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Balancing the Grind with Tom Brunzell, Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne

Tom Brunzell is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne, and author of the new book, Creating Trauma-Informed, Strength-Based Classrooms.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I began my educational journey as a teacher in the Bronx in America, and a leader at KIPP Infinity Charter School in Harlem, NYC just after 9/11. Many of my students were indirectly affected by this event, as their parents were cleaners in the downtown office buildings near where the tragedy occurred, and were subjected to endless replays of the news on television. 

I moved to Melbourne over a decade ago, and today I use that experience to lead teams that help schools implement trauma-informed practices and wellbeing strategies to increase student engagement for learning across Australia and internationally. 

I am a researcher at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education, and my research explores trauma-informed teaching strategies, positive psychology, positive education, and teacher wellbeing.

My new book, Creating Trauma-Informed, Strength-Based Classrooms, includes proven strategies that can help teachers address the needs of vulnerable children with complex and unmet learning needs.

This has always been incredibly important and a missing key in schools across much of Australia, but I didn’t realise just how much this book would be needed with the effects of children in extended lockdowns.

2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Being a teacher for so many years, I’m definitely a morning person. I wake up at 4:45 am thanks to our cat. I get our dog moving, and head to the local pool for a morning swim when they are open–or go for a quick jog. Then I get to work on the things that require the most focus and creativity. In other words, writing! 

I write best in the early morning without any interruptions and this can mean writing research, publications, strategy docs, priority letters and emails. The interruptions begin when everyone else starts logging on, and I have to work extra hard to protect my early mornings. The rest of my day is managing our teams, unexpected priorities, and sharing our work in a variety of forums.

In my role as director of education at Berry Street, I check in with some of our client schools to ensure the learning journey we are crafting for them is meeting the needs of staff and students to increase learning. 

Right now, we do a lot of focussed work to support teacher wellbeing in face of extraordinary work stressors. Although I wish we could meet with them in person, my team and I have gotten to an expert level with all the auxiliary Zoom functions to share our trauma-informed wellbeing strategies and model some pretty cool online presentation strategies at the same time.

Later in the day, I often find myself leading reflective practice conversations with our staff to ensure we are staying focused on our goals, yet making time for reflective feedback—just like we want great teachers to be doing with their students.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

I live in Melbourne, Australia, which now has the unique distinction of having the highest number of days in lockdown on the planet. Initially, I must admit there was some relief that my travel schedule was suddenly transformed into mandatory, focussed time at home.

However, more than a year later, I know that my work life like many, many Australians has evolved in curious ways. We have the veneer of accomplishing more in the virtual space, with end-to-end meetings each day, yet we are feeling stir-crazy because we have no in-person life outside our homes. My self-talk right now? Try and appreciate the strangeness of it all, because this too will pass.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I no longer spend time ruminating on finding work-life balance, because I realised that it was the wrong question—at least for me and what works for my mindset. I would get frustrated with myself, and I would certainly disappoint my loved ones by making work-life balance promises I couldn’t keep. 

A good day for me is defined by three questions: (1) Did I swim today? (2) Did I write today? And (3) did I learn from the many speed bumps I encountered today?

Thanks to some wise advice I received years ago, I have a much healthier approach: stop the unending search for work-life balance, and instead, intentionally find balance in the work. 

For me, it starts in the body, finding the breath when I see an email I don’t want to see or having to manage a problem that throws me off my centre. I pay attention to the way I hold my body when I drive or sit at my desk, and the way I balance and clear my brain before the next meeting begins. 

Suddenly, when I considered these micro-moments of wellbeing, finding balance in the work was indeed possible—and I started inserting these little strategies to renew and to maintain focus for the next thing on the list.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I’ve gotten a lot better at planning how much time things are going to take to reach an excellent standard. It definitely helps to know what times of day I’m at my best, and then to proactively protect those times. I like finishing things a couple of days before they are due to give me time to polish, but this in itself requires constant planning, consultation, problem-solving, and reviewing. 

I’ve also trained myself to let go of my dependence on big screens. When we went into our initial pandemic lockdown, there was a run of our staff taking their big desktop screens home with them; but I made a decision at that moment to force myself to do everything on a small tablet-sized screen, from writing to data analysis, video calls, design work, and everything in between. 

I wanted to eliminate any self-talk which would justify ‘why these conditions aren’t right for my optimum productivity’. Someday, when we are again able to fly across state and international borders, I hope the skill of working on small screens will pay dividends when I’m waiting around in airport lounges and hotel lobbies.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I’ve really fallen in love with two podcasts. The first, No Stupid Questions with Angela Duckworth and Stephan Dubner, is the best kind of podcast—rigorous and fun. I’ve known Angela since my days in New York, and I’m continuously inspired by the ways that she and Stephan use their considerable brainpower to explore topics that are ruminating in our collective consciousness.

I also have to admit that I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of the Cult Podcast with Paige Wesley, Armando Torres, and Andrea Guzzetta. Again, rigorous and very fun. We need their humour to investigate the mindset and conditions that arise when people take advantage of others and control their behaviour. 

As a dual-citizen (USA/Australia) I am concerned that our societies are showing too many signs of repeating our tragic past. We must learn and educate ourselves together—particularly to know the difference between fact versus opinion and propaganda. 

This was a skill I was required to teach my fourth-graders all those years ago in order to score points on their literacy assessments, and here we are years later, still trying to build this basic literacy.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

Honestly? I’ve finally and enthusiastically discovered Shazam, an app that can identify a song or movie clip at the click of a button. I have spent years of my life trying to identify songs, furiously writing down the lyrics, or trying to remember a melody line. Shazam has stopped that frustration, with pretty accurate results even for the most obscure of musical references.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

I am in awe of people who lead their communities and still have time to share their ideas with public audiences. I’ve had the privilege to learn from Sharon Gollan, a descendant of the Ngarrindjeri nation in the state of South Australia. We all have much to learn from Aboriginal leaders like Sharon.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

It’s not about the big moments of wellbeing—although those are indeed nice if we are blessed to have them. Instead, it’s about the micro-moments. It’s about those small moments we feel when visibly observing or hearing our effort pay off. Often, we don’t have enough of those moments day to day, so when we do have them, we’ve got to savour and cherish them.

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About Author

Balance the Grind is a work-life balance publication on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.