Oh, the Back to School To Do List….
Here it grows!! Check off one item. Breathe. Add seven items. Stop breathing. Repeat.
It’s the time of year when I can’t look at my Google Calendar without inducing a possible panic attack. It’s the time of year when my own children spend several hours per day with me in my classroom, helping me label, sort, and clean everything in sight to prepare for a new year. I even lay in bed at night rearranging bulletin boards and schedules in my head.
Each year, I tell myself I’m gonna do LESS. Sign up for LESS extra stuff. Feel LESS overwhelmed. I’m entering my fifteenth year in the classroom, and I finally feel like I’m making small improvements. Yes, small. But improvements.
And it all starts with letting something….anything….go. Often, someone might tell you (AKA the overly busy, always swimming, Type A teacher) to take something “off your plate.” You may or may not have actually followed that advice. But oh friend, if you haven’t actually tried it, get ready to feel as light as air! When you let something go, it’s one LESS responsibility clogging up your brain. It’s one LESS thing that no one really cared about anyway. It also means MORE time to be with the people you love and do the things you love.
So for immediate purposes, let’s not refer to it as what you can take “off your plate.” We are teachers, after all, so let’s go with our well-known affection for office supplies, shall we?! Let’s talk about all those “Post-its that you can clear off your desk.”
(And don’t worry, I won’t advise you to give up coffee or any source of caffeine. There’s just some things we can’t survive without, amirite?)
Here are a few things that people just NEVER SAY:
OTHER TEACHER: “OMG, did you see Susie’s crooked letters on her bulletin board?! And they’re not even laminated!”
STUDENT: “Well, Mrs. Smith doesn’t color code her classroom library. So she is pretty much a terrible teacher.”
PARENT: “I didn’t get my six paragraph Friday email from Mrs. Smith. Ugh, she’s such a slacker.”
Guys, we don’t expect our students or teammates or family members to be perfect, so why on Earth do we expect it from ourselves? I love a beautifully organized, Pinterest-perfect classroom just as much as anyone, but that doesn’t mean that when you open my cabinets, things won’t fall out and hurt you. I actually like to call it “surface organized,” not unlike Monica’s mystical closet on Friends:
Take a moment to imagine your favorite childhood teacher. Do you remember her perfect hand-lettered anchor charts? How about her beautifully layered borders or papers that were always graded and entered in the gradebook on time? I’m guessing not. And I’m guessing you do remember her kindness, enthusiasm, creativity, and loving relationships with students.
I’m gonna say it even louder for you, dear new teachers. Do you know why the teacher next door always has her act together and makes it look so easy? For one thing, it’s because she’s been teaching for a decade, and this isn’t her first rodeo. I thank my lucky stars that no one judged my teaching career on my first or even second years of teaching, because I certainly had a lot of growing to do. New teachers, do not compare your Chapter 1 to someone else’s Chapter 10. You will never achieve perfection. But you will grow. You will make mistakes. You will evolve. And you will change more little lives than you ever thought possible.
You’ve probably heard the advice to “just close your door and teach,” and there have been times in my career where I’ve heeded that advice. But I have a different challenge for you. How about you open up your classroom door and allow yourself to be human and vulnerable? Even better than that, how about you let in a teacher friend or two?
NEWSFLASH: You are not the best at all teaching things in all the land.
Do you know what I credit my most successful, shining teacher moments to? The other teachers around me. The ones who took my weaknesses and turned them into strengths. The ones that let me watch them teach and learn from their tips and tricks. The ones who made me want to be better.
The moment you stop growing and improving in your practice is the moment you will burn out and lose your passion for this profession. Open your door, and more importantly your heart, and learn from the best of the best who are right in front of you.
I’m a HUGE people-pleaser, y’all. I hate for people to be upset with me. I get sick to my stomach if I have to tell someone no for any reason. I get all flushed and nervous during confrontations and avoid them at all cost.
I think that many teachers, by nature, are people-pleasers because this teaching life is a life of service. We’re in the business of spreading joy and learning and inspiration and making the world a better place, right? But that also means that we tend to get taken advantage of. Because things should always come first if they’re, ahem, “for the children.”
Saying NO to extra obligations in order to spend more time with your family or time for yourself does not make you a bad teacher. In fact, it means that you’re saying YES to something more important. There is only so much of us to go around and only 24 hours in a day, and that third after school committee just might be enough to push us over the edge. Saying no might feel icky at first, but your Google Calendar will thank you later. It soon feels exhilarating when you realize that you’ve put your people-pleasing aside, and put your overall well-being first.
Alright, for this one I’m gonna actually need you to go get a paper and something to write with.
This is gonna be a fun one.
On your paper, I want you to write down everything that you do in your classroom on a weekly basis, other than actually teaching. I’m talking about all those hundreds of little extra things that you squeeze in on your planning, lunch, and before and after school. You might need to go get more paper. Now, I want you to go through your list and circle the things that are actually required of you by your administration. Those are obviously your non-negotiables.
But now I want you to look at the things that are left on your list, and put a STAR next to the things that your students actually care about….the special things that they always notice and that make your classroom a joyful place to spend their days.
I guarantee that there are still some items left on those list, and I want you to take a big black Sharpie and cross through them right now, because starting as soon as possible, you are gonna let those things go. Why?! Because your students don’t need them, your admin doesn’t need them, and they are sucking the life out of you and the precious minutes in your day. Unless it brings you floods of personal satisfaction, stop creating meaningless busy work for yourself and zero in on what really matters to those little ones in your care.
I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again. Teaching is one of the hardest professions in the world. And if it were a piece of cake, everyone would do it. The days are long, the emotions are high, and there is an ungodly amount of things you can choose to complain about in one day.
But here’s the thing. No one wants to work with this girl.
Think about it. Are you a source of positivity for others? Do you chime in on gripe fests? Are you a glass half full or glass half empty kind of teammate? Are you a constant complainer or a problem solver? Think about what kind of teacher you’d like to work with, and then take a long hard look in the mirror. I’ve most certainly had years where I’ve leaned toward the glass half empty side, and the perfect remedy was spending the most time possible with the most positive teachers in my building. Positive attitudes are contagious and are the secret sauce in a thriving school culture. If you’re struggling to find the bright side through the darkness, seek out the teachers in your building who shine. Let that negativity go so you can bring more happiness home to your family.
Teacher guilt is a real and vicious thing, right up there with mom guilt and dad guilt.
It stems from that aching feeling of not doing enough and being enough for our children, constantly caught in a tug-of-war between what is expected of us and having any shred of a personal life.
My school is named after the legendary Teddy Roosevelt, and one of our first grade teachers has this quote on her door.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Teacher mommas and dads, it’s okay to leave as soon as you can after school to go home to that newborn. No one is judging you. Let it go.
Teacher who is caring for a sick loved one, those ungraded papers can wait. Your time is precious. No one is judging you. Let it go.
Teacher who is on the verge of burnout, remember why you chose this profession and all the lives you’ve impacted. This might be a tough year, but it will pass. Let it go.
Teacher who is struggling with anxiety or depression, leave your messy desk and go home and take that hot bath. Leave your teacher bag in the car tonight. No one is judging you. Let it go.
As teachers, no matter our circumstances or seasons of life, we are a family. We are in the same boat, and a rising tide lifts all boats. Support and love one another. Text a teacher friend and give her permission to let something go this year.
Let’s take care of ourselves, teacher friends.
Clear some Post-its off that desk, grab some coffee, and let’s get busy changing little lives.