Today on the podcast we’re going to talk about how to mentally leave work at work. How do you keep yourself from worrying or just being distracted by school stuff when it’s time for you to be present with your family, or decompress and relax, or go to sleep at night?
The format of this episode will be similar to EP139 about how to keep teaching from ruining your marriage. The bulk of it will be my own suggestions, but I’m also going to intersperse some advice from other educators, who are in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Some of them recorded their voices so I could include a couple of audio clips here, and others gave me permission to quote them.
Creating a mental boundary so work doesn’t consume your life is a big part of the club, and here’s why: Sometimes, we feel like we’re always working because we’re always thinking about work.
It doesn’t matter much if you reduce your work hours if you then spend those hours thinking about school and are never able to truly relax or disconnect during your free time.
I’ve heard some awesome stories from teachers who have done very creative things to help them transition from work to home in the evening and they offered some fantastic ideas I would never have thought of myself.
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1) Change your clothing to signal a transition
This was a habit of mine as a teacher that really helped a lot — it started early in my teaching career when I was teaching HeadStart, which is three and four-year-olds, and I would come home covered in sand, glitter, paint, or whatever, but it became a habit to immediately get out of whatever clothes I’d been wearing all day at school and put on something more comfortable.
A club member named Amanda said:
“I remember you suggesting changing clothes as soon as we get home … I took it a step further and take a shower the second I walk in the door… even though sometimes I’m so tired that I want to “take a break” before I get in the shower … but I do it every day, right when I get home and it makes SUCH a difference … so much that even when there are things that I think absolutely have to get done, I don’t do them. 😂 I call it “washing the grumpy off”… not because my kids make me grumpy, but because I’m so tired I’ll be grumpy to anyone I encounter after work. For example, My boyfriend: Wanna hang out? Me: I have to go home and wash the grumpy off first.”
Jenny has a variation on this:
“One tip that I have for leaving work at work actually began as an effort to motivate myself to exercise more regularly. So, what I do after work when my school day is done is change into exercise clothes and sneakers. And it began this major mental shift for me at the end of the day when I finish my work, I stop at the restroom on my way out of the building and I change into my exercise clothes and sneakers and then go home. It helps me change my mindset for what’s it like going home and really leaving work at work. I’ll be honest — I don’t do it perfectly but on the days that I do, I feel much better about leaving my job at my job.”
2) Schedule a commitment right after school that forces you to disconnect from the stress of work.
Like Jenny, you can try doing something immediately after school that gives you a bigger perspective beyond all the things that stress you out during the day. Our work-related problems feel huge sometimes until we step back into the rest of our world beyond school and realize there’s so much more going on than just our irritation about the laminator being broken and our stress of having a new student added to the roster.
A teacher named Cheska writes,
“I joined a Biggest Loser challenge at work. A friend and I created an after-school walking club and we schedule our walking dates. On our first day, I actually left a department meeting promptly on the dot and left school right on time to meet with my friend. It was the first time since we started school this year that I’ve left work on time!”
I love this idea because it also involves fresh air, exercise, and companionship — three of the most powerful de-stressing tools we have at our disposal. Christine does something similar:
“I joined a Pilates studio that had 4:00 PM or 4:30 PM classes throughout the work week. I have to reserve my space ahead of time and must cancel 12 hours before any class. I am really enjoying Pilates and it forces me to leave work at a reasonable hour.”
Mattie has a similar routine:
“I will commit to doing a physical activity right after school (go to the gym, walk the dogs, yoga, etc.) so that I can release any physical tension along with refocusing my mind on something other than the school day. This has been a monumental change that brings me a lot of physical, mental, and emotional support when attempting to leave school at school. Additionally, my husband and I work towards spending most of our conversation time at home on home, family, and personal topics. If something is weighing on us from work we will talk about it, but limit the time it is discussed.”
I think that’s super important here — if you try to hold in all your work stress until you can get home to whomever you live with and dump it on him or her, then now you’re spending what could have been a nice dinner or nice evening together reliving all the hassles of your workday.
It’s fine to do that occasionally or for short periods of time, but if you can take active measures to put yourself in a better headspace before you see your partner or family or roommate, that’s going to really help you enjoy your time together more. Otherwise, you’re holding onto it for hours after dismissal so you can process it —try to handle it as soon as possible.
3) Use your commute to process your day, escape your problems, or get in a positive headspace for the evening.
Think through any loose ends that are still bothering you, and when you’re done, use your commute to refocus on something else. Distract yourself and replace those thoughts with something that places you into another world.
