I see you in your yoga pants and top knot.
I know you don’t know what day it is.
I’m right there with you.
A fellow teacher on summer break.
These last two months have been glorious for us:
Unlimited pee breaks,
Finishing our coffee while it’s still warm,
Having more than 20 minutes to eat lunch,
Not having to tell anyone “people don’t want you to lick them,”
(Unless you have a little one at home, God bless your soul).
The pace of summer is a delightful break from the frantic, absurd pace we are expected to keep during the other 10 months of the year. It’s a time to refocus, relax, and just BREATHE. Our summers are, simply put, crucial.
If you’re anything like me, gearing back up to school can be the scariest part of the year. What will my new class be like? How will the administrator and I get along this year? What if I still can’t get my test scores up? Wait, I have that kid on my roster?
Beginning of the year anxiety is a real thing and it affects every teacher I’ve ever met. Between all the beginning of year PD, it often feels like there isn’t room to process through these feelings and prepare ourselves for the new batch of little ones entering our rooms. I wanted to take a minute to make some recommendations that work for me to slow myself down and get to the bottom of my anxiety about the new school year.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Meditating is for crunchy hippies. Also sitting still for long periods of time is way too hard. And intimidating. And boring.
I felt the same way when I started, but honestly nothing has helped me more. Meditating is basically just learning how to focus your attention which, for a teacher who has to think of literally seven million things all at once, can be a very powerful tool.
There are all kinds of apps to help begin your journey with meditation. A couple I love are Headspace and Pacifica, which have both free and paid features. Another easy way to get started with meditation is through an easy visualization you can do independently at any time for any length of time. You can do this sitting, standing, or anywhere you feel relaxed.
Take some deep breaths and start to focus on where you feel your breath in your body. Focus on filling up your belly, inhale and count to four, exhale and count to four. Repeat until you begin to feel relaxed.
Think of yourself sitting on a nice, grassy hill, watching clouds float past you in the blue sky. The weather is a perfect 75 degree day with a nice breeze, not too hot and not too cold. The grass under you feels soft and inviting. One by one, watch each cloud pass from your left to your right, moving across the sky. Once you’ve watched a few clouds, begin to place your thoughts on the clouds one at a time. Place one thought on each cloud that comes into your view. Your thoughts can be long or as simple as a word or a feeling. Watch each thought move from your left to your right and slowly exit your view. Keep watching your thoughts float by until you feel settled, grounded, and ready to move on with your day.
You can repeat this exercise as many times as you need during your chaotic days at work. I tend to do mine as I walk to pick my students up from lunch as a sort of ‘midday check-in’ with myself.
Always remember your blue sky.
2. Cultivate time throughout the week for yourself
As teachers, for our seven (or eight or nine) hours with students, we always have to be “on.” Our jobs, and often our personal lives as well, do not permit for any time just for us. When we go home, we are greeted with our own children or families who demand attention and care even though we already overexerted our sympathy muscles at work. It is absolutely exhausting to put so much into work and home; it leaves us feeling drained and powerless.
One thing I’ve started incorporating is doing something little for myself each day. The term “self care” is so overused and has come to mean little more than sheet masks and bubble baths–but honestly, we all need to take better care of ourselves. You can start by making a list of things that make you feel like you. For me, that list includes writing, washing my hair, doing a sugar scrub, making a yummy dessert, and going on a walk without my phone. What feels good for you will be totally different from your friends, partner, and coworkers, and that is OKAY.
Start with one minute a day. Find a time that works for you and start incorporating a little time just for YOU back into your hectic days. Yes, it will take work. Yes, it feels completely unnatural. Yes, it might feel selfish. But you are not able to pour out from a completely empty cup; the longer you spend focusing on everyone else, the more burned out you will become. Trust me, everyone in your life will be better off when you take time to recharge and relax. No one can be ‘on’ 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Spend time with yourself, it’s okay, I promise.
