Counsellor’s Corner: Reframing Work-Life Balance

What i’ve learned amidst this pandemic

Running a successful guidance department takes time, commitment, meticulous attention to detail, great communication and a strong team. As Department Head in my school, I am happy to say we have a very strong guidance team. We service our students well; we have a great relationship with our administration and we have excellent rapport with our parent council. We go above and beyond with services we offer to the community to ensure our students are happy, healthy and well guided. However, the reality is that, to make that happen, it takes a personal toll. The amount of time required to ensure that all these needs, deadlines and expectations are met – and excellence is achieved – does indeed come at a cost. The idea of a healthy work-life balance is not always possible. It is quite challenging to have the healthy family and work life balance with this role – and I’m talking pre-Covid-19.

A year and a half ago, before Covid-19 hit North America, I had too much on my plate. I felt, as a working mom of two school-aged girls, who were in activities after school (clearly overprogrammed, but that’s another article altogether), that I was constantly running and never quite finished the race. My mornings were a mad rush of breakfast, getting ready, lunches and a sprint out the door. Dropping the kids at the bus stop, I then fought through traffic to get to school. When I arrived at school, I attacked my “to-do lists”. Many of the tasks on the list rarely got crossed off, largely because I myself, had put too many on the list (something I recognize now), and also, because, as department head of a large school, a number of curve balls, questions, and challenges would be thrown my way as soon as I walked in the door. By the time I got to sit down and get to my lists, it was nearly always the afternoon and the last bell had rung. Then I would rush home to get the girls, help them with their homework, drive them to activities, get dinner ready and eat. With a husband who also has an equally successful career and long hours, a lot of the home balance fell on my lap. I am sure many professional working moms can relate. 

Then, add Covid-19 and a new way of managing our jobs, our students, and our colleagues emerged. We had to reimagine how we counsel, develop virtual classrooms, attend endless webinars, stage virtual tours of college and university campuses – virtual…everything! Our world as professionals, as parents, as partners shifted and we had to shift with it. Where and how could we find balance in the chaos? 

In the spring of 2020, when we were working from home, isolated from each other, doing guidance from my dining room table, I felt very alone and overwhelmed. I was putting out fires, starting at seven o’clock in the morning and working well into the evening. I made the school schedule, talked to students and parents, did course selection, helped students who were struggling with mental health issues…all in isolation. My hours were out of control. I didn’t take time to take care of my family and myself. Add homeschooling two children to the day, preparing lunches, answering my own children’s questions between Teams meetings, was a juggling act. When I finished the school year, I had the summer to decompress and reflect. I recognized the impact that the three months at home had on me and the toll it took. Upon reflection, for me to be a productive counsellor and to be healthy, I needed to strive to create a better work-life balance and I promised myself that I would start that in September.

Amidst the chaos of this year, this start up, and relearning how to “guide” students during a pandemic, I am learning, albeit very slowly, to live and embrace the chaos of my day. I am learning not to take everything so seriously. I am learning to pause when I never used to pause pre-Covid-19. I am taking time with my tasks when, in the past, I would rush to meet all my deadlines early. Today, my need to serve my students to the best of my ability is still present but the way I go about it has changed. I am learning to recognize that not all tasks will be completed perfectly and maybe that was a goal I should never have put on myself to begin with. Working during Covid-19 has taught me that it is more important for us to take care of each other than to compile and focus on the “to-do lists” we create.

At my first department meeting of the year, I expressed my new vision and outlook for the year ahead, explaining that while we have a lot of work to do, we need to look at each task through a different lens. The goal is no longer to be the fastest, most efficient, busiest department in the school. Rather, the goal is to service our students and complete our tasks with a reframed mindset: one of health, compassion for all, gratitude and balance. If a deadline was causing anxiety in one or all of us, we would work to help each other with their task before moving onto the next. Instead of doing jobs in the isolation of our offices, we are now working in partnerships to help each other through. One of the biggest decisions I made this year, is to not say YES to every task sent my way. I am trying my best to protect my health and well-being and the well being of my department by being more selective in choosing what tasks to make a priority and what tasks to let go of. I put the student at the heart of every decision and, if the task directly impacts and benefits the student, it becomes a priority.

I am blessed to have the kindest teachers/human beings/friends working alongside me in my department. When we are feeling the stress of all the tasks being downloaded to us, we all pitch in and help each other. We have also started taking short breaks and going outside for walks and fresh air, instead of plowing through the day. Our school librarian has offered to help us in Guidance as well and has been instrumental in resetting student passwords and helping get our virtual peer tutoring up and running. Our school chaplain and other members of staff have also noticed the amount of work Guidance has been tasked with and often will come down and treat us to coffee and other goodies. As a guidance team, we are so thankful to be surrounded by so many fantastic colleagues. The chaos that Covid-19 has caused has created a staff that has become so cohesive and unified in helping students and each other that I no longer feel overpowered by the weight of the job. As for attaining work-life balance…well I may never completely achieve the balance, but at least I am trying and recognize that I need to be the change I want to see. 

Now I am not saying that I have abandoned “to-do lists.” I just try to work through each list recognizing that they are not a goal to be accomplished within a time frame, but rather a reminder that I have an important job: one that helps students achieve their goals; that helps support staff in managing their teaching assignments; that works closely with administration in achieving the school board’s mission. More importantly, I have a job and duty to take care of myself during this chaos. I have a duty to leave work at work and to go home and be present with my family, knowing that tomorrow will come and I will once again try my best – and that my best is all that I can offer. I feel now, more than I ever did before, closer to the balance that I crave and owe myself. 

By Anna Macri

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