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Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Mar 1, 2015

How to keep teaching when your personal life is falling apart

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How to keep teaching when your personal life is falling apart

By Angela Watson

When you’re experiencing deep personal loss or serious problems at home, it’s difficult to be the teacher you want to be. Learn how to minimize the negative impact of your stress on students and manage your energy levels so you can bounce back more quickly.

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunesto get new episodes right away.

A special thanks to this episode’s sponsor, SnapLearning. SnapLearning is a provider of fantastic digital reading resources, including materials for close reading. You can get a free demo of the product at snaplearning.co.


This week, I wanted to talk about how to keep being an effective teacher during periods of deep personal loss or intense stress. For some reason, no one really talks about the fact that all teachers have times in our lives when we just aren’t able to give 100% to the job.

If you stick with this profession for any real length of time, you’re going to experience low-energy periods that last for weeks or even months, such as when going through a divorce or dealing with a family member’s terminal illness. Maybe you’re having difficulty getting or staying pregnant. Maybe you’re about to foreclose on your house, or you found out your spouse is cheating on you, or you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy, or your child is in serious trouble.

When you are really going through a lot emotionally, you are not going to be the best version of yourself or the teacher you want to be. You’ve got to come to terms with that and stop beating yourself up for not being a bubbling fountain of joy every day for your students.

And for that matter, we’ve got to stop beating each other up for this, too. I have to fit in a small little tangent here. Whenever people talk about lazy teachers or mean teachers, or rude teachers, why is it that no one ever stops to ask, What is going on in that teacher’s personal life? What is causing him or her to be unable to do a better job for those kids?

In almost every instance I can think of, the so-called lazy teacher was a person who was dealing with long-term, debilitating health issues, caring for an ill spouse or an elderly parent, or experiencing deep financial hardship that became all-consuming for them. I don’t know anyone who intentionally does a poor job teaching and doesn’t care about their students. They’re just incredibly distracted, worn down, and exhausted. When we see teachers who are ineffective, we really need to come alongside them, figure out what is going on, and how we can support them.

So if that’s you right now– if you’re not doing the job you wish you were doing for your students– would you show yourself some of that grace? Would you recognize that there is a real reason why you’re not giving 100%? Would you acknowledge that you are a human being with emotional needs and physical limitations? Even if no one in your school acknowledges that, I’m acknowledging it, because it’s true. And I want you to acknowledge that, as well.

Now, these losses and hardships and periods of grief are not a license to do a halfway job of teaching your students. They are an opportunity to recognize that you are not at your best, show yourself grace, and plan ahead in order to minimize the impact on your students.

I think of these periods of life as low-energy seasons. Grief and pain and stress are all-consuming. They drain your energy so you don’t have anything left to give in the classroom. So, think about this whole situation from an energy management standpoint. You always have a finite amount of energy to give, and right now, you’ve got a lower amount than normal.

Narrow your focus to what’s truly most important and channel as much of your energy as possible into those aspects of your work. Cut out the “extras” and don’t put pressure on yourself to go above and beyond in areas that don’t really matter. Permit yourself to do a little less by remembering that the situation is temporary: you will be able to work at the level you’re accustomed to again, and in order to get to that level, you need to allow yourself a time of less pressure.

Even though you might feel like you’re on your own, you can’t be afraid to reach out to others for support when you’re in a low-energy season of life. Drop the superhero syndrome, swallow your pride, and ask people for help. See if a colleague can pick your students up from lunch for you or ask if a team member can run off extra photocopies or gather lesson materials. You can return the favor when you’re feeling better, so don’t feel guilty about asking for help.

When other people offer to take responsibilities off your plate or ask if there’s anything they can do, avoid the knee-jerk response to just say, “It’s okay, thanks.” Instead, have a prepared list of tasks that can be delegated, and tell people, “Thanks so much for offering! I would really appreciate your help with ___.”

