As an educator, you’re always “on.” Unlike a standard 9-5, teaching is a 24/7 commitment: You’re bringing work home, working on nights and weekends and constantly worrying about your students’ welfare. The result? Today’s educators are spinning their wheels to meet the demands of work and family—and losing themselves in the process.
While unending drive and passion go hand-in-hand with the profession, achieving work/life balance is still key to personal and professional success. The best way to ensure that outcome: Establish ground rules for yourself, just as you do for your students. Here’s how:
1. Budget your time like you do your finances. “Time and energy are finite resources,” says NEA member, Roxanna Elden, National Board Certified Teacher and author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. “Have an outer limit of how much time you can spend per week without burning yourself out or hurting your level of in-class energy and compassion.” Set a maximum number of work hours and divvy up that time in a way that best serves your students. This will help you stay on track while being able to carve out time for your home life.
2. Set physical boundaries. “One of the best pieces of balance advice I ever received,” says retired Iowa teacher, Katherine Ortiz, “came from a counselor who, when I complained about the stress of overwhelming paperwork, asked, ‘Where is that stack of papers when you aren’t working on it?’ My answer: ‘on an end table by my bed.’ She told me this was a huge red flag—that I needed to create boundaries between work and life outside of work.” Define where in your home you will work, and where things will rest when you aren’t working. Having a constant visual reminder of your workload in the bedroom is counter-productive. Something as simple as moving the work somewhere else can help you establish balance.
3. Streamline lesson planning. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, use plans others have developed and tweak them to fit your needs, suggests Ortiz. Another tip: Balance the units you’re teaching, says Mike Anderson, responsive classroom program developer and author of The Well Balanced Teacher. To lighten the load, pair new units that require more planning with familiar units that demand less thinking. And make notes on lesson plans as you go so you can remember what worked (and what didn’t) from year to year.
4. Delegate! Allow others—both at work and at home—to step in and help out. Leave mundane tasks like filing and organizing paperwork to your students, aids, even your own children so you can focus on instruction or other high level responsibilities. Be sure to identify your helpers’ strengths and capitalize on them. Does your daughter love to bake? Ask her to make cookies for Back to School Night. Is your teacher’s aid a whiz at creating tests? Let him create the week’s pop quiz.
5. Take a recess. Give yourself permission to take a break and meditate for 10 minutes or go for an afternoon stroll. “It can be tempting to squeeze work into every minute of the day,” says Anderson. “By using intentional breaks to center ourselves, we can regain the composure and positive energy needed to work effectively with our students.” Don’t have time for a 10-minute recess? Stop periodically throughout the day and take three deep belly breaths.
6. Learn to say no. If you always agree to take on another school-related project, you’ll begin to feel overloaded, stressed and burned out. Knowing your limits means not saying yes out loud when you’re screaming no inside. Over the years, Ortiz learned that just because she can do something doesn’t mean she should. “Too many “yeses” can begin to destroy the passion that drew us to teaching in the first place,” she says. A better approach: only say “yes” to projects and activities you’re passionate about.
Need help saying no? Your local NEA representatives play a role in helping you learn to set some of these boundaries. Talk to them, or visit your state’s website for information. For example, The Maryland State Education Association provides a list of workplace resources.
Remember: Prioritize YOU!
Self-care is a vital part of our work—not something to catch up on over vacations, or if we happen to have time, says Anderson. “When we are overwhelmed, stressed out and unhealthy, our students suffer.” So whether you take a long hike on a Sunday morning, or treat yourself to a bubble bath each night, make time to recharge your batteries. Students need a happy, calm, rested teacher far more than they need that “perfect lesson plan.”