Teachers: How to Escape the Crazy Cycle & Fight for Balance
I wake up every morning with the weight of all the things I didn't do the day before heavy on my shoulders.
My guilt is tangible before I'm even out of bed. The stack of papers I lugged home and promised myself I would finally grade sit, untouched, in my school bag. Dishes from the previous night's spaghetti greet me in the kitchen. My To Do List for the day is two pages long - unrealistic by all accounts - and I am exhausted just looking at it.
With thirty minutes until I should get in the shower, I know it is impossible to do all the things I need to do, so I attempt to prioritize... I mentally cross off Bible study and exercise first - one day I'll be able to do these things again, but not today - formulate an excuse for my students about their papers not being returned again, and settle on doing the dishes.
Just as I finish and pour a second cup of coffee with ten minutes to spare, I hear my two-year old crying in her bed. By the time I soothe, change a diaper, and get her settled down with books and toys, I am behind schedule for my shower and admit to myself that I will be late to work for the third day this week...
Forty minutes later, with wet hair and a wrinkled skirt, I run, frazzled, into the school and greet my students enthusiastically.
The acting has begun. But behind my smile, I am ashamed, overwhelmed, and defeated: I am far from the teacher, wife, mother, friend that I want to be, but I can barely survive right now, much less thrive. There are 37 days until summer break... Maybe next year will be different.
I'm Elizabeth, and at Linda's invitation, I'm reporting "live from the [teaching] trenches" today about the craziness that was this past school year for me and some of my plans to end the cycle and get back on track moving forward.
I am a Jesus-follower, wife, mom, and teacher in southwest Virginia. In my "spare time" (ha), I blog at Teaching Sam & Scout about my life as Mom to Sam (almost 6) and Nora (2) AND as an English teacher to 100ish students (15 - 17) in a public high school. I'm super passionate about making things "work" in both of those roles (mom and teacher), and I love to encourage other teachers, moms, and teacher-moms in their own juggle with honesty and authenticity.
This past school year marked TEN years in the classroom for me. And while many parts of the job have gotten easier over time, it has, honestly, gotten harder in a lot of ways too.
Sure, I have most of my classroom routines down, lots of lesson plans are already written, and I'm a pro at "winging it" when I have to (I told you I was honest); but, I also have a lot more to balance now than I did in the beginning of my career; and, frankly, I'm not always very good at it. In fact, truth be told, this year was one of the very hardest I've had so far, and I dropped A LOT of balls in the juggling act.
Listen to the full conversation:
Stuck in the Crazy Cycle
See if you can follow me with this analogy for a minute...
When I do laundry, ideally, it's a pretty straightforward process: I sort everything into separate baskets of colors, whites, linens, etc., then I throw them in the machine, add a little detergent, and press start. Thirty-seven minutes later (because, really, who has time for anything but the "speed" cycle?) I come back to clean clothes ready to be put in the dryer...
BUT, every once in a while (maybe more often than I'd like to admit), something goes awry... For whatever reason, I didn't get to sort my things into nice neat piles this time around, so everything just gets thrown in together; and, inevitably, something comes out ruined - dyed red, bleached, stained, shrunk, you get the idea. Other times, I accidentally add too many big things at once, the spin cycle gets totally out of control, and the whole machine starts gyrating all over the laundry room making a terrible sound like it's going to explode any minute.
That's what this past year has felt like for me: One crazy cycle after another.
I've not done a good job of separating my work and home "loads" AT ALL, I've put too many big things on my plate at one time, and once I get caught in that crazy cycle, it's really hard to get out.
The result? Well, it's been kind-of a disaster. I've missed deadlines, I've had parents upset with me, I've taken WAY too long to return papers, I've forgotten my kids' events, I've told them to "wait" too many times so I could finish something for work, and my own health and emotional well-being have suffered.
I gave you a glimpse of my mornings up above, but here's how the rest of the day usually goes:
Most of the times, I'm OK when I'm with my students, but I find myself so exhausted by the time my room clears out, that I waste up to half of my planning time mindlessly tidying, organizing stacks of papers, and making elaborate To Do lists for myself that - I already know - I will spend longer writing out than actually checking items off of.
I'm easily distracted by things like emails and other random things that pop up during any given day; so, by the time I pack my bag to head home, it is FULL of papers to finish grading and lesson plans to finalize some time before the next day. (See above for how that turns out...)
Once I'm home, I'm on full-time Mom Duty immediately. There are swim lessons and T-ball games, dinner that needs to be made, toys that need to be picked up, etc. On my best days, I can squeeze in an hour's worth of school work after I finally get both kids to bed at 9PM; but, more likely, I'm too tired by the time I've folded laundry, cleaned up the kitchen, packed lunches, and put at least one kid back to bed. So, instead, I something mindless - like Netflix or Facebook - instead until I finally crash and fall asleep running my list of things to do and the empty promise that "tomorrow" will be better through my head over and over...
If only I was more organized, more intentional, more disciplined...
It is ugly. And, frankly, it's not good for any party involved - my husband, my kids, my students, or - most of all - ME.
Why Balance is Worth Fighting For
To be clear: I have a good life. I love my family, and I love my job. Not every day (and certainly not every school year) is like this.
There are times when things really do seem to work and my roles at both home and school energize and excite me. But, there are also times - like when a child is sick or I have a big "due date" at work - when it is even worse.
During those seasons, it is easy to convince myself that because it's hard (and it definitely is), I shouldn't be doing it. It's easy to believe the lies that I am failing - that I'm not "good enough," or "not cut out for this", and to start wondering if giving up is my only option.
On some of my worst days, I daydream about what it would be like to work 9 - 5 and walk out the door with nary a briefcase. Would I be better then? Happier?
