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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Focusing ‘More On What Goes Right Than On What Goes Wrong’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 27, 2015 16 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

How can teachers balance and maintain both an effective professional life AND a healthy personal/family life?

In Part One, educators Renee Moore, Debbie Silver, Julia Thompson and Vicki Davis provided us all with some advice on how to maintain a sane balance. In addition, Debbie and I had a ten-minute conversation about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show. By they way, you can now access a list of all my previous shows - with links and descriptions.

Today’s contributors include Rebecca Mieliwocki, Allen Mendler, Jennifer Orr, Mike Anderson, and Daniel Rechtschaffen. I’ve also featured comments from readers.

Response From Rebecca Mieliwocki

Rebecca Mieliwocki is a seventh grade English teacher in Burbank, California, and the 2012 National Teacher of the year. She has visited over thirty states and nine countries representing our nation’s amazing public school teachers. She believes that there is nothing kids can’t learn and accomplish with the help of an enthusiastic, well-prepared, wonderful teacher:

Teaching isn’t just a job that ends as soon as you drive home. It’s much more consuming than that. I’ve often joked that teaching is like a stalker. It knows where you live. It follows you home. It’s always there waiting for you whether you know it or not or like it or not. That’s why it’s so important to arrange your life so that you aim for as much balance as you can. Here are a few suggestions that can help you do just that.

1) Venture out of your classroom.

Whether you observe other teachers teaching, spend your prep period meeting with colleagues, or go run with your students during PE, make an effort to get out and about on campus. It clears your head, is a breath of fresh air (literally), and provides inspiration for the rest of your day.

2) Eat with others.

Too many teachers barely stop for a break during the 8-3 grind. This is unhealthy and is the fast lane to burnout. Stop. Sit down. Take your time eating lunch. Read. Talk with friends. Listen to music. You deserve this time to rest and rejuvenate and you should absolutely take it.

3) Avoid C.A.V.E dwellers (teachers who are Consistently Against Virtually Everything)

Plants can only grow in fertile soil and teachers can only thrive when surrounded by optimistic, hard-working, positive teachers. That means you have to give toxic colleagues a wide berth. You’ll be glad you did. This isn’t to say you can whine, gripe, or commiserate with your colleagues. We all do that. But great teachers spend little time in that zone, and instead focus on what works, what’s going well, and how to get better every day. Surround yourself with like-minded people and you’ll love your job more than you already do.

4) Designate NO HOMEWORK days

Two nights a week I leave school at school. I don’t take any papers home with me to grade and I make sure I leave school on those days ready to walk in and teach the next day. Just like other professions whose jobs truly do end at 5, teachers deserve nights like that where we can relax and connect with our friends and families without the worry of additional after hour work. Each weekend, make sure that you are giving your schoolwork no more than half a day (if possible). Over the years, I’ve donated EVERY Sunday to preparing for the week ahead. After 18 years, it’s mostly down to half a Sunday but I’ve had to work pretty rigorously to make sure school stays in the place I designate for it. I can’t always manage it, but when I can I am a healthier, happier teacher. You will be too if you police those boundaries you set for your personal life to thrive.

5) Check email LATER

A great piece of advice I started taking was to start my day off WITHOUT checking email first. Often times, emails present what seem like immediate situations that require a response or contain information that is stressful or upsetting. Instead of dealing with it first thing, designate a time a few hours into your day to briefly check email and then prioritize which you will deal with quickly and which you’ll save for after classes are done for the day. Set a time of day after which you will not check email and stick with it. No one needs or deserves to have their evening or much-needed sleep ruined by an email.

6) The 15 Minute Rule

When you have a giant pile of work to do, try this. Set your phone timer for 15 minutes and press start. Work intensely without stopping for the entire time, be it on grading, planning, researching, or answering email. When the timer goes off, stop and change spaces for a bit. Then come back and do it again. You’ll find that you’re getting more done at a faster rate than if you planted yourself at the desk for hours and let yourself get tired or become distracted.

7) Cultivate your off-campus self

Part of the reason great teachers are great is because they have rich lives outside of school that make them interesting. They devote time and energy to restoring balance in their lives by participating in hobbies or activities that challenge, uplift, relax, and improve them. You can’t let that part of yourself wither and die just because teaching is so all consuming. Make sure you continue to do all the things that make you a fascinating person kids want to spend time with. Travel. Read. Knit. Play in a band. Race in triathlons. Garden. Whatever it is you love to you, keep doing it.

