Teachers, Here’s the Secret to a Balanced Life
Work/life balance can feel impossible as a teacher, but it's not. Discover two secrets all balanced teachers know - and how you can implement them, too.
Teaching is exhausting, and before you know it, it can take over your whole life.
You find yourself working on school work constantly - yet never feeling caught up.
You bring work home and feel guilty for neglecting your family. Or, if you choose to spend time with your family, you feel guilty for not finishing all your grading.
It’s simply too overwhelming - and you might even be wondering if you can keep teaching.
Friend, you are not alone. So many teachers are right where you are - fighting to stay afloat and losing the battle for any semblance of work/life balance.
But yet, by some miracle, there are other teachers who seem to have it all together. You see them leave work at a reasonable hour without dragging home a truckload of papers to grade. And somehow they still manage to be amazing.
You maybe wondering, how on earth do they do it? And is there something wrong with ME that I can’t?
The good news is that there’s nothing wrong with you. The problem is the overwhelming demands of teaching - demands that seem to be growing with each passing year.
The better news is that you don’t have to be a victim of these overwhelming demands. If those amazing teachers who leave by 4 can do it, there must be a way you can do it, too.
As a former leave-by-4 teacher myself (I rarely took home more than a small stack of grading), I’ve struggled to pin down what exactly allowed me to do this. I’ve written a ton of articles about elements of work/life balance, but the answer still felt elusive.
Until now. I believe I’ve finally narrowed the secret down to two main habits. Habits that pretty much every teacher who’s managed to find a semblance of work-life balance practices regularly - sometimes without even knowing it. And habits that you can develop that will finally rein in the overwhelm and get you on the path to a more sustainable teacher life.
Ready? Here we go….
Two Habits of Balanced Teachers
Habit #1: Realize you cannot do everything
The fastest path to overwhelm is somehow assuming that you can do everything that you want to do, that your admin wants you to do, and that your family wants you to do.
Here’s the cold, hard truth: You can’t. No one can.
As long as we ignore this truth and try to do everything, we’ll always be overwhelmed and overstressed. Why? Because that to-do list will never be conquered. They’ll always be
one more a hundred more things to do. And we’ll never get it all done in time.
So what do we do? We have to realize our own limitations. We cannot do everything. We just can’t. It’s time we embrace that.
Because when we embrace this truth, we can start working with it instead of against it.
When you realize that every time you say yes to one thing, by default you say no to something else, you can start being more strategic about what you say yes to. What’s more, you can start saying no to things that, while potentially worthwhile, won’t have as big of an impact as other more important things.
As we stop fighting our limitations, the guilt starts to fall away and we become wiser with our time. We no longer feel that we must stay up until 2:00 a.m. grading research papers or that we have to spend hours upon hours developing elaborate lesson plans.
We realize we simply can’t do it all, so we stop trying to.
But wait! you might be thinking. That sounds great in theory, but I still have to teach. I can’t walk into class without lesson plans. I can’t simply not grade tests. How on earth is this supposed to work?
I’m so glad you asked. Realizing you can’t do everything is just the first step, albeit a necessary one. The second habit is where the magic happens:
Habit #2: Stop saying "i have to" and start asking "how can i?"
If you’re struggling to find work/life balance as a teacher, you probably find yourself saying “I have to” a whole lot. Whether it’s “I have to grade all of my students’ papers” or “I have to put together this fun, creative activity” or “I have to write all my own assessments.”
Whatever it is, your list of “I have to’s” is probably a mile and a half long. You figure it’s just the way it is; you’ve just gotta’ do what you’ve gotta’ do.
But those teachers who’ve finally found balance approach everything differently. Instead of saying “I have to do ______.” they ask “How can I accomplish the same goal in a reasonable amount of time?”
Behind this question is the belief that there has to be a better way. And that belief fuels creativity and forces us to find a better solution - one that still accomplishes our goals without leaving us overwhelmed and stressed.
