From Barely Surviving to Thriving as a Balanced Teacher
Two years ago, Elizabeth Chapman (high school English teacher & mom of 2) experienced what she considers her worst year as a teacher – overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed. But this past year was possibly her best year yet! What made the difference? She shares her secrets – and some amazing tips for all of us – in this enlightening and encouraging conversation.
read the transcript:
[Linda] I'm here today with Elizabeth Chapman. Elizabeth has been on our podcast a few times and you might remember her. She is a mom of two as well as a high school English teacher. She also blogs at teachingsamandscout.com. So she has a lot on her plate, but she's been with us a few times to talk about a few years ago she joined Angela Watson's 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. So if you've been listening to the podcast for awhile, you might remember her. She's been on to talk about her experience and give us a firsthand behind-the-scenes look at what it's actually like. She's back again to talk about her year and give us some tips for time management and balance and all those important things. So thank you so much for being here, Elizabeth.
[Elizabeth] Thanks for having me back.
[Linda] We’re so glad we were able to talk. You mentioned to me earlier, when we were talking, that you've actually had a really good year this year. Can you share a little bit about that?
[Elizabeth] Yes, I have to start by going back. When you and I first started working together, I had had what I would consider one of my worst teaching years.
[Linda] I remember.
[Elizabeth] At the time, I had a newly 2 year old and it was my 10th year teaching and I kept thinking this should be getting easier and I was just having a really hard time keeping all the balls in the air. So I joined the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek that July of 2017. Then last year, so two school years ago, was kind of the year that I implemented a lot and went through the course in real time. Then this school year I just finished was the first one where I was able to go in having already done the entire year's worth of course materials.
[Elizabeth] I think certainly there's some lifestyle things that made this year easier. My kids are a little bit older, things like that. But honestly I do feel like my mindset had changed so much. I had established some much better routines and time management skills that I got from the 40 Hour Club and this year was just a really, really, really good year. I would say, this is pretty bold, but I would say probably my best year teaching. I just loved it. I felt like I had good balance. I felt like I was able to do awesome fun new things with my students. I wasn't stressed as much. There were still those late nights, but for the most part it was a really, really, really good school year.
[Linda] That's awesome. That's so good to hear. Just that report that things are going better. It's starting to kind of come together. We're going to talk about some of the specific practical aspects of that. But first, can you share a bit about some of the mindset shifts you've had to experience between two years ago and now that have helped you turn this corner or have this better, more smooth teaching experience?
[Elizabeth] Yeah. My oldest is going into second grade. So as he's been in school for two years and we've kind of navigated life as a family of four, I have really prioritized my role as a mom. I recognized that I feel really called to being both a teacher and a mom, but that being a mom for me has to come first.
[Elizabeth] For a long time I felt really guilty about that. But in the last couple of years I've been able to recognize that I can be a great teacher and still put my family and the needs of my family first. I don’t have to bring home tons and tons of work.
[Elizabeth] Honestly, I found that my students respect that, and it has made me a better teacher instead of a worse teacher, which was kind of my fear. I think initially, with not being able to be like as great as I wanted to be, I just felt like I was failing in both roles instead of being great at either. So clearly defining that priority has really helped me. Angela Watson's mantra is “do fewer things better.” I've learned more about who I am as a teacher and what my strengths are and tried to craft my school year and my curriculum, the things I teach, the way I teach it, to best fit who I am and what my strengths are. And then tried to eliminate some of the things that didn't play to my strengths, if that makes sense.
[Linda] It does. These are such great shifts. We're going to talk about one at a time. Let's go back to the shift you said, "okay, I need to prioritize my role as a wife and mother and my family and just kind of get clear on that." I love that because teaching is obviously so important. But your kids only one mom. Right? I love that you said that you worried that would detract from your teaching, but in the end, what you just shared with me before we came on this call was that you were able to do more cool things with your students when you started prioritizing this. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
[Elizabeth] Yeah. One of the things I've always struggled a ton with as a teacher is grading. I teach English, so I have a lot of papers to grade. I realized that I was setting this expectation that I would get papers turned around really fast to students. That was something I really wanted to do, almost a way to prove I can do this, I can have these papers back and I can manage my house or whatever. But the result was I was carrying home loads and loads of papers and then either spending the afternoons that I have with my kids grading papers, or not grading papers and waking up in the morning feeling guilty about the fact that I hadn't graded the papers all night. So I just stopped bringing them home and I was really clear with my students, "Hey, I am mom in the afternoon. I'm teachers from this time to this time and I'm going to work really hard to get this done. But it's going to take me a little while because I've got a family and I've got stuff to do at home."
