Welcome to Stressville, USA – population 1. You. This is teaching.
You’ve probably figured out by now that this job is physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging in ways that you’ve never encountered. You are missing time with your friends and family, your partner is claiming you don’t love them anymore, and for some reason you’re in a perpetual state of illness. Girl/boy/non-gender conforming individual, you’re a teacher, and you need to find balance.
Finding balance as a new teacher seems difficult and unattainable, mostly because you’re just trying to figure out what the heck is going on every minute of your day. You think everyone is looking at you and that if you mess up, just a little, you’ll be fired forever and your life will be over. First off, if you got fired from teaching, consider a few things, 1) does teaching bring me joy? 2) was that entire year of stress and frustration work it? 3) I am probably going to be okay, because teaching isn’t the only job in the whole world.
Finding balance is all about your mindset. Teaching is not the only profession in the world. There, I said it. You could probably be just as successful, and, like, duh, make more money doing something else.
And I know, you’ve made this decision and jumped through all the hoops to be here. It is a lot of work to become a teacher, totally, but you know what, your mental health and soul are more important than teaching. Don’t do this job because you jumped through the hoops. Do this job because it is something that calls to you.
Therefore, you need to find balance within this profession to stay in this profession.
Here are a few ways that help alleviate unnecessary stress so you can be the best teacher for all of your students!
1. Don’t compare yourself to others
As educators, I’m sure we tell our students this on the daily a million times, but as they say – teachers make the worst students. We do. We never practice what we preach. What is the message we are sending to our students when we are thinking, “Well, Mrs. So-and-So has a clean classroom that smells like flowers and returns the papers back to the students the next day with glitter and wears magical pants down the hallway all day long.” Even if we’re thinking it, the students can sense it. Students can sense your weaknesses like the savage animals that they are, and they will play into your insecurities no matter what. They will find that teacher that they know you are similar to and they will compare the two of you to your face with no shame.
Do not allow yourself to be comparable.
That classroom, those students, for that hour (or the bajillion hours if you’re a elementary teacher – I mean really? How can you be around students for that long?) are yours. You have your teaching style, you have your lesson plans, and you have your mind, body, and soul to teach those kids.
Now, be wary of this tale and draw some boundaries for yourself. Collaboration is always incredibly important, and observing your colleagues, asking for help, and asking for suggestions is recommended if not required to be a successful first year teacher – but do not allow yourself to disapprove of your teaching just because it does not exactly mirror your neighbors. You do you, lady/gentleman. This is your show; work it.
2. Stay away from the booze and fast food, and by the way, get some damn sleep while you’re at it
Seems silly to put this on the list, but honey, these things will destroy you in your new teaching life.
My first year of teaching, I came home to my empty apartment with a stack of papers to grade and the only way (I thought) I could get through all of this frustration, anger, and grading was to drink wine.
One glass, turns into two, then you get hungry – you’re too poor to go to the grocery store – so you order yourself some Jack and the Box (because fries and grease are the only things that sound good at 10pm on a Tuesday after two glasses of wine) and then you go to sleep feeling physically weighed down by shitty consumables and a shitty attitude.
The next morning you probably feel even worst than you did the day before, and then you just keep stacking on the terrible feelings, thoughts, and food until you resent yourself and your job.
What you consume on a daily basis affects your work.
This is true everywhere, but in teaching, you are on your feet all day, interacting with all the people and things, and you have to be on your game. If you’re not taking care of yourself physically, you are adding more stress to the pot, and you know you don’t need anymore of that in your life.
Also, teaching has a huge drinking culture. I’ve never met a larger group of alcoholics in my life until I became a teacher. The stress of work, the feeling of isolation and fear, and general frustration of the job creates this culture of sitting around in the pub sharing war stories from the classroom. It isn’t healthy. I love my co-workers, but they can become pretty toxic while intoxicated and it does not always foster positivity in this job.
According to Psychologytoday.com, a study in 2016 noted that 91% (THAT’S NINETY-ONE PERCENT) of teachers in the study suffered from stress. Why are you going to put more stress on your body during these trying times? You are lengthening your life as a teacher as well as your life in general.
Therefore, pre-make your meals on Sunday. Just do it. You don’t want to, but do it. It forces you to stay on budget and to stay healthy.
Get some exercise. I know you’re tired and the gym is the last place you want to spend your last few waking hours, but you need to build your strength. Just like an athlete, you have to condition to stay in shape as a teacher. I’m not saying you have to be a gym rat, but do something physical that works for you that keeps you conditioned for those hard days in the classroom. I started up yoga, and it became my thing. I have heard from teachers that hiking outside is a good way to stay active while also getting you out in the world.
Drinking, obvs, is dehydrating, so 1) don’t drink, but also 2) stay hydrated throughout the day. Even if that means running to the bathroom during passing periods. Your students can wait for you, and your admin can’t say anything because, hello, this isn’t the 1830s and you’re not a child laborer. If you’re really worried about running to the bathroom, make friends with the next door teach and have them watch your kids. They’re cool with it, because they’ve been there.
