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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.

things-falling-apart-might-actually-be-falling-into-place

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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Discussion


  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.

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