Maintaining a Work-Life Balance As an Overworked Educator

Whether you entered the teaching profession to work with children or to pass on your love of a particular subject, odds are you never thought it would be this exhausting.

There’s a seemingly endless pile of work on your desk, and some days it’s a challenge to get through it all. You’re not alone. In all likelihood, your fellow instructors are balancing an equally stressful workload, some more successfully than others.

Here’s what you need to know about teacher burnout and how you can have a more manageable week.  

You’re Not the Only One Who Feels Overworked

Many of today’s teachers are pulling 60-hour workweeks and giving up their weekends and social lives to fulfill the expectations set out for them. This has lead some people in the teaching profession to experience similar levels of exhaustion that doctors are used to seeing in CEOs and stockbrokers.

Dr. Emma Kell, author of How to Survive and Thrive in Teaching, reached out to her fellow teachers to better understand how they felt about their workloads. More than 1,419 educators responded to her survey about workload in the teaching profession. Among her findings:

  • Half of participants said they work more than 16 hours per week above their contracted hours.
  • A quarter said they work more than 20 hours per week above their expected hours.
  • 30 percent of current teachers said a heavy workload had the biggest negative impact on their motivation at work.
  • 67 percent of former teachers disagreed with the statement that “my workload was manageable.”

An unbalanced workload pulls at the time teachers have to spend with their students. It also drives down their motivation to teach and makes any additional task or project seem overwhelming.

The concept that stressed teachers aren’t effective teachers isn’t just conjecture. Patricia Jennings, associate professor of elementary education at the University of Virginia, recently conducted a study on mindfulness-based teaching and professional development.

She split 224 teachers and their 5,036 students into two groups and offered a series of mindfulness sessions to one group, while letting the others continue their normal routines as a control group. The teachers who participated in phone coaching sessions over two weeks proved to be more emotionally supportive and had greater sensitivity to students. They also made better use of instructional time, helping the students learn more.

Essentially, by reducing stress, teachers are better able to focus on the needs of their students and tailor the lessons in a way they understand.

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Advice from Fellow Teachers On Managing Your Workload

While you can’t control how much work is handed to you, you can control how it gets done. Fortunately, many teachers who have come before you have found ways to control their schedules and reduce the amount of unpaid overtime they submit each year.

Leave Your Email at Work (As Much as Possible)

The No. 1 piece of advice from team at Pathways2Success is to leave you emails at work. The curse of home emails plagues almost every industry and can prevent educators from ever really leaving work. A nice evening with friends and family could be ruined by last-minute requests or questions. While you might need to stay an extra 30 minutes late each day to catch up on email, the ability to ignore it as soon as you’re out of the office can be a lifesaver.

Develop a Weekly Work Schedule

Noelle Pickering, the blogger behind Maneuvering the Middle, stays in a routine with a different task every day. Mondays are always for grading, and Tuesdays are for planning, for example. While you may have to shuffle the dates around during the week, assigning one task for each day limits the pressure to solve multiple problems in one night. You will get to grading on grading day. If that’s not today, then it’s not your problem right now.

Conduct a Time Audit

Before you can decide what your schedule should look like (and where you’re wasting time), run a time audit to track where your hours go after the bell rings. Carrone Conroy at Elite Mentoring says this audit doesn’t have to be formal. For the first two weeks, end each day with a brief reflection on where your time went so you can start to prioritize tasks and find waste. Knowing your schedule is the first step toward improving it.  

Shut the Door

Many teachers are fortunate enough to have friends at work, or to have close bonds with their colleagues. However, as in any office space, these colleagues can derail your productivity if they’re constantly coming in to chat, ask for help or complain. Tammy DeShaw, the Owl Teacher, praises the office door as a great productivity tool. She recommends teachers shut their doors when they need to focus. This lets their colleagues know when they’re unable to talk.

Eliminate Wasted Time and Tasks

Remember, this isn’t about limiting how much work you get done and letting things slide when they’re not convenient. Linda Kardamis, founder of Teach 4 the Heart, says that managing your work week is about being as efficient as you can be with the hours you’re given. Working fewer hours doesn’t necessarily mean you will be less effective as long as you’re being productive and strategic during that time.

Maintaining Good Mental Health During the School Year

While balancing the physical workload is an important step toward a balanced life, teaching also takes a mental toll that needs to be accounted for. Maintaining good mental health is key for keeping students engaged and teachers excited about their jobs.  

Communicate With Family Members

The first year of teaching can be incredibly stressful, as instructors struggle to acclimate to their environments while building out their lesson plans. This stress also has a negative impact on your immediate support system: family and significant others.

Roxanna Elden, author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, has talked to many freaked-out family members who want to help but have no idea how.  “These are people trying to be supportive, and rightfully wondering why their loved ones are snapping or breaking down at their innocent suggestions,” Elden says.

Sharing your frustrations can help your family understand what you’re going through, but you should also communicate your needs. Elden recommends explaining that you need someone to listen, not necessarily someone to offer advice.

