Riding the Waves

Image credit: Pixabay.com (2017), CC0/PD

As educators, how do we do our best both personally and professionally?

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

As teachers, we love. We give. No one who lacks a heart for this profession lasts long, but it’s that compassionate heart that can be our undoing. We give and we give and we give … and we run dry.

Last month, I wrote about drawing the line between nurturing our students and enabling them. This month, I’d like to turn the camera around and focus on what we need to do for ourselves. As educators, how do we do our best both personally and professionally?

As with our students, it’s all about balance — in our case, finding that sweet spot between professional excellence and self-care. For educators, however, setting the boundaries that make this possible is often about as effective as drawing a line in the sand; it’s only a matter of time before high tide washes it away. Work follows us home in the form of papers to grade and lessons to plan and, before we know it, high tide is a way of life.

Ready to stem the tide? Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Have I established a routine? Have you found the rhythm that works for your days? I’m an educator of the stay-late-at-work variety, but many of my colleagues are of the arrive-an-hour-early breed. Building time into the day to tackle the tasks that we can’t get done during the school day acknowledges the fact that our jobs, of necessity, extend beyond school hours. While my before-school colleagues have a built-in end time, I need to create my own, since there are no arriving students to nudge me to switch gears. If your deadline isn’t built in, set one and, when that time is up, stop working. You may not be able to do this every day, but successfully stopping on time even three days a week can bring things more into balance.

Have I chosen my homework carefully? The thing about teaching is there’s always more to do. Papers to grade. Lessons to plan. Assignments to create. A unit to tweak so it’s just a little better than it was the last time. This is where the line in the sand gets washed away, if we’re not careful. All these things may be necessary, but are they important enough to swallow up your evenings and weekends? Will devoting your out-of-school time to these tasks put your mind at ease or will that choice simply keep you from using your leisure time for actual leisure? If you opt to spend some of your time off on schoolwork, at least set a time limit. Even high tide yields to low tide each day.

Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Such a simple question, with such a complex answer. When you love your job, it’s incredibly easy to blur the line between work and leisure — and yes, I speak from personal experience. As an educator and a writer, it’s all too easy for me to spend every waking hour working on one project or another, especially when it involves creating things. Fortunately, family life has a way of curbing this tendency, forcing us to answer this question as it’s posed by a small parade of others who want something from us. The trick is to get good at asking this question of ourselves before that happens so we can restore balance on our own terms. 

Have I created time for fun? The thing about low tide is that it arrives on schedule. Until we get good at balancing the personal and the professional, though, we sometimes have to give low tide an assist. Scheduling events with friends and family, or even penciling in an hour to read a good book reminds us that these things are important too; putting them into our calendars gives them a gravitas that simply thinking “I’ll do that later” does not. In addition, giving things a time slot makes it more likely that we’ll do them.

Am I should-ing myself? Teachers, practically by definition, have excellent work ethics. Unfortunately, this can make it challenging for us to take time for ourselves because we’re sure we “should” be doing something else. Something productive. Something meaningful. Something for someone else. We often forget (or fail to acknowledge) that taking care of ourselves is something we “should” be doing because it benefits both us and those around us. When we’re healthy and refreshed, we’re better able to do all the things we “should” be doing — including letting go of the “shoulds.”

Am I trying to be perfect? When we spend all of our working lives in a job that requires us to be role models, mistakes can be intimidating, particularly when they’re public. As a result we may strive so hard for excellence that we forget that we need to make a few mistakes along the way. When we falter, we learn, we gain compassion and, perhaps most important, we give those around us permission to to be less than perfect as well. All we need to do each day is our best, and give the day to the Lord.

Some days, high tide will overwhelm us. Other days, we’ll dangle our feet in the waters of low tide, continuing to move our beach chairs back for as long as we can in the face of encroaching waves. Whichever day we have affords us the opportunity for growth, whether personal, professional or both; this is good, because we need a mix of each of these to become our best selves. And, if we try, but fail to find our elusive balance today, tomorrow is another day to set up our beach chairs.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.

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