This phrase has been uttered by countless teachers to their friends, families, boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, neighbors, and even to their pets. It’s used as a reason to miss out on any number of opportunities and get-togethers with our loved ones. The choice between personal and professional life is never easy, especially in a field such as teaching where our work can be easily taken home with us.
With such blurred lines between the personal and professional life of a teacher, the decision making process usually goes something like this:
Exhibit A: A friend invites you to brunch on a Sunday, which is the day that you usually spend preparing your lessons for the week and doing laundry. An internal battle ensues: If I accept my friend’s request, am I risking that my lessons this week will be less effective and engaging, while possibly running out of clean underwear? Would spending time with my friend, over the best interests of my students, be selfish? Which do I sacrifice, my friends or my students?
Exhibit B: At a school staff meeting, they announce that chaperones are needed for the school dance this Saturday, which is at the same time as your cousin’s birthday celebration. Another internal conflict: What is more important, my family or providing opportunities for my students? What if no one else volunteers for the dance? My cousin will have more birthday parties but there will also be more dances to chaperone. Which will I feel less guilty about missing?
Finding a balance between your professional life and your personal life is especially difficult for teachers in the beginning of their careers. This balance is important for both mental and physical health. Living an out-of-balance life can jeopardize or otherwise negatively impact one’s professional and personal life.
In my first couple of years teaching, I spent many late nights and weekends at school. 13-hour work days were frequent and they usually didn’t end when I left the school building. Most nights and weekends were spent lesson planning, grading, and coaching, or sponsoring student groups. I neglected my personal life and paid the price.
Sheer exhaustion led to physical and mental decline. I had stopped working out and wasn’t sleeping much. My lack of time led to more fast food and way too much caffeine. By the end of each week, I was getting sick and spending a large part of my weekend trying to recuperate. This led to a grouchiness that caused me to angrily lash out at my loved ones and students for the smallest things. I had become a worse friend, brother, boyfriend, colleague, and teacher because I couldn’t find a way to balance out my life.
Now going into my 7th year of teaching, I’m happy to say that I have not repeated these mistakes and have found ways to establish a work-life balance without the guilt of sacrificing either. Here are my tips to finding a work-life balance for new teachers:
Don’t be a Yes-Man (or Woman)
What I mean by that is sometimes you have to say “no” to being involved with things at school. Instead, say “yes” only to the things that you are truly interested in. If school dances are “totally your thing,” then sign up to chaperone those! I find school dances to be uncomfortable and boring, so I don’t sign up to chaperone them…and that’s ok!
Don’t feel pressure to sign up for things that you’re not interested in because of a “if I don’t do it, then no one else will” mentality. This is where you will get sucked into school activities that become a chore. Find what gives you joy at school and stick with that. With a diversity of skills and interests among a school staff, someone else will be more passionate than you about running Field Day or operating the spotlight at the talent show.
Plan “You Time” in Advance
Always wanted to learn to paint? Sign up for that class you’ve been eying. Looking to spend more time with friends? Join that kickball league they keep talking about. Buy those concert tickets you’ve been dreaming of. Make that dinner reservation for you and your significant other. Book that weekend getaway for you and your family.
Planning time for your personal life in advance, especially for things that require deposits or pre-payment, will make you less tempted to sacrifice them for school-related activities and ensures that you’ve built time into your schedule for friends and family. This makes it easier to say no as described above. “Sorry, I can’t go to the PTO meeting that night, I’ve got my spin class at the same time.”
Find Your “Planning Plateau”
This is perhaps the most important and difficult step. In the relationship between the amount of time spent doing at-home school work, like lesson planning and grading, versus the impact on your teaching, it is practically a rule that “the more time you spend planning and preparing, the better your lesson will be.” As my former principal used to tell me, “a failure to plan is a plan for failure.” While I believe that this is true, I also believe that there exists a point in time where the impact has been essentially maximized, or plateaued, and spending more time planning or preparing would be better spent on your personal life.
The trick is finding this “point in time” where you hit the “planning plateau.” Think you can plan an excellent biology lesson in 2 hours? Then spend 2 hours planning it. If the final product is great, then leave it be. Spending another hour on YouTube trying to find a slightly better introductory clip than the one you already have isn’t going to make that big of a difference anyway. Hold yourself to a high standard without being a perfectionist and you will have more time for your personal life.
With the beginning of a new school year, I hope that some of these tips can help to get you on the path to living a more balance and happier life. You can be a great teacher as well as a great friend, son, daughter, spouse, sister or brother. Or, if you don’t want to do it for them, then do it for yourself– you are worth it!