Seek Out Peers and Professional Mentors

To boost teachers up, Ellen Moir, CEO of the New Teacher Center, recommends finding a mentor to help get through the tough times. She found that October tends to be one of the hardest periods for teachers, and even named it “The Disillusionment Phase.”

“As they get six or seven weeks into school, they realize how tough it is to be a really good teacher,” Moir says. “They need someone saying, ‘You are not horrible. You are not a fraud.'”

Finding a mentor who has walked in your shoes and understands what the teaching world is like can take pressure off of family members who are trying to offer support but don’t know how.

Don’t Give Up on Your Hobbies

The purpose of maintaining a work-life balance is so you can do the things you love in your free time. These hobbies and interests will keep you fresh — and might even double back to make your classroom more interesting.

“I learned that keeping up other interests — novels, film, writing — kept me energised, and thus kept students engaged too,” Kester Brewin writes at The Guardian. “The equation was simple: they were better served by a teacher with some joie de vivre than by a fed-up zombie who’d stayed in all weekend filling in lesson plans.”

With 20 years of teaching experience, Brewin is a bit of an anomaly. By sticking to his interests and learning when to set aside the classroom for real life, he’s been able to persevere and thrive in a work environment that leads to the burnout of many.

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Understanding When to Say ‘No’

In an article for The Art of Education, middle school art teacher Andrew McCormick argues “for everything we do, we do other stuff less effectively.” Essentially, the more teachers say “yes” to something — no matter how well-meaning — the more they stretch themselves too thin.

Instead of doing one job to the best of their abilities, most educators end up trying to do the jobs of many with mixed results. Not only does this lead to additional stress, but it also increases the workload when inevitable changes have to be made or the project has to be redone.

Saying “no” when someone asks for help may seem harsh or uncaring, but it’s actually better for both parties in the long run.

Elena Aguilar, author of Art of Coaching, was an educator herself and now works with teachers to maintain good mental health and positive career views. She recommends developing criteria for saying “yes” before agreeing to chair a new committee, coach a new team or lead a new initiative.

Her two criteria:

  • How much will saying “yes” impact the students? (This includes the physical and emotional impact on you as their primary teaching resource.)
  • How much joy will saying “yes” to bring you?

Agreeing to coach a team or lead a club might add a few more hours your work week, but if it’s something you’re passionate about then it could become your new favorite perk of the job.

Unfortunately, not all requests can be turned down if they don’t bring you joy; however, when your workload seems to be pushing you to the breaking point, saying “no” can open the door for a healthy discussion about workload.

Mike Anderson, author of The Well-Balanced Teacher, recommends using administrative requests as a tool for overworked teachers.

“Instead of an outright no you might ask for guidance,” he writes. “I’d like to help, but I’m already swamped. Can you help me look at my schedule to see if there’s something we can take off of my plate?”

Saying “no” is especially important for teachers who have worked to create a work-life balance. All of your hard work could be undone by agreeing to add these extra tasks to your schedule.  

Resources for Overworked Teachers

Even if you feel you’re alone and overworked, there are tools out there to help teachers through the tough times.

Curriculum Sharing

Marketplaces such as TeachersPayTeachers have become a popular hub for educators looking for lesson plans. Established teachers can sell their plans to make extra money while other teachers can improve their work-life balances by selecting a pre-made curriculum instead of working to create a new one of their own.

“Teachers are often told about changes in curriculum right before the start of a new school year,” Lauralee Moss writes at PBS NewsHour. “A lesson with accompanying activities and integrated technology may have been aligned with standards yesterday but isn’t today.”

Instead of thousands of teachers starting from scratch, they can pick up some of the best work made by fellow teachers around the country.

Teacher Social Networks

It’s 2017, and there are social networks for every industry niche, including teachers. Candace Alstad at Whooo’s Reading recommends Edmodo as her favorite educator social network. With more than 72 million members across 190 countries, Edmodo is a tool for teachers to ask questions and get peer feedback, brainstorm lesson plan ideas and share materials.

Online communities, even simple ones like Facebook and LinkedIn groups, are especially useful lifelines for teachers in rural areas. It can be a challenge to find peers and mentors when there aren’t a lot of other schools around, so these digital tools can help teachers find the support they need — even if it comes from across the country.

Podcasts and TED Talks

When you feel as if you’re on your last leg, it’s important to have a strong support system. Angela Watson curated her top 12 podcasts for teachers as a way to help her fellow educators stay calm and optimistic. The podcasts range from discussions on teaching techniques to real talks with educators who share their problems and stories. Instead of crying in your car, you can listen to your fellow instructors and know that you’re not alone.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance and good mental health means teachers can spend more time focusing on their students and less time worrying about the endless list of tasks ahead of them. Both parties will leave happier and better off.

images by: ©dolgachov/123RF Stock Photo, ©wavebreakmediamicro/123RF Stock Photo, janeb13

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