7 Strategies to Create Balance for the Overwhelmed Teacher

Creating balance as an overwhelmed teacher

Teaching is an overwhelming profession.  And just the word overwhelmed makes me think about a quote from one of my favorite movies 10 Things I Hate About You.   “I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?” (If you haven’t seen it, watch it.)

Wouldn’t teachers like to be in that perfectly balanced place of whelmed?  Not so little going on that students aren’t learning, or the day is drab and repetitive. But not so bogged down by all the “to-dos” that we are drowning.

If you didn’t notice the use of the word balanced I am pointing it out.  Balance is a learned skill like learning to balance on a bike, or my preferred place of balance, on a balance beam.  It takes skill and practice to find the sweet spot so you can cruise through having fun and being challenged.  No one wants teaching to be boring, that’s what cubical life is for.

Strategies for Teachers to Find More Balance

  1. Assign and Do Less

If you are feeling overwhelmed by everything you need to do in class, to prepare for class, and what was requested of you by the administration, your students are likely overwhelmed too. The truth is you can require a smaller amount of work.  Assign fewer tasks.  Do less. All student learning is not measured by your grade book.  Don’t let anyone tell you that lie. Think about what you know is important for your students to learn and focus on that.  Yes, you may have to touch on some of the other common core or state standards, but keep the ones that aren’t important to your current group of students small manageable tasks.

You have my full permission to do less.

  1. Quality of Work, Not Quantity

We might say to our students that we are looking for good quality, but are we still assigning extra meaningless work?  Sometimes there are papers that we assign because we feel we have to.  Maybe there is another teacher doing that assignment.  Maybe we “heard” it was supposed to be good. In my first long-term substitute position, I always assigned something new.  I was giving the students more work.  I was giving myself more work.  The truth is, it did not create the most beneficial or meaningful learning for my students that year.  

Sit down and make a list of the things you think are the most important for your students to learn and be successful this year.  Think about the best way for students to learn these things.  Write it down.  Focus on this, and plan based on this.  Check out my Focus Your School Year Digital Planning Outline

Remember for students to successfully learn a concept you might have to slow your pace until they understand it.  Don’t rush.  You are slowing down because you are looking for quality work, not quantity.

  1. Let It Go

No, don’t start singing the song from Frozen.  Well maybe singing it would be fun.

I am talking about your “to-do” list.  I often keep items on my to-do list way too long, to the point where I don’t even know what my note on the list is referring to.  If something has been on your list too long you probably don’t really have to get it done.  I mean you have survived until now without doing it.  

Let it go, drop it, erase it. 

If there is an assignment that you started with the class and it’s just a disaster.  Abandon it.  Try something else.  Let it go.  Tell the kids we are going to stop that and try something I think will work better.

Stop it before it’s finished.  Don’t grade it.  Let it go.

  1. Say No

Boundaries are important in life.  We set boundaries for our classroom with rules.  The school sets boundaries for students and faculty with handbooks.  The state sets boundaries for citizens with laws.  Why can’t you set some of your own boundaries? I’m sure you like to help out at school.  The administration knows they can count on you for some of those extra tasks.  But isn’t it just more work that is adding to your overwhelmed state?  

It’s okay to say no.  Again I am giving you permission.  

I know it’s hard to say no.  Maybe you should practice with some little things.  Pick a day at home and just say no to any questions you are asked.

However, you are also a professional so your answer to being asked to help with these extra tasks will likely be, “I really wish I could help with that, but I know I won’t be able to get it done because I have (name of your current project) to do,” or “I won’t be able to give it the time it deserves because (name of your current reason).”  Something like that because when you explain why people are usually reasonable and understand. 

Maybe you have a smooth way to say no that has worked for you that you can share in the comments.

Also, as a professional, it is important that you show administration you said no because you are already working hard and are busy.  When you are at work do your best work.  This will show the administration you are busy, not lazy.  

Saying no while you really are overwhelmed and have a lot going on does not mean you will say no forever.  There may be extras that you want or like to do, but make sure you pick and chose.  You can’t do it all.

  1. Reject Guilt

Teachers feel guilty if they don’t plan during their entire vacation, if they don’t stay late every night, and for taking time for self-care.  This is a mindset issue.  Have you taught students about mindsets?  

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t you’re right” was very famously said by Henry Ford.  Teaching about mindsets might be new, but it’s not a new concept.

Ask yourself a few questions to help reprogram this false mindset:
  • Am I doing something wrong?  For example, “Am I doing something wrong by leaving work on time today so I can pick my child up from soccer?”
  • Am I doing something bad? For example, “Am I doing something bad by leaving these papers to grade during my allotted paper grading planning period instead of taking them home?”
  • Did I work hard today while I was at work? Ask yourself this one everyday.  Recognize yourself for your hard work.  
  • Do I need to spend time on this work task tonight at home to be an effective teacher?  Ask yourself this before you think about bringing work home. The most powerful tool in a classroom is an effective teacher.  Not the papers or tasks you bring to and from school.  It’s you.  

Likely the answer to these questions is no.  

You have my permission to get your nails done, bake for fun, play games with your family, or watch a tv show without looking at your computer (but do finish reading this).  All of these things are reasonable ways to spend your evenings.  All of these things contribute to your quality of life and thus make you a better teacher.

  1. Leave Work at Work

If you leave work at work you are setting boundaries again.  These boundaries are for yourself.  It’s like when you don’t eat the whole chocolate cake.  You show some self-discipline and self-control.

It’s amazing that if you commit to this you will manage to get what NEEDS to be done, done.  If you need some other tips on how to manage your planning time so you feel more prepared to leave work at work read my other article: _______.

I was good about leaving work at work.  I might fix an online assignment, answer one email, or some other task once in a while, but I left the other stuff for tomorrow.  My greatest exception was grading essays.  I would bring essays home with me and often grade them on a long car ride.

It is possible to leave work at work.  Don’t be jealous of the one teacher in your building that manages to do.  Decide to do it yourself.

Don’t feel bad leaving with just your purse or lunch bag.  

  1. Unsubscribe From Junk Emails

I have just done this myself.  I received emails from groupon, old navy and Michael’s that I never read to multiple email accounts.  I was getting emails from racing groups or from accounts I thought I shut down.  

Unsubscribe.  It’s been just a few days and it’s so strange to not have to delete emails I don’t read.  I have more time to read articles about teaching and focus on things that matter.

There are some really great emails out there that do matter and are helpful.  They can help you as a teacher or parent.  They keep you informed about the most important happenings.  Keep those, but cut the fat.

Happy Teaching!

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