If you’re a teacher, you know the immense demands that the profession requires. You are committed to your students as if they were your own flesh and blood. You became a teacher so that you could make a difference, so that you could impart knowledge and life skills to children who will one day rise up and take the reigns of the world.
Tomorrow marks the start of my sixteenth semester of teaching. Being an educator is an important part of my life, and I truly believe I am doing holy, significant work. But if I’m not careful, my work-life balance can get out of whack pretty easily. The passion that you bring to your classroom every day is also the passion that can leave you completely empty of anything to give to other parts of your life.
I have a couple hundred friends and acquaintances who are in the business of caring for and educating kids, and I’m pretty sure each one of them over the next few months will feel like throwing in the towel. It’s part of the job for most people, but I’m finding that I have a lot more control over my burn-out status than I think.
Self care is one of the most important practices in the life of a teacher. You cannot pour yourself out to 100+ students a day if you don’t pour into yourself first. And while you can’t necessarily control things like course curriculum and state-mandated assessments that increase your stress levels, there are some things that you do have control over….
1. You have control over how much time you spend before- or after-hours at school.
If your school administration requires you to be at work at 7:45am, you don’t have to be at work at 7:15am. If your school duties end at 2:15pm, you don’t have to stay at school every night until 6pm grading papers. The amount of time you spend at school is mostly up to you.
Now, I know there are busy seasons like the first month of school and parent-teacher conference nights, but a bit of planning and class re-structuring will go a long way when it comes to how many overtime hours you put in.
Think about the teaching responsibilities that demand the most of your time. Jot them down on the top few lines of a piece of paper. (You’re a teacher for heaven’s sake. I’m SURE you have paper somewhere within three feet of where you’re sitting!)
Now, consider why these activities take up so much of your life. Is it because you don’t have a process for grading batches of papers? Or maybe you are teaching a brand new subject for the first time and are starting from scratch?
For me, the biggest time-killers are lesson planning/preparation and grading. I can’t do my job well and use the cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all lessons that are provided by textbook companies and curriculum writers. But I can take those resources and piecemeal them together to make something really special instead of starting from scratch.
See what I did there? First, I identified a time-killer (lesson planning and preparation) and the reason why I felt the responsibility required my time. Then, I looked for a shortcut… a way to work smarter, not harder and still be just as effective in the classroom.
I encourage you to go through the brainstormed list of teaching time-killers and see where you can make some changes so that you’ll have more time for things that really matter.
2. You have control over what you consume.
And no, I don’t mean treats and wine. (I mean, you do have control over those things, but that ain’t what I’m talking about.)Social media is a double-edged sword for teachers. There are lots of great ideas out there, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been inspired by Insta-famous teachers like @teachlikeyoumeanit. But from picture-perfect Instagram accounts to parents bad-mouthing their kids’ teachers on Facebook, it doesn’t take long for teachers to feel like they are at the bottom of the Perfect Teacher barrel.
I wish I could look you in the eyeballs and say this straight to your face, but this medium will have to do: That mess is a lie.
Your worth as a teacher is not based on how polished your classroom appears on Instagram.
Your worth as a teacher is not based on how polished your classroom appears on Instagram, nor is it based on how many rave reviews your students’ parents give you on Facebook group posts. Your value as a teacher is found in the person that you are and the passion that you bring to your work. At the end of the day, nothing else matters.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that social media is bad for teachers. It can be an incredibly powerful tool for communication and camaraderie and support. Just make sure that it stays in its rightful place. (Also, remember that those people are human just like you.)
3. You have control over your yes’s and no’s.
I learned from Brené Brown that boundaries empower us to give of ourselves generously to the things that truly matter. Giving generously doesn’t mean saying yes all the time to everyone and everything. If I never say no, then the things I am saying yes to don’t get enough of my effort and attention. Boundaries provide an opportunity for me to decide what matters and what can wait.
If I am already sponsoring an after-school club and am asked to help with another, I should probably say no. Unless only two people are showing up for my after-school club and the one my best teacher friend is starting would be a better use of my time. Either way, I get to decide!
The best teachers don’t do everything. The best teachers do a few things really well and know when to say ‘no’ to the rest.
The best teachers don’t do everything. The best teachers do a few things really well and know when to say ‘no’ to the rest. If you are tired or worn thin, your effectiveness in the classroom will decrease. Establishing healthy boundaries when it comes to your time, your attention to social media, and your commitments will help you create a more nourishing work-life balance. And it will also give you an opportunity to model for your students and colleagues what it looks like to hold boundaries and live a balanced life.
Like a fence protects what’s inside a property line, boundaries protect your physical and emotional health so that you can do the important things to which you’ve been called. Boundaries are not a punishment, just like putting up a fence around one’s home isn’t a punishment to those who don’t own the property. Establishing boundaries in your life is one of the most loving things that you can do, not just for yourself but for others, too. (For more insight into what boundaries are and how to establish them, you might want to check out this quick video or this book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend.)
You will face obstacles and challenges along the way, but I’ve found that the work of setting boundaries is always worth it. I know that you have the willpower to do this work because you are a teacher, and we are made of grit and determination and perseverance. By channeling the passion that you bring to your classroom to your own self-care first, I think you’ll find that you are more effective and more importantly, more happy.
It might feel like a lie right now, but you can put yourself first and still be a phenomenal teacher. Take a deep breath and lean into these principles and watch your world change from the inside out.