Essentialism for the Overworked Teacher

I have been sick for the past two months.  Not just cold sick, but several attempts with antibiotics, various diagnoses, including pneumonia, and an ever persistent exhaustion no matter the sleep I got, kind of sick.  What started as a virus has become something I can’t fight.  And I am well aware I have done this to myself.  Between teaching full-time, speaking, writing, being a mother and a wife, and selling our house, I have forgotten what it means to do nothing.  Forgotten what it means to relax and not feel so guilty about it.  Even reading has become a chore and so I realized last Thursday, that in my attempt to make the world better I have forgotten about myself.

Why share this?  It is not for sympathy, but instead to highlight something so common in education; the overworked teacher.  We have all been there, in fact, many of us exist constantly at this stage it seems, where we get so absorbed into our classrooms that we forget about our own mental health and then wonder why we feel burnt out.   We know we should do less but worry about the consequences and so we push on and dream of vacation and doing little, yet never make the time for it.  I have been reading the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown in an effort to make sense of my own decisions, of this exhaustion I am working through, and as I read I cannot help but transfer this knowledge into the classroom.  How much of the discipline of Essentialism can help us, as overworked teachers, and steer us away from burn out before it even begins?

One of the central tenets of the book is the idea of doing less better.  We seem to forget that in education as we constantly pursue new ideas to add into our classroom in order to create more authentic experiences for our students.  We plan, we teach, we juggle one hundred things and add in extra whenever we see a need, and then come back and do the same the next day.  Yet, we know this is not sustainable, so what can we do?

Discover your essentials.

What do you hold most sacred within your teaching?  You can decide either in your subject area or in your whole educational philosophy.  List the three most essential goals for your year and then plan lessons according to these, eliminating things that do not tie in with your goals.

So for example, one of my essential goals for the year is to help my 7th graders become better human beings.  While a lofty goal, it steers me when I plan lessons as I ask; is there a bigger purpose to this learning or is it just a small assignment to “get through?”  If I want my students to become better human beings we must work within learning that matters and that gives them a chance to interact with others.

Say no more.

We tend to volunteer ourselves whenever an opportunity arises.  But as Greg McKeown discusses, saying “Yes” is the easy way out, we don’t have to deal with the guilt that comes with saying no or not volunteering.  However, when we live in a cycle of yes, we take on more than we can truly handle.  Therefore, evaluate what is most essential to you and to your classroom.  If something is not in line with your goals, and you are not excited at the prospect of doing the work, then politely decline. Others will almost certainly take the spot meant for you or the work will be approached in a different way.

Eliminate the clutter.

Just like we need to say no, we also need to stop creating extra work for ourselves.  I find myself distracted when my classroom or especially my workspace is cluttered and using the extra time to find something or put something away becomes one more thing to do in our busy teaching days.  While I don’t mean, “Get rid of everything,” look at the piles that you constantly move.  Why do they not have a home?  Do they need a home?  If everything has a specific place in your classroom, then you know where to return something to once you have used it.  That method will help you eliminate all of the extra time spent simply shuffling things around.

Plan for no plans.

We tend to plan every minute of our day so that we can get the most use out of our precious time, yet we know that throughout the day, extra items will get added and all of a sudden we did not get to the things we meant to get to.  So leave gaps in your prep time or in your before or after school routine for the extra things that have popped up or the major item that still needs to get done.  That way you are not trying to squeeze extra things in when you really have accounted for how every minute will be spent already.

 

Slow down your decisions

So often, in order to be efficient, we make a snap decision without really thinking the decision through.  This can lead to more stress, more thing to get done, and also less happiness.  In the past year, I have learned to hit pause before I reply to that request and really consider whether this is something I want to dedicate myself to and whether I will enjoy it.  If I cannot answer emphatically yes to those two things then I politely decline, however, I cannot answer those two questions if I do not take the time to think about it first.  If a request comes up in conversation, it is okay to tell someone that you will get back to them with an answer as soon as you can.

Choose your yes’

My 2017 word of the year has been “Enjoy.”  I chose this word as a reminder to myself that when I do say yes to something, I need to enjoy what I am doing.  That doesn’t mean that my life is filled with fun and exciting things at all times, but it does mean that when I choose to do something I try to be mindful of the fact that I chose to do it.  This has been a great reminder of why choosing my yes’ with care is so important.  If I am in, then I want to be all in.

