Striking a Healthy Work-Life Balance: Tips from Three Teachers
The start of a new school year brings a frenzy of positive activity. Setting up classrooms, getting acquainted with students, and jumping into the curriculum is exciting, but also exhausting.
Those early weeks can set a pattern for the rest of the year, one where you’re always engaged in the ongoing cycle of teaching, grading, organizing, and professional development. It’s not hard to neglect your personal life at the start of a new school year. The idea of planning something fun and relaxing for yourself can generate even more stress. And it can be tricky to return to a healthier approach to balancing your work and your life once you’ve created a pattern of work over play. Maintaining harmony between your career and the rest of your life is vital if you want to maintain a productive attitude towards your work. If burnout creeps in, which can happen to the newest teachers and to experienced educators, it can keep you from getting through the year successfully.
Teacher burnout is a real problem, with consequences for you and your students. If you’re worried that it’s inevitable, know that it’s not. But avoiding it requires an unflinching look at an average work day, and being honest with yourself about how much time you’re devoting to lesson planning, grading papers, and interacting with students, parents, and colleagues.
You also need to think about how much space teaching takes up in your head when you’re not in school. Setting aside testing and homework and the other details, teaching is a job about people. Whether you work in an affluent suburb or an inner city or somewhere in between, you often can’t help but bring your students’ problems home with you sometimes, and that can take a bigger toll than the largest stack of papers to grade.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of ideas to help you fend off burnout and create a healthy balance between your work and your personal life. Here are some tips from three experienced teachers:
Delegate tasks at school AND at home to open room in your schedule.
Resist the urge to try and do everything yourself. You can’t outsource many of your teaching tasks, but keeping your classroom neat and organized is something you can get help with. Maintaining a classroom takes time. Even younger students can be assigned simple tasks, like helping to keep classroom materials and spaces orderly. Students are often eager to help with classroom upkeep and may enjoy decorating bulletin boards and doing other tasks to make the room attractive. A similar approach to delegation and organization can make a difference at home:
“I find a family calendar is really important,” said Risa Petrucci, a speech-language pathologist and mom of two, who also assigns her children age-appropriate household responsibilities.
When you’re able to get support at home and school, it’ll free up much-needed time for yourself.
Structure your after-school time thoughtfully.
Maybe you prefer to stay after school to prepare everything for the next day, so you don’t have to bring work home. Or maybe you need a brief break after dismissal and before you dive into a stack of book reports.
“I need a decompression session between school and my life,” said Deb Drago-Leaf, an elementary special education teacher. “I head straight to the gym or take my puppy for a long walk.”
Doing something for yourself right after school may provide a useful energy boost for the tasks you need to complete later. Or maybe you’re more efficient when you power through your after-school time and prepare everything you’ll need for the next day. There are many approaches to managing your after-school grading and planning. Determining what works best for you will help you stay current with your workload and help you carve out time for relaxation and leisure.
Let’s face it: your work really could be endless. Teachers love to dream about furthering innovation in their classrooms and raising the bar for what it means to be a great teacher. But you also have a finite number of hours in the day and a personal life you need to preserve, for yourself and the people you love.
Special education teacher Tatsuko Clark said, “I always choose one big daily to-do item and stay an extra twenty minutes to make sure it’s done before I leave. That way, if I don’t do anything at home I still got something done and I don’t feel overwhelmed.”
Many teachers have lived in that overwhelmed place, where the work piles up and creates feelings of powerlessness. Figuring out which tasks are most important, and working on them daily, even for just a few minutes, can ward off stress and help you be the kind of teacher you aspire to be.
Returning to the classroom after a leisurely summer vacation can feel like the proverbial car going from zero to sixty in ten seconds. Slowing down in those early weeks back is almost impossible. But once you’ve settled into your new routine and have gotten to know your new students, consider the above strategies to help you create a positive work-life balance which may help you avoid burnout.
Tracy Derrell is a Hudson Valley-based freelance writer who specializes in blogging and educational publishing. She taught English in New York City for sixteen years.