[Elizabeth] I try to extend them that same grace, honestly. That's a whole separate discussion, but I don't give a ton of homework or things like that. But what I found was that the students don't care as much as I thought they did about getting their paper back in two days versus two weeks. They were super patient and generous with me. It worked out fine, and I was able to still get the work done, even if it took me a little bit longer, and also come home with a realistic expectation of when I'm off duty, I'm going to be off duty. That worked fine and worked really, really well. It was in freeing myself from those expectations that I was able to create a lot more engaging units this year that had the students doing cool things instead of just doing stuff that had to be graded and things like that. I think it made a big difference.
[Linda] Yeah, I love that. It is so important. I've experienced similar things, where we have these expectations for ourselves. And maybe they even work in certain seasons of life, but if you have kids now, you can no longer come home and spend three hours grading. So it's important to look at those expectations and say, "Is this something I really have to do or is this just something that I arbitrarily decided I should do?" And it's okay to adjust it.
[Linda] It's interesting because I was going to ask my follow-up question, but I feel like you started to address it. "So how did you make this work?" Right? So you're not taking it home anymore. You're allowing yourself the grace of more time to grade them. But I know my thought and probably a lot of people's thought was, "Well, did it just start accumulating?" But it sounds like you found ways to adjust that, to not have to grade as much.
[Elizabeth] Yeah, that's true. I think it's kind of a disclaimer, kind of just a practical tip. One thing that I implemented not quite as regularly maybe as I would have liked, but that did help me, was that maybe once every two or three weeks I would have kind of a backlog of grading and for that short time, or to get me over that hump, I did occasionally pick up my son from the bus stop and take him back to my school. He loved getting a snack from the snack machine at the school and getting all set up on my couch in my classroom. He would do his homework and then maybe watch a movie or play a game or do something while I got in an extra two hours of grading.
[Elizabeth] That sounds like it could be sort of counter to what I was saying about prioritizing time at home. But what I found was that usually a really focused two hours (and sometimes those afternoons are better because the school is empty and it's really quiet and I'm not being distracted by a million other things). Sometimes just those extra two hours then freed up every other afternoon for the next two weeks.
[Linda] That is such a great tip and it can be applied in so many different ways, with whatever it is that teachers find themselves backlogged. Yes, your son was watching a movie, for a couple of hours, but it was this dedicated time and he understood, "Hey, mom needs to catch up on this. This only happens every couple of weeks." It's intentional and that's so much better than every afternoon kind of half trying to work with your brain is half in, half out. Now you're able to give yourself more fully in the times when you do choose to. I think that's amazingly smart. I love that.
[Elizabeth] If you don't like the idea of taking your kid to school, I think there's other workarounds. If you pay for one day a week that they stay after school or they have a babysitter or one evening a week you work out with your spouse that you're going to go to a coffee shop and work. For me, it paid off in dividends to put in those couple of focused extra hours and then they bought me a lot more extra time at home. That's probably one of the biggest things that I did.
[Linda] I found this similar thing, where it's helpful when we start defining, "I'm working during these hours; I'm not working these hours." Otherwise it just gets to be a muddy mess, and you feel guilty whether you work or whether you don't.
[Linda] The second thing you mentioned was learning to do fewer things better and focusing on what your strengths are as a teacher and kind of playing to those and maybe stopping doing some of the things that weren't working. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
[Elizabeth] I'm not even sure exactly how to put into words how big of a shift this was for me. But you know we're hearing a lot of talk about project-based learning and students owning learning in classroom and things like that. I have realized that for me, that is a really exciting and fun shift in education. One of my strengths as an educator is lesson planning and coming up with creative and engaging ideas. I mentioned already that one of the harder things for me is the grading or the more paperwork side of it.
[Elizabeth] So I have used my planning period a lot for real planning and I've done a lot of Angela's batch work where I might spend a whole week, all of my planning time is focused on 10th grade's Julius Caesar Unit. I'm working really, really hard and I'm putting together these really cool things. Then I'm able to present them to the class. They're able to work on them, the kids get really engaged. I have a little bit of time while they're working, to do some grading if I need to, but also they're learning in a way that's not like writing a paper or taking a test.