I also highly recommend that you just level with your students about the fact that you’re not at your best. Even the youngest students can tell when we’re just putting on an act and our hearts and minds aren’t really with them. They don’t know what’s going on, but they know something is wrong.


So share whatever you’re comfortable with. Tell them you’re feeling sad because someone in your family is very sick, or say that things are hard for you right now at home, or if you don’t want to reveal that much, just say you’re not feeling your best. Your students are going to relate to that, trust me. Most of them are not frolicking in fields of daisies and riding pet unicorns. They know struggle and pain. And it’s good for them to see that successful role models in their lives are also experiencing problems and are persevering through them.

Don’t be afraid to reveal to your students that you are a person, just like them, and ask them directly for their support and cooperation. When you tell your students that you aren’t feeling great for whatever reason, most of them are going to be eager to help take on some of your responsibilities. You might even find that you were doing tasks that should have been turned over to them a long time ago! Entrust them with more responsibilities, let them know their contributions are really needed in the classroom, and they will generally rise to the occasion.

I’ve also found that a handful of kids will usually help out with reminders to the rest of the class. I’ve gone through a couple of low-energy seasons in life and a bunch of my kids were fantastic about it. They’d help keep order in the classroom for me: “Hey, guys, be quiet, Mrs. Watson doesn’t feel good, remember? Don’t make her shout! Come on, guys, don’t argue, just do it, Mrs. Watson is counting on us!” The kids that say stuff will just make your heart sing. Grab onto those moments and let them motivate you to keep going.

That’s really, really important, because in addition to managing your energy, you’ve also got to do things that replenish your energy level. You know, energy is not like time: you don’t wake up everyday with more it. You have to choose to do things that replenish energy– things like sleeping, resting, eating healthy foods, exercising… all these things we tell ourselves we don’t have time to do, especially when we’re in a low energy period because of stress.

But there is a reason why people keep telling you to take care of yourself. You keep telling them you can’t, you have to take care of everyone else, as if taking care of yourself is a selfish endeavor. But caring for yourself is the LEAST selfish thing you can do. Because when you take care of yourself, you are giving the best gift you could ever give your family, the best gift you could ever give yourself– the healthiest and happiest version of YOU. That’s what your students really want and need, too– a healthy, happy teacher. You owe it to them and yourself to pursue that.

Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.--Anonymous Click To Tweet

You are strong, and you can get through this. Please leave a comment below if you’d like to talk more about this topic–I would love to help you in any way I can.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Angela, this topic is so important. We should all be doing more to communicate this. I taught for 6 years while caring for my father, a retired teacher, while losing his life to ALS. Coming to work each day and being with my students helped me get through the most difficult time of my life up to that point.

    1. Lori, thank you for sharing that. I agree that often the kids are a wonderful distraction during difficult times. Seeing their smiling faces really lifts the spirit.

      1. I agree, teaching is a blessing too. It can be a sanctuary. When the bell rings at 745 some days I teach until 2:05 and the time flies. I do not have time to think about my elderly sick parents in Ireland and I truly focus on my students and how I am very busy but very blessed.
        I truly appreciate the article.

  2. thank you so much for this-I REALLY needed it! I moved to a new school this year and switched grade levels back to first after two years in fourth. I was really excited to get back to first and work with a friend, then had to deal with four family members passing away from October to December, including my mom after a battle with cancer. My teammates have been great, but the guilt I’ve dealt with is horrible. I missed two days of school last week when I was diagnosed with the flu, spent seven hours at my mom’s house yesterday packing up donations, and today I just didn’t want to get out of bed. I have never had so many stacks of un-filed, un-graded, un-organized papers and it’s making me crazy. I needed this pep talk to remind me that it will all be ok. Now I just have two weeks to get through until spring break. Thanks.

