I looked up from the copy machine to see my principal standing in the doorway, briefcase in hand, tie loosened. His work day was over.
“I can’t,” I said, sighing. “I have to finish running these copies and get my room ready for tomorrow.”
I was a first-year teacher, and it was only October. The marking period was about to end, and I had a stack of essays on my desk that still needed to be graded.
“Yes, you can. You’re going to get burned out if you keep staying this late every day.”
“But how do I get everything done?” I whined.
“Maybe you don’t. Get your room ready for tomorrow, and leave some of those essays on your desk here so that you can’t go home and spend all evening grading essays.” He smiled ruefully. “You’re no good to these kids if you’re exhausted. And you have to have a life.”
Eventually I learned that I’d feel behind from September to June of every year, and in 30 years of teaching, I often recalled Tom Stone’s advice and repeated it to the young teachers I mentored.
I thought of his advice again this week when I heard a news report that, according to a survey done by Harris Interactive for the career website Glassdoor, only 25% of Americans use all their paid vacation leave. And even those who do report doing some work while they’re on vacation. The reasons almost always have to do with fear—fear of losing their jobs, fear of getting behind and feeling overwhelmed, fear that no one else can do their work.
While teachers are protected by tenure from losing their jobs—unless the feedback is so poor that it affects their evaluation—those in the private sector feel even more pressure not to take time for themselves. Employers are protected by what’s known as the “employment-at-will” doctrine, which means that in most cases they can fire an employee for “good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.”
I suspect this is no small contributing factor to why talented young adults change jobs far more frequently than they did when my classmates and I began our careers or why about 50% of new teachers now leave the profession in the first five years. And I’m fairly certain it’s why today’s young people feel less loyalty to their employers than my classmates and I did.
My first principal’s advice isn’t particularly popular these days. I’ve heard administrators tell English teachers that if they aren’t getting essays back within a week, the feedback isn’t timely and useful. Had it not been for Tom’s advice, I would never have learned that giving timely feedback during the writing process and having students do something with the feedback I wrote on the essays I returned two weeks later was the only way I could have a life. And while my former students may have a range of opinions about my skill as a teacher, I don’t think any of them would say that I harmed them by taking two weeks to get compositions back to them.
I’ve watched our children and their friends dedicate more and more of their personal time to their jobs—either by working long hours or by staying connected via their smart phones and computers. Go to any credible psychology website, and you’ll find many articles by doctors who say this is a terrible idea. They outline the dangers of “vacation deficit disorder,” saying again and again that those who fail to disconnect are more prone to heart disease and other ailments.
I’m particularly grateful to have had a supervisor my first year who gave me such good advice. It kept me happy working with kids when I might have walked away because I wanted a life, a husband, and kids of my own.
And what I’ve learned over the course of my career is that if I give 100% while I’m at work, I’ve never had a boss worth having who would suggest that I wasn’t giving enough. No smart supervisor is going to fire someone who is dedicated and productive during the work day, even if she uses all her vacation days, even if he leaves an email or a text unanswered overnight.
Dedicated, loyal employees aren’t that easy to come by. So give it all you’ve got while you’re at work. Then turn off the computer and the work phone and listen to your life.
I invite my retired readers to add their own stories about balancing life and work. And for those you who are still in the thick of it, tell us your stories, and we’ll keep reminding you: Go home.