by Peg Grafwallner
Most of us return to school in a few days. We’ve had a week away or maybe two weeks away from the classroom. Some of us are ready to come back and honestly, some of us are not. The time away wasn’t enough. Due to workload, many of us continued to grade papers over the holiday, hoping to “catch up.” Many others organized paperwork, cleaned out backpacks and prepared for a new roster of students for second semester. In retrospect, some of us never had a chance to unplug, unclip, unprint, unwind or just plain unthink.
And truthfully, many of us felt guilty for doing “nothing” – even for two days.
As a former English teacher with 23 years in the field, I usually gave myself Christmas Eve and Christmas day off during the holiday break – no papers to grade, no meetings to attend, no emails to return, no lessons to plan.
Before and after, however, I was all in. I had to be. I needed to stay ahead of the grading, the emails and the lessons. Even though I had a daily prep period during the school year, I usually used that prep period for collaborating with colleagues, meeting with students, making copies, or completing the district-mandated paperwork.
Looking back, I realize I didn’t have a methodical plan to get the work done well nor time to reflect on my next steps. I graded the papers that were the oldest; I answered emails that had been waiting the longest and I planned lessons that were good, but could have been better. In other words, there was very little time during the day to grade the work I had assigned or reflect on the lessons I had taught because I had not taken the time to create a schedule – a systematic, structured way of organizing my day. As a result, I took my job home and spent another two-three hours a night trying to catch up or trying to stay afloat.
Winter break and spring break gave me an opportunity to breathe; to step back and look at the big picture to determine what I needed to do upon return. However, that “breathing” often made me feel guilty. If I wasn’t doing something, I wasn’t working and if I wasn’t working, I wasn’t a good teacher. After all, the good teachers, the ones we all read about, seem to give their lives to the teaching profession and figure out balance upon retirement.
I am no longer a teacher in the classroom. After 23 years of teaching English, I opted to go back to school to earn my Reading Specialist license so I could support and assist teachers in becoming the very best teachers they can be; helping them to balance their lives now instead of waiting until the final bell.
And here’s what I discovered: Creating a methodical system designed to alleviate the guilt helped me to find balance.
During the school year, we create the best learning environment possible for our students. But do we create the best environment for us? We keep our foot on the gas and drive until we literally have nothing left in the tank. Let’s not wait until the next break to breathe, step back or look at the big picture. Let’s start second semester with a structured schedule so during the next break we can reflect and enjoy the balance we’ve earned.
Here are three suggestions as you create your second semester schedule:
1) During your next collaborative meeting, create a grading team. I graded in isolation; therefore, grading became a chore I despised (trust me, 180 English essays every few weeks will do that to you). But, by establishing a routine, grading can become an opportunity for explicit feedback offering students growth and progress. Bring your papers/projects to your next collaborative meeting and grade as a team. You will learn how your colleagues grade; you will learn if your grade level team is giving students the same directions/instructions and expecting the same outcome as you are and finally, your grading will get done because you have a team with which to support you.
2) Create a schedule for meeting with students and stick to it. During my teaching career, I came in early and stayed late only to have students not show up. Schedule two days a week where you will come in 30 minutes before school to meet with students and two days a week where you will stay 30 minutes after school to meet with students. When students realize this schedule is non-negotiable, they will coordinate their calendar to meet with you. It may take some time for students to realize your decisiveness and adhere to it, but once they do, your meetings will be efficient and effective.
3) Schedule one day a week to make copies and/or complete district paperwork. As an English teacher, I made copies when I needed them and completed paperwork after the third reminder from the head secretary. I didn’t have a schedule for the mundane tasks that needed to be done and was often running to the copy machine or the office at the last minute. Come in early on Friday morning and make all the copies you need for the following week. If you are paperless, use the time to complete district paperwork. In this way, you will be organized and the head secretary will appreciate your attention to detail!
As I look back on my classroom career, using a structured system helped me use time purposefully, with more mindfulness and less guilt. In addition, that mindfulness offered more balance and less frustration. While I recognize that even the best laid schedules sometimes don’t work, give yourself the chance to try a structured calendar, using the ideas offered or modify them to fit your own. Let’s work together to find balance now and not at the end of our career.