Remember you have a choice.

Greg McKeown wrote, “When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless.” How often is this the case not just for our students when they come to us believing school is just something to get through, but also when we forget about our own power of choice?  While being educators means that there are many things we do not have power over, there are many things we do, and so remembering that we do have a choice is important for us all.

 

Create your own priority.

I was really struck by the discussion of how the plural version of the word “Priority” was not invented until the 1900’s when mass production and multitasking became the thing to strive for.  How many priorities do we juggle in a day as educators?  Look no further than the vision statements of our schools; I have yet to find one that lists one single thing, rather than many.  Yet, when we have multiple priorities we are, in essence, not working on any of them by spreading ourselves too thin.  So much like you should discover your essentials, discover your one priority.  What is the one thing that you want to focus on?  It can be a larger goal that encompasses many small things, however, limit yourself to one and then dedicate yourself to it.  This goes for the work our students do as well.

Plan for play.

Much like I have embraced doing nothing the last few days, I have also tried to join in the play with my children.  I have been more at peace, had more fun, and also had an incredible surge in brainpower while pretending to be a stealthy ninja or trying to beat them all at Sorry.  Play often feels like an indulgence and something that we, as adults, should grow out of, yet reintroducing the concept of play, and also of boredom, has been incredibly revitalizing.  So plan for play next year, whether by creating challenges for your students, taking the time to draw, playing jokes on colleagues, or doing something else that seems off topic and even frivolous.  Plan for play before strenuous tasks or when stress levels seem high.  I cannot wait to see what our brains will do after.

Stop the guilt.

We are awfully good at feeling guilty as educators.  Whether it is guilt from feeling like we didn’t do enough, like we didn’t teach well, or because we didn’t volunteer, didn’t go the extra mile, didn’t write enough feedback, or insert whatever teacher related item here; guilt seems to be our constant companion.  But think of the weight of guilt and how it consumes our subconscious.  Why do we let it?  In the past six months, I have started saying no more and I can tell you, I feel guilty every time, but as it has become more of a habit, the guilt has lessened and the weight I feel lifted is palpable.  So turn the guilt around; rather than feel guilty for saying no, congratulate yourself.  Celebrate the fact that you know when to protect yourself and your energy.  Celebrate the extra time you just gave yourself and then don’t plan extra work for that time.

Dedicate yourself to yourself.

We spend so much time thinking of our students, their needs, and their goals, that we forget about ourselves.  So as you plan lessons for your students, plan lessons for yourself as well.  How will you grow as a human being or as a practitioner today?  How do you want to feel at the end of the day?  There is nothing selfish about focusing some of our energy on ourselves as we go through the day trying to create great learning experiences for our students.

As I slowly gain my health back, as I slowly feel less exhausted, as I slowly start to clear my mind, I start to remember what it feels like to not work all of the time.  To have vacation.  To take the time to step away so that when we come back, we feel so excited.  The truth is; work is not the only thing I want to consume me.  I want my family to consume me.  My love for my husband.  I want to find joy in reading books with a cup of tea next to me.  To play stupid computer games.  In baking.  In laughing with my kids rather than telling them to hurry up.  I want my legacy to be more than being a good teacher.  And I cannot do that if I don’t change my life a bit.  The first step was to realize that things had to change, that came courtesy of my exhausted body, now it is up to me to continue on this journey.   Reading Essentialism has provided me with a path.

16 thoughts on “Essentialism for the Overworked Teacher

  1. It felt weird when first planning some “boredom breaks” into the week, but it is so easy to stay busy/connected. I try to focus on “mindful” decision making – but it’s not always easy. Looking forward to finding some time (😜) to read the book recommendation!

  2. Thank you. I’m beginning 14 months away from the classroom. One of the biggest goals of this sabbatical year is to put structures in place that allow me to have my life and family time back when I return to teaching. The status quo is no longer acceptable to me.

