Tracy Derrell is a writer with an extensive background in education. She has studied journalism, fiction and non-fiction writing, and spent sixteen years as a middle school English teacher.
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When I began my career, no one was talking about work-life balance for teachers, but I was a prime example of how not to achieve it. Every afternoon, I arrived home, fixed a cup of tea, and planted myself at my desk, where I spent the next several hours reading student essays and creating lesson plans. Evenings consisted of cereal for dinner and mindless television. If I was feeling wild and crazy, I treated myself to pizza or Chinese takeout; this was the extent of my "social life." There was little time for relaxation or quality activities. After my first year, the process got easier, but I had to work to get better at carving out time for myself.
If you're a teacher seeking better work-life balance, here are four ways to rethink your approach and craft a more sustainable schedule:
Even your younger students can take on simple jobs to make your life easier, such as keeping classroom materials orderly. My students were always happy to help with classroom upkeep—I wish they'd exhibited the same enthusiasm for doing their book reports, but hey, I'll take what I can get. They also decorated bulletin boards better than I ever could. Having those items off my plate allowed me to use my time at school better, making it easier to keep work from trickling into my time at home. On top of it, the students' involvement made them feel more invested in the classroom.
You can use a similar approach when delegating tasks and scheduling your time at home. Preschool speech therapist Risa Petrucci once reminded me that "a family calendar is really important." A mom of two, she assigns her children age-appropriate responsibilities. When you get support from others, you'll free up time to embrace the nonprofessional areas of your life.
Further reading: How to Get a Clutter-Free Classroom
Maybe you prefer to stay after school to complete your work so you don't have to bring anything home. Or maybe you need a break from all things school-related. A teacher friend of mine, Deb Drago-Leaf, told me, "I need a decompression session between school and my life. I head straight to the gym or take my puppy for a long walk." Doing something for yourself right after school can give you an energy boost when you're back in the classroom—where your obligation to your students can rightfully stay. These daily self-care tasks are about more than just binge-watching Netflix to unwind. When they're done right and worked into your daily routine, you can achieve a much healthier work-life balance.
After I'd been teaching for a few years, though, I began staying late on Friday afternoons to plan the next week. Watching my colleagues run off to begin their weekend after the last bell made me cringe a little, but I was motivated to finish quickly and went into the weekend stress-free and ready for the week ahead.
Social activities are important—and no, Facebooking doesn't count. I joined a book club, and even though it was only one night a month, it provided a much-needed lift. Even occasional breaks to go out with your friends or family will bring more balance to your life, especially if you make an effort to keep your career where it belongs: at school. I loved going out and discussing something other than creative homework excuses (I once had a student tell me, "I went blind last night, but I'm fine now").
Let's face it: your to-do list really could be endless. Teachers are always driven to excel and innovate in their classrooms, but you have a finite number of hours in the day—and a personal life in desperate need of preservation. You know you're worthy of a big, fat, Wall Street-esque bonus, but barring a major career change, you can be pretty confident it isn't coming, so don't work yourself to the bone. As a passionate educator it's easy to feel guilty about not investing extra time in your students, but you need to recognize you're not just entitled to a fulfilling personal life—you need it to function.
"I always choose one big daily to-do item and stay an extra 20 minutes to make sure it's done before I leave," said Tatsuko Clark, a former colleague. "That way, if I don't do anything at home, I still got something done, and I don't feel overwhelmed."
There are some tasks, of course, you can't delegate or ignore, including grading, lesson planning, and responding to parent emails. It's important to prioritize your other, nonessential professional pursuits so you'll know which ones to tackle first. For example, you may dream about your students writing and performing one-act plays in front of the entire school. But limited time, logistical challenges, and curricular requirements might mean you have to be content with performing in your classroom.
When I first started teaching, the Internet wasn't the booming resource it is today. I spent hours creating activities from scratch. When it comes to work-life balance for teachers, there's nothing wrong with taking cues from your peers' success stories. Finding good-quality materials online can save time and reduce stress.
Be sure to take advantage of your school community too (and not just faculty happy hours). For many years, I met weekly with my colleagues to swap ideas for navigating our grade-level curriculum. Unfortunately my school downsized, and I became a department of one. I missed bouncing ideas off other people, but I found places online where I could discuss challenges and ideas. It wasn't a true substitute for in-person collaboration, but it helped me feel less isolated and exposed me to new ideas.
Further reading: Get from January to July with Ease
As an educator, there is a lot outside of your control, but you can control how you manage and organize your responsibilities. Work-life balance for teachers isn't a luxury; if you're going to be the best educator you can be, it's vital to reserve time in your life for rest and relaxation. Remember: the more you cultivate your internal world, the more you can offer your external world.