by Melissa Face
It’s not unusual for me to trudge out to my car in the afternoon with several bags of papers that need to be graded. I have watched with envy, however, as many other teachers left the building empty-handed, and thought, “What am I doing wrong?”
I know I’m not the most efficient person in the world, but I imagined myself having a more manageable schedule and workload at this point in my career. I regret that I am often unable to indulge in an evening sitcom, read a new book, or go out to dinner.
I regret even more so that I frequently shush my own children when they approach me with something important or ask me to read them a story. “Mommy’s grading essays,” I say. “Come back in a few minutes.” I feel guilty for ignoring my children when I need to grade or plan. I have not achieved what many refer to as a work-life balance, and I have wondered if this concept is even possible in teaching.
On the drive home from a writing conference recently, I explained to a coworker that I sometimes feel I am not doing enough for my students, despite my overwhelming workload. I worry they may not be prepared for the next grade level or for college, but what more can I do when I already spend many of my evenings grading and planning?
“I think you’re being too hard on yourself,” my coworker Patty, said. “Teaching is a job, like any other job. Yes, it’s important, but so is having a personal life.” We then discussed how teachers are often portrayed in movies and that the expectation from society is that we ARE supposed to sacrifice personal relationships and families in order to do all we can for our students. Completely selfless is the way teachers are envisioned, but that should not be our reality.
I admit that I am struggling with my workload and family life, and I doubt that I am alone. So, I spoke with some veteran teachers to gain advice about efficiency and leading a more balanced life. Here is their advice:
- “Try to get grading done before leaving school so you have quality time at home. I tried to get graded work returned to students in two days. If I didn’t, I couldn’t move on to the next thing.”
-Loretta, Retired English Teacher (33 years of experience)
- “Pick and choose the things you will grade. I wish I hadn’t graded so many assignments. I’ve had 40 assignments in a quarter before, and it’s way too much. Also, find a place to hide to get a few things done. I usually come in early to get uninterrupted work time.”
-Kristie, Current English and Journalism Teacher (8 years of experience)
- “When lesson planning, write down all materials needed for projects. Prepare in advance all cutting, paperwork, games, books, and related themed teaching aids. It is difficult to wing it when things start falling apart. Preparation worked for me. If I spent one day working after school, it set me free for the daily trials and unknowns that inevitably happen.”
-Linda, Retired Early Childhood Teacher (39 years of experience)
- “Work out a strategy for grading small and large scale assignments so they don’t all happen at the same time. To be efficient, I have to use every crevice of the day. This means extreme time management, not getting bogged down by trivial things, and keeping a good calendar and sticking to it. If I have a 10-minute stretch, I tackle a small task and leave more time consuming tasks for my planning period. I try not to plan heavy graded work before holidays and other breaks so that my time with family is not fragmented.”
-Sigita, Current English Teacher (16 years of experience)
- “Work/life balance is a real thing, but it takes conscious effort and is not easy. Clear planning and clear expectations are key. As a teacher and a parent, you do not have to be perfect. Teaching is ultimately about relationships and students need to know that while they are a priority in your teaching day, you have a life outside of being “their teacher”. While I was learning these lessons as a teacher, my then five-year old precocious son said something to me that stopped me in my tracks. He said, ‘Mom, sometimes I feel that your students get the best part of you, and I am jealous.’ WHOA….that is when my life as a teacher totally changed. I had to re-examine what I was doing in the classroom, how that impacted my family, and then make those changes that made me more effective in the classroom and, more importantly, more effective as a mother.”
-Lisa, Retired English, Theatre, and Speech Teacher (33 years of experience)
Perhaps schools should address managing teacher workload as part of new teacher training or even through ongoing staff development. Sharing strategies and experiences is so helpful, and it may reduce teacher burnout and keep quality teachers from moving out of the classroom and into positions that have far less take-home work.
After reading these snippets of advice, I found myself wishing I had posed these questions to experienced teachers years ago. I know I can learn to work more efficiently. I’m grateful that one of the benefits of teaching is that each year we get a clean slate, a chance to do things better, or at least differently.