From the start of our careers, educators fall into a pit of unhealthy habits.
We overwork and under-sleep. We engage in binge drinking and eating, try to balance the events of our own lives, and prioritize pushing through situations instead of productively unpacking them. Sometimes we neglect our own trauma, to help others cope with theirs.
In my first semester of teaching, I constantly felt out of breath like I was stuck in a cycle of unrelenting wind sprints. I had just graduated college, and I was teaching 12th grade British Literature (think Beowulf and 1984 – painful). In my head I felt like I was just going to walk into the building and be an excellent educator but soon found out that I had underestimated the demands of teaching.
I was overwhelmed by all of it.
Each new essay to grade or hallway duty or human interaction forced more air out of my lungs, submerging me deeper into a vacuum. By December, I was in a state of recovery, just trying to gain enough strength to teach my last block of the day.
The way I coped was the way I observed others cope. I frequented Happy Hours. I complained about what was wrong with the school during my planning block. I blamed my lack of success on children. I stayed up late trying to complete lessons plans at the last minute. I ate out every night (gained 12 pounds that first year).
I chose the wrong behaviors to mimic. And I wasn’t taking care of myself.
It influenced my performance as a professional.
In February of my first year I was placed on a performance plan stating that if I didn’t improve, I would not receive an offer letter for the following year.
I wanted to improve, but I lacked the habits and the skill set to do better.
Three months later, I was called to the front office by my principal. He informed me that I would not be returning the following year, and asked me to sign a form of acknowledgement.
I was blessed to interview well, and gain employment at another school, but I realized that I needed to change my habits if I was going to be an effective teacher. Below are the ways I made teaching more sustainable (and enjoyable):
1. Reflect, pray, and prioritize as soon as I wake up.
I learned that organizing my thoughts, reflecting on what I was grateful for, and prioritizing how I was spending my time for the day, helped me feel less overwhelmed. I had to use the first part of the day to focus on me, and mute all the other noise. After reflection and prayer, organizing my time is the next important action. As educators, we will always have a to-do list, but we have to use systems to determine what is done when, and keep track of what we are accomplishing. Dedicate 45 minutes right after waking up to focus on you.
2. Deleted my work email off of my phone.
I know this sounds contradictory, but deleting my work email off of my phone was liberating and made me more efficient. It forced me to be intentional about the times of day I checked and replied to emails, and pushed me to not look at work when I’m eating dinner, spending time with friends and family, or just not doing work. It helps create a clear boundary between when work should and should not be the focus.
3. Meal prep on the weekends.
Cooking a new meal every single night is impossible for me. I’m at my best when I have planned my lunches and dinners out for the week, and bring lunch every single day. The food I (or my beautiful wife) cooks is also almost always healthier than what I find in the school cafeteria (Michelle Obama’s campaign healthy lunch campaign had to skip over Georgia), and it saves me time and money. What I cook for dinner usually shows up to school with me the next day for lunch.
4. Use free blocks during the day to plan.
It is easy to use planning blocks as a time to decompress and socialize, but this will cause you to have to do work away from your school building. I push myself to complete the majority of my work at school, so that I don’t have to open my laptop up again if I don’t need to. It also allows me to have work complete in advance so that I can make any copies several days before I actually need to use them.