I cannot be the only one who navigates productivity guilt.
You know, that feeling of never having accomplished enough as an educator, or adult, and therefore not deserving of rest.
The bad news? Productivity guilt can lead to major health implications, I know this, I have had major health implications the last 5 years of being a teacher such as anxiety, a weakened immune system leading to multiple pneumonia and bronchitis bouts, and high blood pressure.
The good news – it doesn’t have to be this way. But as someone who is still trying to break productivity guilt habits, it is hard to break. The educational system is set up to make us constantly cross our own self-imposed boundaries. And the needs of our communities can be so high. So finding a way to still be productive while also knowing when to work can be a process in itself.
After learning more about productivity guilt, I wanted to share a few tips and ideas for how to recognize t, and more importantly, how to do something about it in order for you to feel healthier. I cross-posted this on Instagram but wanted to make sure I shared it here as well.
If you are not sure how to cut down on your workload, I will gladly help alleviate some of it. Just let me know how I can help.
Here are a few ideas for how to recognize and lessen productivity guilt so you can get back to living the life you deserve.
It has been seemingly endless days of rain in Denmark. A drizzle. A storm. A dusting. Sideways, straight down, diagonal to hit every part of you, relentless, endless.
Every time you go outside, the rain pelts you, the wind blows up your umbrella – you arrive just a little bit soggy. Your hair a mess. Grateful for the shoes you at least did think to wear, knowing that the ones you pined for would have left your feet a soggy mess. Layers, wool, and waterproof – such is the fashion these days.
The sun hides behind endless clouds giving us a slim 7-hour window of being greeted by it – we leave in the dark, we come home in the dark. The forecast meticulously studied, my body naturally gearing itself toward any windows that offers just the smallest bit of light. Has my seasonal depression phase started?
It is what I had warned my husband about. He who had only ever experienced the glory of Danish summers, the long nearly unending summer nights stretched ahead. He, who thought, we should take the chance offered us to build our life in a new country.
I tried to warn him. Doing the best I could to give him the absolute reality of what it means to live in a country where hygge originated. There is a reason for the lighting of all those candles after all. Did he really understand what a Danish winter would feel like after months of rain and wind? Was he sure he wanted to give up the pristine winter days in Wisconsin where, sure, the cold can kill you but the beauty also leaves you breathless? It might last longer but it had skiing, sledding, and surprise snow days. Not everyday drudging through the rain, not the wind in your face as a constant companion.
As I complained yesterday of how soaked I was after my bike ride to the train station, lamenting how the rain is wearing me out, he told me I had it all wrong. Had I considered how little it had rained? How few days we have truly been soaked through? How warm we have been for so many days?
That perhaps I could focus on other things while still feeling the rain?
That I had made him believe that the rain would be nonstop starting in October, soaking us until March, and instead we have had glorious fall-colored days. Had I forgotten how the sunshine beckoned us outside, the color of the leaves changing so slowly that they seemingly hung on for months?
Had I forgotten the days with snow? Where our winter-loving children bounded out the door to build a snowman before school. Where their red noses and glistening eyes told us all about the snowball fight they had at school – “…with permission, mom!”
Or what about the days filled with ice? Our footsteps finding any small frozen-over puddle that we could just to hear the satisfying crack as the layer of ice broke by the force of our foot?
Or the days that already felt like spring, how the sun slowly is coming back but until then we light our candles, wear our wool-socks, and still continue to go outside, embracing this season that soaks the earth. Living in the moment, rain or not, breathing in the wonders of this season.
A difference in perception so grand that I don’t know how I missed all of the things he noticed?
It makes me think of teaching. Of how my relentless optimism finally ran out in the midst of the pandemic. How I started to see more rain than sun. How every new opportunity quickly felt like a challenge. How I mustered every day, slipping on my practiced smile, but cried so often in my kitchen.
How I so often heard only the complaints of the kids who hated what we were doing. How I so often focused on the few that clearly disliked me, our class, and our school. How in the season I was in, I only felt the rain because I couldn’t feel everything else, I didn’t have the energy to. I didn’t have anyone with power left telling me to look for the good because so many of us were drowning.
How I tried so hard to feel like I was enough to do all the things asked of me. And I just wasn’t. I am not sure anyone is right now.
