I still recall the moment I realized I was doing it wrong. I was in my second year of teaching and was sitting in my classroom after school. I had been hard at it and needed a break so I went down the hall to visit with my team partner and found out she was gone for the night. I continued on to try and find someone else to connect with. All the lights were off. I checked the clock. It was just after 7:15 pm. I wondered what the heck I was still doing at school.
Every adult knows that feeling no matter what profession you're in. For teachers, it begins after the students leave for the day. You check in with your colleagues, share a few laughs. Then you fill your water bottle and grab a snack. Maybe there is a staff or professional learning meeting. You return to your classroom. It's nice and quiet. Time to get some work done.
Here's what "getting work done" looks like for a teacher struggling with work-life balance. You start by cleaning up the classroom from the chaos of the day. You re-organize a bit, respond to a few writing journals, and give some feedback on the math assignments that you said you would do three days ago. Only after these little things are done do you begin thinking about tomorrow. You thumb through your rough plans and the curricular outcomes and begin to prepare. You start searching online and then you magically find that "must do" activity. Then you put everything else aside and start to gather materials for this latest and greatest thing. Of course the materials aren't around or exactly where you would expect them to be (where the heck would you even find litmus paper?) so you go online to find out where to get it and you make a plan to go there right after school to pick it up. Suddenly, it's after 7:00 pm and you still don't know exactly what you're going to do tomorrow and your whole day hinges on the faint hope that Walmart sells litmus paper.
Thankfully, I had the presence to recognize that this could not continue day after day. I knew if this was going to be my reality as a teacher, that I would burn out. I also knew that over time I would grow bitter and resentful over all the extra hours and how my work-life balance was askew.
I had to work smarter. I had to be more efficient. I had to take control of my processes to take back the extra hours.
If you are reading this and realize that this is you, here are some simple tips that helped me through those times:
Plan the Right Way - If you are still planning for tomorrow over hours at the end of each day then you are doing it wrong too. You need to create long, medium and short range plans that will carry you through days and weeks at a time. There are many ways to do this effectively, but your gauge of your effectiveness is simply the way you feel about your preparedness when you leave for the day or when you wake up in the morning. If you're anxious about your readiness then you need to keep searching for planning models that will allow you to feel better about this.
Set a Limit and Stay Within It - On average, I was at the school until after 6:00 pm every day. I told myself that if I could leave by 5:30 pm, that I could earn back an extra half hour. Instead of leaving at 6, I could be home by that time. Eventually, I was able to move that to 5:00 pm and that is still my target time to this day.
Make a Date For Yourself - Take one day of the week and book something for yourself. Make it for 4:30 or 5:00 so you know you will need to leave to get there on time. For me, I joined a Wednesday night golf league. Pick something that you love to do but don't have time for and make it a priority. Put it in your calendar, tell your colleagues about your plans, and make it your routine.
Take the Team Approach - As independent as you want to be, you need to have a team to work efficiently. The best teams plan, prepare, and follow-up together. They share the load of the hard work that needs to be done and instinctually find the ebb and flow of the team dynamic. Work with your team to divide and conquer so you're not all doing it on your own.
Talk Less, Learn More - Now, as a principal, one of my main feedback points to my teachers is that they're spending too much time with up-front teaching and not giving enough time for students to engage in learning. It might sound crazy, but I would often script out my talking points for my lesson. I was making it about me and not the learning. Use your time effectively to set up the learning intentions for the day and find a way to get the students working quickly. They will get more from you working alongside them as they do a task than they might in just listening to you explain it all. There is a time for up-front direct teaching, but pick your spots.
Apple Units Aren't the Answer - While preserving the "Apple Unit" to revisit year after year will make you feel comfortable and secure, this simply is not best current practice. If you're finding that you're squirrelling away binders and boxes of stuff to re-use, don't.
Copying is a Hint - Take a look at how many photocopies you're creating, and ask yourself what is the purpose they serve. As a teacher, one of the most arduous tasks I would undertake in preparation and planning would be the search for the perfect "blackline master". If I couldn't find one, I would make one. I can guarantee you're spending way too much time on this aspect of your planning, which will only be a very small part of the desired outcomes. When I made the move to notebooks and journals I took that daily task off my plate.
Talk to Someone - Work-Life balance problems are real, and you're not alone. Burnout is also real, and it happens to those who can't manage it until it's too late. If you find yourself struggling with this and unable to cope with it, please seek help. You might want to approach your school administrative team. Believe me, we've all been there. Identifying this a a problem for yourself is often the first step toward change. If you want to keep things private (often the case with those struggling with work-life balance), please seek help from your doctor.
I don't claim to have a perfect work-life balance. Part of my problem is that I really do love my job a lot and enjoy being at work. What I do feel that I do effectively is recognize when things are getting out of control. I'm not afraid to set things down for the day and just wrap it up. I can now navigate the flow of the school year and can adjust the peak times and low times (there aren't too many of those) more efficiently. It's still a work in progress for me, but one thing I know for sure is that my weekly golf game awaits and spring can't come soon enough.
The irony of the fact that I am composing and posting this on the weekend is not lost on me ;-)
I am an elementary school principal, passionate about engagement, innovation, and learning from the unique skills and interests of students and fellow educators.