I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've been there a lot this season. Maybe you have too...
Whether you are balancing being a teacher with being a mom, like me, or not, teaching is a WHOLE PERSON career. We are "on" ALL day every day, and our work is NEVER done. Moreover, we are invested not just because of our bosses or our bank accounts, we are invested with our hearts because there are actual people counting on us to teach them, love them, and shape them. It would be a big responsibility even if it was the ONLY thing on our plates, but it never is.
I feel pretty comfortable saying that the juggle between work and home is a struggle for all of us in a job like this. The truth is, I wasn't good at balancing back in the early, kid-free days of my career either. Then, I used to stay at school until 5 or 5:30 most days, work late at night at home, and devote several hours to school work on the weekend. Even now, while the total amount of time I spend working is less, I still find that my students and my school work is somewhere on my mind almost all the time.
The reality is that perfect balance may well be a myth - that unicorn we're all chasing but, deep down, know we probably won't ever find. So, if that's the case, then what DO we do when the spin cycle gets out of control? Is it even worth seeking and fighting for work/life balance when it seems so unattainable?
Even after as hard a year as I've had, to me, BALANCE IS STILL WORTH FIGHTING FOR.
Here's why: For this season of my life, I feel very confident that God has called me to both the role of mom and the role of teacher, and I love both of them. Since I believe that both of these things are more than just "jobs," I'm confident that God can and will equip me to manage them.
The thing is though, like a marriage or anything else worth having in life, when we are called to something we still have to WORK for it - even when it is hard. I KNOW God doesn't want me in this place of overwhelm and defeat. I KNOW He has bigger plans for me than exhaustion and desperation.
Escaping the Crazy Cycle
So, where do we even begin to break this cycle? First and foremost, I'm thankful for a career that allows me to "start fresh" every fall, and I'm committing to trusting God and allowing Him to guide and provide for me in the next school year...
Beyond that, here are three other things I'm planning to do/change to reset and stop the cycle moving forward. And I hope you will, too.
1) Let's give ourselves grace
If I've learned anything in ten years of teaching it's that there are good and bad seasons. This was an "off" year for me, but it doesn't mean I am bad.
I GET to start over in August with a fresh group of kids and an empty planner; but, even then, recognizing that I will never be "perfect" in this job or anything I do is SO important.
I loved what my friend Liza said recently on Instagram:
"It is never 50/50. It's always 40/60, or 30/70 or something like that, but it [evens out] OVER TIME. I always feel a little out of balance, and it's only when I take a step back that I can see the overall balance working out."
She is so right. Even with all my grand plans for "fixing" things, there are still going to be times when it is messy. I need to trust Jesus in that mess, find my identity in Him, and be kind to myself in those places just as I am when things seem to be "working."
2) Let's use the summer effectively
In general, I'm a big advocate for teachers needing to take time OFF in the summers. I DO intend to use this summer to get myself a little more organized and ready for next school year; but, honestly, I think the most effective thing we can do is REST and RECHARGE.
I plan to sleep this summer, to get back to daily scripture, journaling, and prayer, to read good books *just for fun*, to play with my kids A LOT, and to let the majority of the "work" I do for school come from a place of excitement and creativity instead of obligation.
Just like I imagine you'll be doing, I'll scroll Pinterest for fun ideas and sketch course outlines in a pretty new notebook, but I'm NOT going to attempt to plan my whole next year.
Just like doctors, nurses, pilots, firefighters, etc. have a cap on how much they are allowed to work in a given period, teachers do too. We NEED this break, and I'm going to use it as it was designed. In the end, our students will benefit more in the fall from a teacher who is refreshed and re-energized than from expertly written lesson plans.
3) Let's join the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club
Finally, I've chosen to take one very tangible step towards setting myself up for success in the future. I've been curious about Angela Watson's 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club for some time now, but this year was the final push I needed to go for it and join.
Frankly, I'm desperate for it. If you aren't familiar, this is basically a year long professional development "club" designed to trim hours off of your workweek through practical strategies for time-management, organization, classroom routines, etc.
Angela's mission is to help teachers be intentional and efficient with the time they have AT WORK so that they can make the most of the time when they aren't. I love that this club values the fact that I want to be a good teacher - no cutting corners or taking the "easy way out" - but not at the expense of my family or my sanity.
The club starts in early July and includes weekly emails, videos/audio, and support for 52 WEEKS - so this will be a process, not a quick fix, but I'm SO excited to get started with it!
I'd LOVE if you want to sign up and join me on this journey NOW (registration for the July 2017 session opens June 28th:
FREE Balance Training
Angela Watson of 40 Hour Teacher Workweek is also joining Linda for a FREE training event. Join us to learn how to create simple habits of rest and self-care that will not only change your life but actually make you a more effective teacher, too.
(It's also the perfect opportunity to ask all your questions about the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club.
P.S. Linda has long been a partner of Angela's and an ambassador for her 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. This year, she has invited me to come back in a few months and share about my experience with the club as well as give an update on my school year and how some of the changes I've made and lessons I've implemented are working.
I'm thrilled to be working with her on this and to be able to provide some honest feedback "from the trenches." Look for that post around December.
Thanks so much for giving me the space to share some of my struggle and some of my heart with you here today. I hope, more than anything, you heard a message that - even if this has been a "bad" year - you are NOT ALONE and it is NOT TOO LATE.
Enjoy your summer teachers! You deserve it!
Connect with Elizabeth at her website www.samandscout.com or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Linda would be happy to answer any questions as well at email@example.com.
*FYI: the above links are Linda's affiliate links which means she will receive a small compensation - at no additional cost to you - if you sign-up and purchase your membership through her. This is a great way to support Teach4theHeart and say thanks for all the awesome resources she provides for free all year long!