A teacher’s work is never done. Outsiders don’t really understand how teachers constantly have a never-ending to-do list of things to prep, plan, grade, create, clean, discuss, question, read, learn, analyze, complete, and tweak. And oh yeah, teach somewhere in there, too. The high demands and expectations, coupled with low pay and respect, have led so many teachers to leave the profession due to burnout. What can you do, then, to ensure a better work-life balance for yourself so you can continue your passion?
1. Bring less work home
Easier said than done, right? But at least be realistic about what you can actually accomplish in the evenings — there’s no point in lugging stuff home that you will never even get around to finishing. Restrict what you bring home to just one thing — a stack of tests that need to be graded, a handful of rough drafts, a story you need to annotate, etc.
Another way to achieve this is by establishing one day each week in which you stay late at school and power through. Without students at school and without all the distractions that home brings, a few hours of dedicated work time can be incredibly productive and dramatically reduce the amount of work you have to take home for the rest of the week.
2. Say no
Some things will just have to do without you. While you might love the idea of pitching in for a lunch potluck in the teacher’s lounge, if that means staying up until 1 am baking enchiladas, then just buy some chips and salsa instead. And while you did play volleyball in high school, that doesn’t mean the fate of the volleyball team rests in your hands alone. A student wants extra tutoring in the morning? Apologize and tell them your mornings are full. There are many tasks we think “must” be done when, in reality, life will go on without them. Choose the few tasks that are the most important to you and say “no” to the rest. The more you can say no, the more you will be able to say yes to other things that can give you a better work-life balance.
3. Protect your “happy”
Whether it’s yoga class, Thursday happy hour with teacher friends, daily meditation before school, or co-ed softball on the weekends, find something each week to “fill you up” and protect it. Don’t let anything else come in the way. Don’t allow yourself to cancel because you have too much to grade. Even if this is the one thing that you do all week that makes you happy, that one thing is worth keeping sacred, so don’t let anything get in the way of that.
4. Set boundaries outside school hours
This is particularly important when it comes to parent and student communication. Establish clear “office hours” for parents and students to get ahold of you with questions or concerns, or decide to only answer emails during school hours and school hours alone. You might benefit from not installing your school email app on your phone so you are not tempted to respond to every email you receive. Your energy has already been drained for the day, so don’t let parents or students drain any more once you’re home.
5. Set boundaries within school hours
While you may pride yourself on having a classroom with an “open door” policy, this can lead to never getting anything done during your plan period or lunchtime. For some teachers, lunch is the only break they get all day, so be adamant about reserving that time for some peace and quiet and eating. Turn down student requests to eat lunch with you, lock your door, and hide beneath your desk if you have to. During planning period, shut your door and turn off the lights or go plan in the school library so you can avoid students or colleagues dropping in. Teaching is draining work, so during the day, find little ways to “fill yourself up” or, at the very least, reserve your energy.
6. Make lists
Give your brain a break and start keeping an actual physical to-do list. With an actual list kept in a centralized place, you won’t forget anything, and you can relieve your brain of the mental load. There is no task too big or too small to put on the to-do list. Need to turn in that one thing to the front office? To-do list. Need to remind So-and-So that grandma is picking them up today? Put it on the to-do list. For even better time management, organize your list based on when you will have time to do each task. What jobs can you complete in the morning before school? What will you get done during planning time? What will you save until after school? etc.
7. Minimize distractions
If anyone can multitask, it’s a teacher, but it turns out that teachers aren’t too great at it either. If there’s a big stack of tests needing to be graded, focus on that task and eliminate all the other possible distractions that are not related to the job at hand. Ask your spouse to keep the kids busy for a couple of hours while you grade, put away your cell phone and turn off notifications while you plan, avoid checking social media when you should be responding to parent emails, etc. If you think of something that needs to be done, add it to that to-do list so that you can forget about it for now. This also goes for “you time” — when you are having a nice dinner with your family or when you are simply enjoying your free time, make sure your head is in the place you’re supposed to be.
8. Get the one hardest thing accomplished each day
Most days, there is one glaring task that we must get accomplished. It’s generally the task you are least looking forward to but is the most important thing to get done. Put that task at the top of your to-do list. Also, consider what time of day you are the most productive. If you know you get the most accomplished in the morning, then plan to get that task done during that time. And know that if you don’t get a single other task done that day, you at least got the most important thing done. Mark that down as a “win.”
9. Gift yourself little breaks
Set up routines and systems that allow you to do less of the work. This could include establishing student jobs to organize the bookshelves or wipe down the desks. It could include once a month designating a day where students solely focus on a learning program on their devices (i-Ready, NoRedInk, IXL, coding, etc.) so you can get some grading done, or picking a day to show a content-related movie so you have less to plan for. Give yourself these little “gifts” and don’t feel guilty about cutting yourself a mental or physical break every once in a while. Remember, you don’t do this all the time, and your students are still learning.
10. Realize that you cannot save them all
Try as we might, there is no way that we can do it all. There’s simply too much to be done at any given time. There’s no way to make every single lesson highly-engaging with differentiated instruction for each type of learner, independent practice, and cooperative learning groups. No matter how well you teach something, there will always be a student or students who you will not reach. No matter how much you care, there will always be students who do not. You cannot save every student, and that doesn’t reflect poorly upon you. Understand that you have been handed an impossible task on a daily basis and that you will never be able to do everything perfectly. Exercise some self-compassion and self-forgiveness. You are doing the best you can, and that’s all anyone can ask.
“You cannot pour from an empty cup.”
The expectations and demands placed on you are probably not going to magically change. However, the demands and expectations you have for yourself is something entirely within your control. It’s easy to let teaching consume your entire life unless you take careful, deliberate steps and make choices that preserve you and your talents. Much like the safety announcements on airplanes, affix your own air mask before assisting others. You cannot teach, let alone teach well, when there is no more gas in your tank, so find little and big ways to keep yourself “filled up.”