As a kindergarten principal, I sometimes find myself interviewing for a new teacher. A trend I have noticed amongst applicants is a growing focus on being able to maintain a good 'work-life balance'. Indeed, this concern has become a trend in society at large. Just how much of a trend it has become is perhaps indicated by the way the desire for a healthy work-life balance is now even expressed by students before they have experienced the world of work!
One business website (Business News Daily, 2023) defines work-life balance as the state of equilibrium 'where a person equally prioritizes the demands of one's career and the demands of one's personal life'. Before saying why I have concerns about this trend, let me first say that I do understand the problem it seeks to address. The demand for a work-life balance is an understandable reaction to what has all too often been the norm in the past, namely, that if you wanted to succeed in your career, everything else had to be sacrificed to it.
Women in particular know what this means, and the consequences of the sacrifice required of them are reflected in the way women have had to delay having children in order to get established in their career or even to choose not to have children at all because of the difficulty of juggling both a family and a career. All mothers in paid employment can understand what this is like!
But it is not just women who are affected by the demands that have been made on those who want a successful career. Both men and women have found themselves having to make significant sacrifices in order to climb the ladder of success. I began my own working life some years ago as a lawyer in New York and competition was fierce whether you were a man or a woman. It meant long, hard hours and those not willing to put in the time and effort could forget all about career advancement.
So I get it! Why then my note of hesitancy? Well as soon as you talk about a work-life balance, you inevitably make a separation between work and life. Life, in other words, increasingly becomes something you do when you are not working and work something you do to get the money to pay for your life.
Everyone, of course, has their own priorities and must make their own choices. I would, however, like to say why I personally have problems with this approach when it comes to the teaching profession.
Again in the past, some professions were not seen simply as a job or career, but as a vocation. The word vocation itself has a religious background. It comes from the Latin word 'vocare' meaning to call. It is used to describe those who feel called by God to be a priest or a member of a religious order. A secular profession became a vocation for someone because it was about more than making money. It was something fulfilling in itself and worth committing oneself to even if it involved sacrifice.
Teaching especially was seen as a vocation. It was a profession that was fulfilling while representing a sacrificial but worthwhile commitment to children to enable them to fulfill their own potential and become the person they were capable of being.
Pope John Paul II (1986) said in an address to students about to graduate as teachers:
'You are entering a distinguished profession... More importantly, you are following a Christian calling. The life of a teacher, as I know from personal experience, is very challenging and demanding, but it is also profoundly satisfying. It is more than a job, for it is rooted in our deepest convictions and values.'
One test of a vocation is whether the person who feels they have one would want to follow it even if they weren't paid to do so. This is not to say they could or should do it without being paid. It is to suggest that the language of work-life balance becomes inappropriate for those who see teaching or any other profession as a vocation. A different way needs to be found to guard against the destructive practices of the past without creating a false dichotomy in the present.
Not everyone has a vocation to be a teacher and many perfectly good teachers are happy to clock off physically and mentally at the end of the school day. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the teacher does their job well. I would, however, dare to suggest that what education desperately needs is not the latest technology, new curriculums, or state-of-the-art classrooms but more teachers who have a vocation.
People, that is, for whom teaching isn't just their work but their life.
Pope John Paul II (1986). Address of John Paul II to the Council, Staff, and Students of the Institute of Catholic Education. [Speech transcript]. Vatican. https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1986/november/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19861128_scuole-cattoliche-melbourne-australia.html
Sanfilippo, M. (2023, September 21). How to Improve Your Work-Life Balance Today. Business News Daily.
Winnie went to school at DGS and a boarding school in England before studying law at the London School of Economics. She then studied for a master’s degree in law at New York University. After qualifying as a lawyer, she worked as a tax attorney in New York.
She qualified as a teacher at HKU and has been an early childhood teacher for over twenty years. She has also obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Early Childhood Education, again from HKU, and several qualifications in music and education.
She is currently the Principal of Christ Church Kindergarten.