(I read novels before bed for this reason — preferably historical fiction so I’m thinking about an entirely different time and place where none of my actual concerns or day to day issues are likely to crop up — the folks in my stories have a very different set of problems.)
“I just recently discovered audiobooks for my commute. I never thought of it before because my commute for years was only 20 minutes, but traffic patterns have changed and the now 35 minutes feels a lot longer! I’m listening to “A Street Cat Named Bob” right now — it’s set on the streets of London and the reader has a British accent. I’m surprised at how much I’m looking forward to the drives to and from work now … and it breaks the stress coming home by putting me on another continent for a bit! (And being a fan of cats, a story that speaks fondly of one is good for my spirit too!)”
“I listen to audiobooks on the drive home, too! I instantly forget troubles at work and I’m transported into the story. Once I get home I take a moment to get a snack and some tea. To avoid the guilt associated with a bag full of ungraded work, I’ve decided most days to physically leave that work at work.”
4) Have a short mindfulness ritual for yourself as soon as you get home.
Jennifer mentioned having tea, and I love that idea. American society isn’t really organized around tea breaks, but tea is an integral part of people’s day all over the world — India, China, Japan, Bahrain, Argentina, and so many other cultures have tea rituals!
I really like fixing a cup of tea when I get home from work because it feels like self-care: It’s comforting and sensual and relaxing and feels like a treat, but it’s not bad for you. I feel the same way about food, but unlike with snacking, the habit of drinking tea as a self-comfort and decompressing ritual really can’t be done to excess.
Depending on what you’re drinking, tea can be incredibly good for your body and improve your health and mood. I have a wide variety of teas in the house so I make different ones all afternoon and evening long, sometimes if I want something easy I’ll just steep some rosemary which has anti-anxiety properties and drink that.
So if you are like me and find yourself wandering to the kitchen to help you decompress, try to create a ritual around tea or some other healthy beverage that you can enjoy. Watch the water boil, enjoy the sights and smells of the tea steeping, and sit looking out the window or outside and just sort of breathe and be present with your senses. Your mind has probably been racing all day, so with or without the tea, give yourself a few moments of peace and quiet.
Even if you have to lock yourself in the bathroom for a couple of minutes and do some deep breathing, give yourself a little bit of time to stop attending to the constant stream of thoughts. Any sort of mindfulness ritual can be a tool for helping you leave work at work.
For some teachers, this might include a short time for meditation. Anne-Marie says,
“I was about to quit teaching. In fact, I had applied for a job at Costco. A friend recommended the app Headspace, which has completely changed my life! It is an app that teaches you how to meditate and how to cope with life’s challenges.”
Jennifer does something similar, but hers is more of a visualization. She teaches students who bring a lot of trauma into the classroom and says,
“I used to drive home from school visualizing closing a book. The book contained all of my students’ stories. I would visualize putting the book on a shelf. I would tell myself that the book is always there for me to open if I choose, but I don’t HAVE to. It really helped me internalize that I could close my mind to school … temporarily.”
5) Choose an activity that helps you release pent-up frustration and have fun.
Yoga is super helpful for me because I’m a pretty chill person and the last thing I want to do at the end of a stressful today is engage with a ton of people or do anything social.
I love Yoga with Adriene — which is free on Youtube. There are hundreds of videos ranging from five minute stretches to45-minute full yoga flows. Look her up — she’s amazing … there’s morning yoga, bedtime yoga, yoga when you’re stressed, yoga for fitness, and so on.
Their vision is to create a “movement of educators inspired to teach and learn for peace, love, and social change. We envision all people educated and empowered to be their whole and brilliant selves in their lives, relationships, and communities. We unite, train, and support educators in wellness and social-emotional learning practices to unleash the full potential of every student AND teacher.”
Of course, there are lots of other things you can do to re-energize besides yoga. A teacher named Erin said,
“My 40-minute commute rocking out to good music with my daughter is my break. I also do not bring stuff home unless it is an absolute must … but mostly Pink blasting from the speakers and us singing along.”
This is such great advice — you know that one song that instantly puts a smile on your face every time you hear it? Listen to that right after school. In fact, you can put together an entire playlist of songs that are uplifting to you, and after you’ve mentally processed your day, lose yourself in the song lyrics.
Take a dance break, exercise, talk a walk, take a shower, do some yoga, have a tea ritual, whatever you need to do to create that transition between work and home and move your mind and body into a different state.
6) Dismiss unwanted thoughts about school and practice being present.
If you find that you have a hard time doing this because thoughts about work keep coming up and preventing you from being present in whatever you’re doing after school, here’s some advice for that.
