while @teflgeek spoke more about collective bargaining and the setting of standards.  A Batman or Avenger type hero was called for, with many offering to take on special powers if necessary and hide in a cave, provided there was a good wi-fi connection.


The problem for many conscientious professionals is they simply love what they do.  And when you love it, according to @Marisa_C, you don’t think you are working.  This is great, said @Teflerinha, but you can still suffer from burnout.  We can be driven by anxiety or fear to do more and more.  This anxiety, felt @teacherphili‘, can be based on a misguided perception.  @esolcourses said we could all feel like that sometimes, especially when confronted with heavy workloads.


Some wondered if it was worth maintaining outside interests or having a hobby, besides the common activity of blogging, usually about ‘work’.  @PatrickAndrews thought we cannot empathise with learners if we don’t.   Finding ways to relax was highlighted by a number of different chatters, although this actually takes some discipline and practice, according to @AnnaMusielak, something which @TheTeacherJames recognised, who admitted being terrible at ‘relaxing’ and would rather be ‘doing’ something.  Even a walk has to be combined with something else.@yitzha_sarwono offered knitting and snorkelling, Marisa_C said online scrabble, backgammon and swimming.  That’s actual swimming, not ‘online swimming’. @Teflerinha and @BobK99 and @FrancesEales all said Qi Gong ,@ELTExperiences offered several ideas including mountain biking and going to restaurants, @PatrickAndrews said he was a football coach, @AnnaMusielak chipped in with 30 minutes of comedy, or TV in general – @MarjorieRosenbe – who also suggested therapeutic walks.  Many suggested listening to music, or playing the fiddle, as I know @elawasselldoes – although she didn’t mention it. @Teflerinha offered meditation and for a brief moment slipped into the recent topic of mindfulness, which has recently written about.   Many felt that outdoor activities and getting away from all things electronic were a good antidote for obtaining a healthy balance, which created feelings of guilt for those that didn’t do enough. Life needs to be offscreen, when your work usually requires time spent looking at a screen, said@TPMcDonald85.  Further suggestions included starting an online ELT choir and trying to dance ‘Gangnam Style’ – although I’m not convinced this being proposed as an actual activity.

Some Quotes:

‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ – @Confucius

‘Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential except when you are busy.  Then a full hour is needed.’ – @SaintFrancisdeSales

‘To infinitives and beyond’ – @esolcourses

Contributors (with Twitter links):


@TheTeacherJames (moderators);