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‘I Was Determined to Make a Change’: A Teacher’s Checklist for Work-Life Balance (Opinion)

Two and a half years ago, I became a high school teacher. After teaching at a state university for 13 years, I didn’t expect the transition to be a tumultuous one, but my new role caught me off guard.

Instead of the hourslong breaks between classes I could use as prep time during the four days I was required to be on campus, I now had four-minute breaks to walk from one class to the next during my five-days-a-week in school. In higher ed., I would rarely work with a co-teacher, but now, I had to interact with four different co-teachers daily. Not to mention that K-12 students need a lot more hand-holding and guidance on how to function independently.

As a working mom, I struggled to maintain a sense of sanity and stability.

Bedtime with my young children was chaotic. I tried, usually to no avail, to summon any remaining ounce of patience I had left from the day. My nightly dreams were invaded by visions of colleagues and students. I would wake up feeling depleted.

By the start of this school year—two years in—I was determined to make a change.

I outlined my plan for a healthier work-life balance and reviewed it daily, tweaking it as the days progressed. I repeatedly reminded myself of my priorities for my mental and physical well-being.

Soon, I began to wake up, looking forward to the day. I became more optimistic about my new career.

There are still moments when I crave a personal day—who doesn’t? But I am having fewer of those moments.

By sharing my list, I hope it may help you find some sense of balance, too. And may it equate to greater effectiveness as an educator.

At school

Know your limits and value your mental health. Taking on extra responsibilities can be tempting, whether they are paid positions or enriching volunteer roles, but these can quickly consume any free time you could have had for mental wellness. Many of us could use the extra money, but don’t hesitate to say no when you know it is best for your physical and mental health.

Set boundaries with email. Designate a particular time to check email. Alternatively, only check email when you have a reason to check it. Don’t open it just for the sake of seeing if you have a new message in your inbox. Don’t open it to reread emails that caused you stress.

When you finish sending and checking emails, log out. In addition, if possible, limit email to your school hours. If you feel the urge to send or check your email after school hours, do it only in case of emergency. Include an away message to ensure that anyone who sends you an email will know that you are currently unavailable and will know when to expect your reply. Remove your work email account from your phone. Consider accessing your school email on a computer only during your designated time.

Send a note home to students and guardians so they understand when you typically check email, what your work hours are, and that it could take you up to 48 hours during the work week to reply to email. Include this time frame in your signature line.

Designate time daily to do something that puts your mind at ease. Separate yourself for silence. Do not allow for distractions. This could be before the first bell rings in the morning, during prep or lunch, or after the students leave for the day. Read a book, create art, knit—anything to help ease anxieties. Go outside for fresh air, take a walk around the hallways, exercise in the weight room, or do yoga in an empty classroom.

Be selective with communication. The amount of social interactions with students, teachers, administrators, staff, and guardians can be overwhelming. By the end of the school day, we are likely to feel exhausted and even frustrated, even if the interactions were predominantly positive ones. Remember that teachers talk all day; it’s socially acceptable for you to limit nonessential communication when stopping by the faculty room or walking through the hallway. Prioritize social interactions with colleagues that give you joy.

At home

Avoid talking about work after hours. If talking about work helps to ease your nerves or you genuinely enjoy it, designate a limited time for these discussions. This is especially important in the evening and at bedtime. You don’t want conversations about school to overpower your home life, influence your personal relationships, and seep into your dreams at night.

Focus your discussions on topics of mutual interest. This could be when you interact with your family, friends, or anyone you meet outside of school. Engage with people who are not in the field of education.

Plan for ways to distract your thoughts when they drift to work. If you are driving alone, for example, and find yourself easily consumed with thoughts of work, have an audiobook or podcast accessible. If you prefer silence, make a mental list of goals for the future or things you are grateful for, or count backward from 100 until you start thinking about another topic.

Schedule appointments for self-care. Make self-care a regularly scheduled habit and cancel only if there is an emergency. This may be difficult if you have caretaking responsibilities that limit the flexibility of your schedule. In this case, schedule a time when you have some quiet (10 minutes before bed, for example) and do something for yourself. Whatever it is, make it a routine.

Save professional development activities for the workday or after work. This includes reading education-related articles. Prioritize other interests outside of education for nonwork hours. Having a broad scope of interests and knowledge is vital for educators intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

Prioritize exercise. Not surprisingly, exercise improves teachers’ overall well-being. Make it social if you like that. If your personal circumstances do not allow you time or flexibility to leave the house, exercise at home. Invite friends or family members if that encourages you.

If I can accomplish four or five of these goals each day, I feel pretty great. This focus brings greater satisfaction to my life as a teacher and a mother.

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