    1. Thanks,
      I quick my job for same reason. I lost my mom and god mom less than 8 months a part. I feel so guilty because they were overseas far from here. I love my students and my job is not only job for me but place I go everyday and recharge myself. My kids are in college so I enjoy more with kids at school.I am lucky that my school staff are my family members. I am lost inside after I loss my mom. Than I had a little surgery on my right foot .I miss my class,friends,and team but same time still confuse.Am I ready for giving my best ?My principal is very sweet and wise she welcome me back with same respect and I thank GOD and her for that. I can not imagine myself without little angles around me in class. Thanks,

      1. Oh my goodness, Jennifer and Mrs. Pat, I just can’t imagine how difficult those situations must have been. I’m glad you brought up the topic of guilt–I think I’ll address that in an upcoming podcast episode.

        I think all teachers struggle with feeling that they should be doing more than what they are, and when our attention is pulled from work to family/personal issues, that guilt becomes even greater. The best thing I can tell you here is not to judge yourself based on whether you are doing “your best.” Your best isn’t going to be very good for awhile, and that’s going to compound the guilt.

        Instead, create a clear vision for your life and your work, and stay focused on that. Keep your eyes on the big picture. Ungraded papers and a dirty house aren’t the most important things. Choose to say yes to the things that matter most to you, knowing that later on, you will be able to say yes to more things. This too, shall pass. 🙂

  3. I recently found out my beloved mother has stage 4 cancer that has already spread throughout her body. I live far away, and am trying to figure out how to take care of my special education job and go be with her. My students know my mom is sick, and they have been very kind and supportive. So have all of my fellow teachers. But it has been very, very hard to put one foot in front of the other each day.

    1. Janet, I’m so sorry to hear that. I will be praying for your family. I hope that you are able to take the time off to be with your mom. Do not give into any guilt over leaving your students–they are resilient, and they will be fine in your absence. Focus your attention on your family right now. You won’t regret that.

  4. I’ve had all of the above for several years. What helps me is getting to school (even when I think I can’t) and being around the kids. It forces me to not dwell on the bad. They don’t like when I’m gone and comment on it, so I do my best to get there. If I’m having a super feel awful day and I mess up a few times, I tell them “Hey, I’m not feelin’ so great today, cut me a break, I might mess up,” and they always do. They don’t know any of my issues, but they always offer to help when that happens. I don’t let it happen often, though. For whatever reason, I am able to turn on a switch that is the happy teacher and they generally don’t notice a thing. Even those more difficult students at least keep your mind off of whatever bad is going on.

    1. Peggy, your experiences sound so similar to mine! Being around kids forces me to get out of my own head and focus on meeting other people’s needs. It’s very therapeutic.

  5. Thank you so much for this. I have cried so many times at school this year, I have had to tell my students that I have severe allergies to explain the red, puffy, watery eyes. And all of my personal issues are compounded by all the stress of my actual job – testing, impossible work load, etc. Thanks for acknowledging the fact that teachers have personal lives too, and are going through some traumatic experiences while having to “perform” on stage everyday for a classroom full of children who depend on you. Very nice reminder and some very good advice. 🙂

    1. Deanna, I am so sorry to hear about your struggles and am lifting you up in prayer. I like the way you said teachers have to “perform.” For me, that has been one of the most difficult aspects of teaching during rough personal times, because I haven’t felt like I have the energy to act enthusiastic about what’s happening in the classroom. I have tried to “fake it til I make it” and that works fairly well–usually my feelings follow my actions.

      Hang in there, my friend, and remember that caring for yourself is more important than work. Your school might not ever tell you that, but it’s still true, so you have to tell it to yourself.

  6. I lost my father November 12, 2014. He was only 53 years old. I’m 23 and in my second year of teaching. Trying to cope with the newness of teaching still, finishing my Master’s degree, and the mourning and grief my heart feels for the loss of my dad, I don’t feel like I have been the teacher my students need; however, my students have stepped up and have shown me so much love and compassion. I know some days will be hard, but I can’t tell you how much this article made me realize that it’s okay – this is just a season in life. Words can’t express to me how much this article means to me. Thank you.

