Columns » Balancing Act

Two Educators on Tech, Commuting and Teaching Teens Responsibility

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Mom: Michelle Szabo, 46, program manager for instruction at the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston - Dad: Dave Szabo, 47, 8th grade teacher at Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School in Swanton - Kids: Son, Nick, 17, and daughter, Carissa, 15 - JIM DESHLER
  • Jim Deshler
  • Mom: Michelle Szabo, 46, program manager for instruction at the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston
    Dad: Dave Szabo, 47, 8th grade teacher at Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School in Swanton
    Kids: Son, Nick, 17, and daughter, Carissa, 15

The Szabo family's almost 200-year-old farmhouse is situated amid the rolling green hills of Lamoille County. The pastoral landscape is peaceful, with just the occasional sound of traffic from nearby Route 15. On the September evening of my visit, laughter spilled out of the open kitchen window. Once inside, the whole Szabo clan welcomed me with a warm hello.

But before we even sat down to talk, the teenagers had disappeared — Carissa to a dance class in Morrisville; Nick to do homework in his room. Such is life with independent older children, Michelle and Dave said.

Nick can drive now, so their roles as parents have shifted from chauffeurs and organizers to providers of guidance and support. As educators — Michelle is a program manager at the Stern Center, and Dave is an 8th grade social studies teacher — they know that being organized and responsible is important, and try to model these traits for their kids.

On being plugged in:

Dave: I think technology has really helped balance things out. If I need to pick something up for dinner on the way home, Michelle can text me and I know what the heck to get so I can make dinner. There's a lot of texting, which helps to coordinate when we are in different places.

Michelle: Google Calendar! Man, I love that thing. We have a Szabo family calendar. Carissa's dance classes are in there, Nick's senior pictures on Thursday are in there, and my and Dave's late nights are in there. We've had great success with a paper calendar in the past, and then we'd start going places and we couldn't always have the calendar. It's been a transition to get the kids to look at [Google Calendar], but they do now. Eventually I will get my recipes into the calendar and people can just pull that up with a link to the recipe. I'm not there yet, but that's my goal!

On the value of a long commute:

Michelle: I listen to so many audio books. I get so much reading done! It's phenomenal. My alone time is really my time to and from work. I cherish that time. It's 45 minutes at the beginning and end of my day where almost all the time I can just ... (big sigh).

Dave: There are three other people who live in the area who go up to Swanton, so I carpool and drive once or twice a week, which is nice. The difference between my commute and Michelle's is that I go up Route 104 and there's no one. Michelle hits the traffic going to Williston. It's good because [during the carpool] we talk — not about school — we just debrief and talk about other things, which puts me in a more relaxed mood when I come in.

On choosing chores:

Michelle: We try to demonstrate family responsibility for the house, so the kids have to mow or clean the bathrooms or mop the floor, and we all have to pitch in. We are list makers, so I will make a list of all the chores that need to happen and everybody picks two. And you put your initial next to it and then a check mark when it's done. I make the list on Friday night or Saturday morning and the chores have to be done by dinner on Saturday. [The kids] tend to pick the same things, so they get really good at it!

Dave: Usually we let them sign up first, then Michelle and I will sign up after them. I think giving kids options eases the pain of chores.

On work flexibility:

Dave: I try to prioritize the family but Michelle, you know, is the center of it and makes it run. I don't have a lot of flexibility in my job and sometimes I choose not to have it (laughter from both of them). You know, that doctor or dentist appointment, I'm like, Michelle, sounds like you can take care of that (more laughter).

Michelle: Sick days and appointments have always been me. I have more flexibility in my job. If something comes up at 8:50 a.m., well, that's second period in a middle school so he can't just go in a little bit late or they'd have to get a sub. And if the kids get sick now and it's not a violent illness, they can stay home by themselves.

On the desire for more unplanned time:

Michelle: I wish there was an extra hour every day that was unscheduled, where we could do the family dinners, because almost every time we sit down together we have really good, lively conversations. We have kids with great senses of humor and they tell funny stories, so if I could have one additional hour between 5 and 7 p.m., that would be what I would want. Not on the weekends, not late at night — the kids tuck me in now! It's completely different now that they are older.


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