One of the earliest pieces of advice I remember getting as a teacher (repeatedly) was, “learn how to say no.” I would nod and laugh it off, and the teacher giving me the advice would look deep into my eyes so I would recognize that in this situation, they were Yoda, and I had no idea what I was getting into.
A little bleak? Yeah.
I wasn’t super excited about this advice. I was there for the magic. To make my classroom a creative wonderland and connect with the amazing, thoughtful, misunderstood generation of teens just waiting for me to become the mentor they needed.
I’m not being sarcastic. I wanted to be an amazing teacher, like the English teachers I had loved in school and the teachers I marveled at in the movies. Saying “no” didn’t seem like the best route to get there.
And so came the first year. Either you’re there now or you’ve been there, so you’ll understand what I mean when I say that it was very hard.
While I loved the deep immersion into learning how to teach, and spent the majority of my free time researching teaching methods online, in the pedagogy section of Barnes & Noble, and in the deep realms of the education floor at the Los Angeles Public Library (Central! What an amazing place!), I didn’t fully realize how the schedule was affecting me.
I introduced my poetry slams, wandered campus with my students as they performed Death of a Salesman, applied for my first ever grant, did my big Harkness discussion experiment, attended conferences, and more, as I slowly lost contact with that central part of myself that kept me going – health, sleep, other interests, other relationships.
I know you understand.
The question of work-life balance is one that haunts the teaching profession.
Yet there is almost never any PD on this issue. Never much discussion, just sardonic memes about the life of a teacher passed on with hysterical laughter through social media. As teachers sit through another meeting on how to improve their use of the latest technology in class, some struggle to stay awake after being up till midnight grading, others struggle to care when they don’t feel like their school cares much about them.
It’s not easy being a teacher.
Yet it can be joyful. So joyful.
It can be a way to change lives, to enjoy so many creative options, to learn every day and read every day and stay in touch with the pulse of the world as it changes with each new generation.
But what’s an exhausted teacher to do? What should you do when you love everything about teaching except the fact that it’s slowly squeezing the other parts of your life, well, out of your life?
At the end of my first year of teaching, I made myself a list of rules. I wish I had a picture of it, but I do remember the feeling to pushing a thumbtack hard into it on my bulletin board, right in the middle, where I couldn’t ignore it.
There were at least twenty. It’s funny looking back, but I tearfully created a manifesto for how I could continue to teach without falling apart. The rules were to protect the parts of myself I felt had become so fragile that year. As I had grown and gloried as a teacher, I had become less of everything else that made me me. Conversations with my family were hurried. Exercise was snatched occasionally and guiltily. Time with friends was time with teacher friends most of the time, and we couldn’t help talking work.
So at the end of the year, I made my rules. Perhaps I was never quite as good of a teacher again, but at least I didn’t have to quit. I didn’t veer off into an office somewhere in L.A., a quiet office with a desk and clearly delineated hours.
I stayed. I found my way. I learned to make grading work for me (well, at least sort of). I learned to create generalized rubrics. I learned to consolidate help sessions. I learned that sometimes the lesson plan was just enough, and I didn’t need to stay up until midnight making it the best lesson my students had ever seen.
Did I give up? Hell no. If you’re a regular here, you know how much I LOVE creative education. You know I’ll go to many lengths to make the material engaging, exciting, and fresh. You know I want to empower students as readers, speakers, and writers.
I wish I could now hand you the magic scroll of how I learned to survive inside teaching. If only I could distill my journey into a cute article called “5 Ways to Attain the Perfect Work-Life Balance in Teaching.” But who am I kidding? If I had that, I’d probably have a book deal and a cover on the education section of The New York Times.
But the thing is, I do have something really helpful to offer. And that’s why I’m glad you’ve stuck with me and read to the end. I wanted to share my experience now, because finally, this winter, I’ve found somebody with the messages that I think should be part of every teacher training program when it comes to work-life balance.
If you’re struggling to find a life in which you can be a creative, happy teacher AND the person you want to be, I want to introduce you to Kelli Alaina Wise’s podcast, Chalk Full of Life.
It’s the stuff of breakthroughs. Stick with her. Stick with some of that surprising, big-picture emotional work you weren’t really expecting. Stick with the episodes as she shares what she’s learned after years of working in the classroom and then studying to become a life coach focused in the world of education.
In general, the life coaching movement doesn’t work for me. I don’t want to be told that the sad things that have happened to me can just be reframed into challenges, jumping off points, blah blah blah. I don’t want to be told that my distress or stress is all a choice.
But there’s something about the way Kelli takes what she’s learned, processes it through her own life experiences of teaching for over a decade, and then shares it back to educators, that I love. When she says something, I get it. It hits me like other “wisdom” doesn’t.
I have felt a lot of strain lift off me since I started listening to her podcast. I’ve started to understand some things about my routines and choices that I didn’t before, and I’ve started to feel more power over the emotions that have tripped me up. I’m not going to tell you this podcast will instantly give you back your time, sleep, and balance, but I honestly believe it will help you move in the direction you want to go on all of that.
So that’s that. I wanted to recommend her podcast to you, because it has made a big difference in my life lately. I want to share creative teaching ideas with you for a long long time to come, my friend, and you’re only going to want to talk about them with me if you’re happy in your classroom. If you feel like the person you want to be. Otherwise I’m sure some other industry will snap up your awesome talents and creativity.
So if you’re struggling right now, go ahead and download the first few episodes of Kelli’s podcast. To be honest, I started with one of her later episodes, on exercise and nutrition, and then jumped back so I would understand the big picture of what she was saying. But she often advises, within the show, to listen from the beginning, because the steps she suggests really do build on each other.
You’re not alone on this journey. Far from it.