A teacher with firm work/life boundaries
For Teachers

Summer Teacher Prep: Setting Your Work/Life Boundaries

By Jennifer Gunn July 4, 2019

Teachers do so much more than just planning lessons and teaching. In fact, it’s typical to get swallowed up during the school year with endless projects, responsibilities, and calls for your time. The problem is, we simply cannot do it all — and trying to do it all makes us less effective and exhausted. This summer, take a look at your workload and your calendar to set healthy workload boundaries to ensure a new school year of healthy work/life balance. 

Self-care isn’t selfish

Self-care may be a widely used term, but it’s so often overlooked when the school year gets messy. Further, it’s the nature of most educators to give to their students ahead of taking care of themselves. 

“Self-care is more than manicures, pedicures, and finding ways to unwind after a long day,” says Martha St Jean, a speaker, writer, and educator in New York City who will be speaking at Reimagining Education: Teaching and Learning in Racially Diverse Schools at Columbia Teachers College this summer. “During the school year, teachers may experience situations that lead to the development of negative scripts or schemas. Therefore, I advocate that it’s imperative for educators to recognize self-care as the continuous process of building a strategic and sustainable plan of critical engagement with the pedagogy of our classroom communities.” Ignoring self-care can lead to the destruction of our perspective and our connection to our work. It isn’t selfish or frivolous to take care of yourself as a professional and as a person — it’s an imperative.

The summer reset button

During the school year, it’s next to impossible to get the space and perspective needed to remain reflective. “The summer is a great time to participate in personal and professional development practices that help us remain vibrant, responsive, and responsible to ourselves and students. I encourage taking time to engage in self-reflection by examining what practices are or are not working in classrooms,” notes St Jean. “To do this, I speak with teacher friends, attend classes, and read books by educators who have firsthand experiences with students in urban schools. These activities ensure that I will not become dull or indifferent to the needs of my classroom, or the wider community. Just as importantly, these activities provide me with much-needed space away from the classroom to be mindful and practice taking perspective.”

Reflect on your calendar and workload

Looking back to this past school year, examine your calendar and your workload. Ask yourself:

  • How much work was I taking home each week? Was it consistent or variable?
  • How much planning was I doing outside of school work hours? Was it consistent or variable?
  • How did I utilize my prep time during school hours? 
  • How much true leisure time did I have in a given week?
  • Was this enough time off to maintain a healthy work/life balance?
  • How much of my out-of-school time was spent in preparation for the workweek — errands, housework, grocery shopping, laundry, planning, etc.)
  • How much time did I spend reflecting or growing my professional practice? (Reading books, attending conferences, collaborating with colleagues, etc.)
  • What parts of my personal life suffered this year? How and why?
  • What parts of my professional life suffered this year? How and why?
  • What do I need more of and less of in the coming year?

Ditch the guilt

After you’ve answered the questions above, it’s time to consider how to intentionally map out your time for the next school year to improve your personal and professional lives. Here’s the rub: Lose the guilt. “As teachers, we are at the mercy of the ‘should’ monster. Whenever we do a task, it appears to remind us of a completely different task. When we decide to take time off, it looms even larger in the form of a fully fledged list of things and deadlines,” says Chris Eyre in his book The Elephant In The Staffroom: How To Reduce Stress And Improve Teacher Wellbeing. “The longer I do this job, the more I am convinced that, for whatever reason, we are as a profession strangely more prone to guilt than most.” So hey, you’re not alone in the guilt department. Educators are doers and helpers, and we tend to say “yes” when it comes to helping our schools and students. But say it with me: You are a better educator when you have a true work/balance. 

Setting your professional boundaries

Now that you know what you’ve taken on in the past and have a sense of what you’d like from your time during this upcoming year, how can you make it all happen? Boundaries! Set them now, write them down in your planner, and stick to them. It’s easy to cave when your principal personally asks you to do those Saturday tutoring sessions or to stay late for a meeting — but if you have clearly defined boundaries at the start of the year, it will be way more possible to stick to them and protect your precious time. 

Consider the following:

  • What will you say “no” to this year? 
  • What will you say “yes” to this year?
  • What limits can you set for your outside-the-classroom time?
    • Consider things like: No school work after 6pm at home. One extracurricular program only. No answering work emails on Sundays. Staying 1 extra hour at school, so that work doesn’t come home. Setting time limits for paperwork sessions.
  • Don’t just plan your work-task week, plan your life week. Make your personal time a priority instead of an afterthought.
  • Set boundaries for when you’re available for email or phone communication — for colleagues, parents, and students. You don’t have to be on call 24/7 to be an amazing teacher.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education, where she has been for nearly a decade. She is a curriculum designer and public high school educator in New York City. Jennifer is the creator of Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for urban adolescent youth that’s steeped in social justice. She is an education writer and co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference, which won the New York City Department of Education Excellence in School Technology Award this year. Jennifer regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation. Follow Jennifer online at www.jenniferlmgunn.com or on Twitter.

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