I am about to set off into my seventh (!) year teaching.
I wasn’t always sure that teaching was the right job for me. I tend to dive into things head-first, and I’m not always good at maintaining balance (half marathon on a stress fracture, anyone?). The beginning of my career was super unbalanced; I barely managed to eat a can of microwaved soup, write lesson plans, and finish graduate school assignments done every night before I passed out in my Ikea bed, usually surrounded by kid’s work that needed grading and all of my roommate’s cats. I was just tryna survive; working out and being social just weren’t in my frame of reference that first year or so.
Soon, though, I made a few small, attainable fitness and personal goals for myself, and figured out ways to arrange and organize my life so that I could fit something other than work into my day. I was able to work out consistently, cook for myself more often, and I started meeting up with friends sometimes on weeknights! Weeknights!
Establishing- and defending- a work life balance as an educator is actually really challenging. It’s trendy for teachers to stay late and go into work on the weekends. When I worked at the elementary and middle school level, our classrooms were expected to look pinterest perfect at all times; I would spend hours on bulletin boards and days scripting out unit plans that almost never really got used. More recently I’ve had to learn not to accept every side job that comes your way; coaching, tutoring, proctoring tests on the weekend… In a career that’s so dependent on your connection with students, it is essential that you maintain a connection with yourself and your body.
Here are a few of my best tips for maintaining a work life balance. Some of these are teaching specific, but I think overall they’re applicable to all professions!
- Learn to Say NO: You will be called upon to lead the teacher team, coach the running club, tutor every neighbor’s friend’s kid who’s not doing their homework. Often times these side jobs come with a stipend, which can be super tempting when you’re living on a teacher’s salary. But you can’t do it all- at least not healthfully and happily. Stick to one or two extras- and if it’s your first year teaching, try to avoid all extras. You need you time more than you need that extra $40. In the words of Ron Swanson “never half ass two things, whole ass many things.”
- Use Your Preps: Other teachers are super cool and super fun to talk to. But you know what’s not super cool and fun? Bringing all you work home with you every day because you chilled out and went for coffee with the math teacher during all your preps. Identify one prep a week as your “social hour;” perhaps your friday prep, when you feel least motivated, and when your teacher squad is also on break. Chat during that prep because lets be real; teachers support teachers. We need each other. We need to rant, we need to share silly kid quotes, and sometimes we even need a hug. But we also need work time, and you can’t spend all your break hours goofing off. I dial into my laptop like there’s no tomorrow during most of my preps nowadays, and it’s made my life so much better.
- Meal Prep on Weekends: This is huge! There will always be candy and carbs up for grabs in the main office, but don’t let that become your main source of sustenance. On Sundays, I prepare a few servings of some dinner entree (usually a crockpot thing), 5 lunch salads (usually grilled chicken and diced veggies over greens), 5 morning snacks, and 5 afternoon/pre-workout snacks. Every night I put everything into my lunchbox for the next day, and I’m ready to grab and go in the morning! Sometimes I tutor then to go straight to the gym after work; so when I finally get home at 6/7pm and I am ravenous, it helps to have those dinners pre-made in the fridge. I used to pick up pizza or eat TONS of yucky snacky things for dinner. Now I eat real dinner and it helps me be my best self!
- Map Out and Write Down Your Workout Schedule: During my first prep of the week on Monday morning, I review and revise my weekly calendar. I keep a paper-based planner that I make myself using printables I found online, but iCal or GoggleCal also work great:) I make sure I’ve written down any student meetings or assessments, and all school events first. I also pencil in any doctors appointments or out-of-the-ordinary meetings. Then I pull up the group fitness calendar for my gym as well as my personal training schedule if I’m prepping for a race, and I tuck my workouts into my week. It’s not always perfect, but if I see a day coming where I might not have time for a workout, I can factor that as a rest day and work around it. This goes along with…
- Pack Workout Clothes Every Day: If I pack my gym bag, and it’s sitting there in my passenger seat or at the bottom of my commuting bag looking at me, I am much more likely to work out. When I know a week is going to be totally CRAY, I actually match up 5 pairs of tops, leggings, socks, and sports bra on Sunday night, that way I can just throw a set into my bag every day without thinking. Also, the whole “I’ll go home, change, then work out” thing never works for me. If I go home I am on the couch permanently for the night. I go straight to the gym, or I change at work and go straight to my fave running trail:)
- Choose ONLY One Day A Week to Stay Late/Take Work Home: Yep. I said it. One day. You should only be grading, IEP writing, emailing, or assigning grades until all hours one day a week. The other days should be yours. Don’t get into a groove of grading at home every night before bed. Don’t start leaving your IEP writing until the weekend every time. One day a week is your overtime day, and the rest are your balance days!
- Commit to Non-Work Stuff: If you say “Maybe I can make it…” to your friend’s Thursday night trivia group, you’ll probably skip out after a long day with the kiddos. If you say “Yes! Thursday! I will be there!” with emphasis, you’ll ACTUALLY show up and do something fun each weekend. Make real social commitments on a regular basis; whether it’s just dinner with a friend or book talk with your book club, try to get out there at least once during your work week!
- Work Smarter, Not Harder: Lesson plans should be concise outlines, not 5-page scripts. And children need to practice scissor skills more than you need to cut out 45 owl-shaped manipulative for your next read-aloud. If you can get a graphic organizer from online, rather than making it yourself, go ahead and do it. If there’s an amazing unit plan on TPT that you’d like to use, go ahead and use it! And don’t you dare feel guilty for using another teacher’s materials. teachers support other teachers, and the materials are online for a reason! Also, experienced teachers will tell you that the most memorable lessons are often the simplest. So keep it simple, delegate work to the kids, and don’t re-create materials if you don’t need to. Work smarter, not harder.
- Bring a Water Bottle Every Day: Also, refill it twice a day. At least. I try to drink 3 full bottles throughout every work day. Hydration is so important! It makes us happier and healthier. And it doesn’t hurt to mention that you should be going potty a few times a day, as well. Fun fact: Teachers have one of the highest incidences of UTI’s.
- Press the Reset Button: I often find myself going over and over student challenges in my head after I leave work. Sometimes this is a good thing; I do a lot of great thinking during my after-work jogs, and chatting issues out with my teacher friends can often be really helpful. But if it’s keeping me up at night, and impacting my mood…it’s time to press reset. Everyone has a different strategy for clearing their mind. Try a guided meditation on Youtube, or maybe just read a book and force yourself to really focus on the story. Moving your brain out of the classroom is not only okay, but a necessary part of maintaining good mental health.
Like I said; while I wrote these tips from my perspective as a teacher, I think they really are applicable for so many careers.
Now You Tell Me…
- Do you want to hear more about any of these ideas? Meal prepping? Gym bag organization? Fitness calendars? Let me know in the comments!
- What strategies do you use to maintain a work/life balance?
- Any great salad recipes? send ’em my way!