Oh the irony! I originally wrote this post about creating a work life balance as a teacher in early 2020. Re-reading this now, I can almost feel the universe laughing its head off at me. But, even though it was a ROUGH transition, I eventually learned out how create a better work-life balance in a way that worked for me.
The impetus for this post is the same. We are all being asked to do more. And, we aren't being HOW to do it with the same number of hours in the day.
When I first wrote this, I was definitely at the burn out point. I needed to come up with a strategy to work smarter, not harder. Here are some of the strategies that I used to make sure that I found a balance that worked for me.
Teaching Before Work Life Balance
In theory, I should have had plenty of time to get all of my work done during work. I had a great structure set up that most people don't have.
At the time, my daughter was attending the same school as me. She attended classes after school, which gave me and extra hour and a half of prep time before we left each day. This, combined with my scheduled prep time, meant that I had two and a half hours outside of teaching that was dedicated to prepping for class.
But, every Sunday (and several nights a week) I found myself prepping and grading just to stay afloat. When I stopped, my lessons fell flat. Discipline issues increased and I ended up with more problems to deal with.
Almost all of the teachers around me were in the same predicament. They were also spending countless hour working outside of their contract hours. So, I assumed this was normal.
The Need for Change
I assumed this was all part of the job until I started having regular chest pain. It started gradually and became more frequent. Then, I also started having dizziness, my heart would pound and I felt like I was having trouble breathing. These episodes seemed to coincide with especially busy times of year. Eventually, I figured out that these episodes were caused by stress and anxiety.
For awhile, I considered leaving teaching. I couldn't see anyway to continue teaching and reducing my anxiety. But, I wasn't ready to give up.
Hindsight is 20:20
There were four major reasons I was having trouble: 1) I was disorganized. 2) I'm easily distracted. 3) I'm always trying to make things better 4) I was REALLY freaking tired (and grumpy!).
If you would have told me either of these things during this phase of my teaching career, I would have been super defensive. Sure, there were piles of stuff all over my desk. But, I mostly knew where things were.
And, sure, I'd spend 20 minutes chatting at the copy machine. But, I'd had so little free time that I felt like I needed it.
Though I was spending endless hours trying to create meaningful lessons for my students, things were far from perfect. The lessons were falling flat. Why? Because I was so tired (and did I mention grumpy?).
What Worked for Me: My Work Life Balance as a Science Teacher
Please don't read this and think that I lived happily ever after, never to struggle with my teacher woes again. It took a long time to find strategies that worked. And, I often fall into my old patterns if I'm not careful.
Strategy #1: Scheduling My Prep Time
Even though I had a long list of to-do's for my prep time, I didn't have a solid plan for what I needed to do. I decided to chunk my planning time so that I was doing similar tasks for the entire period.
At the same time, Sadler Science was starting to take off. So, I had to learn to be more efficient in every way. I learn more and more about time management, time blocking and other strategies that helped me be more efficient with the time that I had.
To learn more about how I scheduled my prep time, click here.
Strategy #2: Having My Students Do More
In order to make sure that I could stop bringing work home, I started having my students do more in the classroom. I started assigning them class jobs and training them to do the tasks that I didn't need to be doing.
There are so many ways that you can empower your students to do more. I wrote an entire post about increasing student autonomy in my classroom. You can read that post here.
Strategy #3: Deleting My School Email from my Phone – But Adding My Calendar
I spent a LOT of time checking and responding to emails from my phone at home. Then I realized that checking my email at home was making me feel anxious and was pulling me away from my family. So, I deleted my email app from my phone.
And… nothing awful happened. My email is still there when I get to work. I am able to answer most of my emails when students are working on their warm-ups.
When I deleted my work email from my phone, I added my Calendar. And, I made it part of my workflow to add events to my calendar as soon as they come up. Having easy access to my calendar helped me to make a more reasonable prep schedule, see if the commitments I am making are doable, and make sure that personal events (like hair appointments) are being scheduled when they don't interfere with anything at work.
Finding What Works for You (plus a confession!)
For me, this strategy was particularly beneficial because I looked at what was really bothering me. After work emails led to a lot of anxiety. However, a packed calendar doesn't stress me out.
I left my email off of my phone for a really long time. In fact, it was off of my phone for about 6 months after I left the classroom. Then, I realized that emails were no longer causing me stress. I realized that parent emails were a major anxiety producer for me. But, emails about meetings and to-dos don't actually stress me out.
In my new position, I transition between different classrooms. And, it isn't efficient to pull out my laptop every-time I need to check my email. So, I actually added my email back to my phone. And, it hasn't been a problem.
However, when I did this, I started getting chat notifications on my Apple Watch. This wasn't anxiety provoking per se. But, I did find it distracting. So, I started leaving my watch at home.
Strategy #4: Just Saying No – With one Exception
I got pneumonia in the fall of 2019 and missed two full weeks of work. When I returned, I was winded, tired and unable to work past my contract hours without feeling totally exhausted. I was forced to say no to things I'd been doing. I stopped attending PTO meetings, signing up for committees and doing after school homework help for a short period of time while I recovered. And, my mental health was infinitely better.
Around this time, I realized I was over committing out of obligation. And, because I was overcommitting, I wasn't doing anything well.
At first, I felt guilty about saying no. But, I quickly realized that saying no to the things that weren't super important. This has given me more time to work on the things that really matter.
For one, this gave me the time I needed to provide my students with substantive feedback on their assignments. It had a major impact on learning and engagement in the classroom.
Also, I am passionate about making sure that science is being taught in all grades throughout my district. If an opportunity comes up to support district-wide science, I always say yes.
By saying no to the things that aren't really important, I have freed myself up to do the things that really make a difference.
Strategy #5: Setting Boundaries that Work for You
There will always be a lot to do. But, I don't want to work at home anymore. So, when I am having trouble squeezing everything in, I head to work early or stay late.
In some ways, it kind of sucks to be the last one out of the parking lot on some Fridays. But it is also worth it if I can have a whole weekend away from work.
My boundary is that I don't want to bring work home. Yours might be that you leave at the end of your contract hours everyday. Or, maybe prepping on Sunday morning makes you feel relaxed going into the work week.
It doesn't matter what your boundaries are, as long as you make sure that they are working for you.
Other Resources for Creating a Work Life Balance As a Teacher
- 7 Ways to Promote Student Autonomy in Your Classroom This Year
- Scheduling My Prep Time
- The Book of Boundaries – By Melissa Urban *
* This is an affiliate link. That means that a small percentage of the profits from this purchase will be given to me at no additional cost to you.