This article is part of the “Teaching Deep” series (checkout #TeachingDeep on Twitter). The purpose of these posts, as outlined in the introduction, is to perform a sort of deep cleanse of my teacher soul, to reflect on the practice and the art of teaching. Each post will be grounded in an examination of something that I’m doing (or have recently done) in my classroom as part of my teaching practice. Typically, it will be something that I’m not super-thrilled about, but not always. Perhaps you’ll identify. Hopefully, you won’t!
A few years ago, I was walking home from school at about 4pm. I happened to walk by a colleague of mine who said to me: “You leaving early?” I told the teacher that I was actually leaving a little later than usual. Back then, I’d try to get out of my classroom and on my way home around 3:30pm. The teacher looked at me like I was out of my mind.
“How do you do that,” she asked, “How do you stop working?”
High school teachers are notorious workaholics. We love to go, go, go, and when we look at the amount that we’d like to accomplish, we often feel like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to make it happen. This STEM teacher felt that way. For many years, I felt that way too. I’d stay at school into the evening, or I’d transfer my work to a coffee shop.
But I learned something in all those years:
No matter how much I worked today, there would still be work to get done tomorrow.
Burnout and fatigue are very real things. Do a Google search for “teacher burnout” and I’m sure you’ll find many stories about teachers who simply pushed too hard and worked too much. They emptied the tank and found that they either didn’t know how to refill it or that refilling it wasn’t enough to get the machine started again.
Work, when it’s good, should be fulfilling and energizing, not draining.
Ernest Hemingway had a habit of parking his car downhill. (That’s a metaphor. So far as I know, he didn’t park his car downhill.) He’d quit writing, sometimes in mid-sentence, when he knew exactly what was going to happen next. That way, when he showed up to the page the next day, he’d look at it and be able to jump right back into the act of writing. He didn’t have to stare at a blank page and wonder what happens next. He could just go.
I suppose that’s how I feel about school. Starting a new task is often much harder than continuing a task that’s already in progress. As a teacher, I have no shortage of incomplete tasks, so I shut down my day at roughly the same time, regardless of what I’m working on. When I show up the next day, I know those tasks will be there. Those papers I need to mark, for example, aren’t going anywhere. What really is the difference between working into the night to get them done and taking the time to come at them fresh the next day? The difference, I’m afraid, is that I’ll do a better job when I’m not fatigued. Save them for tomorrow!
While #TeachingDeep is devoted primarily to reflections on things that I should be doing better, my need for self-compassion and self-encouragement tells me that it might be worthwhile to spend a little time thinking about something I have learned to do pretty well in recent years: manage the balance between teaching and the rest of my life. With that in mind, I want to offer up some principles and hacks that might help teachers (or anyone, really) to find a way to shut off their 9-to-5 (or 7:30-to-4:30, in my case) and enjoy the rest of their lives.
Many of the ideas that I’m going to share are ideas that I developed myself, typically after learning the hard way. But I would be remiss if I didn’t give a nod to Cal Newport and encourage all of you to read two of his most recent books:
These books just might help you to find what you need to take back your nights and weekends!
NOTE: Some people deeply enjoy putting in 60, 70, or 80 hours each week. To be honest, I do too! It’s just that I’d like for those extra 20 or 30 hours to be devoted to other projects like writing. If you deeply love working 12- or 14-hour days, more power to you! I don’t judge!
If, however, you get to bed at night, exhausted and thinking to yourself that there’s got to be a different way, then see if these ideas might help you!
SHUT IT DOWN
As I mentioned above, the work never stops. Right? There’s always going to be classes to plan, papers to mark, handouts to create, supplies to prep, meetings to schedule, parents to call or email, students to track down, etc. The work of the teacher is never done.
But you may want to consider what your life looks like outside of school. (Do you even have one?)
