The stress, burnout, unrealistic expectations and no life balance... it's real. I know it all too well because I live it.
We can always blame it on our school, our principal and the education system. It's true, we can and it's valid. But as teachers, we play a part in it too - at least I did, and sometimes still do.
I work a lot. I do it because I care so deeply about my students and their learning, about creating and maintaining a creative and inclusive classroom, about collaborating and supporting my teaching team and most of all, being the best version of myself.
It looked like this...
Arriving one hour before school started, working through all of my lunches, answering emails and parent requests during my commute and at home. When I finally arrive home, I'd fill the evening with stories and tales of students, learning, obstacles, complaints, jokes and some more complaints... all about school! Of course, I was too tired to go to the gym or even for a walk and probably even too tired to cook dinner. Then I'd fall asleep by 9:00pm (latest) so that I could wake up at 5:00am and do it all over again.
Come weekend, I'd wake up hours before my husband (often by alarm) so that I could get my planning done to my own expectations. And then create resources and blog about my profession. I literally had become only a teacher, like, that's it. There was nothing else left of me and I didn't know what to do when I wasn't teaching, getting ready to teach or talking about teaching.
Thirteen years into the hustle and grind, I broke down. I called my doctor at lunch, sobbing and hardly able to speak. I took a month off of school and cried. Teaching had consumed me and my entire life had become unmanageable because of it.
After that month off, I returned to the classroom - full of beautiful students who were happy that I was back, eager to learn and quick to forgive. It's difficult to get my head around how something so wonderful can tear us up so much.
The Telltale Signs of an Overachiever
You know it, you just read it. But just in case you need a refresher, here are some signs that you're doing more than you should.
Work Work Work pattern: on the weekends, through lunches, during the commute
Guilt Factor: never feeling like we're enough or doing enough
Sacrificing self-care and wellbeing
Superhero Syndrome (taking on too much)
Symptoms of burnout include being tired, irritable, frustrated, impatient, overwhelmed, crying, depression, to-do lists that go on for pages, not asking for help, not saying no, not sleeping because you're thinking about work, waking in the night thinking about work.
How to Move Forward
If you have a positive and trusting relationship with your principal, this is a good place to start. Be honest about your limits and problem solve how to get through it and maintain it.
Therapy also helps, if you're down for that. It took me one intake session to realize that my problem was a lot bigger than I even thought. Being an overachiever is a self-feeding dysfunction that leads to unmanageable stress, burnout and depression. But where it all came from and how to keep the dragon tamed, that takes a lot of work.
Ultimately, it's up to each of us individually. Until we make a change in our practice, nothing will change.
Research repeatedly shows that burnout is directly linked to setting boundaries. After lots of deep digging into my soul, I concluded that I didn't have an issue with people boundaries. I can say no to parents, leadership and coworkers. However, I could never get my work done during my prep periods because there were always so many things to do and people coming in my room and my mind was just all over the place.
Small changes I made:
Closing my door during prep periods and lunch. Using a 'Please do not disturb' sign when I really need it. I also moved my workspace in the classroom to a space that cannot be seen by anyone walking past the door.
When specialist teachers need my room, asking my principal to ensure I have a quiet private place to get my work done uninterupted.
Saying 'no' to committees unless I am being paid for my time.
Limiting the number of professional development courses I take each school year (tell me I am not alone with this problem!!).
Asking for clarification about points in my contract, working hours and job description.
A weight was lifted from my life. These small shifts may not seem like much, but they changed the way I perceived my work experience, working time and boundaries. I'm certain there is a famous philosopher that said stress is only a perception, not a reality. So, here was my perception change!
Less is More
Our students need us to be our best selves. In order to be that, I had to cut back. Had to! there was no other way. One simple change led to another, and another.
Simplify marking and feedback. I managed this by some during lessons, using a symbol system on student work and asking any free teaching assistant to come help with my math books.
I changed my to-do lists. A week's to-do list needed to fit on one page. If it didn't, I knew it was unmanageable. Anything that could be done in three minutes or less needed to be done now and not added to the list.
Shifting my lesson planning. What a game changer! My amazing career coach encouraged me to try planning on sticky notes. I was full of doubt... and three lessons later I was convinced and could probably get a second career selling XL size sticky notes in all the colors.
Doing more doesn't necessarily make us better teachers.
Prioritizing me, my timer and one thing at a time. It was a hard change when we live in a world that seems to glorify multitasking and busy culture.
I close my classroom door, get my to-do list out and first take care of any emails so I can ignore my inbox for the rest of the time. Then I prioritize based on importance and use the timer to not stop (or get distracted) until either I am finished or my time is up.
One thing that helps monotasking is turning off computer notifications (and other devices that are around). I hadn't noticed what a distraction they were until I really insisted on trying to get my work done at work. If you struggle with this, I highly recommend reading more about it and having a go.
If you have another adult in your room, switch roles. Working together with other educators is really another way of building a support system and holding each other up and getting through it together. It can be an instructional coach, math or literacy specialist, EAL teacher, learning support teacher or learning assistant.
I have an EAL teacher with me three periods each week and I am happy to switch roles. When I let her lead the lessons, I can focus on small group instruction and conferencing. Marking as I go and not worrying about the lesson plan as much as when I lead the lesson.
Sometimes she leads, other times it's me and then there are days when we do it together modeling how to buddy read or work in a partnership. Good for me, good for her, good for the kids. Now that's good teaching, no burnout required.
And my students still learn, even when I'm not the boss in the room. Imagine that! 🙃
Since the pandemic, this is the last thing I've wanted to hear. I cringe at any phrase about self-care... the problem is the job, not me! Ugh. But then I realized I only exercise when school is on break. So clearly there was something I had to do, regardless of my job.
I made a committment, one spin class a week. And I did it!! It felt so awesome that I started saying, Okay, twice a week.
It makes me leave campus on time, prioritize myself and stay healthy.
I've heard and read most of these things before, but my response was always to roll my eyes.
It's so cliche, you know? Like... that's not real with a teacher's job. Whoever made this up is obvs not a teacher!
How wrong I was. I pushed myself until I couldn't and then it started to make a lot more sense. Now, it's pretty much the only way I could keep being a teacher. I learned an important lesson; managing the work-life balance of a teacher is an internal struggle, the job is only getting harder and that will likely never change.
I learned an important lesson; managing the work-life balance of a teacher is an internal struggle, the job is only getting harder and that will likely never change.
We as teachers, need to learn how to manage it for ourselves, our families and our students. I'm working on embracing imperfection, setting realistic goals, asking for help and taking care of me first.
What do you do to keep loving the job but also keep it in check? Let me know! I'm always ready to try something new and get better at what we're all doing.
Keep it real and stay inspired!