Do you have a tendency to make gigantic to-do lists for every new school year? Do you promise yourself each fall that this year will be different, and expect yourself to suddenly become organized and top of all the tasks you’re given?

If so, you’re not alone. August and September can be such overwhelming months for teachers. We tend to start out with lots of energy and high expectations for ourselves, but it only takes a few days (or sometimes a few hours!) before the responsibilities and challenges pile up, and we default back to the same habits and negative outlook we swore we’d leave behind after the previous year.

I’ve written a lot about setting reasonable and healthy expectations for yourself in Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. What follows is an excerpt from the book that I will hope will help you maintain your enthusiasm through the first few weeks of school and create a sense of balance:

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I used to assume that after a few years of teaching experience, I would finally be able to do everything I was supposed to. I thought that surely there would be a time when I’d manage everything on my plate with ease. I’d get all the district’s paperwork done on time or early, return graded work to students within twenty-four hours (with individualized comments, of course), and have detailed lesson plans completed at least a week in advance. The pressure would finally be off once I became a ‘master teacher.”

This might be the most damaging myth that teachers ever believe. I have to break the news: you will never be at the place where you can sit back and say, “Great! There’s nothing left for me to do. My classroom is perfect and all of my students’ needs are met 100% of the time!” You will be never be able to do it all as well as you’d like to. You will never be able to do everything the district tells you to.

Let that really sink in. Does your principal do everything the teachers, students, parents, and superintendent ask? Do the district officials do everything they’re supposed to? Of course not. Yet they’re under intense pressure from all sides, just like you. They, too, are asked to do the impossible. And they don’t. So why should you berate YOURSELF for not being a miracle worker? Everyone around you is just doing the best they can with what they’ve got. You should, too.

In education, the standards are high and the stakes are higher. So no matter how efficient you become, there will not be enough hours in the day to meet every demand that’s placed on you. And still, the world will not come to an end! You don’t have to hold yourself to an unachievable standard. David Allen once said, “You can do anything, but you cannot do everything.” Set your efforts on what’s most important, and don’t let yourself feel discouraged about not being Super Teacher.

I like to focus on improving in one major area during each school year. I developed monthly parent workshops one year and planned ways to strengthen my communication and relationships with families. Another year I read every book I could find on Writer’s Workshop and developed a huge repertoire of best practices for writing instruction. Another year I created backward planning units for science to make sure I was teaching kids the big ideas and essential questions. Each fall, I’d keep up the practices I’d learned from the previous years and embark on a new area of improvement.

Then when I noticed that I was weak in a particular area, rather than criticize myself, I could say, That’s a good area of improvement to consider for next year. One focus at a time. I can’t become an expert in every teaching practice all at once, and I’m not going to pressure myself. I’m aware of my weaknesses, and that’s a good first step. I’ll get better and better in these areas the longer I’m in the field.”

What’s one area of YOUR teaching practice you’d like to improve this year?

Discussion

7 Comments

  1. liz

    Thank you for this article. I’m starting my 24th year in education (10th as admin.) and I still work 12-14 hour days regularly. Always trying to get that one last thing done to be a little more ahead for tomorrow. But, I do not beat myself up anymore for not being perfect.

  2. Sheri Warren

    Thanks for that today. It’s the 4th day of school, and I was already getting discouraged. Thanks for the lift.

  3. Colleen

    Thanks so much for the reminder for teachers to take care of themselves! We’re only human!

  4. Shelly

    I am starting my 31st year of teaching and this is something I have to embrace. I have gotten better over the years, but I let myself get stressed about not “doing it right” way too often. We, of course, have teachers in their third and fourth years and when I mention that I feel overwhelmed they always ask how, with 30 years experience, I still feel like I’m not doing it right. I’m sending them this article. Thanks for writing it well.

  5. Linda Kardamis

    Thanks for this reminder. I sometimes get bogged down in my to-do list that I sometimes start neglecting the most important things like helping or counseling my students. I always have to remind myself to do what is important, not necessarily what’s urgent.

  6. Shavon

    Thank you for this post. I REALLY needed it. I was starting to doubt my teaching abilities because I’m not perfect.

  7. Sarah

    Someone shared this on facebook.

    This post is the reason that the education system simply does not work. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just impossible for one individual adult to meet the needs of 20+ students. It is also the reason why I chose to homeschool once I had school age children at home. As an educator, I saw how many kids slipped through the cracks because I and my fellow educators simply could not do it all. There wasn’t enough time to meet everyone’s needs, no matter how hard we tried.

    As a home educator, I still have to come to terms with the fact that I can’t do everything even for my own kids. Sometimes that awesome lab experiment has to take a backseat to the math lesson that my child still hasn’t mastered. Sometimes I can’t participate in a weekend activity because we have some work to catch up on. Yet, I truly feel that kids benefit from being at home when possible with parents who can give individualized time.

    I know it isn’t possible for all families. Some families need two incomes. Some families do not have dedicated parents. Single parent families obviously would struggle the most. However, I also know the public education system does not work. I have seen it from all sides at this point. Public schools are overburdened. Education standards keep increasing while family involvement decreases. Teachers have the entire burden and if one teacher in the entire span of a child’s educational career drops the ball, we all know how unlikely it is for that child to every catch up again. It’s a mess. I really feel for my friends who are still working in the field. The pressure is astounding.

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