    1. Amber, I am so honored you shared that story with me and the life of your wonderful father. You are completely right that this is a season in your life. In this season, you have required more from your students and been able to give less of yourself to them. In the next season, that will change. It’s okay.

      No one is meant to go through life alone. We rely on the people around us–even our students–to support us, and they rely on us to support them. It’s not supposed to be a one-way relationship in which you give everything and they just take. Learning how to love and support other people is a critical life skill and it’s great they are practicing that in your classroom.

      1. I wanted to thank you for this podcast! Reading the comments and the stories has been incredibly helpful.
        My father had been terminally ill for the past 4 years and passed away two months ago. As a new teacher in my second year of teaching, I’m finding it extremely difficult to stay on track while still grieving. I find myself wanting to find my balance of personal and work life.
        Having a mentor and a good support system is definitely key. I continue to have good days and bad.. sometimes to the point of not wanting to get out of bed in the morning or crying between recess breaks. But i have yet to fully show this side to my students. I am so lucky to have a wonderful and busy Grade 1 class, they bring me joy and fulfillment at a dark time like this.
        This post has given me hope that I am not alone and that things can get better. Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

  7. This was sent to me by a friend and could not come at a better time. I am currently coping with the end of a 6-year relationship and called-off wedding. My students have all figured something is up. This inspires me to be honest with them tomorrow. Thank you!

    1. Oh my goodness, Ashley, that must be so hard on you! I am glad that you are going to be honest with your kids and let them know you might not have the same energy and enthusiasm for a little while. Let me know how it goes.

      1. My life has changed drastically since I posted this. I am engaged and to be married on October 29th. We are also currently trying for a child.

        This article definitely hit the nail on the head. My students were super supportive and gave me the time I needed to cope.

  8. This was a good reminder at this time in my life. However, I’m still struggling with some things. how do you deal with colleagues who are less than understanding? Who narrate you for not participating in spirit week? Who don’t seem to understand (even though you’ve told them) why you’re waiting until the last minute to do certain things?

    I find some of this is hard because this season has come when I’m at a new school this year, and many of my colleagues don’t know what I’m like when I’m at my best.

    1. Great questions, Jenny. I can see why this would be particularly hard for you since you’re at a new school, and other people’s first impressions of you have been when you weren’t at your best.

      I guess the best advice I can offer is to distance yourself emotionally from your unsupportive colleagues. They are under tremendous pressure to help a new team member and haven’t yet seen the awesome teacher you are. Do not be vulnerable with them, and try to put your best foot forward when in their presence so they don’t see the weaknesses. Don’t take their comments to heart or let them influence your mood. Stay focused on the people who are understanding.

      I know that’s not particularly helpful, but this season of your life will pass. As you take care of yourself, you will feel better and be able to do more. When that begins to happen, you might even give your colleagues a small gift or something and thank them for showing you support during a tough time in your life (even if they weren’t particularly supportive.) This will let them know that you are moving toward a place in your life where you can be more of a team player, and hopefully they will embrace you more at that point.

      For now, though, your main goal has to be health and healing. The relationships with coworkers will come later.

  9. Thank you for this article and to those of you who added comments.

    I have been struggling for too long with things in my personal life. Some days I do okay, other days I am in tears or I am numb. I am so fortunate to have supportive coworkers, one in particular who has helped me in ways too numerous to count.

    Still, I get tired of being so needy when I am more accustomed to helping. Angela’s words helped me to keep things in perspective. I am hopeful I can find balance again. At the same time, I am thinking that perhaps it is time for a career change.

    1. Deena, I think a lot of us can relate to your words. Teachers are used to being in control and helping 30 people all at one time. It is hard for us to be the weak ones! But what a learning opportunity that can be, too. It is a good thing to need other people. No one lives in isolation. We depend on each other. We belong to each other. Sometimes we are the givers, sometimes we are the receivers.

