When the school year began, you probably had high hopes for organization and planning. You started off smiling. Nothing was going to catch “this prepared educator” off-guard. You were going to stay two steps ahead of the game!
The first two weeks went well, and you patted yourself on the back. Lesson plans were immaculate and the bulletin board pristine. But weeks have passed like seconds, and you are now nearing the end of the first quarter. The honeymoon is over. Work snuck up on you and continues to pile up. Your smile has vanished.
Everything is a priority—grade-level meetings, class observations, grading papers, creating anchor charts, high school application deadlines, managing student behavior, Thanksgiving assemblies, field trips, parent conferences, the list goes on! Now the back you once patted is full of tension, and you are on the verge on a burnout–already.
Before you give up, know there is hope. I was once you. I went way beyond the call of duty, and I still do, but I’ve since learned the art of balance. As educators, there are some quick, simple fixes we can lean on to prevent us from being overwhelmed. Lean in to them. Here’s how.
When at Work
- Take a daily lunch break. Yes, work needs to get done, and it will. The more you think about it, however, the more stressed you can become. Me, I leave the room—even if it’s just to retreat to another colleague’s room. Sometimes I leave the building and have a meal alone or with a co-worker, or I invite a friend with the understanding that work talk is off-limits. Instead, we discuss plans for the next holiday, personal goals, or I mess up a clever joke I’ve heard. I so love to laugh. Anything to bring a smile to my face.
- Create meaningful projects that students can work on independently or collaboratively. This strategy can be set aside for one day a week, or about 20 minutes each day. This year, I’m working on a domestic violence unit. I’ve tasked my students with writing and performing public service announcements, writing stories from different perspectives, and preparing questions for guest speakers.
- Organize your workspace. Looking at my unorganized desk the first thing in the morning always made me roll my eyes and put me in a bad mood. I found myself wasting work time getting prepared only for students to stream in five minutes later.
- Talk to administration. Sometimes teachers can be the victims of an excessive workload given to them by their principals. Meet with colleagues and you may learn others share similar concerns. Collectively talk to administration to see what compromises can be made. If you are in a district that has a teachers’ union, examine the contract to see what rights you have when it comes to your duties to see if if they could be alleviated legally.
- Recognize that you don’t have to do everything. I was my school’s union delegate, after-school coordinator and teacher, spelling bee coordinator, student council advisor, drama club coach, and new teacher mentor. I did all this in addition to working on my doctorate, offering private tutoring, and coordinating all of my son’s activities as a single mom. So, I let half of my school duties go. (I will let you guess which.) Not surprisingly, everything still is working just as well, if not better than when I left it.
- Seek a mentor. Even though I have been teaching for 15 years, I always seek advice from an educator who I think does their job well. One of my fellow teachers is the queen of organization and classroom management, and she leaves right out with her students. I observed her classroom, even on her preparation period, to see how she does it.
- Don’t take work home. When I punch out at the out end of the day, I mean it. When I first started teaching, I took work home every weekend, and I judged those who didn’t. After just one year, I said, “No more.” I felt that I never had a day off; looking at student work even at work got on my nerves. This also means I refuse to check or send work-related emails after hours. Some teachers turn on the “off work” settings so they don’t get the emails on their phone, and some don’t even have the email app on their phone. That’s my next step.
- Have a vent session. I admit it. I do this. I grab a close friend and release all of those repressed emotions I have been holding in. Their empathetic responses make me feel more at ease. After venting, I ask for their thoughts on what they heard. More times than not, they’re able to put things in proper perspective and provide solid insight.
- Go on a weekend getaway. Sometimes getting away from our work and routine environment is just the cure we need to get our hectic schedules off our minds for awhile.
- Take a day off. Teachers are given personal business days for a reason. You need mental breaks to catch your breath and reflect. I make my days off meaningful. I never stay in. I visit the spa and have a professional massage my stress away. On a nice day, I take a walk in the park, inhale and exhale the breeze, sit on the bench and read a book that will take me to another dimension. Enjoying the small things in life during those times helps me reset for the next day.
My students were given class expectations, rubrics, and reflections. I also have student leaders monitor student progression. During this time, I can catch up on some tasks, take a breather, and be proud that my class can work on its own.
Now, before I head home, I clean my desk. I remove the clutter by throwing old items away. I put work that needs my attention in folders and label them. I write my agenda and have my work prepared for the next day. Then, I write myself a positive note to welcome me the next morning.
About five years year ago, my former principal made the staff illegally work 15 minutes longer everyday, even taking away our duty-free 20-minute lunch. Even after complaining, she would not let up. The staff filed complaints with our union, and we were given backpay. Since then, subsequent principals have respected our time.
She had a list of what needed to be done for the week, and during her one hour period, she organizes tasks into 15-minute intervals, working on about five things per class per day. Students graded each other’s assignments and gave lots of peer feedback, and there was a job for everything: changing and adding important dates to the calendar, designing the bulletin board, you name it, there was a job for it. And I stole—I mean, borrowed—all of those ideas and delegated duties to my students.
Outside of Work
I’ve had relaxing moments at a cabin in the woods in Wisconsin. I’ve taken a two- hour drive to historic Galena, Illinois to sightsee and shop. These weekend getaways are one way to treat myself after completing daunting tasks.
Being an educator is like being a parent. Your work is never done, and much of the hard work that you spent months toiling over will go unacknowledged. So, in the midst of your labor, relax and know that you're among an elite few that can do this work well. Pat yourself on the back, take a bow, and take a break.