Response From Allen Mendler

Allen Mendler is an educator, school psychologist, and author who resides in Rochester, N.Y. He has worked extensively with children of all ages in regular education and special education settings; and youth in juvenile detention. Mendler’s books include When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game (ASCD, 2012) and The Resilient Teacher: How do I stay positive and effective when dealing with difficult people and policies? (ASCD, 2014):

Being a great teacher requires an enormous amount of energy, so take good care of yourself! Follow traditional advice that is more often given lip service than practiced: eat right and exercise; use calming and other methods of relaxation. You owe that to yourself, your students and your family. Develop and maintain at least a few favored outside interests and force yourself to participate in these no matter how preoccupied or tired you might be.

Perhaps most important is to keep challenges in perspective by focusing more on what goes right than on what goes wrong. It seems like human nature to take things for granted when they go smoothly. Isn’t it interesting how few of us think to compliment an airline when they get us to our destination on time? When is the last time you wrote a letter to the local gas and electric company thanking them for their excellent track record that enables you to almost always have light when you flip on the switch? With few exceptions, even on most ‘bad’ days there are many more things that go well than don’t. The key is to notice and reflect upon the positives so the troubling events that need further attention can be kept in perspective.

Having raised three children into adulthood and currently blessed with five grandchildren, at any given moment there is likely to be something out of sync for at least one of them. You can’t - nor should you - avoid being affected by the lives of others, but we have most control over our attitude. As teachers with several kids in a class, be prepared for the roller coaster of life. There will be the occasional day where everything goes smoothly; the more common day where one or more students, parents, or colleagues are expressing some manifestation of distress; and the most probable day where there are moments of both.

The best thing you can do to keep yourself balanced is to end your work day by reflecting on what went well no matter how small, and plan a strategy or two for a better tomorrow. Then walk out the door and get on with your other life.

Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr is an elementary school teacher in Fairfax County, Va. She was selected as a 2013 ASCD Emerging Leader. Connect with her on Twitter at @jenorr:

It’s important to begin by admitting that I don’t have all the answers to this question. I wish I did. I’d be rich! I’d also be less stressed and happier, which would be delightful. It’s also important to note that what looks and feels balanced for me (as much as is possible) may not seem that way to you. Each person and each family has to determine where their balance lies.

All that said, I am a teacher, a mother, and a wife, all roles that are critical to me every day. And all roles that could be full time if I were willing to give them that attention. I’m not because all three are very important to me. (I’m a lot of other things too: a musician, a reader, a triathlete and more, but the three mentioned above are the ones that are of the most importance.)

I’ve determined that it’s critical for me to focus on one role at a time. At school I’m a teacher, first and foremost. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry about my daughters when they have something stressful going on or when they’re sick, but it means that my focus and attention are on my students.

When I leave school, my focus is on being a mother. My husband and I determined a few years ago that we had to really make this a priority. We found it easy to get home and remain distracted by work (He’s a college professor). As a result, we made a rule for ourselves that we can’t use computer devices from the time we get home until our girls go to bed. Our focus is on them and our family. That rule gets broken, of course, but it’s a helpful guide for us to maintain some balance.

Once our girls go to bed we tend to be back at work. Often we do this sitting side by side while watching TV. It’s not a date night by any stretch but it’s good together time. We do manage real date nights on occasion too!

There’s not one answer to finding balance in life. I believe it requires consciously determining your priorities rather than just moving forward and hoping for the best. Then stepping back and reflecting on how your time and focus reflect those priorities, or don’t. If you aren’t living your priorities it’s time to consider what can change - not everything can, sadly. Small changes, like turning off devices for a certain period of time, can make a significant difference in helping you find your balance.

I’m not there yet. I often regret that I missed this event with my daughters or didn’t spend enough time with my students’ work. I’ll never do it all, but I hope I’m where I need to be when I need to be there with the people I need. That’s a reasonable goal for balance, I think.

Response From Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson is an award-winning educator (National Milken Educator Award and New Hampshire Teacher of the Year finalist) and author of many books about great teaching and learning, including The Well-Balanced Teacher: How to Work Smarter and Stay Sane Inside the Classroom and Out (ASCD, 2010). He is an independent consultant, working with teachers and schools on topics such using choice to differentiate learning and teaching social and emotional skills through academic work. Learn more about Mike at www.leadinggreatlearning.com.