  3. I learned so many of these lessons this past school year after I broke three bones in my ankle and had to have surgery. I doubt I would have gotten hurt if I’d been taking better care of myself. I also missed time when my husband became critically ill in January. I began learning how to make time for myself and how to stop sweating as much of the small stuff. Prioritizing looked a lot different by the end of the school year out of necessity.

  4. Thank you for this post. I’ve been really working on this for my own health and wellness, my connection w my family, and just generally being present in the moment. Over the past five years, especially, I’ve found that the bits and pieces of my teaching life had seeped into all corners or my personal life – working on road trips w my family, doing professional reading in lieu or recreational reading, checking my email from my phone in any available moment,… Recognizing the negative spiral, I’ve begun to make some changes that have made a lot of difference. I took my email and social media off my phone, no longer is school work allowed to come to bed w me (recreational reading only!), and narrowing my focus by valuing a less is more approach. These little things have made a big difference!

  5. Pernille – you do so much for others, but your first priority needs to be YOU! Hope you are feeling better and rested soon. Take some time off if you need it. ❤
    PS – Just read the disclaimer at the bottom, and I absolutely love it!

  6. So glad that you shared this. I have been through several of these exhaustion/sick cycles that you describe. Teaching can be all consuming and taking time for ourselves takes commitment. I’ve learned that I can’t be a good mother, wife, teacher if I feel exhausted all of the time. For me, this is a constant challenge. Hope you feel better and back to yourself soon!

  7. Thank you for sharing Pernille. I shared your post with the whole staff at my school and hopefully, it will provide inspiration for all of us. I just downloaded the book to listen to on a long airline trip. I need to hear this message. Hope you feel 100% very soon!

  8. Thanks for your always honest reflections, Pernille. The saying “no and not feeling guilty about it was the hardest lesson I’ve ever learned, but it was the best lesson for me. Hope you find time for yourself and your family this summer and that you can totally shake the illness you’ve been struggling with!

  9. Thank you so much for this post, Pernille. I think determining what is essential is one of the most difficult things for a teacher to do, because our work is never finished. There is always one more thing to tweak for our students, one more way that we can make a lesson more engaging, one more book to read, and the list goes on.

    Thank you for meaningful, practical suggestions for bringing peace and order into a profession that can become chaotic in the sheer magnitude of demands that it places on professionals who want the best for their students. Things become even more challenging when one is juggling several roles–wife, mother, teacher, etc. Thank you for all that you do to inspire and encourage educators! 🙂 Blessings as you regain health and strength.

  10. Thank you for your post. I am glad you realized what is MOST important sooner than later. Your own children will grow up quickly and when they are making their places in the world you will miss them very much. You can never get the time back so be mindful of living in the moment and being present for yourself, your husband, and your children. I hope you continue to feel better. Take care of you.

  11. I lost a very close and dear friend to cancer the day before school started this past year. I was rocked, beyond belief, not sure if I wanted to teach anymore, or even get out of bed for that matter yet, his ‘way too early’ passing caused me to stop and recalculate my life, especially as a teacher, who constantly gives to everyone else all of the time, even above my own husband and children…we teachers are just like that. His death, like your illness Pernille, centered me and reminded me to take care, be still and most of all, to be extra gentle with myself. Saying no became a big part of that. So did the power of play…I even made my very own batch of homemade play dough with essential oils and just sit with it sometimes and simply be.
    “Each day, accept everything that comes to you as a gift; at night mentally give it all back. In this way, you become free.”
    ~Be free

  12. Thank you for your willingness to open up about this chronic condition that we all struggle with but rarely discuss. I’m very interested in checking out the book, as well!

  13. What a great and timely post. My own health has suffered because I only slow down slightly in the summer. Beginning to say no more at school without guilt. I love reading your blog as you are both insightful and inspirational.

  14. Thank you for your post. I, too, have struggled with these same issues. As I transition from teaching 4th grade for 14 years to 5th grade for the first time (!), I’m in a constant battle of getting ready for next year or relaxing while I’m on vacation. This really shouldn’t be a problem but it is. One decision I made a few years ago was that the month of July was to be a non-thinking-about-teaching month. This has helped immensely. I do read emails or blogs about teaching which brought me to your post. I look forward to reading the book and seeing how my thoughts and feelings will be affected. Do take care of yourself as there is only one You! Enjoy your summer!

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