I used to bring work home every.single.weekend. And on breaks, too...
Now I think back like, wow, what a crazy time!
Staying at school after work until 5, 6, 7 p.m., stressing out every Sunday, feeling like I was always scrambling to get everything done and then still not getting anything done. It was a terrible time for my mental health especially, and I know that too often, many teachers (especially newbies) struggle with these same situations.
Thankfully, each new year brings new growth, and over the last 10 years of teaching, I'm extremely grateful for the things I've learned along the way and the lessons and pearls of wisdom that other educators have shared.
These are the top three strategies I've found that work for me best when setting myself up for mental health success and ensuring I no longer take work home. I hope you find these tips whenever you need them most and that they serve as a reminder that you can have a life outside of teaching. You deserve it. You are more than your job.
Tip #1: Grade intentionally
Do not feel the need to grade everything, as that can easily become overwhelming. Assign and grade things with intention - to both avoid giving busy work and to avoid burning out. I aim for 2 grades per week max. I have found that this strategy also keeps the kids more willing to do the work that you do assign because they're more likely to see the value in it, and they appreciate you not giving them meaningless time-filling packets.
I break 90-minute class periods into 3 chunks, and 45/50-minute class periods into 2 chunks. Not every day do the students need to submit something for a grade - some days, we practice a skill in small groups on chart paper, complete a whole-class annotation discussion, or work on an upcoming project.
And when the kids happen to ask, "Is this for a grade?"
I always respond with, "It could be."
Tip #2: Work during work
When my kids are working, I'm working. It's a time-balancing act for sure, but setting timers for the different sections of a class period helps. After my mini-lesson and first walk-through, I set a timer while my kids work on their group or independent work, and while that timer helps keep them on track, it helps me, too. In between lapping the classroom and mini-conferencing with kids (checking in with them and their progress on the given assignment/answering questions/redirecting), I spend a few minutes putting in grades, providing feedback, responding to emails, prepping, etc. I'm telling you - a little bit each time goes a long way.
Lord knows we don't always get our planning periods as we should, and oftentimes when we do get the allotted time, it often gets filled with putting out fires, a meeting, a kid needing us in our counselor hat, or just pure exhaustion from the day. So even getting in 5 grades per class period can add up to 15 - 30 grades done in a day (depending on how many periods you have). Your future teacher tired you will thank you for it. I know that sometimes when our to-do lists keep growing, they become scary monsters that we become too overwhelmed to try to tackle, but starting somewhere, no matter how small, will pay off.
Tip #3: Set hard boundaries
Now, all that being said, there are days when I will show up to work half an hour to an hour early (or stay late), but I make sure to set a timer/hard boundary to ensure I do not stay longer. Sometimes I even ask a friend to call me to remind me to leave for accountability because as I'm sure you know, sometimes when you start going, it's extremely hard to stop.
I've finally made peace with the fact that whatever gets done before the timer goes off, gets done, and whatever doesn't can get done the next day or the next week. There will always be something else on the list, but by the same token, there will always be another day to do it. Optimize the time you do dedicate to working outside of school hours to only get the most priority items (like cannot start class the next day without them) done. Then, make a game plan for how you will tackle the rest of the list throughout the week. Sometimes, we're wayyy too hard on ourselves and are the ones that put the extra pressure on us in the first place.
And a bonus tip...Backwards plan
Taking a few hours before the beginning of a semester to backwards plan using a detailed calendar helps save so much time in the long run. This helps avoid scrambling to plan before each new day or week because all the heavy lifting has already been done. Your time can now be focused on simply tweaking where/when needed.
This is an example of the style of calendar I like to print (there are a bunch of free websites for these online) and what it looks like when I fill it out:
Excuse my chicken scratch, but hopefully, you get the idea. I always start by marking days off and non-instructional days, and then I plan backwards from final summative assignments/projects.
Two of my biggest tips for this process specifically are always use a pencil and leave empty days on purpose. This helps in case: you fall a little behind your planned schedule; you need a sick day; you decide the kids need a mental health day; you come up with a genius last minute idea; any random craziness ensues and you need to rearrange.
Lastly, your notes only need to make sense to you! And whenever you feel the Sunday scaries or similar emotions begin to creep in, simply take a look at your calendar and remind yourself that you have a plan and you got this :)