I’ve said it again and again, both here and to the beginning teachers I coach: the job of a teacher is never done.
I say it so much because I still find it hard to swallow. I’m the kind of person who likes to make to-do lists and methodically check things off. This was how I spent my first few years of teaching — making endless lists then drowning in them as I collected more and more things to do.
I wondered why no matter how much effort I put into my job, it never got more manageable. As my list grew longer and longer, I developed chronic stomach pain and started clenching my jaw. At a certain point, I realized taking on more wasn’t having positive benefits for my students, and it was negatively impacting my health.
When I started to scale back, I was surprised at the results. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt calmer. I became a better teacher after accepting that “done” was impossible, so I might as well not kill myself trying to get there.
If you’re coming to terms with the never-ending nature of your job, start here:
1. Realize this is normal: There are always more lessons to plan, always more student work to give feedback on, and always more research you can do to help struggling students. Always. Teaching is exhilarating because the possibilities are endless and the impact is huge, but you can make a difference without sacrificing your health or sanity.
2. Prioritize: When your list seems endless, consider what needs to be done right now and what can wait. Consider the impact on both students and yourself when making these choices. For example, prepping for tomorrow’s science lab is a priority task because it will help students learn essential content while making sure you have something to teach tomorrow. Grading every single question on every single bit of student work isn’t as likely to have as big an impact on student learning (and it might drive you insane).
3. Connect with students: Sometimes it feels like we have so much content to teach. I remember feeling overwhelmed when I was planning how to help my first graders learn to read. Becoming entrenched in planning content sometimes made it hard to remember my number one job: to connect with students.
When you feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath and spend time with your students. Take a break from worrying about their learning and just talk with them. Relationships are the foundation for great learning experiences; taking time to connect with students will have big payoffs later on. Watch how middle school math teacher Marlo Warburton builds relationships by teaching more than “just math.”
4. Self care: My most-remembered teachers talked passionately about their lives outside of school: they were writers, artists, parents, and athletes. Spending all your time on classroom-related activities isn’t good for your health, and it isn’t a good example to set for our students. Our students should see us modeling how to live balanced, joyful lives.
Set limits for your work time. I learned to designate one day of the week a “stay late” day, and one day a “leave early” day. This helped me feel like I had time to finish everything while also knowing I was making time for myself. Teaching Channel’s Teacher Laureate Sarah Brown Wessling shows us how kicking stress can bring balance to the classroom.
This week, think of one thing you can remove from your to-do list and one thing you can do for yourself. Notice how these small choices impact your mood and your classroom. Let’s support each other by sharing successes and struggles with making our workloads manageable. Comment below to join the conversation!
Lily Jones taught K/1 for seven years in Northern California. She has experience as a curriculum developer, instructional coach, teacher trainer, and is also a contributing writer for Teaching Channel.