12 Ways I Got My Life Back in Balance as a Teacher

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I get asked often how I do it all.  How do I teach full-time, have 4 children, a happy marriage, and also write, speak, and all of those other things that I am so lucky to do without losing my mind.  And the truth is; I don’t know.  There are good days where I feel like I have succeeded in most things and there are days where I feel woefully overworked.  There is definitely a chase of balance always going on.  Yet, there are some things that have simplified my teaching life that I now take for granted.  Things that used to take up a lot of time that I no longer do or have changed to allow me to not work as much as I used to.  Because the truth is; being a teacher is a never-ending job.  Your to-do list is never done.  There will always be one more thing that should get done, one more idea to try.  Knowing that, I knew I needed to change a few things, in and out of the classroom in order to save my sanity and have a life.

I stopped grading everything.  Or at the very least I stopped grading every single thing that my students created.  Kelly Gallagher inspired me to do this specifically with what they wrote but Alfie Kohn inspired me to really think about what grades communicated to my students.  The thing is when students expect a grade/score/comment on everything they do, they will never learn to create for the sake of growth (rather than a grade) and they will not become students who can actively reflect on their own learning.  When we teach in a way where the teacher has the final word on assessment we cannot create conditions for students to take ownership of their learning.  That means that students will continue to look at us to see how they did, rather than realize where on their learning journey they are.   (To see more on my moving away from grades journey, go here.)

I stopped decorating the room.  I used to spend an inordinate amount of time refreshing the room with great new bulletin board displays, changing out student work, and lining up new visuals for the students.  Yet my students never seemed to appreciate it much or even notice it.  So by student request we formed a student bulletin board committee who took charge of what they wanted to display.  Student work is no longer displayed by me, but instead shared with classrooms around the world for feedback through Google and Skype.  Anchor charts are made with the students and then removed when we do not need them.  We now relish the bare walls that surround us as we try to create an oasis of calm in the classroom.  And the time I spent on setting up the classroom to look cute is now spent on other things.

I shut the door.  At school, we have an unspoken rule that if someone’s classroom door is shut, they are busy working.  Seldom do we interrupt them during that time.  While I adore my colleagues (I  work at an amazing school with an amazing team), I also know that once we get started on stories, most of my prep will be gone and that is not fair to my own kids at home.  So whenever I have a lot to do, I shut the door and get to work.  This way the time we are actually given at  school is used better.

I wrote down 3 things.  My to-do list is usually about 10/15 items long for various things at school and home, yet when I looked at it, I always gravitated toward the easiest things to check off, leaving the longer tasks for “later.”  Now I prioritize 3 things that must get done that day and one of them has to be a “harder” task.  Once those 3 things are done for the day I can focus on anything else I can do that day.  As for the to do lists, I keep a bullet journal that I absolutely treasure.  This method of keeping track of my life has worked  well for me and has also been a great way to keep memories fresh.  I no longer feel like the to-do list in itself is another to-do.

I stopped multi-tasking.  I thought I was the queen of successful multi-tasking until I realized how little I got done.  Research has shown that our adult attention span is now 8.25 seconds ( a goldfish has 9 seconds) and I wanted to combat that with setting better work habits.  So now when I work I close all of my tabs on the computer, turn off the TV or music,  and actually focus on getting to work.

I set a timer.  I seem to have two ways of doing work; right away or a very long time from now.  And yet, I am under deadlines for writing two new books, I have projects to look at and also lessons to plan.  So now when I dread a task or feel like I am in a writing slump, I set a timer for 30 minutes.  During that entire 30 minutes I am not allowed to do anything but work, this ties in with the no multi-tasking.  The thing is with 30 minutes that anyone can spend 30 minutes on something without losing an entire evening.  That is not very long and so it tricks my brain into thinking it is manageable.  I often find when the time is up I continue working simply because I am now in a groove.

