Family First

I had been in a funk over the weekend and the first three days of the week. Literally, no desire to work, breaking down if anyone probed me on how I was doing, and basically feeling like nothing was going well. It was the worst I had felt since the first week of school.

Thank goodness, though, for supportive colleagues and friends who helped me put some perspective on life. One told me the story of her own first year as a teacher, and the personal challenges she overcame. Another just heaped positive praise on my work. Another talked me through at least three cryfests and comforted me the whole way.

Basically, I had reached my breaking point. I had been sleeping too little, working too much, not exercising, leaving the campus at eight or nine at night, and sometimes so caught up with work at school that I just didn’t make the time to eat the whole day. I was sacrificing my personal welfare for, what I thought, were justifiable reasons. That handout just HAD to be done, the lesson plan needed to be scripted or else I wouldn’t effectively present material the next day, my classroom was in want of organization…

The problem with this situation was, when I entered the classroom the beginning of this week, unhappy, tired, and stressed out, I wasn’t able to be the teacher my students needed. I was so tired that I just didn’t have the energy to be “on” in the classroom, and so management deteriorated and I felt even worse. My brain wasn’t working as fast as it needed to work so everything from lesson planning to presenting content took twice as long as it needed to. And, I couldn’t wait to leave school at the end of the day. There was no joy in what I was doing.

On Tuesday, I made a commitment and promise to myself. I promised to leave the school before dinner time, and, after leaving, I was not allowed to do any work in education. I would go to my kickboxing class, I would read a little, and I would go to sleep. I could not lesson plan, I could not read education news, I could not do anything education related whatsoever. It was one of the hardest things I had ever had to do. I had to tell myself to leave the todo list alone and take care of myself. And so, I went to kickboxing, and read, and even finally did the dishes in the sink without feeling like I needed to be back on the computer lesson planning. I went to sleep and slept a full eight hours. And, the next day, I made sure to pack breakfast before heading out to school. Half a grapefruit sprinkled with salt and a Nature Valley granola bar on the side.

Unprepared as I was the next day, the lesson went infinitely better because I was back, refreshed and more hopeful. The dread of the first couple of days was still there, but even when things went wrong, I now had the mental hardiness to not react negatively. On Wednesday, I set the same rules, and again, I was a better teacher, following up with students, responding more consistently, setting the energy of the room. And, because I was coming off of two days of taking care of myself, I could think fast enough to work more efficiently so now I am planned a day in advance instead of feeling so completely behind.

Long story short, the absolute best thing I could do as a teacher is to put my welfare first. I didn’t actually believe this until my experience this past week showed me just how dire a need it is to keep work and life in balance. My goal for the next six weeks, then, is to become more consistent with that balance. This week I teetered between two extremes. At the beginning of the week I was exhausted and depressed. At the end of the week I’m feeling better physically, mentally, and emotionally, but I’m still not efficient enough with my time. I also have to learn to value sleep more than I’ve had, and call it lights out at ten, no exceptions. Wednesday, for example, I made sure to not work at home, but I still read a book until midnight instead of using that time to catch up on much needed sleep.

I’ll treat this as a learning process, like anything else a first year teacher has to learn, and remind myself to celebrate the successes, to learn from the failures (but not beating myself up too much about it), and to grow in self-discipline.

One final note:
This post is entitled family first because at my school, we just unanimously voted to add Family First to our school norms. Our previous list of norms included professional and team norms, such as Assume the Best and Start on Time / End on Time, but we realized that another important aspect of our school was that we supported each other in taking the time to put family first, to take care of our own homes, to feel comfortable holding that space as sacrosanct despite the high demands and pressure of working in a KIPP school. I’m so thankful for that kind of team support at my school, and I love how we recognize each other as whole people, not just colleagues and fellow faculty members.

And so, dear friends and readers, I’ll lean also on you to keep me sane, because your comments and emails and calls have truly been another source of balance and joy. Thank you for all your love and support.