And I tried to see all the good. I knew it was there. I knew I was lucky. But in a broken system that only demands more of you without taking anything away, we are made to feel as if we are the problem, rather than the system itself. And so often we are too afraid to say anything. After all, who wants their kid taught byt the teachers who complains?
But I wonder about the difference in perception from us to our students. Would they also say that these years have been the hardest years? Would they also say that the system is broken? What would they say if we asked them?
How often do we ask them?
I asked my students all the time what I could change, how I could grow, what else should we do? I am glad I did. After all, we cannot enact change if we don’t know what to change.
But I often forgot to ask them what we should keep? What they loved or liked? What worked for them? What did they see as positives?
And I wish I had. I wish we did it as a school. I wish parents did before they complain about what teachers are now doing.
I wish we offered educators up more true chances to take a moment and recognize the good. To be recognized for the good. For us to have a moment to breathe and relish that we are doing hard things every single day. That many kids do enjoy coming into our spaces. That many children do like being in our classes.
And not in a superficial way by giving us a donut, or a jean day, or some quickly written email. But by a full recognition of how despite the educational challenge being as hard as it is, we still show up. That despite all of the craziness surrounding education, we still come to teach every day, every kid.
And then we fight to keep the good. We fight to keep the components that make school meaningful; the plays, the assemblies, the read alouds, the contests, the time for creative writing, independent reading, experiments and experimental learning. The curriculum that asks us to think critcally and speak bravely. The texts that show us what humanity really looks like.
And we are protected by the administration. And by the community. And by the kids themselves.
Perhaps a dream, but a glorious one nevertheless.
And perhaps we recognize that yes, the rainy days will continue, the wind will continue to blow us back, but with others surrounding us, we will get to a new season. That within the rain and the wind, there will still be moments where we look up and marvel. Where we can stand in a moment and say that, yes, this is where we are meant to be. That for many kids we teach, this is not the worst season. And so we embrace those moments longer than we do the bad. We open our arms, tilt our faces to the sun and stand still knowing that this moment right here may not make it all worth it but it makes this day worth it.
And we take it day by day, sometimes hour by hour if we need to. And we fight, and we push back, and we raise our voices to reestablish the boundaries that have been wrestled from us.
And we plant our feet, squarely in the soaked earth, and we plant the seeds that the rain allows us to nourish, knowing that some day, the kids we teach will grow up to be teachers themselves, to be parents, and community members, administrators, school board members, and politicians, and that hopefully they saw us embrace what it meant to teach courageously. What it meant to set up boundaries. What it meant to fight for all kids to be safe within our spaces. And what it meant to weather the storm when we could but also walk away when we found ourselves alone.
I know the rain will continue even as we inch nearer to spring. I know the short reprieve we have right now as I write this is shortlived, after all I saw the forecast. But I will put on my trusty boots, I will continue with my day, and I will still go outside, better equipped, with a mind at peace with this moment in time. Knowing that while the rain soaks me it also soaks the seeds we have planted for a future we cannot see yet. How about you?
We have settled in. Sort of anyway. The kids know how to get to school, when to leave, where the parks and library are. We meal plan, have Friday night movie nights, and try to be outside as much as possible as fall is here and the leaves are changing. We have ideas for how we want to fill our time and sometimes they come to fruition. I have never felt so adult in my life.
And yet, I still feel unsettled. My routines are partially in place, I get to work on time, get home on time, cook meals, and put the kids to bed. But the other things that make up a life are still not there really. I am out of my reading routine, I am not sure when to call people that I normally talk to, I am posting on social media at the wrong time. I don’t even feel like I know how to dress anymore. And what am I even anymore now that I am not teaching kids actively?
And so I dream of the things I want to do, waiting for that right time. When life has finally settled more. When the kids seem to be okay. When I feel right for longer stretches of time. But when will that happen? Do we ever really feel well-rested and fully ready to take on anything?
Change is hard when ordinary life is overwhelming. When we tread water and try to just make it to the finish line of the day.
Change is hard when we have been in the same place for a long time. We know how to make things work, so why rock the boat?
Change is hard when we have to worry about the daily lives of others, make sure that we don’t up-end too much because who knows how it will reverberate in the future.
Change is hard when it is just us trying to make our way.
It seems there is no time when change is not hard.
