What Do Online Educators Do: The Mythical Boundary between Personal Life and Work Life

You don’t have to be an online educator to have boundary issue betweens ones work life and personal life. I’ve known my fair share of educators, elementary educators, who seemed to only have their work life and nothing else, living only for what they did for their students. Of course there were also those who were scarcely there when they were there and they had to be reminded to not run over their students or parents as they raced out of the parking lot at the end of the day. I came to teaching after 15-years working for the phone company, so I knew the difference of working for a wage and doing something that felt much more like a mission. Then, because I got into teaching technology, where there was always hardware and software that needed to be supported, I got used to the idea that I’d be on-campus working until the early evening, often later. So, even as a “face-to-face” instructor I tended to be all about the job, working with students in the day, fixing the hardware/software at night and then going home and doing additional research on the Internet until midnight. It was a choice that I made, that to be the teacher that I wanted to be was going to be the most important thing in my life and I committed all of my energy to that.

There were friends who were concerned that I’d given up on relationships after I started teaching. Like I said, I felt like I was on a mission and put the social life on a lower priority. Being in my mid-thirties at the time, it didn’t seem like there were all that many opportunities to begin with and I wasn’t willing to put more energy into it making something happen. I decided that if I was going to find someone, that I’d find that person probably doing the things that I loved and not doing something because I was just interested in finding someone. Well, that was the idea. I spent a lot of years without someone in my life. One year, when I was at camp with our sixth-grade students, standing in line for lunch, one student asked if I was married or had a family. I shrugged and said no. She was flabbergasted, I’m sure that she’d never known what it would be like to live in a small house without at least three generations of her family together. She asked, “Don’t you get lonely?” Ouch. That was a bit too close to the truth. This was the choice that I’d made. It was frustrating at times, but I was doing what I loved and I knew that I was fortunate in that alone.

Then when the opportunity to teach online came up and it was with my fellow Pepperdine online classmate, Dr. Ludgate, I knew that I had to make the transition. Interestingly, the job I left, teaching computers and media at a middle school in Long Beach, California, the job and the school are no longer there. They announced at a meeting, not long after I decided to take the online job, that they were phasing out the school and would transition to becoming a vocational high school. It’s been almost four-years since I left and it doesn’t look like the vocational school happened. All of my coworkers, a third for each year, needed to find jobs elsewhere. I left at the perfect time. It’s not that I really knew what would happen. But it was the right choice for me, for personal and career reasons at the time.

At the same time I felt like there was an analogy between my move to online teaching and what was going to happen to traditional public education. Having worked in technology for my whole adult life and having worked with kids for the past 15-years, I knew that a lot of things were and are going to need to change, that the traditional school was going to have to make a radical transition. Conversely, I couldn’t imagine most of my former coworkers smoothly adapting to the transition I made going from classroom teaching to online teaching. Simply put, I worked around the clock when I was running my labs and I still tend to do that now that I’m working online. But then I can see an advantage of teaching this way, with students Instant-Messaging me into the evening. I’m at home, dressed very comfortably, listening to the music that I want to listen to, being a teacher.

It reminds me of a difference between my brother and I. Back in the phone company days I was given a pager (late 80s) and while I had an office to report to, I’d often get calls to work on troubles clear across the county. Back in those days I pretty much felt like i could get almost anywhere in the county in 15- to 30-minutes. So, on more than a few occasions I’d find a nice place to relax or meet a friend for lunch, knowing that if the company needed me, they could reach me and I could be where-ever they needed in a matter of minutes. The pager was my friend that kept me from being tethered to a desk. My brother, on the other hand, was always leaving his pager at home, because it felt like to him that he was being tracked down. I saw the advantage and he saw the hassle (he’s much better now… this was a long time ago).

But traditional education is so stuck in the past. For example, I always felt like the traditional school calendar was a relic, out of place with how the rest of the world worked. But, it’s anathema to suggest doing away with summer break, like it’s the only thing left that’s good about teaching. Well, if it’s the only thing left, then perhaps the whole enterprise needs much more than a calendar adjustment. Being the on-campus tech guy, I saw how often and how many classrooms felt like they were just holding-tanks for our student population, babysitting on a community level. What a waste. I don’t fault my coworkers. My principal said it best when my students were acting out: “he gets paid the same whether you do the work or not, so you’re only hurting yourselves by not cooperating.” I know he meant to defuse their negative motivation, but it would seem that many have learned this lesson and put in just enough effort (like our students) to not get fired.

It’s a complicated problem and online teaching is by no-means a cure-all for what’s wrong with education. But, it is an opportunity for us to reassess what we’re trying to accomplish with our institutions. And maybe that’s the real message here: that we need to examine our choices and not let things continue the way they are just out of cultural inertia. Choice, like my choice to be dedicated to my mission as an educator. That didn’t change when I went online. In fact, I believe that I’ve been able to bring much more to the table because teaching online has required all of my skills as a communicator, as a listener, as a problem-solver, as a team-member and as a technologist.

And I’m lucky that I have a girlfriend who understands that I have a drive to do better and that I don’t believe in the 9-to-5. It’s fun having these kinds of choices at this stage in my life.