The Lamp

A Holderness School journal committed to critical reflection and fostering conversation around issues connected to independent schools and education in general.

Working Where you Live, Living Where you Work: Thoughts on “Work-Life Balance” at Holderness School

Kelsey Berry, History Teacher

Work-Life Balance. From some very quick research, this phrase seems to have first been employed in England in the 1970s in New Ways to Work and the Working Mothers’ Association in the United Kingdom. Historically the creation of a dichotomy between work and play is an industrial concept. Time away from work was a byproduct of the industrial revolution. While often this “time” was limited to Sundays because of long working hours, the separation of work from the home was perhaps as big a shift in human history as the agricultural revolution was to hunter-gatherers. So the notion of work-life balance isn’t very old, perhaps 100 years for the United States.


The language we use to describe this balance came from another historical event -- women in the Western world’s entry into colleges, universities, and some boardrooms. The curious world wondered, how can they run the company and have company for dinner? Women were told “they could have it all” with newly won rights such as Title IX, and Roe v. Wade (1973). Setting an almost impossible standard for women, the idea of “everything” - the job, the family and the freshly baked bread - erased any notion of balance (see video below). More recently the phrase has been employed across the gender line to discuss the tentacles of technology bringing work into the home.

The debate over a work-life balance is not out of place at a residential school, but it is certainly a different conversation. Sometimes I feel like it is quite simply a work-vacation balance. The price for blissfully long vacations is being on-call 24 hours (most days). I am in awe of my peers who are parents. There is a sense of guilt (that I will entirely own, but I know I am not alone) when I take a night “off” from work.  When I was bed-ridden for a week with the flu this winter, I felt like I was putting so much more work on my peers. While I can take a day off for a special event, or if I am sick, the “vacation day” doesn’t really exist at a residential school in any formal way when school is in session.

Balancing work and life has always been a challenge at Holderness School as evidenced by mandatory Sunday afternoon teas circa 1929

Balancing work and life has always been a challenge at Holderness School as evidenced by mandatory Sunday afternoon teas circa 1929

Recent calls for women to “lean in” sidestep the notion of work life balance as even being the goal. At a workshop at the annual NAIS conference in Boston last February, I heard one newly appointed head of school say “work-life balance doesn’t account for loving your work, and long hours not being martyrdom (1).” The panel also spoke about the notion of a “work-life blend” This is closer to the truth at residential schools, and, of course, in education in general. This is not a new idea. Confucius wrote,  “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” David McCulloch described modern success as “finding your lifework in the work you love.”

I started this week with a faculty in-service after a two week vacation. Somehow the vacation never quite seems long enough, and I was definitely grumpy to be going back to work, even if it is only 200 yards from my front door. We had a traditional in-service day scheduled, which is a working day for faculty to prepare for the season ahead. This in-service was a bit different from the rest. Instead of a day full of meetings, the announcements and news were condensed into a morning hour, and each discipline departed on a field-trip for the day. Each department did something a bit unexpected - the English Department went to King Arthur’s Flour to bake bread together, the Science Department went  glassblowing, and the History Department visited the Mount Washington Hotel. This day reminded me of the pleasure that come with working with the people who are your neighbors.


I was in the car with three colleagues, and, as is often true when you go on a work trip, the car ride was the best part. We talked about the fundamental goal of a high-school history education: is it to teach the story? to teach the skills? to teach the analysis? to teach historiography? The next conversation moved seamlessly into vacation stories, and then back to the book we had read as a department. The interplay between work and life in the conversation reminded me of the work-life balance question. Despite going through a bout of the stomach flu, this simply felt like too much fun to be work. Perhaps, the work-life balance simply doesn’t exist and we have subconsciously acknowledged that by choosing to have our lives at a residential school. This isn’t to say that we do not need to “unplug,” have dinner with our loved ones, not look at email, or think about our school in our off-time. We need “off-time” like we need sleep, but the idea that work and life are completely separate here is folly.

Innovative companies are redesigning their work spaces to integrate “play” as a part of their corporate culture, recognizing that “play,” or what is called “life” in the life-work balance paradigm, is integral to creativity and innovation. How do we encourage the “play mentality” for faculty at a residential school? Because while I had that feeling of fun on the recent field trip and have it in the dining hall surrounded by faculty families, I definitely do not have it when I am grading papers. The sustainability of a school, I think will be linked to how frequently the atmosphere doesn’t feel like something separate from home, not only by geography.

You can read more of Kelsey's thoughts on her blog Teach Awake

Further Reading/Viewing:

The 25 Coolest Offices of the 100 Best Companies (March 6, 2015, )

Forget Work-Life Balance: Aim for Blend Instead Rebecca Fraser-Thrill (March 7, 2014 Huffington Post)

Good Life Project Founder Jonathan Fields

Is There Life After Work? Erin Callan (ex-CFO of Lehman Brothers March 9, 2013 NYTimes)

Flexible Work, Nice if You Can Get It Anna North (February 17, 2015 NYTimes)

Denmark’s Work-Life Balance (Debate Page, NYTimes)

Does Your Work Fit Your Life? Anna North (Feburary 12, 2015 NYTimes)

Work Life Balance is Dead Ron Friedman (December 9, 2014

The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace Ron Friedman (2014).

Nigel Marsh “How to Make Work Life Balance Work” TEDxSydney May 2010 

Note 1Engendering Leadership: How Independent Schools Support Successful Female Leaders, Annual Conference National Association of Independent Schools, February 2015.