If you had told me that it would take me 5 years of teaching to figure out how to mentally leave work at work then I might not have continued in this career. I’ve gotten incrementally better at it each year but this year I’ve committed to prioritizing it. Here’s a few things I’ve learned that help me do that. I hope you can, especially if you’re just starting out, find a piece of advice that will help you live a more balanced life.
Before you leave work
I use a to-do list like it’s a religion, so before I leave school I go through my list (in Todoist) and do three things.
- I check off everything I completed but forgot to check off during the day.
- I look for anything on the list that can be taken care of in less than two minutes. If time permits, I do those things. I schedule times to do the other tasks.
- I look for any task I can do now, that will save me exponentially more time in the future.
This leaves me cognitive space for the way home and when I get home. I don’t have to worry about when I’m going to tweak that lesson, write that letter of rec, or grade those papers. I may have 20 tasks to do in the next 24 hours but each one has a time pinned to it.
The drive home
First, if you have more than a few minutes to drive from work to home, leverage that time to mentally leave work. I’ll do a few things to do this, depending on how the day went.
- If I it was an especially busy day and I have lot’s on my mind I will ride in silence and simply let my mind think about whatever it wants in regards to school. It’s like letting a cold run it’s course. I just get out of the way and let my mind go. Although I am thinking about work, this gives my mind a chance to empty. If I don’t, like if I turn on a podcast or audiobook, I find that although I distract myself during the ride, my concerns about work pop back when I get home. If I empty my brain in this way, I don’t think about work nearly as much at home.
- After I’ve done the above, or if I don’t think I need to, I often listen to stand up comedy. Laughing puts me in a good mood and also helps me walk through the door with a positive attitude. I sometimes listen to novels or music that I’m really into. Anything that puts me in a good mood and provides for a transition from work to school.
Embrace the moment
Yeah, this is cliché, but if you take it to heart and try to frequently exercise this idea you’ll be in a better place at home (and at work). The success of this, at least for me, depends a lot on the previous two points. When I’m home I try to focus on my kid, my wife, my dog, cooking, or whatever I’m doing. This is important for me because I want to enjoy the limited time I have to spend with them. But it may be more important for them to have a husband/father that is present in the evening and not thinking about why 8 of my students blew off the activity from 3rd hour. (And by the way, I’m not gonna be able to fix it at that moment anyway, so it’s wasted cognitive energy.)
Understand you can’t fix everything
Somewhere deep in the dredges of my brain I used to think that if I just spent as much time as possible thinking about how to fix the problems that arose at school (or in education in general) then I’d be able to fix them.
This is obviously not the case.
I’ve found that teaching, not unlike many professions, is a push and pull between idealism and pragmatism. The fact is that there are a lot of problems that I can’t influence. And many problems I could influence, but only with a large amount of time and effort, that would end up with uncertain results.
The takeaway for me was that I need to pick and choose carefully the problems I’m going to tackle. And then only take on those problems that I have space in my cognitive bandwidth to deal with. If it means that I’ll be sitting at the dinner table trying to figure out how to solve the problem of poverty in my community or big money in high stakes testing, my resources are probably misdirected and infringing on my life in other ways.
They’re problems. I’d like to solve them. But I don’t have the time, skill set, or resources to do it. So I let them slide out of my mind.
I see teachers all the time that are just surviving. Trying to get from one hour to the next, getting beat up along the way, and then dragging all the stresses from school home with them. We are inclined to do this. We go into the profession to help kids and we love to see them succeed. When they aren’t, we take it personal. So it invades our personal lives. But I’ve been there, and I can tell you it’s not worth it.
You can’t solve all the problems. There will always be kids that don’t meet their potential, think your activities are boring, have awful home lives, and otherwise break your heart. I’m not saying I’m okay with it, I’m just saying that I’ve gone the route of devoting an inordinate amount of mental and physical energy to worrying about it, and guess what. I still had those problems. And by trying to solve them all, all the time, I harmed myself (mentally through stress) and my relationships (stress spillover, not being present, etc.).
Take care of yourself and the time you do devote to your students and profession will be more effective.
This is something I’m passionate about. I know people always say, “post your thoughts in the comments”, but I really am curious as to where people are on this. Do you have other ideas for going home with a clear mind? Do you struggle with other aspects of work-life balance that I left out?