[Elizabeth] Just as a tangible example, with Julius Caesar we do this big campaign unit. So for two weeks I had to work hard on creating this unit, but then there's two weeks where they are filming campaign commercials and making posters and practicing all these skills that we've learned. That means that's two weeks that I'm not bringing home a test or a paper every afternoon that needs to be graded. It just works well for me to focus my energy on what I'm good at, which is lesson planning and implementing these fun things. Then through that, by giving the students a little bit more ownership in their learning experience, I'm not having to work quite so hard all the time. Did I explain that at all?
[Linda] Yes. It totally makes sense. It’s funny because I bet half the teachers listening to you right now are thinking, "Yeah, that sounds like so much fun." And the other half are thinking, "I'm overwhelmed even thinking about doing that." That's the point though, because all of us have different aspects of teaching that we naturally gravitate to, that actually excite us or that we want to work on. Then other parts, we think "I hate this part." And we can't completely avoid all the things that aren't our favorite, but you are pushing yourself, trying to spend more time doing things that you want to do. As a result, you're giving yourself the grace and the freedom to let go of some of the things that you used to do that actually weren't your favorite.
[Linda] So there's no cookie cutter answer for this, I don't think. But it is important to sit down and think, "What do I like? What am I good at? And can I push myself to spend more time in that and maybe let go of some of these other things and get creative?" Get creative on ways to reduce or eliminate the parts that you just aren't your favorite.
[Linda] That awesome. Okay, so those are your two big mindset shifts. Are there any other shifts or practical tips that helped you in these past couple of years?
[Elizabeth] Well, one of the big things, and I had almost forgotten that I got this from the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek, because it's become such an ingrained natural part of my rhythms and routines at school now. But one of the things that I have implemented consistently for probably the last two years and that I really like is the idea of choosing three top priorities for every day and then focusing on the hardest or the biggest one first.
[Elizabeth] So my general flow for that is I keep a pretty big to-do list. I'm a list maker. Angela's program gives you lots of strategies for list making. I like that. I keep a really big to-do list. But pretty much at the end of every single day, and I set at a timer on my phone because my ... this is a little bit of a side tangent. But my son, I get off of school at 2:30 and my son gets off the bus at 2:45 so pre kids and even pre him riding the bus home from school, it would sometimes get caught up in a project and stay a little bit late and finish it or whatever.
[Elizabeth] But now my work day has to finish or else I am not going to be there at the bus. So I set a timer for 2:00 every day and when my alarm goes off and at 2:00, that's my reminder to start cleaning up my room, packing things up. Then I look at that to-do list and I write on a post-it note the top three things that I need to accomplish the next day. That seems super simple, but for me it's been huge. It's like I dump everything in my big to-do list, but then instead of staring at that big to-do list and feeling completely overwhelmed, I just prioritize the three things. If one day, only one of those things gets done, that's not a big deal. Because the two things just go on the next day's to-do list as well.
[Elizabeth] So that has been actually really big and I really like it. I know some people plan in the mornings, but for me it's kind of a routine and a rhythm of how I'm able to end one school day and shift into mom mode - cleaning up my classroom, cleaning up my desk, making my list of three things for the next day, and I stick it right on my desk so that I see it when I come in and I know what I need to be working on whenever I find little pockets of time throughout the next school day.
[Linda] That's such a great tip for so many reasons. First of all, staring at that big to-do list can just be so overwhelming and when you pare off, okay, three things, it makes it so much less stressful. It also is so valuable because then, like you said, sometimes we waste so much of our time, but also our mental energy, because we don't know what to do next. When you come into the morning with the clarity of, "This is what I'm going to do today," you don't waste any of that time and you don't waste any of that mental energy, stressing, feeling overwhelmed or not knowing where to start. You know exactly where to start that. That's so key.
[Linda] Well, thank you so much for sharing all these tips with us. Before you go, would you mind sharing just a little bit about your experience again, just an update on the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek? So if you guys aren't familiar, this is Angela Watson's 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Program that we're talking about. It’s a one year program, but you keep access to it so you can go back whenever you'd like. So you did that, you said you did the whole program two years ago. You did it for a full year and then this last year you weren't actually going through it physically, but you had access to the materials. Can you just share a little bit about kind of your thoughts and feelings about it now kind of being a year out from the official time of it?
