Implementing Self-Care and Boundaries as a Teacher

Overworking ourselves has become normalized, but it is not needed.

As a first year teacher, I heard the whispers about teachers who walked in and walked out at contract time.  I saw teachers stroll out the doors with tote bags full of ungraded papers.

Today, I see teachers framed as martyrs on television as they Zoom their class from hospital beds.  I see Tiktoks of “cute teaching ideas” that require plenty of extra time and money.

I was that teacher for several years.  Thank goodness I said goodbye to her.

Teaching is a social job.  I am an introvert through and through (also being an introvert does not correlate with not being outgoing.)  I recharge by being alone doing something I enjoy or that calms me.  Day after day, I give my energy to little humans who need and deserve it.  During the first few years of my career, however, I realized I had little energy to give them.  I wasn’t recharging daily.

I would stay later after school to plan and grade.  On the overwhelming days where “I needed a break,” I’d pack up my papers and teacher manuals and save more work for 7 PM on my couch.  Sundays were devoted to all-day planning and grading days.  It somehow never ended.  (Maybe sound familiar?)

There wasn’t a defined turning point, but there was a period of time where I realized that if I didn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t fully take care of my students.  The change in my routine didn’t change overnight, but it built up overtime.  

Here are my top five ways I take care of myself and give my all for my students:

1. Never work at home unless you want to.

This can be a big change for some people, and I know it was for me.  I’m a big believer in separating spaces based on purpose.  My bedroom is for sleeping, my living room is for relaxing, my office is for productivity, so that definitely means my classroom should be for working.

I also deal with anxiety, and sometimes that anxiety won’t settle down until tasks just feel finished.  I choose one day per work week (it’s usually Thursdays for me) and allow myself to stay later than usual to finish preparing for the next week.  That can be when my copies are made and my lesson plans are finalized.  Some weeks I don’t need the extra day.

I realized that when I leave work at work, I’m more energized and motivated during school hours.  I crank out lesson plans, grading, and so forth during my prep time.  Before, prep time usually meant simply breathing and recharging.  And there are times where I take some prep time to listen to a teammate vent or just listen to a couple favorite songs, but it’s about changing the routine overall.  And there are those bursts of energy where I feel inspired to work on a lesson at home.  I listen to my body and allow myself to work on that lesson at home because it is fulfilling my wants in that moment.

2. Set boundaries with your team.

My two grade level teammates know that if I’m not at school, I usually will not be doing work.  If they text with a problem, of course I will help them, but they don’t expect me to talk lesson planning or grading outside of school hours.  They also know that 90% of the time, I am not staying past 4 PM (contract time.)  And if it’s after 9 PM, I’m not responding to them or anyone else.-

Everyone has different working styles, but it’s crucial to set boundaries with those you work closest with.  Being transparent not only promotes a healthy working relationship, but it also helps with time management for the team as a whole.

3. Turn off school notifications on your phone.

Some people say to delete school e-mail all together, but I am just fine with switching those notifications to off.  I also set “quiet hours” on my ClassDojo account so parents are told I am not expected to respond outside of contract hours.  If you also set “office hours” up front with your parents in your beginning of the year materials, it sets this boundary from the start (mine are 8 AM until 4 PM–contract time for me.)

If I get a notification, I have to check it.  And when I check my school e-mail at home, I sometimes run into sticky or anxiety-provoking situations that could have waited until the morning.

4. Sunday evenings are set aside for self-care and relaxation.

We’ve all heard of them–the Sunday Scaries.  If you are familiar with the feeling, you’re probably a lot like me in the sense to where I love my job, but a change in routine makes me anxious.  Starting up such a high-energy job for the week can feel draining before it even starts.  This fact is why I set aside all of my time after I eat dinner on Sundays for relaxation, hobbies, or whatever my body tells me it needs or wants.

It’s also important to remind yourself what “fills your cup” besides education-related activities.  I encourage you to take two minutes and make a list of what fulfills you in different ways.  Are you making time for all of them?  Here’s mine:

  • What relaxes/calms me: reading fiction books, rewatching an episode of a favorite television show, taking a hot bath
  • What fills me with joy/fulfills interests: researching Ancestry, volunteering with my favorite non-profit, cooking and baking
  • What ups my mood when down or stressed: working out, taking a walk outside, doing a quick guided meditation, making a list of five things I’m grateful for in that moment

5. Take time to prepare yourself for the next morning.

My outfit is laid out the day before.  And if it’s a Monday, you better believe it’s a good one.  My go-to trick is picking something I want to wear and head on over to Pinterest to search “___________ work outfit.”  Boom.  Fashionable outfit for the next day that makes me feel like a powerful teacher queen.

My lunches and dinners are prepped for the week.  Each Sunday, I choose something I want for lunch for the week and prep everything I need to have it for the week.  That way in the morning it’s grab and go and I get excited for lunch since it’s something I put thought into.  I realize the weekly dinner prep is a privilege I have from living alone, but it’s been a game changer for me.  I make a delicious, healthy dinner every Sunday and the leftovers typically last me through Wednesday or Thursday.

In the teaching world, it’s hard to set boundaries because our work never seems done.  I had a college professor recently say “Sometimes good enough is good enough.”  If going above and beyond fulfills you, do it.  If you simply need to go home and relax, do it.  I go into every school day with so much more energy and motivation than I did even two years ago.  Taking care of myself when I can allows me to take care of my students when I need to.

When you signed your contract, you did not sign away your nights and weekends.  You did not sign away your sanity.  You did not sign away your interests and life outside of school.

We are teachers, but we are also so much more than just teachers.

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