Let me give a few examples of what this looks like:
Example: Saving Time Grading
When I was asked to teach 6th grade ELA, I knew I’d be grading a bunch of writing. I also knew that I couldn’t afford to spend hours and hours grading each set of essays, much less editing all their rough drafts for them like my high school teachers used to do. (I can’t do everything, remember.)
So I thought about my goals: First, I wanted students to learn to edit their own papers and correct their own mistakes. Then, when grading, I wanted to provide valuable feedback that not only explained their grade but also highlighted both what they did well and what needed improvement.
With my goals clarified, I then asked the all-important question: “How can I accomplish these goals without it taking forever?” Here’s what I came up with: I would create checklists to help the students rewrite and edit their own papers. Then, I would use these same checklists as the grading sheet. I would circle areas that needed improvement and put smiley faces or check marks next to areas that were done well (and I’d include a key explaining this system at the top so that students would easily understand). Then, rather than wasting time trying to finagle the math of a rubric, I’d simply give them the grade I knew they’d earned for the paper.
The result? Well, of course, I still had to dedicate time to grade writing, but it was no longer an overwhelmingly time-consuming task. I was able to get them done in a reasonable amount of time, and my students got great feedback. Oh, and they learned how to rewrite and edit, too. Win-win.
Example: Saving Time with Administrative Tasks
Sometimes our “I have to’s” are self-inflicted; meaning, we have in our own minds that we have to something a certain way. But other times, these “I have to’s” come from administrative requirements.
The thing is, you can still apply the “How can I…” question to requirements that you have no control over. Here’s an example:
Back in the day, when we had absent students, we were given a physical sheet of paper that we were supposed to fill in with what the student missed in our class. With over 100 students, this happened all. the. time., and since I was required to do it, I knew I had to come up with a system that streamlined the task.
So I asked, “How can I fulfill this requirement (letting students know what they missed) as quickly as possible?” The answer? Print out my one-page summary of the week’s lesson plans (which included a list of what we did in class as well as any homework) and staple it to the sheet. Took less than a minute. Done.
Example: Streamlining Lesson Plans
Lesson plans can be another time-suck. We feel pressured (either by ourselves or by administration) to produce plans with much more detail than we actually need to teach well.
But let's not be deterred. We know the goal of lesson planning is to clarify what we’re going to do in class and produce a document that organizes everything so we can remember and clearly communicate what’s happening.
So the question: “How can we accomplish this goal quickly, without wasting time?” The answer will vary depending on your situation, but it will certainly include cutting back to the bare minimum any elements of your lesson plan template that don’t actually help you.
For example, my lesson plans were often paired down to something like this:
Objective: Solve one-step equations
Opener: Practice Exercise #3
Class: Go over Homework
Start practice A
Homework: Finish practice A
That was all I needed to be prepped & ready to go. Now yours may look totally different, but the point is to push yourself to stop doing work that serves no purpose. And that means, if you’re required to include a certain section on your lesson plans that doesn’t actually help you much, write the bare minimum and assume it’s fine unless/until your admin tells you otherwise.
How to Come Up with Ideas
We could give more and more examples, but I hope you’re starting to catch the vision for how revolutionary these two habits can be. Because when you realize you can’t do everything and then start asking “how can I do this in less time” to literally everything, you’ll be amazed how much time you start saving in your day.
But here’s the rub: When you’re already stressed, overwhelmed, and over-busy, you might not have the mental bandwidth to come up with these type of creative solutions. You’re in survival mode, and this type of deep thinking feels like a luxury.
That’s why I’m thrilled to recommend my friend Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. In this program, Angela has asked the “how can we” question over and over and has come up with a ton of amazing, practical ideas to streamline basically everything.
When you join the club, you’ll be getting tried-and-true solutions that thousands of teachers are using in their classroom each day. Solutions that will help you let go of your “I have to’s” and start embracing the solutions found in “how can I” - without all the struggle of trying to come up with them yourself. You can get all the details about the program here:
Hope to see you leaving by 4 here soon - without the overflowing teacher bag of guilt!
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