Taking work home means work never ends

by | Feb 15, 2020 | Time Out For You

Wean yourself from your laptop to gain freedom from work

By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder

Taking work home with you is not just an occasional experience for teachers. For most of us, it is a work expectation. That expectation grew exponentially in about 2010 when schools began issuing laptops to teachers and learning management systems became the norm.

If you taught before that time, you know how much a laptop has changed the life of teachers. Back in the good old desktop days, it literally was impossible to do that work from home. Once a teacher decided the day was over, everything computer related waited until the next day. For those of you teaching in the pre-desktop days, you know that a paper gradebook and a lesson plan book was all you had to deal with.

While laptops simplified many of the tasks we did in the “old day,” they have also changed the work-life balance dynamic and not always for the better. It has made taking work home with you the norm for many people in the professional world.

My love/hate relationship with my laptop

I have a love/hate relationship with my laptop. For the most part I love it because I love all the things I can do with it. Maintaining a calendar, researching any topic that comes to mind, using programs to create graphic design projects, designing websites, writing blogs, catching up with friends through email and social media and many other tasks are just a few keystrokes away. 

This innocuous little device fits in my largest purse, sits beside me like a friend on my couch and accompanies me nearly everywhere I go. I can live without a lot of things (for example, I am one of the few people I know who has never had cable TV and could, in fact, live without television completely). However, a computer, and more specifically a laptop, is a necessity for the way I live my life. 

it's a complicated relationship with my laptop

So when I profess so much love for this shiny device, why do I also hate it? I hate it because it turned a job I love into a chain around my neck. As a Type A personality (that is with a capitalized, bold-faced TYPE A), I am also a control freak. I like to be organized, punctual and dedicated. A laptop in my hand is an invitation to overwork. 

Taking work home affects many workers

I read an interesting article the other day in The Atlantic (coincidentally it was on my laptop) about how laptops have changed the workforce. It really made me realize that while cellphones get the bum wrap, the ever presence of laptops means that we never leave work. 

This is not just a symptom of teachers, however. I cannot remember the last vacation my family took that my husband did not have to drag his work laptop with him. Checking it regularly is just par for the course when we travel.

Laptops have changed how teachers approach or are expected to approach their work. Time that used to be spent on planning lessons and keeping up with grading now competes with the digital demands of our job.

Laptops have made employers act like every  event requires immediate attention

Due to lightning fast internet speed we are constantly bombarded with people contacting us. When it used to require a walk down the hall, a phone call or a snail mail letter, events did not have the immediacy that they seem to now have.

When an administrator receives a parent complaint, it now takes seconds to send the teacher an email. Before that convenience, quite often the principal just dealt with it and did not hunt down the teacher. Now it seems no matter the extent of the problem, it is much easier to dump it on the teacher.

If you are the teacher of tech savvy principals it may be the norm to receive detailed emails with links to articles, data or Google Docs. Whether these come out on Friday afternoon, Sunday night or Monday morning, the first reaction from most teachers is “How am I going to find the time to read this dissertation?!” Because we have the capability, it is expected that everyone digests the information. Time is not factored in. 

Surveys, Google Docs for you to add information to weekly, monthly or daily and many other “conveniences” compete with the time teachers have to actually teach and plan lessons. Some days teachers feel like a major portion of their day is spent attending to administrative and clerical duties.

Parents and students act like you are their 24 hour personal assistant

Modern convenience also means modern annoyance. If you are like most teachers, your students and parents contact you through email like you are running their personal homework hotline. Teachers receive emails at all hours with explanations of why work is not going to be finished, requests for project extensions, excuses for late work and demands that grades be changed. 

Last year, I received three emails over Christmas break from a frantic mom who thought her son had left his camera in my classroom and would I please go check and let her know. Yes, it was an expensive camera, so I understood her worry, but she didn’t even know if it was there. Long story short: it was not there. When I contacted her to let her know, all she said was, “Oh, never mind! We found it!” 

One particular late night email stands out. I received a voice mail at 7 a.m. from a parent who wanted me to contact her immediately because I had not replied to her email. Since I checked my email every night before going to bed, I was shocked. However, when I opened up her email that morning, I discovered it had a time stamp of 11:30. Well, no, sorry, teachers sleep too.

Modern convenience means taking work home with you

When I started teaching, teachers used a planbook with spots smaller than a Sticky note designated for each period. Teachers entered grades by hand, and students did not see them until the end of each six weeks. Parents saw them when the grade card came out and never called with complaints. You took home stacks of papers to grade, but there were not extra expectations. Teachers taught.

Grades now updat instantly as soon as a teacher grades an electronic assignment. Students and parents have constant access. Some parents subscribe to a service that notifies them when a grade changes or drops below a certain point. (Don’t you love those parents who choose to be notified if the grade drops to an A- and then email you immediately wanting an explanation?) Many schools expect teachers to  update grades at least weekly. 

Lesson plans require many teachers to spend extra hours because they are not written for the teacher’s use, but for the parent and/or student. Electronic agendas with detailed plans and links to resources have become the norm at many schools.

Detailed written lessons require hours of extra work for teachers who teach 3-5 different preps. One of my pet peeves is when a student asks what we are doing that day. My answer is always, “Go read the agenda.” By golly when I spend three hours every Sunday writing them, I am not going to also read it to them, too!

Grading has changed as well. While automated quizzes speed up grade time, the time to create questions may take longer. Grading written papers electronically can take longer because the feedback through written or verbal comments can be time killers. 

Many teachers have also started flipped classrooms or creating video lessons for absent students, for review or for extra homework help. This techie way to reach students also takes lots of extra time for the number of students who actually use that perk.

How to reclaim your home life

So what can you do to reclaim some of your home life? I learned a valuable lesson this week. I accidently left my phone at my son’s house. I discovered it when I got home and had the option of going back to get it or to get it the following day when I was in town. I opted to wait. 

And you know what happened? NOTHING. I missed nothing that could not wait until the next day. In fact, with it out of my house, I didn’t even miss it even though it is usually sitting a few inches away from me.

Lesson learned. If I can survive without my phone for 15 hours, I most certainly can survive without my laptop every night of the week. 

Try this experiment

I suggest all teachers try an experiment. Do what has to be done for the next day before you leave school and then leave the laptop sitting on your desk. Out of sight, out of mind. 

Try it for one week and see how it goes. Can you still get the work completed you need to complete? Did you find extra hours to enjoy your personal life? 

If the thought of going a full week without your laptop makes you anxious, try three days a week and gradually wean yourself away. When you must have it to complete a task at home, shut it down and put it far away from you when you are finished so you won’t be tempted to grab it.

That sounds extreme and maybe you have a much better handle on your work vs home life than I do, but if it is in reach, I will think of something I “need” to do. 

Beyond a doubt, the laptop revolutionized my life. I can complete tasks from my couch that used to require a drive into school. However, like most things, learning how to balance convenience with moderation is key.

Here’s to hoping you have a laptop free evening soon! If you already have a good handle on your laptop use at home, drop a comment below and help a sister out! When you try this experiment let us know in the comments how it worked.

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Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder

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