Inclusively, save drinking for special occasions like the Christmas party, or one weekend out of the month. Getting blasted every weekend because “your job is so hard” is totes bullshit. Your biggest concern should be being the best version of yourself, and feeling hungover, tired, and dehydrated is not living your best life, nor is it doing you any favors in the classroom. I don’t know about you, but probably the worst thing in the entire world is teaching while hungover. Haven’t done it? Okay fancy pants, see what happens the next time you feel like going to $2 Tuesday at the local bar.
3. Don’t take home your work
Both in the physical sense and the emotional sense. Leave that shit in the classroom and lock the door. Boo freakin’ hoo that your students don’t get their tests graded on time – they’re going to be just fine. What’s more important, that they learn the information or that they get their test scores in the grade book? If you have an admin who thinks differently, have a conversation with them. They will understand, because most admin value education. They’re under a lot of pressure too, that’s why it doesn’t always seem like they have the same values as you, but just talk to them. They’ll understand. If they don’t, then you gotta leave, girl, find a place that fits your philosophy. That’s okay, by the way, you can leave schools – or become an admin yourself – that works, too.
Taking work home blends the lines between work and home. Your home should be exactly what it is – a home. A place to relax, to be still, to be happy. That’s why many teachers make their classroom space so “homey” because sometimes, staying in at lunch to just drink some tea, or staying late to finish those essays, in a space that is comforting, brings a new light to the experience. I’m all for a homey classroom, but, the classroom should not be your home and your home should not be your classroom.
The boundaries that you draw between these two spheres of your life allows you to differentiate between the relationships that you form in the classroom and at home. My husband loves me and my work, but how does he benefit from hearing about how some teenagers didn’t put their names on their paper today? How does that benefit our relationship? You wouldn’t vent about your husband not doing the dishes to your students for the same reason. Relationships in these two realms are important, and can interact on occasion, but the blending of these two worlds does not allow the two groups to grow on their own in their own way with you.
4. Protect your time
“Hi, I’m that fellow teacher who just walks into your classroom and talks to you about who knows what and takes up your entire prep period so okay, thanks, byeeeeee!”
There are, what I like to call, Time Vampires, in this industry of teaching. Time Vampires lack self-awareness, are lonely, and often think that what they have to say is incredibly important to you in that moment. I’m sure I’ve been a Time Vampire to someone at some point, and I get it, you want to vent and commiserate with someone who “gets you, man,” but this is what Friday-afternoon Happy Hours are for. The work week is for work, prep periods are for work. Remember: Don’t bring home work!
Protect your time from co-workers and students. It’s okay to say, “Hey, I actually have a lot of work during prep period today, could we chat more about this at lunch? Or even better over a cup of coffee after work?” Your co-worker will be fine, and actually probably be excited to hang out and chat outside of school hours because now you’re friends, not just peers. Only friends hang out after work!
Students can be the biggest Time Vampires of them all. I would open up my doors to students during lunch during my first couple years of teaching. Lunch is an incredibly important time for you to decompress half-way through the day. DO NOT open your doors to students. I know that sounds terrible, and what about little *Johnny who doesn’t have any friends? Yo, Johnny needs to make some friends who aren’t a 20-something teacher. Help him find a community, encourage him, but don’t be his friend at lunch. That’s weird and also detrimental to his social patterns and your time.
Engaging with your co-workers is an amazing way to be a part of the school community and get ideas for your own classroom, but do not allow others to dictate how you use your time. It’s all about balance.
*We all have a “Johnny,” he or she might just not be named Johnny.
5. Just say “no.”
Ah, Nancy Reagan, you sweet, sweet weirdo. How were we suppose to know that you weren’t telling us to say “no” to drugs, rather, “no” to our administrators and schools? Gosh, thank you.
Saying “no” is my biggest problem. I’m a people pleaser, and so are you, that’s why we’re teachers, but it can be so harmful to our mental health when we don’t say “no.”
When you first start teaching, you think you have to make everyone happy because there is this myth that if you don’t agree to coach basketball, teach remedial math even though you’re an English teacher, chaperone every dance, while balancing plates on your head, then you’ll be fired. Teachers – you’re not going to be fired for not doing these things.
Yes, it looks good when you do, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.
The most important part of your job is being the best teacher you can be for the students that you have. When you start filling up your plate with things that don’t interest you, or take away from your energy or happiness in the classroom it is an infringement on your student’s right to have a good teacher.
If you feel pressured by co-workers, students, or admin to do something extra-curricular, explain to them that the pressures of being a new teacher are your priority right now and that you would love advice and guidance on those matters instead, for now, any time spent away from your current work will be harmful to your growth as a teacher. Tell them you will reconsider next year.
If someone fires you because of this, then you don’t want to be there, honey. Find a place that will foster your growth as an educator – not a circus performer who just happens to also be a subpar teacher.
All in All
All in all, teaching is a profession that requires longevity, strength, and conditioning. You do this job because you love it, not because you have to do it. Take care of yourself, and you’ll be the best version of yourself in and out of the classroom.