I have wanted to winter bathe for years. In Wisconsin, there wasn’t much time for it. But here in Denmark, it is everywhere. I spoke my idea aloud to my husband, tried to sign us up for a membership (sauna included after the dip) but was told there were no open member spots.
Friday night, I got sick of waiting for the time to change. For life to feel under control enough for me to take more on. After all, there is no guarantee that that will ever happen. I cannot think of a time in my life when time was abundant and energy was too.
So Saturday morning we drove to the ocean and ran into it. 53-degree air temperature. It was not warm, not winter either. And we ran out and huddled in our towels and laughed. This morning we did it again.
We don’t have access to the sauna. I don’t have my flip-flops, they are in a shipping container coming our way. We each have one towel which tends to be damp most of the time. There is sand everywhere in our car. We are probably not doing it right, I think we are supposed to sit in the water for longer.
But we feel alive. And we like it. And we want to do it again. It was just the change I needed to feel good about the now we are in.
Change is funny that way. We can wait for the right time in our lives to finally change. We can wait for the big moments such as a move across the world to finally change. We can wait for others to tell us, to make us. Or we can simply take a step and make the change we have wanted for so long.
I could have waited for our membership to go through. I could have waited to get the right gear. To grow bolder. To grow older. For the time to feel more right.
But I didn’t. Because the change was needed now.
How often do we wait for the right time in our classrooms to change? How often do we think, “next year”, or when I switch grades, or when the time is better. Or even when I am not just trying to survive every day. Our routines save us time and time again but at what cost?
So what are the changes you have been dreaming of? What have you been too afraid to do?
The time will never be right, so consider what you can tweak? What can you replace so it doesn’t feel like more is added? What is that unit? That lesson? That shift in practice you have wanted to try?
If you are scared, tell yourself it is a pilot. Allow yourself to try and know that it doesn’t have to be permanent. We jumped at the chance of moving home because we knew we could return to the US if it didn’t work it (it wouldn’t be easy to relocate don’t get me wrong but that door is not closed).
If you feel there is no time, audit your schedule; where can you fit it in? (What might you pause in order to try something new).
If you feel there is no support, involve your students in the planning. Their excitement often carries us through.
If you don’t know what to change but know there is a need; ask your students. What works? What doesn’t? What are their dreams and hopes? What can you plan together?
I spoke of moving home to Denmark for years, casually mentioning it, and always thinking “some day.” But to take the leap, to say yes, and actually do it has been the scariest adult thing I have done since having children. And it is easy to get paralyzed by that. It is easy to feel like that change was enough change and now we settle into our routine as quickly as we can.
But it turns out there are still many other new things to try.
The change continues. What is the life I have wanted to have for so long? What are the routines I wanted to change? How do I want to raise my children? How do I want to live my one and precious life to quote Mary Oliver?
Because we can wait for the time to be right.
Or we can embrace the time that is now.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, change never is, but it can make us feel alive again.
Don’t wait. It’s not as scary as it sounds.
In fact, you could say, come on in, the water is just fine.
It has been three weeks since we landed in Denmark, the country of my birth that I left 24 years ago for the US. Twenty one days of an absolute whirlwind of getting our kids enrolled in school, starting my new job, moving into our temporary apartment, buying furniture, battling jet lag, doing all of the documentation for my husband’s residence application, findings doctors and dentists, buying a broken car that we didn’t think was defective , and all of the many daily things that we do as parents to ensure that our four children feel like they are settled as well. Three weeks of the craziest to-do list I have ever worked through as an adult.
And I suppose that today the dust settled just enough for me to take a moment and take it all in, to surrender not to the to-do but to the to-be and while there has been so much joy surrounding this decision to uproot our entire lives to pursue a better future, today the sadness also hit me. Not just for those I left behind, who I miss so dearly, but for the me that I left behind as well.
I am not a teacher currently, couldn’t even get an interview when I tried. I am no one’s expert. I am no one’s close friend or confidante. Beyond the scope of my family, no one relies upon me to be in their immediate vicinity and help. I am not a go-to person for those I work with or trusted yet.
Because here in Denmark I am just Pernille. Just a Dane that moved away and now came back. Not a facilitator, coach, or expert in anything.