3. Plan your weeks
Last winter, I invested $15 in a planner. It has hourly spots for each day, from 6am to 11pm, along with space for writing about your dreams and your goals. As I started to use my planner, I noticed a shift in myself. When I set aside time for exercise at the beginning of the week, during the week it became a lot easier to go to a yoga class. When I set aside time to write in my journal, I knew what nights I needed to put my phone away early. This intentionality in my schedule started to shift my ability to use my evenings after school as ways to care for myself and further my goals, rather than just vegging out on Stranger Things for hours at a time.
Planning your week will help you set aside those moments for yourself and help you realize just how much time you have outside of school. Even if your evenings are full of baseball practices, dance rehearsals, and piano lessons, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much time you can redeem back. And even if there isn’t any extra time, you’ll know exactly what your week holds. Knowing what is coming and when it’s coming is a great trick to cut down on anxiety and rushing around that leads to extra stress.
4. Work on professional boundaries
How many of us stay for hours after work doing tasks that could either have been done during planning or could be done at home? I know I for one, am guilty!
I know planning is so much easier when you are close to your resources and materials. Lugging materials to prep, especially for primary grades, is super annoying. Planning at home can be difficult with your kids running around demanding attention, and honestly, it’s sometimes nice to just sit in the quiet building and get a bunch of work done. There is definitely a time and a place for long planning sessions; but staying late every day is a great recipe for burnout.
Start thinking now about what you want your boundaries to be for work. Do you want to leave within an hour of students leaving? Do you want one long planning day a week? Do you want to prep materials each morning before students get there? Think of what would work for you and your schedule. When the year starts, stick to your boundaries! If coworkers come in wanting to chat or co-plan, tell them times you’d be available. You are in control of your schedule and thinking it through ahead of time will help you communicate clearly with your co-workers and will help you manage your time well.
5. Let it go
Once I was talking with a coworker and commiserating about keeping our classrooms and houses clean and she jokingly remarked, “Man. You know we wouldn’t be teachers if we didn’t have control issues about something.” At first I was slightly offended (I don’t have control issues, okay?), but the more I thought about it, the more her joke made sense.
As teachers, we are paid to develop and create an environment that promotes learning in all types of students. But, since so much of teaching is out of our control, we are left with a whole lot of amazing, creative ideas that we either can’t afford or aren’t allowed to do because of testing, ‘rigor,’ and district expectations. This frustration continues to build and build in us until we feel like exploding. Why can’t we be allowed to just do what we know is best for kids? Isn’t that why we have college degrees?
Last year, I had the opportunity to watch an absolutely amazing intervention specialist in my building teach a room of kindergarteners about control. She used a visual of concentric circles to show the kiddos things they could control and things they couldn’t. As I sat on that 5-year old sized chair, I realized that so much of what I worry about on a daily basis at work is simply out of my control. I cannot control where students are when they come to me, the curriculum mandated to me by my district, the conditions of my school, the people’s attitudes around me.
I can control how much I let these things affect me and where I choose to direct my stress. I can control how much work I choose to ‘take home.’ I can control my attitude and responses to stressful situations, even when everyone else around me is spinning out.
Take some time to reflect on what you can and cannot control in your room and in your school. If you can’t control it, it’s time to let it go. Let go of the Pinterest boards and lower those expectations. I like to reflect on the phrase, “be gentle with yourself.” When you feel stressed about meeting those expectations, remind yourself that you are allowed to struggle and be imperfect and frustrated. You do not have to be a perfect teacher or perfect parent every day. There are going to be days that are amazing and fulfilling; but there will also be days where your lessons completely fall flat and you want to rip your hair out.
Bring yourself back into balance by choosing which issues are going to be the ones that cause you to stand up and advocate for your students and which ones you are going to let go. By controlling your responses, you will be able to save your precious energy for the battles that really matter (and trust me, we both know there will be plenty).
Alright, that’s enough from me. Go enjoy your last afternoon by the pool, or that last margarita before 4pm.
Here’s to a great year full of possibilities!
-A fellow teacher on summer break
A special thanks to our guest blogger, Ms. Dalton, an elementary teacher on the west side of Columbus, meditator, dog mom, and AW guest blogger.
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