The single most important thing that I implemented many years ago was a hard cutoff to my day. Except on a few days here and there, I end my workday around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Thanks to Cal Newport, I created a little “shutdown ritual” so that I can feel good about what the next day will look like. I perform this ritual, and then I’m done. I’m gone. I’m off to other things.
And I usually don’t think too much about what I need to do for school until I show up the next morning.
Why do I need to do this?
Somewhere, deep inside of me, lives a workaholic who would gladly stay at work long after the sun goes down. I come from a hard-workin' family who loves to put in their hours, and this apple didn’t fall far from that tree. If I don’t shut things down, however, I risk sacrificing relationships and activities that are important to me. I want to spend time with my wife and my son; I want to work on my writing; I want to feed my Peloton obsession (let me know if you need a referral code!); I want to sit in the hammock in my backyard and read a book. These are all good! I need to make time for them.
So, I shut it down. I turn the faucet off for the day, and I wait until tomorrow to turn it back on. You may feel like you can’t do that. You may feel like you have to get everything done today. You may be right! But you also might not be. I can’t decide that for you, of course. Who am I to tell you to shut down your day? I’m just sharing what works for me: a planned set of activities for the final thirty-ish minutes of my workday that will provide me with closure for today and success tomorrow: my shutdown ritual.
I could do a whole post on email. Maybe later. But not right now.
The first thing I do is whittle my email inbox down to (almost) nothing. (NOTE: I only check my email a couple of times each day: a session before lunch and a session after. I sometimes break that rule when someone asks me to check an email for a project that we’re working on, but in general, email stays closed. Too many distractions.)
I go through my inbox and sort through the messages and put them in the following categories:
- Messages that I can respond to quickly right now.
- Messages that don’t require a response.
- Messages that require deeper consideration.
If I can respond quickly, I do, and then I archive the thread.
If it doesn’t require a response, then I archive or delete it.
If it requires deeper consideration, then I use my mail client’s SNOOZE feature to save it for a time when I can give it the thought it requires. Many mail clients will do that. I like Spark and Airmail. Some of them even have a nice little screen that gives you a tiny sense of accomplishment. Here's what my Airmail inbox looks like right now:
This typically takes me 10–15 minutes. Once I’ve sorted through all of those messages, my inbox is empty.
Calendar and To-Do’s
I keep all of my class plans in my calendar. Some people think I’m a bit crazy for doing this, but I love it! I also share those calendars with my students so that they are able to look and see what the day’s plan is.
In general, I keep my class calendars updated about two weeks in advance. However, changes in the school’s schedule, changes in the pace that we’re moving through the material, and any number of other unforeseen events can cause disruptions to that calendar. (Coronavirus, anyone?) Therefore, part of my shutdown ritual is to look at the calendar for the next two days and make sure that everything is correct.
This is also a good time to schedule big tasks that need dedicated time to complete. I need to mark some essays tomorrow, for example. When am I gonna do that? I schedule time in my calendar for tasks that require thirty minutes or more of concentrated effort. If you were to look at my calendar right now (mid-May 2020), you’d see my typical end-of-semester schedule, an hour-long calendar event both in the morning and the afternoon labeled “Mark FOUR Essays.” (Four is my max in a single sitting. After marking four essays, I need to get up and walk around some.)
After I ensure that the calendar is up-to-date and that big tasks are scheduled, then I turn to my to-do’s. What are the tasks that I’m not finishing today that I need to complete tomorrow?
- Maybe I need to send an email to a parent or write a thank you note to a colleague.
- Maybe I need to update my calendar for an assignment that’s coming up in three weeks.
- Maybe I need to print out those handouts for that new writing assignment I've come up with (which totally follows the format of John Warner's The Writer's Practice, by the way).
Whatever it is, I put it on my to-do list and schedule what day it should be done. I try to be mindful and balance the days. Don’t schedule too many tasks for a single day. Keep things spread out and manageable.
Tracking tasks is a deeply personal activity. You’ve got to find what works for you. Some people love their notebooks and planners; others, however, are into their apps. I’m an app guy. I used to use Wunderlist for this, but it has been absorbed into Microsoft’s To Do, which is a good app, but didn’t work well for me. Currently, I use Todoist.
