How much is enough time to give to each student? There are students who have behavior problems, academic challenges, IEPS, family problems, those whose parents you need to catch after school or speak with the principal about… Student issues, dealing with emails, and talking with parents are so time consuming. When is it ok to say “enough, I’ve done all I can and need to move on?
This is a question I was asked recently in The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. I’ve talked a lot in the club and on my blog about how teaching is a job that’s never done, and there’s always something more you could be doing. And part of that is just the nature of working with children. Parenting is a similar type of job — parents always feel like they haven’t done enough to help their kids.
The only time we as teachers seem to have a sense that it’s okay to stop giving ourselves to our students is at the end of the school year when they’re no longer assigned to our classrooms. Something tells me that this is the reason why so many teachers look forward to the relief of summer break months before it arrives — having a vacation is great, too, of course, but it’s the only time all year that they can feel like finally, whatever they’ve done is ENOUGH and they don’t have to do any more for that particular group of students.
But what if we could re-create that feeling throughout the school year, and get ourselves to a place mentally where we feel like we’ve done enough?
Can we ever look at a challenging student in our class and say, “I’ve done all that I can?”
No teacher can give 110% to students every day
I’m definitely not saying it’s easy to get to that place where we feel like we’ve done enough. But I think it’s important to keep striving for that because to refuse to draw boundaries around how much of yourself you are willing to give your students will lead to burnout.
This is something that I rarely hear admitted in education. We’re supposed to give 110% to our students, as if we can somehow give more than 100% of ourselves (where is that extra 10% coming from, anyway?), as if giving even 100% of ourselves would leave anything left over for the other people in our lives.
We’re supposed to not just give our all for students during the school day, but be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure every single student in our class succeeds.
And so we drive ourselves to an early grave giving, giving, giving, and carrying the burden of not letting any student be left behind (even the ones who don’t care if they’re left behind).
And we’re working double, and triple, and quadruple time trying to put forth energy on behalf of students who don’t put forth anything, and students who are weighed down by poverty, broken homes, and systemic issues we can’t even begin to understand….and we feel like it’s our fault when they don’t succeed, because we could have done more. We could have always done more.
And the pattern repeats every school year with a new group of kids. We give more of ourselves than is even possible to give, driven by guilt, fear, and the belief that we have to do whatever it takes.
“We have to do whatever it takes”
My friend, there is an operative word in that phrase that I think most us miss out on. WE have to do whatever it takes.
WE, as in the school community. Not YOU, one individual teacher who’s constrained by a school system that’s not designed to support teachers or kids.
WE have to do whatever it takes. We as a nation have to keep addressing the big issues that are holding our kids back, we in our local communities have to offer support and services, and funding and love.
This cannot all be on your shoulders as one person. That’s too big of a weight for you to carry, and you will not succeed on your own.
You are not responsible for carrying the burden that’s supposed to be assigned to parents, extended family, your colleagues, your principal, your superintendent, or the government. You’re not even responsible for carrying the burden that’s assigned to students: you can’t do the work for them, you can’t force them to learn, and you can’t magically make them care.
The only part of the teaching process you’re responsible for is your own. And to walk in that truth, you have to first understand what you’re responsible for, and then learn how to draw boundaries when anyone (including yourself) gives you a guilt trip about not doing enough.
Knowing what is “enough” to give each student is about accepting that there is always something more you could be doing for a child that would help them.
You could do 100 things for a student while always carrying that nagging feeling that 110 things would benefit the kid even more.
And you’d be right.
If you did more, your students would do better. It’s an endless cycle of guilt.
So personally, I always tried to look at what was sustainable for me and what’s most beneficial for students. Those are the two guiding principles.
I can’t stay at school until 7 PM because then, I’m not taking care of my health, my family, or the things that need to be done at home. I can stay two hours to work after school today, and that’s it.
So if I have those two hours, what can I do that will benefit my students the most?
I can’t do it all, so where should I focus my time and energy to have the greatest positive impact on my students?
A river with no boundaries creates a swamp. Be intentional about your time and energy. Click To Tweet
One or two students cannot consume our lives
We all have students who consume a disproportionate amount of our time, and it’s okay that those children need more from us. But they can’t take it all or even the majority of it.
Spend an afternoon working on IEPs, behavior plans, and contacting parents, but then the next day, work on designing lessons that benefit ALL your students. Don’t allow one or two kids to consume 50% of your time.
When you feel that resentment is building because you’re giving too much to a handful of kids and not enough to the rest of the class, listen to yourself. Trust that instinct. Follow that feeling that says:
Enough. I have done enough. I have a finite amount of time and energy for my students, and I cannot devote such a huge amount to just this one student. I have to think about what I can do that will benefit my class the most and what will have the greatest possible impact on my class as a whole.
I guarantee that you will feel guilt when you choose to create those boundaries. But remind yourself of the alternative: you could work yourself to the bone for those students and burn out, or you could find balance that will allow you to stay in the profession of helping kids for years to come.
Those are the choices. You can’t-do both.
Say NO to one thing so you have time and energy to say YES to something bigger.
Let the very thing that is creating guilt about not doing enough — your passion for helping kids — be the very thing that gives you permission to pace yourself.
You want to keep making a difference in students’ lives for years to come, and so you have to think about what’s sustainable for you. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.
Know and respect your own limits each day
Here’s what this mindset looks like on a daily basis. I would give of myself each day until it hit a point where I knew I’d be tired and resentful and impatient with my students the next day if I did any more.
This had very little to do with hours worked: it was more about emotional involvement and energy expenditure.
On the days when students are less demanding, you can give more, and you can work longer. And sometimes dealing with kids’ tough issues wears you out very quickly.
So I would do what I felt capable of doing that day, and then stop and take care of myself. There’s no benefit in pushing past the point of what I know is sustainable for me because I’m just going to be tired the next day, snap at the kids, and undo all the good work I did today.
The fate of your students does not rest solely upon your shoulders
So remember, you are not responsible for fixing every problem, and should not try to do this on your own. You’re only responsible for your part, and it’s a very small part in the grand scheme of the child’s life.
In your classroom, remember that you are a servant, not a savior. Your students’ success is not wholly dependent on what you do or don’t do for them. They are not going to be hopeless, illiterate losers if you go to bed at 10 PM instead of staying up all night worrying and trying to think of interventions.
You are one teacher out of many they will have in their lives.
You are one influence out of many.
Do what you can to make a positive difference, but always remember: you are there to serve the kids; you are not responsible for saving them.
When you start to hit a wall of resentment, it’s okay to draw boundaries. Trust yourself to know when enough is enough.
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This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
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