Thoughts on the Eve of a New School Year: More Me Time Makes a Better Teacher

Eighteen months ago someone asked me what my professional goals were. I responded, “I’m not really sure. I think I’d like to be the Queen of Art Education or the Dictator of Art Education. I want to be in charge. I want to be the best.”
And, that attitude was reflected in how I was running my professional life at that time. I rarely said no to any task, challenge, or professional opportunity. I entered students in every contest, challenge, and opportunity for exposure. I applied for every grant and for every leadership opportunity. Most weeks were full of teaching during the day, and meetings and/or/both grad school in the evenings. I am not someone who backs away from confrontation or is afraid to take on a more aggressive and sometimes unfairly labeled “masculine” role when it comes to leadership. I sat in on meetings, I weighed in on new programs, I developed new programs, I helped develop teacher certification tests and courses, I taught college classes, and I taught Title I middle school students.  Occasionally, I had to tell people things they didn’t want to hear; I’m not subtle and I don’t believe in beating around the bush.  Sometimes, people got angry.  And, I owned that too.
There was little time for pleasure, fun, pursuit of new things, people, art, or even family in this equation. My work was everything; I thought it was the single most important thing in my life. Society backed me up on that too, “You don’t know the difference you make! You can’t miss this! Don’t let the kids down! You can do that/this!”  It seemed that every time I thought about slowing down or saying no, another amazing, un-missable (or so I thought) opportunity would present itself. I skipped my brother’s wedding to his childhood sweetheart (a woman I’ve known since we were teenagers) because, “it’s just a bad time for me to be away from work.” And, y’all. I didn’t even think that was weird!
I can’t tell you what I did at school (and I bet my students can’t tell you either) the week my brother was married, but I can tell you that I hurt every day knowing that I wasn’t a part of that very special event. That regret is something I have to live with the rest of my life.
Sadly, it wasn’t my brother’s wedding that made me stop and re-evaluate. I developed crippling back pain. I was bent in half while I tried to teach, I could barely walk, I couldn’t get comfortable in any position, and I couldn’t sleep. I tried every tip and trick anyone –and the internet- offered; nothing was too weird. I went to the doctor and she glanced at me, told me my main issue was that I was too fat, and recommended a nutritionist.
The nutritionist was awesome. She told me that she probably wasn’t going to be able to tell me anything I didn’t already know. She also explained a lot of doctors were dismissive about back pain because people use that excuse to get pain killers. She did give me a lot of excellent tips and tricks about my health and sent me on my way. I was still in tremendous pain. I decided to start paying more attention to what I put in my body and my health because. .. Honestly, I figured what did I have to lose?
I began by using MyFitnessPal to track my calories and nutrition. I’m not going to go into what I did and did not eat, but suffice to say it was extremely healthy and involved lots of “whole” foods and little processed foods.  When you eat well, your body is happy and the immediate impact of something like a twinkie is very noticeable. It isn’t about the weight; it’s about the fact that when I consume lots of sugar and carbs I feel like I have the flu for the next 1-2 days (that’s just my personal response). Tracking what I did and did not eat (and how it made me feel physically) caused me to become hyper aware of how my body responded to stimuli beyond food.
Suffice to say, my back didn’t hurt because I was fat. My back hurts when I get stressed out. For instance, I just moved from Georgia to California. I was fine before and during the drive (the most stressful parts) but once I arrived my back was in such bad shape that I could barely walk for the next week. Eighteen months ago I made the stress = back pain connection and I further decided that I needed to make some changes. I started to say “no” because I wanted less stress. What I discovered with that new freedom was that I was pretty isolated. My friends –that were still around- assumed I was always busy and I had no more hobbies.
Literally, all I had was work. I had given everything to work, but what tangibles had it given to me?
What I’ve discovered –after much introspection and self-reflection- is what I hope most of you already know and/or are young enough to quickly remedy:  What I do in my time away from school, makes me better for the times I am at school.
I love a good antique fair!
In the past year, I’ve learned to set realistic boundaries for myself and my goals. I’ve had to let go of some amazing opportunities. Yes, I’ve seen others achieve things that I probably could have had. And, you bet I’ve had to let go of some of my old goals. But, here’s the thing – I thought I wanted those things until I knew what they would cost me. This past year my life, personal and work, has blossomed in ways I couldn’t even imagine. I am so much happier, and I am a much better teacher because of it.  I want this for everyone. I want this for my colleagues. I want this for you.
Consider what boundaries you need to set in order to make your life more well-rounded. Here are some that I need (note the “you” in this list is not collective; it refers to me):
1.       1.  No more graduate school unless you are IN LOVE with what you are studying. We all want to break up with grad school from time to time; that’s normal. But I’ve been enrolled in grad school and teaching full-time since 2009. I woke up one day and realized I was pretty ambivalent about what I was studying. Why was I giving so much of my life over to this venture? What would the degree do for me? Was my ambivalent interest worth so much?
2.       2.  No parent phone calls, school emails, and/or work-related stuff after 5:30 pm. Sure, there are emergencies and sometimes academic nights; those are exceptions. The rest of it can wait until you are on-campus the next day.
3.       3.  No school email apps on your mobile device, or checking school email from home. It just stresses you out and there is nothing you can do/that can’t keep until you are back on campus.
4.       4.  Pick one major leadership/learning opportunity/cool-work-related thing and do that. JUST ONE. Resign from the rest now. I actually did that y’all. Everyone –except one person- told me I was making a major mistake and that there would be “repercussions.” The only repercussion was that I had my life back; for real. And, the colleague that supported me took me for a celebratory beverage. Sometimes, others are afraid that you can do what they could never conceive and they use negativity to hold you back. Trust your gut.
5.       5.  Weekends are sacred time for you to do you. Spend each and every weekend doing something glorious that makes your heart happy. And, yeah, “something glorious” can be jim jams and Netflix.
6.       6.  Practice saying “no” politely; be prepared to say “no” assertively. Follow-through accordingly.
7.       7.  Don’t let someone else’s high expectations, lack of support, and lack of work cause you extra stress. 
8.       8.  Know that other people may not understand or respect your need for “you” time. Be prepared for this judgment and find a way to let it go. Last year, a colleague and I were both getting frustrated by different stuff. During the second ½ of our planning time we would put on sneakers and walk the forest trails around the school. Some people didn’t approve and most people thought us weird. But, y’all, that 25 minutes of active movement in the fresh air rejuvenated both us and put us both in better frames of mind. It was glorious and it put us in better moods to be better teachers.
9.       9.  Don’t let the fear of other people infect you. Be confident about your decision-making.I think differently; most Art teachers do. I vehemently hate anything that wastes time (mine or yours). When I see a more efficient way to do something I do it (as long as it doesn’t have the potential to negatively impact anyone else).  I don’t ask permission. I can make decisions on my own. Sometimes, this upsets the status quo and a colleague might say something like, “Did you ask permission? You may have to change that. I’m not sure if that is allowed.” You know what? Most of the time that is THEIR issue talking. I can’t second guess my attempt to work smarter because someone else is afraid to take the proverbial road less traveled.
10.   10.  Comparison is the thief of joy. Truly happy people celebrate the success of others. Truthfully, I will never be “The Best Art Teacher.” Who could? All I can do is be the best me possible. I think we all know that tangentially but, consider how comparison steals from you. I am subscribed to the Art Teachers page on Facebook, and I had to turn off the notifications. I still go and look at it, but I don’t get updates on it. I had to stop because I’d see all the awesome work y’all are doing and it would eat at me. I would tell myself, “I could never do that. I’m not good enough to try that. Wow, I’m gonna be out of job in a few years because these people are way better at this than me.” I was constantly feeling inadequate and I couldn’t find a way to totally turn that off, so I turned off the updates. Additionally, not everyone is my competition! Instead of being jealous of the successes of others, I have been practicing only focusing on the joy I feel about seeing their success. For me, it is (sadly and embarrassingly) hard work.

