Most teachers are very optimistic about education, it's keeping that optimism that is challenging.
I'm not sure about you, but heading into the fifth week of school I'm already starting to feel as if my "to do" list is growing faster than the amount of waking hours I have in a week's time.
Four weeks ago I saw teachers who were happily preparing their rooms and enjoying the comradery of their teammates while students were anxiously waiting for the school year to begin. The teachers were preparing cute "back to school" lesson plans and discussing how extremely optimistic they were about the school year ahead.
A few weeks later the stress levels have begun to rise and tensions are building. The student work in the "to correct" pile is stacking up, staff meeting demands are exhausting and parents are starting to communicate on a regular basis. Opening email is like playing a slot machine, "Pull the lever, JACKPOT, no new demands for paperwork, meetings or assessments!" Unfortunately, there are very few JACKPOT winners on this machine. The demands on teachers stream along at a steady rate throughout the year.
How do teachers maintain optimism without getting burned out? Over the years I have developed guidelines that I stick to vehemently that allow me to narrowly focus on what I'm here to do and what I need to accomplish.
Prioritize: Organize yourself by deadlines. When you are given a new task; write down the date it is expected to be turned in by and prioritize from there. When you receive an email, as painful as it may be; answer it immediately. This is a hard undertaking for many, but in the end; it will save you many headaches and you'll feel instant gratitude for completing yet another endless task.
Don't Be A Hero: I have fought off the urge for years to get overly involved. I've had to change jobs and move to different campuses because I had my hand in so many clubs, organizations, grants, and programs. Eventually I felt depleted and completely burned out. You were hired to teach, that is your first priority and the students in your classroom deserve the "entire" you and nothing less.
I'm not saying don't be a team player, get involved and volunteer from time to time; but don't be a hero, just be a superhero to the students in your classroom. Everyone has a comfort level of what they can handle, never feel guilty for saying no! Never forget that you were hired to teach and if being a great teacher is all you can handle, then be a great teacher! You don't have to be a great teacher/ social committee director/ after school club organizer/ science fair coordinator and etc! When I learned to stick to this simple rule, I became a better educator and sometimes when I'm full of myself, I say a "great teacher".
Minimize Your Socialize: As harsh as this may sound, you are not at work to build friendships, you are at work to build a repertoire of respect for what you do. You are building a career and you are educating students. Be respectful, helpful, polite and encouraging to your co-workers, but don't rely on your co-workers to provide you with a social life. Build real friendships outside of your employment.
All friendships eventually experience turmoil, disappointment and conflict. This can cause a great deal of stress and if you're experiencing conflict with a co-worker; you are doubling your stress by being forced to maintain a professional stature until the situation is resolved or worse yet, never resolved. You may also isolate other co-workers as they feel they are not part of the "clique". I remember a few years back I was sitting in on a team meeting with fourth grade teachers and three of the teachers were laughing at situations they experienced at a get-together the previous weekend. There were two other teachers at the table that had no idea what they were talking about and it provided for a very awkward moment; even though the three teachers were oblivious to the uncomfortable feeling they had evoked. It is perfectly normal to attend campus wide functions with co-workers, but don't rely on these functions to provide you with a fulfilling social life.
For educators, this is a tough pill to swallow. By following this rule, you may appear somewhat standoffish, or even somewhat of a loner; but others will view your abilities on your performance and not your personality. In the end, co-workers will respect you for your professionalism. You will go to work every day knowing that the only conflict you might experience will be professional and not personal.
Determine Importance: Every decision you make as an educator should be driven by the overall effect it will have on providing a quality education for your students. Cutting out strips of paper for three hours to build a word chain will not have a huge overall effect on the educational progress of your students; it will however take away three hours of your time that you could have been writing a creative lesson, hiking at the park or simply reading a book for fun. You may have to give up your dream of being on the cover of "Classroom Beautiful" but you will have additional hours in your day to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I have always found that student work is the most visually appealing and motivating decor in any classroom.
There is no need to correct every paper that your students turn in. Just as you are not provided feedback on every task you do at work or every task you do at home (nor do you want that much feedback), your students do not need to be provided feedback on every task they do at school. As a quality educator you should be providing enough formative and informative assessments to recognize your students strengths and weaknesses. It is perfectly understandable that you would want to create an accountability system for homework; but the highest performing teachers are not sitting at their desks correcting papers endlessly night after night. They are writing invigorating lesson plans that will challenge and motivate their students to adapt to this changing world.
The bottom line for this rule is "stick to what counts". Before you begin any task, determine what value it will have for your students.
Militarize Your Time: The entire work force could learn a multitude of lessons from the military on time management. In the military, time management is extremely important as most jobs require employees to be accountable for the productivity of every minute of their day.
Many teachers have a tendency to be overwhelmed with unfinished tasks; but they tend to have several spaces of time that eat into their productivity. For example, I have not eaten my lunch in a teacher's lounge for over a decade; instead I use that time to eat my lunch at my desk, organize for my afternoon tasks, answer emails and look over portfolios and journals. This doesn't sound very glamorous or much less fun; but I've been doing this for so long that I wouldn't know any other way to spend lunchtime at work. What I do know is that I feel organized when my first afternoon group or assignment is ready to begin and I feel as though I have accomplished something important. As soon as the students leave for the day I am laying out materials for the next day and preparing a list of what needs to be done before the next day begins. At my desk I have a sticky note with major tasks that need to be completed before the week's end. I arrive at work about 30-45 minutes before the "rush hour" crowd of teachers and therefore; I have this time to use the copy machine, check email and prepare for the day without stressing out. Those are ways that I have learned to heighten my productivity and manage my time more productively through the years.
I would not recommend my habits to anyone unless they are suitable to their work style; but I would suggest that all teachers take an in depth look at how they spend their time throughout the day and what they could be doing to create a more workable and productive schedule that will make them feel more accomplished at the end of the work day.
Don't Give Up Being You: I love to decorate, travel, educate myself on current events and write. I wholeheartedly enjoy spending time with my husband and family, trying new restaurants, and checking out new movies on weekends. I obsess over my time exercising on my elliptical machine at night while I watch senseless reality TV. This is who I am, I will not give up who I am because if I do; I will not be happy. If I am not happy, I will not be able to service my students with the love and support that they need.
Teachers need to remember who they are, what motivates them and what makes them passionate. If being a teacher forces you to maintain a lifestyle in which you give up all aspects of who you are and the real things in life that you enjoy; this is not the profession for you. Just as we are providing an education for our students, we are also providing for them the skills necessary to become a whole person with drive and passion.
In order to be good for those that you teach, you must be a whole person that comes to work with a fulfilled life full of passion and drive. My students love hearing about my travels and weekend journeys or about current events that I am excited about. They get to experience the whole me. Make sure your students are experiencing the whole you!
By Gina Kennedy-Brown