When I'm feeling analog, I can go the ol' pen-and-paper route. I must say, however, I am deeply intrigued by the idea of The Monk Manual.
(I'm trying out the daily pages. I'll let you know in the future!)
Set Away Messages, Change Default Browser, Close It All Out
The final digital flourish to this ritual really gives me a rush. It’s how I know that I’m really and truly shutting it all down. Here’s what I do:
First, I set an away message in Microsoft Teams that let’s people know that I’m leaving for the day, and I’ll respond to their message when I get back. If you use something like Teams or Slack or some other instant messenger to communicate with colleagues and students, I encourage this! I especially think it’s great for my students to see that I have boundaries: my work day is finished, but I will get back to them!
Then, I open up System Preferences on my Mac, and I change my default browser from Google Chrome to Safari. In an effort to delineate schoolwork from non-schoolwork, I have created a system where Chrome is used for school and Safari for everything else. During the workday, links will open in Chrome because I’m working on school stuff. When I change that default browser, however, I know that I have shutdown the LMS and the various documents that have been occupying my time throughout the day, and I’m ready to move on to other things. (NOTE: When I fire up Chrome the next day, it asks me if I want it to be my default browser. I say, “Yes.”)
Once I’ve done those things, I quit all applications on my laptop that are school-related. For me, those applications include:
- Google Chrome
- Microsoft Teams
This typically only leaves open a few apps:
- Ulysses (for writing)
- Safari (for browsing)
- Todoist (for tracking other tasks, personal and writing, that I want/need to complete that day)
- Messages (for bothering friends and family)
- Spotify (for the jams, y'all!)
When I’m done with my laptop for the day, I leave nothing open but Spotify (because the jams never stop) and Ulysses because I know that the first app that I’ll use tomorrow will likely be Ulysses.
Shutting down those applications feels powerful. I know that when I get to work the next day, I will fire them all up again, and I will be in the mode. But, for now, I’m done. I’ve given what I’ve got to give for the day—my best!—and it’s time to recharge with other meaningful activities that help me to feel a sense of balance.
Now that my computer desktop is all tidy, it’s time to attend to the analog desktop. I like to keep things in order. I create stacks of papers that need to be worked on the next day, books that I’m using in classes, and other things that I know I’m going to need. These stacks, hopefully, correspond to the to-do’s I created for tomorrow.
I put away items that I’m not going to need. For example, I may have pulled out a book that I used for something that day. If I don’t think I’m going to need it tomorrow, it goes back on the shelf. Maybe there’s a memo that was given out during a meeting. Do I need it later? If so, file it away or scan it into my notes app. If not, let’s recycle!
For me, the tidy desk at the end of the day feels like a tiny little accomplishment. It also helps me to feel organized and ready for the next day.
I put my laptop in my backpack along with any book that I might want to take home to read. (I do occasionally read school books at home because…well…that doesn’t typically feel like work!)
And that’s it!
Sound the Bowl
Lastly, I sound the bowl.
On my desk, I keep a small singing bowl that I use in class all the time to signal transitions from topic to topic or activity to activity. I also use it to signal the end of my workday. The final thing I do is sound the bowl and listen to it ring all the way until it fades into oblivion.
Turn out the lights. I’m gone!
It Doesn’t Always Go As Planned
Does this ritual always go as planned? NO. That’s okay. Sometimes, for example, I get interrupted by something that is worth my time, perhaps a student or colleague with an immediate concern.
I’m flexible. I can give my time to someone or something that is important.
Most things, to be honest, don’t go as planned. That’s okay. Most of the time, that’s not in your control. Let it go. Control the things that you can, and do your best with the things that you can’t!
Did you identify with something above? Did it strike a nerve? Do you have something to say? Get in touch on Twitter and please make sure to use the #TeachingDeep hashtag!
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