  10. Thank you so much for this post that I felt was almost written for me right now. I have been out of work (I am a certified special ED teaching assistant) since 2/24/15. I have been getting severe migraines which they believe are brought on by stress and anxiety. I have also been diagnosed with bipolar depression myself, and my 14yr son has Asperger’s and we believe is Gay. Yes, there is a TON going on in my life!! So I saw this tonight, read it and started to cry. I miss my kids at school so much.. and have been feeling so guilty and embarrassed being out.. I am scheduled to return to work either on 3/23/15 or (if meds aren’t working right) 4/13/15. I am SO scared to return. It has been kept confidential as to why I am out through HR but it is not an easy job and I have not been there to do my job. I have been pursuing the idea of working from home (switching careers obviously) as a travel agent and considering going back to school (OT/PT or massage PT) in the thoughts that it might allow me to be more available in these teen years at home.. None of this will happen overnight. It’s all going to require a period of time to get it set up. (Maybe even a year) Therefore this all being said I’m going to have to return work in some fashion before then doing something as being out entirely is not an option. I for see that I will not get a NEW job prior to returning within the month. It disturbs me though that not once has anyone of the faculty, staff, my master teacher in the room, building principal, etc. reached out to check on me. At all. The staff in my building are very clicky and negative and do not build each other up at all.. It makes it tough to want to return to this environment and staff. They are young a lot of them and all have different background issues of their own, and just not a caring environment if u are not part of the “clique.” This is my first school year in this building and I have been struggling for months and eventually it got the best of me between work and home issues.. So when I saw this tonight it was SO ironic.. I was wondering if there were any suggestions u had for me about returning to work or even preparing to be able to return to work in this environment and level of stress the job entails, with the stress I am dealng with at home? It’s so tough to wrap my head around even being able to manage both.. My husbands works in the corporate world and makes decent $$ but with all on our plate I HAVE to work as well and bring in a decent paycheck. I am struggling to manage myself and my home life right now as it is.. So worried.. Thanks for reading this and I will continue to look for and read anything you can offer on this subject… Thanks so much again for this post!

  11. I swear this has been the hardest season. I did have a low season about five years ago… this school year was harder. I know my issues are not as trying as some people I have read about here, but nonetheless, my heart hurts even as we speak. I have followed you hit and miss for a while, but I truly think that this came across my screen 10 days after the fact at the perfect moment. My mom’s health took a major nose dive late last summer and to get her settled into an ALF took until January. It was like a part time job doing paperwork and visiting and all that jazz…, my best friend got married in the midst of that, so for support she was relatively unavailable in the midst of honeymooning period of her marriage. My sister is also a teacher trying to work towards administration position– she has just as much demands. I did find support in my church family and in a long term relationship that has ended up going nowhere– another sense of loss— the one who supported me through my mom’s illness season and pushed me to keep going. Meanwhile in my gifted magnet school, the expected EPs and academic competitions has carried on with daily lessons and grading demands and parents— all a constant battle— it has been difficult. I know I have not been the best teacher this year. I have been like a robot, cut-and-pasting my lesson plans from last year verbatim. I was training for half marathon– a personal goal I have had building up for a few years. I have put it off 3 times now… I don’t feel strong enough mentally, physically, emotionally… i haven’t hit rock bottom, but I have hit a low. I have had thoughts I have not felt since being a teenager… this week has been hard… hitting an emotionally low last night. Three-four hours of sleep a night now going on 5 nights in a row… the kids this morning are what brought my spirits up. It is crazy that even 13 yr olds can have that affect. I love them so much!!! I just want to do right by them, but can seem to get there this year.

  12. I’m 38 and have been teaching 17 years. I actually got taken from my school today by ambulance for tachycardia. I know I need to remind myself of all of this. Of course I’ll be right back in the classroom tomorrow!