Just Pernille who doesn’t know how to do her job and has so much to learn. No one emails to collaborate. No invitations to go teach others. No opportunities to write, to learn, to grow besides the ones I carve out for myself.
You would think it might be freeing but it turns out it is really lonely. It feels scary. It feels like I have completely left so much of what I held valuable within my identity behind and have no idea whether I will ever get to be that again. And I miss it. A lot. More than I thought.
And so I think of the students in our care who show up new to us. Who perhaps also left so much behind with the previous teachers that they had meticulously built, who had a place and a space in their previous years that we know nothing of. Who are hoping we see their value, who are hoping we see their need to be seen. To be known. To be something more than just another kid we teach. How do we create opportunities for them to be known? How do we create opportunities for them not to feel less than but instead continue to build on the momentum they had?
We start with conversations and invitations. We listen more than we speak. We offer opportunities for genuine collaboration and for them to show off what they already are and what they already can do. And we ask questions about them and we offer opportunities for them to fill in the blanks on the questions we don’t even know to ask. And we plan for it because it cannot be left to chance.
Because starting over may be freeing in so many ways but it is also exhausting, even embarrassing at times when you don’t know how to act, when your sense of self is based upon things that are no longer present.
And so we sit together in the messiness of not knowing each other and recognize the power of the moment. We slow down enough so that we remember why we came together in the first place; not just to teach, but to learn. About the world, about ourselves, about each other.
And we give ourselves grace. We embrace all of the moments and all of the emotions. And we breathe and plan and adjust and readjust and hopefully inch by inch, or should it be centimeter by centimeter, we grow into this brave new world and continue our journey. Even if it feels overwhelming right now.
I know we made the right decision for our children to move home, not just for their future, but for their now. I hope it was also the right decision for us, their adults, I hope I find a place to fit in again. I hope I can be Pernille, someone who means something more, again.
I initially wrote this post four years ago but rediscovered it this morning as I started to dream about the year ahead. It is not surprising that it still rang true to me as the past few years teaching during COVID have placed even more expectations on the type of experiences we create with and for students. Perhaps you feel the pressure too?
For twelve years I have been sharing my thoughts on this blog.
Twelve years of good.
Twelve years of not-so-good.
Twelve years of let’s try this and see how it goes.
Twelve years of let’s figure it out together. Let’s change it. Let’s disrupt. Let’s center kids and the voices who have been ignored for so long.
Twelve years of simply needing to get it out so that my brain could process whatever it was and move on.
So many years and words documenting trying to be more than I am as a teacher. Of living, breathing education. Of late nights and early mornings trying to come up with a new idea, a twist on an old idea, of more pathways, of centering kids in new ways so they can hopefully feel safe, find value, and be seen. The years have flown by even as the days sometimes have dragged by. I have loved it for so long but the past few years, now more than ever, the pressure to be not just a teacher but to be a life-changing one, to handle everything thrust at us with grace, ease, and innovation, has become an insurmountable mountain of expectation that is crushing us all. To not just have great lessons but also make it look easy for those watching has become the norm rather than the exception.
And the pressure builds as we take on the responsibility not just to help them understand, but to create spaces that can compete with everything else that pulls kids in. So what no one ever told me before I became a teacher was how there would be this unbelievable pressure to be an amazing teacher. To be the kind of teacher that truly changes lives. To create the type of environment that students cannot wait to be a part of. What no one ever told me before I became a teacher was how much social media would lead me to believe that I was doing it all wrong, most of the time, because my students are not always those students that love school.
It is fed by the statements that surround us…
“If they didn’t have to be there, would they really show up?”
“Students should be running into your classroom not running away…”
“If they don’t love it, then you are doing it wrong…”
“If they are on their phone, your lessons must not be engaging enough…”
And while I get the sentiment behind these statements, I also think of the danger of them. The unattainable versions of reality that really none of us can ever live up to. These notions of creating such over-the-top unforgettable classroom experiences that make kids want to run into our schools, choosing us and our classroom above everything else. Every. Single. Day. Who can live up to that?
For fourteen and a half years, I have chased the mirage of being a perfect teacher as the markers continually move. Of trying to be the type of teacher that created those types of experiences that would make students flock to our classroom. That would make students want to come to school. And while there have been days where it almost felt like that, I have never fully achieved it, not for every child, because let’s face it, it is a completely unrealistic notion. And it is a notion that is driving teachers to feel as if no matter what they do, no matter how hard they work, they will never be enough. They will always be lacking. How exhausting and debilitating is that?