A teacher named Laura said,
“I have three things that I do that really work. The first thing that I do is create a knock-out list, and I have a must-do side and a may-do side. I try to think about everything that has to get done that day and I pick the top five. I put all of those on the must-do side and everything else on the may-d0 side. Then throughout the day, I try to “knock them out.” By the end of the day, if I get those checked off, I feel accomplished.
The second thing is that I have a mantra: This will all be here tomorrow. It really will be … I’ve been through some life-changing events, and I’m here to tell you that it will all be here tomorrow. The third thing is that I always keep a journal next to my bed, and if I think of things, I write them down so I can rest a little easier.”
If you’re constantly thinking about what needs to be done, write it down. Have a list you keep on your phone so it’s always with you and you can transfer those items to your main to-do list system when you’re back at work. So when you’re trying to relax and you remember you forgot to run by the science lab to grab the microscopes for tomorrow’s lesson, just put it in a list and then refocus on what you were doing.
If the thoughts are deeper than that — you’re replaying negative things that happened or your mind is racing ahead to possible problems that could happen tomorrow, you might want some strategies for that.
First off, you can reframe anything unpleasant or unfinished that happened during your day so it doesn’t stick with you. This is important if you mentally carry the burden of every student and every undone task throughout the evening. The decompressing process is essentially your transition between thinking about work, and thinking about everything else in your life.
Practice allowing yourself to think about your day and the unhappy stuff for a few minutes and create some kind of mental reframing so you can stop worrying about it. That way, even if you still have school work to do in the evening, you can at least relax in knowing you won’t need to mentally replay a confrontation with a student or rehearse what you want to say in a parent conference the next day. Your mental work of processing the day’s events will be done.
You can also try a few minutes of deep breathing and repeat a mantra. Write this out ahead of time, read it every day until you’ve memorized it. You could even record yourself saying it as a voice memo on your phone and play it back for yourself — what you hear from your own voice is one of the most powerful ways to internalize something. Your mantra could be something like:
My work today is done. What’s left undone will still be there waiting for me tomorrow, so I don’t have to think about it now. I choose to be satisfied with my efforts today and be fully present in the rest of my life tonight. I will take care of myself, my home, and the people I love. Tomorrow I will wake up energized and ready to go back into the classroom and give 100% to my work.
Once you have reframed your thoughts, you need to take steps in your environment to prevent unwanted work reminders from creeping in. Obviously disconnecting work email from your phone is important. But a teacher named Sheri took this a step further: she recommends that you don’t have physical reminders of school laying around your house.
“I’ve designated an area (small room & closet) right off my garage door where anything “school” may live. I don’t allow any materials (especially grading!) to be in my personal space. This is also where I keep some of the sweet gifts from students (especially those handmade ones!), pictures of students and colleagues, etc. The only things I take into my space are my purse and lunch tote. About the only time I break the rule is if I want to relax and read a “teacher book” on the couch.
Otherwise, my home is my sacred space that rejuvenates me. I was mentored to notice what saps my energy, like walking by the bag from work you brought home, etc. So, out of sight … out of mind. It also helps me manage my time and keeps me from procrastinating. I often don’t allow myself to go upstairs to my sacred space until I’ve finished the work I needed to do. (I actually visualized having a home like this — when homeownership in California was a pipe dream for me! It worked!) When I finally go upstairs, I LITERALLY leave it all behind me.
I would imagine that if you did not have extra space in your home to use solely for work, one might designate a corner or closet with something that has a door that could shut or a screen of some sort to block the actual materials.”
Recognize that turning off your teacher brain requires self-discipline and practice. It will not come naturally at first, but that means to keep practicing. You have to train yourself to change your thinking, and dismiss, distract, reject, and replace when unwanted thoughts come up. (I wrote an entire book about this.)
Your takeaway truth for the week ahead is simple: You are not your thoughts, and you can choose your thoughts. You can let thoughts pass in and out of your mind without dwelling on them. They are not part of you, they’re just thoughts. You can select the ones you want to keep thinking about.
In fact, this is the ultimate goal because your thoughts create your emotions. If you want to feel better — feel less stressed, less anxious, less overwhelmed — you have to stop choosing thoughts which create those feelings.
Let them enter your mind, observe them without judgment — Oh there’s that thought again, isn’t that interesting? — and don’t make it into a big deal or a story. It’s not part of you. Select another thought that creates the feelings you want to have. This is a lifelong process. And it’s not going to easy, but I promise you, it’s going to be worth it.