A Modern Educator’s Guide to Battling Teacher Guilt

Have you ever felt a twinge of guilt when the school bell rings, and you didn’t get through your planned lesson? How about when you wake up sick, or when you want to spend your weekend relaxing instead of grading papers?

These feelings are extremely common, and they’re what many teachers and education experts are referring to as teacher guilt. This kind of guilt is specific to teachers because they usually have enormous expectations to live up to – and only a finite amount of time in which to get it all done.

We look at some common sources of teacher guilt, and how to manage these feelings in healthy, practical ways that keep you feeling your best.

Where does Teacher Guilt Come From?

Teacher guilt is influenced by a variety of external demands across our personal and professional lives. Maria O’Neill, a gifted support teacher and wellbeing coach, says that a constant desire to meet these demands can cause teachers to lose their sense of self. In turn, they put the needs and desires of others before their own. This can often lead to teacher burnout and turnover.

Speech and debate teacher JP Fugler describes his own experience with the negative impacts of teacher guilt. Fugler says that he reached a point where he felt the need to work so much that he spent a full three months working without a single day off. Today, he says, he’s found a much healthier work life balance. In addition to leaving work at 4:30, he’s found a new exercise routine and discovered a new hobby in cooking.

However, Fugler still receives sneers and negative comments from his colleagues. Such comments show that teachers work in a culture where they’re constantly expected to give. This is problematic because it leads to teachers trying to please others before meeting their own basic needs.

We often go above and beyond because we think that putting in more time equates to more successful students. A study by psychologists Adam Grant and Reb Rebele says that that’s a fallacy.

They asked teachers to imagine a situation where they were giving after school help to a student. Then, they asked teachers to imagine what they would do if that student asked the teacher to help his friend with his homework, too. Survey participants were given a total of 11 scenarios, and the researchers found that those who gave the most selfless responses had students with the lowest year-end results.

Features writer Suzannah Weiss wrote about the study in Glamour, saying “those who either declined or had the two students do extra help together so that their time investment didn’t increase had the highest-performing students.” Such findings show that it’s important for teachers to know their limit and say no when they need to — regardless of what colleagues are telling you to do.

woman in bed with tissues scattered around; sick day teacher guilt concept

Vacation and Sick Days

If you’ve ever been sick during the school year, you know how hard it is to leave your students. There’s so much learning to do, and so little time. If you just go to work anyway, you can still get things done even though you’re sick, right?

According to Teachers Resource Force, a site that supports the well-being and self-reflection of teachers, trying to teach while sick is always a bad idea. In addition to potentially infecting students and colleagues, working while sick makes it harder to get better. By staying home, resting and treating your body right, you can get back to your full self much faster. Realizing this fact may help you overcome the guilt that’s often prevalent when you need to take a sick day.

Once you’ve reached that point, you might be ready to consider making the most of your scheduled time off. Rather than frantically grading papers during holidays, why not make sure to get in some much-needed family vacation time? Jennifer Kadar at Simply Kinder is a firm believer in the work hard, play hard philosophy, and she takes a family vacation to Disneyland every single year. Kadar’s reasoning is that having a more balanced life makes her more effective at her job, which in turn is better for both her and her students.

School Responsibilities

Teachers are often needed to serve on committees and help out with after school events, using their own personal time to do so.

Paul Murphy, a teacher who runs the blog Teacher Habits, explains that even though such after-hours activities are important and necessary, teachers usually aren’t compensated for their time. “Most of the time, principals use guilt because they don’t have money. If they do have money, they don’t want to set a precedent of paying for everything teachers do outside the school day,” he adds. This is another example of how school culture can cause teacher guilt.

Elementary teacher Elizabeth Mulvahill explains at WeAreTeachers that it’s also common for teachers to feel anxious on Sunday evenings. She calls it “the Sunday night dread.” Knowing that there’s a long and busy week of school ahead, teachers may feel like they’ve relaxed too much over the weekend instead of catching up on papers or other classroom work.

If you’ve ever felt this kind of guilt, it’s important to rethink your expectations. When you create unrealistic expectations for what you’re able to accomplish in a given weekend, you’re always going to let yourself down. Instead, Mulvahill interviews a teacher who suggests staying after school for an extra hour or so on Friday afternoons, so that you don’t have to put in extra time on the weekends.

family enjoying snack in cafe together

Home and Family

Teacher guilt is common, and likely amplified in those teachers who have children of their own. It may feel like you’re never doing enough for your students or for your children at home, or like you always have to choose between the two.

Brooke Brown, a teacher and mom who runs the popular blog Teach Outside the Box, provides seven tips for teachers experiencing what she refers to as teacher mom guilt. In one suggestion, Brown urges teachers to stop comparing themselves to other teachers and moms, especially on social media. Her ultimate goal is for teachers to go easier on themselves, and accept that things won’t always be perfect.

Educator, author and speaker Starr Sackstein offers more ideas to help teachers manage guilt, particularly by separating their personal lives from their work lives. She stresses to teachers that it’s important to put their own families first. Work will inevitably seep into family life from time to time, but prioritizing your children and partner will keep your most important relationships happy and healthy.

It’s not just teachers who feel unnecessary guilt, psychologist and author Melanie Greenberg writes at Psychology Today. Many people in busy professions feel guilty about not spending time with family. Greenberg suggests making a list of all the nice things you do for your friends and family, and keeping that list handy. When you start feeling guilty, it can serve as a quick and powerful reference to cut through the noise.

There’s no doubt that teaching is tough work. But when the benefits of teaching don’t outweigh the exhausting and stressful parts of the job, it may be a sign that it’s time to move on. Angela Watson, teacher thought leader and founder of The Cornerstone for Teachers, offers a bit of advice to teachers who are feeling guilty about thinking of leaving the profession.

“Even the best teachers get put in situations that are physically and mentally exhausting. Feeling like you want to quit does not mean that you were not cut out for the job, or are a bad person,” Watson writes.

You may be having an extremely hard year or it could be that the position you’re in doesn’t fit your needs. Like any employee-employer fit, a healthy school-teacher fit is essential to your personal growth and well-being.

Images by: photodeti/©123RF Stock Photo, Shutterstock.com, stockbroker/©123RF Stock Photo

1 Response
  • Katie
    February 12, 2018

    There some extremely useful tips in this article – a reminder that without practicing self-care, we won’t be able to be the best teachers we know we can be. Thank you for putting this information together and for including one of my tips too!
    Katie @ Teachers Resource Force

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