There’s an MTV show called Rob and Big (it’s been recently canceled), and the tagline for the show is “Do Work.” The characters say it all the time, and this past fall my water polo team adopted the phrase as our team motto. We printed up shirts…strike that, tank tops…that had Do Work written in the back. It’s a fun slogan and certainly popular with the high school crowd.
[quick sidenote: No, Rob and Big’s bulldog Meaty was not our inspiration to get our bulldog, Augustus. I’ve been wanting a bully for years, well before Rob and Big was a show. And since I’m on the topic of Augustus, here’s quick update on him: he’s doing much, much better. Just today he got his drains taken out, so that’s a good step. He has no fever, the antibiotics seem to have killed the infection, his spirits are up. All seems pretty good. The drainage sites, however, are about as gross as gross can get. They are two holes. My dog has two holes in him. I can see his muscle tissue through the holes. In the words of Chunk from “The Goonies,” my dog looks like he has bullet holes the size of matzah balls in him. I would take a picture and post it here, but then I fear that all comments on this post would be readers complaining about having to clean the vomit that they projected onto their keyboard and computer screen after seeing these pictures. So I won’t. The dude is better, but those holes are disgusting.]
Anyway, back to Doing Work. This morning I went on a great run while listening to a few TED talks (yes, I am the type of guy who runs to intellectual podcasts. And sorry ladies, I’m already married) and heard one by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian who spoke about Lincoln and LBJ. As a history teacher, I loved it. And I mention this because she quotes Eric Ericson, a Harvard psychologist, who says that the best way to have “a life filled with achievement and serenity” is to have three things in balance: work, play, and family.
At first, I totally loved this concept. I teach at a Benedictine school, and one of the core values of St. Benedict is balance, and so it struck me as being very much right on. The rest of the talk was good too, and there were some fun anecdotes about the two great Americans, but what really struck with me was this concept of balancing work, play, and family.
When I break it down, I obviously know what Family is. And I definitely see family as being extremely important, whether it be my immediate family in my home, my immediate family of parents and siblings, my extended family, or even just our entire human family. Nurturing our familial ties should be a major emphasis of our lives.
And I also feel pretty confident about what Play is. Play is having a lot of fun doing something. I would say that I play all the time. Surfing is probably my biggest form of play, and probably the most refreshing and fulfilling as well. And I also see how play can get taken out of balance. I’ve gone on surf trips and surfed 8 hours a day for a week, and by the end of the week I no longer want to surf. It is too much play.
But what is Work? What constitutes it? That’s what I’ve found myself struggling to answer all morning. I go to work every day as a teacher, but am I doing work? It seems like in general, Work has a pretty negative connotation. In other words, when you are doing work (and I’m not talking about Rob and Big’s way of saying Do Work…that kind of means something akin to “git ‘er done” or “kick some ass.” I mean the actual act of performing this elusive concept of work) you are not necessarily happy. You are doing something that is toiling, taxing on you physically and emotionally, draining, a challenge. But I’m not sure if that’s necessarily correct. When Augustus was sick, well you better believe that was draining and a huge challenge, but I don’t think I could say I was “working” when I worried about him. And then there’s the idiom that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. That sounds great, but doesn’t that mean that you’re only just playing and being with family, and doesn’t that contradict Ericson’s emphasis on balance? In an era in which psychologists and educational experts write books encouraging parents that it’s ok and actually good for students to struggle, isn’t all-play and no-work a possible way to make Jack not a dull boy, but a spoiled boy? Therefore, maybe a regular amount of struggle, challenge, and tedium is good for us in that it allows us to be less bored by the goods associated with play and family. I’m not sure.
So you can see, I’m torn. And I’m torn because of my line of work. I teach history and coach after school. Here’s my usual school day, broken up into categories:
6am. Wake up. Hang with dog and feed him until I leave at 7am. Category: Family.
8am. Get to work as a history teacher. Do a wide variety of things, but in general, spend time in the classroom with students. Category: I have no idea.
3pm. School ends. Go to practice (depending on season, either swimming, soccer, or water polo). Category: no way that I can categorize this as work, so I gotta go with play.
5pm. Practice ends.
6pm. Get home. Hang with my wife and dog, do a nice dinner, hang out, the usual. Category: Family.
Somewhere in the evening: grade a bit, do some online research. Category: pretty clearly work.
The reason I struggle so mightily with whether or not a day in the classroom is work or play is because I really do love it. I love hanging with high school students (notice I call it “hanging”), and I really love talking about history. Here’s an analogy. Imagine that friend you have that loves sports and always talks about sports. He’s not doing work there. He’s instead sharing his passion. So I love history and love talking about it, but my friends aren’t necessarily that into it. Instead, I’ve found a new audience that has to listen because they’re the student and I’m the teacher, and we end up in some cool discussions as a result of it. I don’t see the difference. He’s out there chatting up his sports knowledge, and I’m just another guy talking about his passion and hobby with a group of people.
Now in order to have that “play” attitude in the classroom, you need to do a lot of (very much in quotes) “work” to prepare for it. But preparing usually means learning more in-depth about the historical topic, which would be like the sports fan watching Sportscenter or a game itself, and so once again hard to call work.
I’m not sure what my point is in all of this. I’d consider myself a pretty happy guy with the life I lead, and I tend to credit that largely because I work in a job that I love. I spend a big chunk of my day doing things I want to do, with people I want to be with, and so I am satisfied by it. In fact, it’s one of the things I’m most grateful for in life, that I spend so much time enjoying what I do. So maybe I’m not sure if I’d argue for balance after all. There are parts of teaching that are definitely “work.” Grading papers is work, and often times intolerable. And I’m not very good at being prompt with my grading. Taking attendance, that sort of crap is all work too. But in the big scheme of my teaching, I’d say that “work” is probably only like 20-30% at most…which means if I’m generous I’m only spending 10% of my awake time “doing work.”
To repeat Ericson, he thinks you need to keep work in equal balance with play and family to be accomplished and serence, but I am not sure I agree. I’d say I’m pretty damn serene. And I’d also give myself some credit and say that I’ve hit some decent achievements in my teaching career, which I won’t elaborate upon here.
So in other words, I still don’t know what Work is, and whether it should be in balance. What I do know is that I got a huge stack of papers that I should grade, and I thought this blog post would be a great way of delaying them. But I think it’s time. This post is 1500 words and the stack is calling my name.