As I travel the country working with teachers in a variety of settings and schools, I find few who don’t struggle with striking a healthy home-work balance. Part of this has to do with the nature of most teachers. We are passionate about our work and often go above and beyond daily expectations to help meet the needs of our students. Part also has to do with the pace and tenor of education in general. I have seen a drastic increase in the workload of teachers and the intensity of the work, especially in the past decade. This reality makes it more important than ever that educators strike a good work-life balance.

So what can we do? There are many possible strategies and ideas. Here are a few that might serve as a good starting place.

Set Habit Goals instead of Outcome Goals

When goals are focused on outcomes (losing 20 pounds, getting caught up on paperwork, etc.), once the goal is met, what happens? Too often, we revert back to habits that got us in trouble in the first place. Instead, choose goals that are about changing habits. For example, instead of setting a goal of losing 20 pounds, try setting a goal of walking an extra 20 minutes a day. Instead of vowing to catch up on the load of paperwork staring at us on our desk, set aside 15 minutes each afternoon to work on paperwork before heading home.

Carve Out Personal Time

Most of us take work home and mobile devices have made it so we can work anywhere and everywhere. Carve out and set aside work-free times instead of just hoping it will happen. To paraphrase a colleague of mine, “Hope is not a self-care strategy.”

Fuel Your Professional Passion

Get on the right committees and get off the wrong ones. Make sure you are teaching a content area and an age of student that you truly enjoy. Create lessons and units that are truly enjoyable for you to facilitate. After all, it’s hard for your students to love learning if you don’t love teaching!

Shift Our Mindsets

Most importantly, we need to shift our mindsets about self-care.

“My students need me! I don’t have time to take care of myself!” we reason. So, we work late into the night, neglecting family, friends, and sleep. We get to school early, skipping exercise and breakfast. We rush through lunch and grab a quick junkie mid-afternoon snack, squeezing every possible minute out of the day. “I’ll take care of myself later,” we lie to ourselves. Have you ever promised yourself a restful weekend or vacation only to wake up Monday morning feeling more tired than you were on Friday?

Some educators worry that to put our own needs for sleep, healthy food, exercise, and personal connection is to be selfish or neglectful of our students who need us so desperately. I would argue that the reverse is true. Because our students need us so much, it is imperative that we take care of ourselves. We must make our own personal health and balance a priority. Healthy teachers have the energy to teach well--which is what our students really need and deserve.

Response From Daniel Rechtschaffen

Daniel Rechtschaffen is a Marriage and Family Therapist and has a master’s degree in counseling psychology. He founded the Mindful Education Institute and the Omega Mindfulness in Education conference, has developed a variety of curricula for mindfulness in the classroom, and leads mindfulness trainings for schools and communities around the world. He is author of The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students (W. W. Norton; 2014):

When trying to find balance and health in our lives we often look outwards first, trying to make things less chaotic and more pleasant. We have our checklists of disappointments with our colleagues, students, and family dynamics. The magic, however, occurs when we begin by looking inside. How can we find the peace inside that we are looking for in the world around us? We can begin with some mindfulness.

Think of the last time you felt really frustrated with your students. Picture the scene, see the faces of the students, remember what thoughts were going through your head, and now see if you can feel what emotions correspond to the experience. Do you feel anxious, angry, or sad? Without any judgment, see if you can just feel what’s going on inside your body.

You can take a nice deep breath in through your nose and then let out a big sigh through your mouth as you exhale. Try this for a few minutes. Breath in through your nose on every inhale, noticing any tension or emotion, and let go with a big exhale through your mouth.

When we begin by looking into our own hearts, bodies, and minds, we can find an unshakable inner balance and a sense of happiness that is independent of externalities. From this presence our relationships with our families and our work become totally different. Instead of trying to get the world around us to change so that we can relax, we relax within ourselves and amazingly the world around us can change in response, not because we forced it to, but because we become a model of presence that others see as possible.

We sometimes can make the mistake of thinking that balancing our home life and work life means giving 50% of our energy to one and 50% to the other, as if we only have a certain allocation of life units that we need to spend on each one. That’s how it often feels, like we have given 100% of our energy and we are at 0% at the end of the day, with nothing left for ourselves. What I am proposing is to offer 100% to both our home lives and our professional lives. When we begin by charging our own inner batteries, cultivating compassion, attention, and happiness, then we have 100% of ourselves to give at home and at work, which means we don’t have to worry about balancing our work and personal life. When we keep the roots of the tree healthy there is plenty of fruit to go around.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Rebecca, Allen, Jennifer, Mike and Daniel, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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