So I am going to give it to you real straight because that’s what I always try to do; most of my 7th graders would probably rather hang out with each other than walk through our door. Most of my 7th graders would not run into our classroom if given the choice. They would probably rather sleep, watch Youtube, make TikToks, or simply hang out.
And I am okay with that.
Because that’s normal child development. Because it is okay for our classroom to be low on their choice of experiences. Because it is okay for our classroom to not be something they think about when not in school. Because it is okay for kids to not be excited about the idea of going to school.
What is not okay is for them to hate it once they do get in our rooms.
There is a big difference.
And so that is where we do the work. To create experiences that make students want to engage within our learning. That makes students feel as if they matter once they are there. That makes the time fly, the minutes pass until the next class, where they can hopefully experience that again.
So while most of my students would probably not volunteer to come to our classroom, once they are there, many of them love it. Many of them love what we do, who we are, and how we grow. Many of them would choose to stay once there. And to me, that is what matters.
So the next time you hear someone state, “But would they choose to come?” It’s okay to say, “Probably not” and not feel like a horrible teacher because what you realized is that the question was wrong all along, not you. Because what you realized is that you can teach your heart out and still have a hard time competing with everything that surrounds young people these days. Because what you realized is that the question should have been, “If given the choice would they choose to stay?”
And to that I can honestly answer, “Yes, most of the time I think they would…”. And if my answer is no, then my follow-up question is, “What needs to change?”
It turns out that perhaps I never needed to be a perfect teacher, I just needed to be real.
I was speaking to my husband who is a first-year teacher and the topic of navigating student discipline came up, as it often does. He teaches middle school like me, and if there is one thing I know about middle-schooler it is how often they do not think through their decisions before they act. It leads to a lot of funny moments, but at times, also a lot of behavior displays that can be rather disruptive to the rest of the class or to themselves.
He asked me what I do when a child continuously disrupts. How do I approach them to help them change? And while I laughed a little because I am not sure that we can really make a child change, I do believe that there are ways we can invite them into a conversation about their choices without jumping right into punishment. And that has been a major change for me; slowing down before jumping to conclusions, but then how do you do that at the moment when perhaps you also feel heated and a bit indignant at yet another disruption?
I use a simple question, “Are you okay?” before proceeding with any decisions. I have used it so often that it is now hardwired into my language. This is to slow me down, to increase communication, to recognize behavior as a way of communication, and to center my approach in unconditional positive regard.
When I first started using it many years ago, I had to really think about it. Our brains are wired to jump into decision-making rapidly, in fact, educators reportedly make thousands of decisions every single day, each one opening a new instructional possibility. No wonder we often switch into a rapid-fire mode when navigating a child’s seemingly poor decisions; we have so many other things to juggle at that moment. But it is often this automaticity that can backfire in the long run, rather than recognize the uniqueness of the situation at hand, we treat it as if it is routine. Perhaps sometimes it is when handling a child’s repeat decisions. And yet, we must come into each situation recognizing its uniqueness and its opportunity for exploration. Asking, “Are you okay? “ and following up with “This does not seem like you…” (even if it is a repeated behavior pattern) signals that we are concerned about the human in front of us and not just the choice they have made.
That pause also allows us to recalibrate ourselves and get our emotions in check before proceeding further with a conversation. This can make the difference between strengthening a relationship or doing further damage.
Of course, if students are engaged in dangerous behavior, such as fighting, or physical destruction on a larger scale, I don’t often use this approach. When safety is at risk, other communication methods are used, but this does not happen as often as our brain sometimes wants us to believe. Slowing down, seeing the child as a child, no matter their size, and recognizing the inherent power imbalance at play, can help us navigate many behavioral situations.
And more importantly, I am worried about them and their well-being. So why not ask before we jump to further conclusions?
This post originally appeared in my Patreon community, where I share weekly lesson plans, resources, curated book lists, mini-pd recordings, and also live Q&As. If you would like to learn more frequently with me, I invite you to join. If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me coach, collaborate with your teachers, or speak at your conference, please see this page. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.