  13. I needed this. I had to put my dog down, that I’ve had since I was 12, and I’m barely functioning. My home feels empty when I arrive from a long work day. My kids asked what was going on and because of this podcast I shared it with them. All of my 7th graders showed me compassion and kindness. I’m also a first year teacher and first year librarian to boot. So, I’m hoping I can return to my bubbly self soon for my students. I keep relistening to this episode because I can’t push away my grief. If it wasn’t for this podcast, I’d feel even worse…so thank you.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your dog! I had to put my beloved cat down in August, as she had a brain tumor. I know what you mean about the empty house. 🙁 I’m glad the episode was helpful for you. Hopefully throwing yourself into your work will be a good distraction. It was for me! We got another cat this month and she’s been a wonderful distraction, too. 🙂

  14. Thank you! During the last 3 years, I’ve lost both my parents, my brother in law, and my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer.on top of that, my husband had an accident and I had a breathing attack. Now our son is going to prison for a very long time. Fortunately my principal is awesome and my class is sweet. Pray for us.

  15. Thank you for this article. 8th year teaching and this has been the most difficult time for me. I am getting a divorce. An ugly divorce where my ex continues to try to hurt me verbally and financially. I have a 2 year old and 4 year old and supporting them all by myself. I teach first grade and don’t tell them about my personal situation, but when i do have bad days I tell them I am not feeling well. My students are verg helpful. My principal is aware of my situation and he is frequently asking if I need help or feeling well. I find going to work distracts me and makes me feel important to my students and parents. I feel appreciated, which is something I need to feel right now.

  16. Thank you for the permission to be human. This school year was the emotional year from hell. I caught my husband with another woman on Friday and was back at work on Monday. I filed for divorce to end an abusive situation and my father died the next month. I had a student teacher I was responsible for, but ended up to be my lifesaver. It is getting better everyday with much pray and counseling, but I’m very glad to be on summer break when I don’t have to act anymore.

    1. Whoa, Robin. I don’t even have words for how sad I am to hear about all you’ve been through. I really commend you for keeping it together throughout the year, and wish you peace this summer as you try to cope with all of these things.

  17. Thank you for this. I just started my first year, so I’m dealing with first-year craziness on top of grief. I lost mom suddenly in January, and my grandma to cancer last November. My other grandma died thirteen months before that, so it’s been nearly two years of grief. It wears you down. I don’t feel like I have the energy to be the teacher I want to be.

  18. One year ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went through chemo, lost my hair, had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. All from September 2015 to June 2016. I am 54 years old and this is my 23rd year of teaching. I am currently a 2nd grade teacher. I would not have made it this past year if it wasn’t for God, family, friends, coworkers/friends and my students. I am cancer free but still healing physically and emotionally. I have to pray daily to overcome fear that the cancer will come back. I am doing iron infusions because my iron is rock bottom. I say all of this remind myself and you that we can get through anything. We don’t have to be perfect. We ARE survivors!! My students were my reason for getting up every day this past year. Thank you for this article. Praying for everyone!

  19. Thank you.?
    I’m a graduate teacher and this is my first year teaching. It is very overwhelming. Managing my professional and personal life is challenging to.say the least. Personal life is falling apart. I’m doing my best but feel it’s not enough. Guilt, worry, stress, sadness chips away. I struggle with being positive towards myself yet I can support and be positive towards others no problem.
    I’m drowning…
    Thank you.? For writing This and popping up in my feed.
    Thank you.? For acknowledging this is real.
    I am grateful.

  20. I listened to this and thought it was interesting but it would never apply to me. I thought it would make me more aware of others’ suffering.

    Yesterday we found out we found out we had a miscarriage. School has never felt more unimportant. As I was laying up at night this episode popped into my mind and I knew I had to read it again and it would be for me this time.

    Thank you for your words Angela.

  21. This is a great blog post. I have been struggling with personal issues for 10 years and have found reaching out online to seek the advice of others has helped me through the good and bad time. I have always had relationship issues and have started to follow the advice of Dr. Robi Ludwig. I saw her on a tv show once and I really appreciated her take on current psychological issues. I have been following her twitter for updates and advice https://twitter.com/drrobiludwig?lang=en

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