5 Keys to Teacher Nirvana or, at least, Life/Work Balance

Irene Smith

Papers to grade. Lesson plans to make. Errands to do.

“I will work harder.”

Data to examine. Materials to create. Activities to support.

“I will work harder.”

Curriculum to adapt. New technology to learn. Professional development to apply. Collaboration to extend. Conferences to attend.

“I will work harder.”

Professional goals. Students’ needs. Colleagues’ needs. Administrative directives. Families’ needs.

“How can I possibly work any harder?”

A pile of teacher planning materials are on a table.

This is the world of a teacher.  If it reminds you of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that’s no surprise.  In many ways, the educator’s world of work is full of impossible demands and an eternally increasing set of responsibilities and unrealistic expectations for those idealistic enough to believe they can make a difference.

Nevertheless, to be the change we want to see in the world, we must achieve balance and avoid becoming overwhelmed.  We must realize that we will truly never be able to work hard enough to do everything that needs to be done.

I will now put on my guru hat and share 5 keys to Teacher Nirvana.  

A coffee mug with the caption "Don't make me use my Teacher Voice" is sitting on an ocean mouse pad.

KEY #1     Find your efficacy

    Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you are right.” As educators, it is of paramount importance that we discover our efficacy if we hope to have an impact on student learning and achievement.  There will always be areas where we struggle, but if we focus on the areas where we have had success through effort and perseverance, we are better able to have the energy to push on when there are obstacles. By reflecting on our successes and analyzing ways that we have had a direct, positive impact on student learning, we can better identify our strengths and grow in areas where we haven’t found the same level of success.  Also, we can examine the factors that are impeding student growth and realistically take charge of what is within our control and let go of those things that we have no control over.  This allows us to eliminate stressors and activities that take our time and sap our emotional energy.

KEY #2     Examine the big picture to see the opportunities in your challenges

    We are a small part of a bigger whole. The weight of our students’ needs needn’t fall all to us.  We should consider what else is being done by others and trust them to be a part of solution creating.  There is a vast network of support for our students.  We strengthen ourselves and others when we collaborate. Planning and preparing together is energizing. Our colleagues can be our most effective cheerleaders. Talk to your school counselor, the librarian, the custodian, the team. Dial 2-1-1 for Social Services suggestions and advice.

    Study the standards and focus on small chunks each day.  When you see achievement in those smaller goals, you can be encouraged that progress is being made towards the larger priority goals.  We can prioritize foundational skills as we see the gaps in students’ learning.

    As you examine individual and group data to determine needs and then prep with that in mind, you will find ways to adapt your instruction to support their learning.  As you reflect honestly on the results, you can continue to adapt and be encouraged as you see results, and you will see results.  Don’t let the difficulties defeat you!

A teacher organizational plannerĀ is open to personal, teacher and lesson planning and to do lists.

KEY #3     Focus on efficiency

    It’s easy to see planning time as a chance to relax from the stressors of the day, but stress is more likely to be increased if the time you have at school isn’t used wisely.  Develop routines with your students and with yourself to ensure that you are not leaving school with a heavy bag of planning and grading work to be done at home.  

    Use technology tools to create self-scoring assessments (For example, Google Forms are free and easy to use.) Students can and should be trusted to examine and score much of their own work, particularly if you have been walking around and giving suggestions and help while they generate it.  The process of examining one’s own work to determine a score or a grade provides a powerful sense of responsibility and ownership.  Recognize that there are many things that teachers do that students can reasonably be expected to do instead.

    Organize your systems.  After many years of paper plan books and an extra gradebook, I moved to an electronic planning calendar and to do list, and I am only keeping track of grades in the school’s electronic system.  It was difficult to leave my familiar systems and move to one that in the end was much faster and easy to replicate, but it’s made a tremendous difference and a lighter bag.  Now, I just need to be more careful with naming and filing my electronic documents, so they are easy to locate.

KEY #4     Take time for health and happiness

    Now that you have determined that your home time doesn’t require you to be working as much, consider those areas in your life that you enjoy most- usually our loving connections; friends, family, pets, and hobbies or activities that contribute to our well-being.  Make time for regular exercise at the level you are most comfortable with and after a while increase the length or intensity.  Learn how to prepare healthy food and reduce consumption of fast-food or other unhealthy choices that people often make when they are stressed and pinched for time. Get enough sleep. Find things that make you laugh. Enjoy activities that allow you to relax and feel good about yourself.

A group of people are collaborating.

KEY #5     Set boundaries and Shake it off

    This final suggestion can be challenging, especially for those who avoid conflict or overly comply to please others.  However, it is important for personal well-being to stand up for yourself if you are being treated unjustly, and to limit contact, or possibly remove yourself from those who regularly bring you unhappiness. A boundary involves you communicating what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in the way someone interacts with you.  It most likely includes a consequence if a boundary is crossed.  Parents who are rude to you, may have to have the principal present when you speak with them, just as you might remove a student from class for a time if they are disrespectful.  

      If someone treats you unfairly, it is important to recognize that their behavior is their choice.  It is actually outside your control.  However, how you react is within your control.  Work on shaking off others’ unkindness or inadvertent offenses.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what they did is okay, it just means that you aren’t going to continue to fret and let it bother you.  You aren’t so much letting them off the hook as letting yourself off the hook.  Give your trust to those who earn it.  

These five keys should make the journey to Teacher Nirvana possible.  

It’s not easy to make changes.  Most teachers find it hard to let go of the familiar but less efficient, stressful routines they have created for themselves. However, try each day to reflect and simplify, and you may just find balance.

This blog may well be an actual case of “those who can’t do, teach.” I hate to say it, but “I will work harder” at following my own advice.

What do you do to make your education world more efficient, so you can enjoy a more balanced life?


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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Irene Smith Board

National Board Certified Teacher at Discovery Lab School

Irene Smith teaches middle school Language Arts and Social Studies to clever, interesting, and energetic students.She is married to her best friend, Brad, and they have five grown up children.She loves backpacking on the Olympic Peninsula, spending time with her grandchildren, reading and writing books, and going to Shakespeare plays.

Twitter: @TeachLearnHope
Website: irenesmith.org