I cut down my email replies.  In these days of instant communication, we all seem to get a lot of email.  I can only imagine what administrators must get, and I often felt the need to write lengthy replies back typically with various niceties interjected.  Yet that is not efficient, to say the least, so I now go by the two-line reply rule.  If a matter needs more than 2 lines to be addressed then I either propose a phone call or a meeting.  If it is someone I can speak to at school, I try to find them at some point to discuss, and if it does need a lengthier reply then I wait until I have the time to write it well.  I also try to be cognizant of how many emails I send in a day; are they really needed or can a quick phone call or face to face conversation handle it instead?

I stopped planning the whole lesson.  Now when I plan, I plan the initial steps and then discuss with my students as we flesh out the plan for the long run.  This means that they have input, leading to better buy in, and it also means that it becomes more personalized.  Planning with my students means that I do not have to have every single little thing figured out, leaving me more time to focus on the big picture.

I got rid of my book check-out system.  Even with the advent of electronic check out systems, it was simply one more thing to manage.  Now when students want to borrow a book, they simply borrow it.  They do not have to ask, nor do they have to write it down somewhere.  The only exception is if they borrow a hard cover book, then they write their name on a post-it and stick it on the dustcover which they then hand to me.  I keep track of them until the book is handed back and the dustcover is put back on.

I stopped committing right away.   I am very good at saying yes; if you email me a request, chances are that my instant reply would be a yes.  A yes means that I can delete the email, a yes means I know what to do.  Yet a yes also meant that I now had one more thing to do.   Now instead of answering right away, I spend time mulling it over  and really think about something before I commit to it.  This may seem simple but it has been incredible for me. By not rushing to make a decision, I preserve my energy for the things that matter the most to me.  I do not feel guilty when I have to say no because that means I get more time with my own kids.  And when I do actually say yes to something, it means I am excited to do it.  I use this approach for almost all requests that come to me, big or small.

I stopped trying every new idea.   I used to think that to be an innovative teacher I had to try every new big idea that was presented to me.  Yet, that just means that you work a lot more on things that may not fit into the vision you have.  Now, I pick and choose, I do not feel guilty that I have not gamified our classroom or created a makerspace.  We do things in a way that works for us.  That doesn’t mean I am apposed to new ideas just that I know to only pick a few and to try them out when I can.  The same goes for technology; I would rather pick a few tools to use a year and use them well then try many new ones and not know them.

I removed apps from my phone.  I removed email notifications and certain apps like Facebook and Twitter off of my phone last tear and I have not missed them.  I did not realize how much time I was spending checking in mindlessly.  I felt like I was always on, because I was.  Now when I check my email I am cognizant of the time I am using, the same goes for anythig with social media.  My own children and those I teach deserve me to be present, and I cannot be if I am constantly drawn to the ding of my phone.

Awhile ago, I wrote a post on how balance is much like a unicorn; wonderful to imagine even though it doesn’t exist.  And while I still believe that to be true, I do know that there are better ways to balance being a teacher and everything else.  So what have you done to reclaim your life from your constant to-do?

PS:  My friend Angela Watson is a master at reclaiming work time, I have much to learn from her.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

15 thoughts on “12 Ways I Got My Life Back in Balance as a Teacher

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  5. Wow. These are great tips! I especially like the timer idea. I do this with my own students who struggle to get their work done. I need to do it for myself! I also like not trying every new idea. That’s very hard for me because I want to do everything and in reality I wind up scattering my energy. Balancing teaching and family is so difficult.

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  8. Pernille: the other PD book I read over winter break besides yours was (by pure coincidence) Assessment 3.0, in which you are quoted! It goes in depth into grading, especially providing useful feedback on writing assignments. It is the most helpful teaching book I’ve read besides Passionate Learners and I think they complement each other beautifully.

  9. Happy to find you! And this list – it’s exactly what I need right now. There are many things here that I have also changed over the years and several that I want to try. Getting excited and breathing more deeply just thinking about it. Thank you! One other – that I’m guessing you have already done – is that I refuse to take school work home with me (exception: report card time). It is a rare moment, now, in which I do work at home and it has enabled me to really focus on my family and life outside of school more. (Doesn’t stop that brain from buzzing, though…) Going to that bullet journal list link now! (and clearly am not following the two-line rule)

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