[Elizabeth] Yeah, so to clarify a couple of things. I started again in the July, 2017 cohort. I loved that I started in July. I don't know what the winter cohort is like, but she does a great job of setting it up. July and August materials are all about prepping yourself and your classroom and your students for a successful school year. That was awesome for me. I was able to go through the July and August materials slowly and then be set up to really roll with some of those things right away when the school year started back in 2017.
[Elizabeth] Then each month there's a different topic and it runs from July all the way through the following June. Then there's weekly materials within that. So each month you're getting five or more kind of mini lessons with just a wealth of resources. What I always tell people is it's such a great bang for your buck in the sense that you are getting tons and tons of resources. But it's important to recognize, when I say I went through it, I looked at each month's materials but I definitely was not able to implement every single weeks' stuff.
[Linda] And you're not supposed to, right?
[Elizabeth] So I think it's important to clarify, there’s a lot of stuff that I will and I do revisit all the time. I had to think of it that way, because it could be very overwhelming if I tried to do every single week as if I was in a college class or something. So when I initially went through, each month I would do the overview of the month. I would look at the overview and then I would usually pick one or two weeks that I wanted to really look at those materials in depth and try to make some adaptations.
[Elizabeth] Since I finished it, it's super easy to just log back in. Now all the materials are there. In the beginning, it's just released each month. So you can't necessarily work ahead. But that's fine because she paces it really well. Now, I can look at the overview page where it tells me what each month is like. Then if I remember, "Okay, I need some help with lesson planning," then I know to go and click on November and look at what she had for lesson planning and things like that.
[Elizabeth] So I do go back and look at it a lot now, but now it's more as needed and when I see things, when I have an area that I need some help with, I can go and look at the whole year and pick where I need to go back and get some extra attention. Then I told you, Angela has these concepts called the Big Five, and a lot of those are just really ingrained in my routines now. So I don't necessarily have to go back and look, but it made a huge difference for me.
[Elizabeth] The other thing that I use a lot now is I'm still a member of the Facebook group that's part of being a part of the Club. So I'm in the secondary teachers, 40 Hour Workweek Club Facebook group. It's a really active Facebook group even two years later. It’s a great place for me to bounce ideas off of other teachers, to hear about other teachers' experiences, to be encouraged by other teachers and also just to find some solidarity once in awhile. So I find that a big benefit of the group as well.
[Linda] That's awesome. I love that you mentioned that about this is not intended to be a course where you read everything, you listen to everything. It's so expansive. That would be way too much.
[Elizabeth] When we need it, it's because we're overwhelmed, right? There's a danger of being more overwhelmed. I do see people in Facebook all the time saying, "I'm so far behind. I'm so stressed." I think you have to kind of protect yourself against that.
[Linda] Right. It's not intended to be gone through like that. It's intended to be there so that you can pick and choose the pieces that will be most helpful to you. And then continue to revisit it.
[Elizabeth] And there could easily be something every single month that I was like, "Yes, I need this." Even the months that on the outset I thought I didn't need, like, "Oh, I've got homework under control," but then I still was able to get some great tips from it.
[Linda] That's awesome. So actually when this podcast goes live, I believe the early bird enrollment will already be open. So you can go ahead and check it out and get some extra bonuses if you want to enroll in June and you'll have everything then for July and August and you can get all of that at teachfortheheart.com/40hourteacher.
[Linda] Well thanks so much Elizabeth. Before we go, do you have anything else you'd like to share or maybe just give a quick word of encouragement?
[Elizabeth] No, just a reminder that we as teachers are super fortunate that we get a fresh start every school year.
[Elizabeth] I just said my 10th year teaching was one of my hardest and my 12th year was one of my best. Those really aren't that far apart from each other. So every year we are blessed to be able to start new with new kids and a new mindset. I'm a big advocate and I think Angela Watson is too, and I think you are, for taking care of yourself and giving yourself some grace and some rest and downtime over the summer. Don't feel like you have to do 10 million things to prepare for the next year. But I do think the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek and even just implementing some of these really simple things like the list making or the one day a week, you can turn around a bad school year. You can recover from feeling really, really overwhelmed. I am truly proof of that because I'm went from really, really hard to a really, way better, great year.
[Linda] Yes. I love that. Thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate it. Can you tell us once again where people can find you?
[Linda] Thanks so much.
[Linda] We love partnering with Angela to share her 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program because so many teachers have found it so helpful, and I know it can help you, too. You can get all the details about the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club here.
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