Those are just a few of my new boundaries, and they were so needed! As we head into the new school year, really take the time to think about how you allow work to impact your whole life. Is it worth the cost? Sometimes, it is and sometimes, it is not. I hope you all have a fantastic year both in school and out!

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Eve of a New School Year: More Me Time Makes a Better Teacher”

  1. Super great post! Sometimes I still need some of these reminders,so thank you!! As a retiree I often feel like I have to explain what I'm doing/what I've done each day to validate that is time well-spent. I frequently have to be reminded that a day sitting on the dock with a good book is time well-spent, a day painting a lamp nobody wants is time well-spent, a rainy day at a movie matinee and lunch with friends is time well-spent, and even a day watching the spiders weaving webs on our porch railings and trying desperately to get a decent photo of them is a day well-spent.You've given me a lot to think about; thank you!

  2. I totally agree. Family comes first. You have the rest of your life to work. I gave up on some extra stuff like that because I realized no one else will protect your extra time except for yourself. And once you agree to do something once, more and more just gets asked of you. That's why I'm hesitant to start any new extra volunteer-type activities. You look great and I'm glad you found some healthy ways to lose weight. That's always a struggle for me! I agree the weight does make a difference though. I had a lot more energy when I was a lower weight. Anyways… great post!

  3. I sooo needed to hear this. The day before my art show I was carried taken from school by ambulance. Dehydration and exhaustion. I went over the top on EVERYThing! My goal is to keep everything in balance this year.

  4. Thoughtful reminders that I need to hear, Amy. Especially at the start of the school year. Thanks for the post.

  5. Amen, sister. I was in this very same “all work, no play” boat FOR YEARS. I'd spend ENTIRE SUMMERS working on my art room. And was always so pissed off because of it (didn't realize that was the source of my annoyance at the time!). These days, I find that when I create for myself, I'm a lot more happy AND I get all sorts of ideas on how to bring that to my classroom and my students. And I'm so much happier because of it!

  6. Wow. That was an awesome post. You took the thoughts from my head and put them in words. Thanks for sharing that with us. Good luck at your new school. I'm sure you will be brilliant and excellent. You are one of the best art teachers we have here. You don't need a plaque to say that. Just look at all the folks that follow your blog. Your inspirational and fantastically fun and honest. Keep up the good work! Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Thank you for the post, so glad I'm not the only one. You game great strategies to get out of this ongoing situation that has built up. A way to get my life back and feel happy about it!

  8. Hi Amy! I've been following you for a few years – I started out teaching K-8th and now just K-5th! I was secretly hoping you would get to teach the lil ones…they are the best (in my opinion). Anyway, I teach in the bay area (Ca) and was wondering where you moved to? Do you think you will go to the CAEA (Ca Arts Education Assoc) it is in Sacramento this year? I'd love to meet you in person or take a class by you sometime. All the best to your new school year and new home! Amber

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