It is pretty simple for me. We are educators. Students learn from us. We need to ask ourselves, “What are we teaching?”
Early in my career, I served as the Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development for a small, private, liberal arts college. This translated to one staff member (me) and a lot of responsibilities: New student programs, family weekend, student activities and event planning, intramurals, clubs and organizations, student government, drug, alcohol, and sexual violence education, student union, media council, and “other duties as assigned.” Needless to say, I was busy. I found myself working long hours to prove my worth and demonstrate my work ethic, providing unclear boundaries for students, and working long days, nights and weekends without scheduling days for rest or solo time. Email was a new concept, and I did not own a cell phone – which helped – but somehow I was still always busy… working.
Then I became a mother. Then I got divorced. Then I was a single mom with one income trying to pay a mortgage, car payment, and other bills, put food on the table, complete my Master’s degree and provide parenting for two very young children whose life had been turned upside down.
Things changed. They had to.
I will never forget the day my executive board called me into a meeting to discuss my absence from their Sunday evening meetings at 7 p.m. “We just don’t think you care about us anymore. You used to attend meetings weekly, but now you can only make it every other week. We know you are going through a divorce, but can’t you just get a sitter?”
Although I wanted to explode emotionally and verbally, I gathered myself quickly and responded, “I have a two-year-old and five-month-old at home who need their mother. I don’t have extra money to pay a sitter, and I cannot bring them with me because they go to bed at 7 p.m. When they are with their father every other weekend, I am at your meetings… on a Sunday evening.” Long story short, the conversation that followed redefined the concept of work ethic – that it is not necessarily the amount of hours you work or even your physical presence; rather, do people know that you are committed to the job, the students, and the institution?
I tell this story because in many ways, my divorce saved me. It forced me to put family first. I also tell this story because this shouldn’t have to happen. Whether you are single, partnered, with children or without, life circumstances should not be your savior from working unreasonable hours. We are working with college students. They will graduate and remember how we worked hard and worked hard or worked hard and played hard. They will remember that we sent emails at 1:30 a.m. or did not respond to emails until we walked into the office the next morning. They will remember us answering phone calls and text messages at 10 p.m. or conversations about when it was appropriate to text and call. They will remember us missing our child’s band concert to finish a report or leaving early to make sure we got a front row seat. They will watch and learn from us and potentially practice the same in their work life after graduation. When they are divorcing their spouse of three years because they never took time to play, missing their child’s athletic event, canceling on friends and family because there is always more work to do, or so stressed that they are unbearable to be around… that’s on us. We educated them while they were under our care. We taught them these habits. They embraced them as normal, expected and status quo.
I now embrace the concept of work-life negotiation because in the end, we are always negotiating our professional and personal lives. I want to be able to sleep at night, knowing that the students I work with understand how much I care about them and their development, and my family and friends know that they are important too. I want students to observe how I effectively navigate my professional and personal worlds. I want students to know that I really do have it all… because I want them to have it all too.