It’s always tough to strive for great teaching AND a great personal life, but that battle seems to ramp up exponentially during the winter holidays. If you’re feeling pulled in a million different directions, check out the tips below to help you prioritize and make time for what’s most important.
Don’t feel pressure to do elaborate holiday stuff to be like other teachers
So what if the teacher across the hall covers her room in tinsel and lights and creates extensive holiday-themed centers which culminate in a life-size replica of the first North Pole expedition? Don’t compare yourself, and don’t wear yourself out trying to keep up.
New teachers, especially, need to resist the urge to take on more than they can handle. Figure out some simple festive things you can do that won’t create a lot of stress, and stick with those. You can always add a little more next year. This advice goes double for buying students presents. Your teammate may choose to spend $50 on trinkets, and that’s fine. But you’re not a bad teacher if you don’t.
Plan fun memory-making experiences for earlier in the week before break
If you do choose to go all out for fun memory-making experiences, I recommend doing that earlier in the week, and planning a low-key day for the last day of school before any holiday break. Three hours before you pack up your whole family and make an eight hour trip to grandma’s house is NOT the time to plan an elaborate, messy activity that’s going to hype kids up and wear you out.
On the last day before break, you’ll be distracted by your own holiday plans and any last-minute grades or work tasks you need to complete. Plus the kids who actually show up to school will be too excited to follow directions, and you’ll be running around like crazy to clean so you can leave on time. So instead, focus on creating meaningful, enjoyable work assignments that the kids will have fun completing, and just enjoy the last day together.
Leave your classroom in top shape for your return
Having a low-key last day also helps you get prepared for your return. This isn’t as big of a deal with the Thanksgiving break since it’s short, but I’ve found it’s really critical for the Christmas or winter break. There’s nothing worse than coming back to work after a week or two off to discover silver glitter and unwritten thank you cards all over your desk. When a new year is coming, you naturally are going to want to give yourself a fresh, new start. So try to use the day before break to take down any seasonal decorations you have up, change the calendar, finalize your lesson plans and materials for the first day back, and so on.
Use your break to tackle any projects that are creating dread and anxiety
I don’t have strong opinions as to whether teachers should work or not over their time off. But if there’s a big task that going to be hanging over your head and causing you to feel a sense of dread instead of relaxation, I think you should try to at least make a dent in that project. Similarly, if you know that the first day is going to go more smoothly if you prepare some of your lesson materials now, give yourself the gift of preparation.
Just be sure to create boundaries around your family time. Schedule in a few hours to work on the planned task over your break, work hard and stay focused during that time with no distractions, and when that time period is up, force yourself to quit.
Think of teaching in terms of seasons, and make this a season for family
I’ve always felt that it’s very hard to keep a work life balance on a daily basis as a teacher, and for me it’s better to think of it in terms of seasons. There will be some days and weeks when work just consumes everything you have, and you’re going to feel like a failure as a spouse and parent if you focus on that.
Instead, think about the SEASONS of being a teacher: you have around 8 weeks each summer and several long weekends and lengthy vacation periods throughout the school year that most jobs don’t permit. Those are times when everyone else is still focusing on work, but you can devote yourself to your family and friends and hobbies and anything else you want or need to.
Try looking at your days off in November and December as a time for you to tip the balance back toward the aspects of your life apart from work. Allow yourself to think more about your loved ones and creating memories together, remembering that back in August and September, you were more focused on your students and your job.
It’s okay for work to come second right now. In fact, I think that’s healthy. Stay focused and give 100% during your contractual hours, but don’t order takeout on Christmas because you were grading papers all morning and didn’t have time to cook.
Be intentional with time off and make a list of experiences you want to create
I recommend making a list of things you want to accomplish over your break. Include not only household tasks that need to be done, but also things you want to ENJOY, like decorating your house for the holidays, driving around looking at decorations, and even sleeping in or finishing a book. Anything that you want to experience during your break should be written down. That will make it more likely to get done and keep you from having to hold this lengthy to-do list in your mind at all times.
Once you have your list, put a star by the things that you absolutely have to do–the things that you would not want to return to school again without having experienced or accomplished. And then when your break arrives, schedule those things into your daily to-do list.
Yes, I recommend keeping a list even on your vacation! Write things down on your list the night before: Tomorrow, I am decorating the house with my kids. Tomorrow, I’m going to allow myself thirty minutes to read and relax.
You might not get to do everything that’s on your list, but you can make sure the most important things –the stuff you put a star by–gets scheduled in.
Start creating routines that help you spend less time working throughout the year
January brings a new year and a chance to create new routines and habits. If you are struggling to make time for what matters most in your life and feel like you can’t possibly have enough time for being a great teacher AND taking care of yourself and things at home, I want you to consider joining The 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club.
It’s a one year subscription that I created to offer ongoing support to teachers as they learn how to create healthy boundaries around their time. I opened the club up to a limited number of members in October and we’re going to be accepting new members again right after the holidays.
Every Saturday, I share more tips, printables, audio messages, and other time-saving resources with club members. They can check in via the Facebook group whenever they’d like. We celebrate their successes, give advice to help each member personalize the tips for their unique situations, and I listen to see what else I can do to help them.
I have been absolutely blown away some of the testimonies of people in the club. We have club members who have already–just in the first 6 weeks–created systems that allowed them to cut 10 hours off their workweek, to go from 60 to 50 hours, for example. We have club members who have been posting in the Facebook group while literally in tears because they are relieved at how much more on top of things they feel, and that teacher guilt is fading away. One story in particular was amazing–we have a member who always spent her entire Sunday afternoon grading papers, and for the first time EVER, she had her grading done during the workweek and was able to spend Sunday teaching her grandkids how to bake cookies.
This is a group who is tired of the status quo and believes that there MUST be a better way to do this teaching thing, there MUST be daily productivity hacks they can try, there MUST be better systems…and they’re doing the work to bring my tips and strategies to reality in their own lives.
This is the kind of stuff I am reading on a daily basis in that Facebook group, and it is so, so exciting to see teachers who are willing to invest the time and energy into creating a better life. I wake up every day excited to check in to the group, see what they’re up to, and make more stuff for them.
Maybe you heard about the club before and didn’t join because you weren’t sure what it was going to be about, or you weren’t sure if it would be worth the subscription price. I’m telling you–if you love my blog, my podcast, my books, my teaching resources–you need to be in this club! I have never been more excited about the impact on teachers’ lives of something I have the honor of doing.
You do not have to be constantly overwhelmed and exhausted just because you chose teaching as your profession.
You do not have to feel like you are constantly drowning in work and never able to get ahead. I want to show you how to create systems and habits and routines that help you prioritize and organize your tasks and get them done more efficiently.
Think of it as a New Year’s Resolution. Promise yourself, I will use 2016 to create more effective strategies for doing my job so I can enjoy it more and have more time for other things that are important to me.
Give yourself and your family a gift this holiday season and invest in having more time and less stress. There is nothing more valuable than that. The results that the group of teachers in this club are experiencing is amazing: you don’t want to miss out on this!
So, if you’re reading this before Christmas, you can’t join yet. Instead, go to 40htw.com to learn more about the club AND enter your email address. I’ll send you free timesaving tips periodically between now and January, including a FREE Getting Started Guide that helps you figure out a target number of hours to work each week, allot those hours in a schedule that works for you, and then stick to it. So you’ll get all that for free in your email, and then at the end of December, I’ll send you an email telling you it’s finally time, and you can head over to 40htw.com and join. All you have to do is enter your email at 40htw.com and I’ll send you free timesaving tips and tell you how to get involved in the club at the end of December.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday (season 3 begins in January 2016) and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!