Friday, August 7, 2009


You can always do more to help a student. You can always give them another assignment and more feedback. You can always find one kid in your class that needs more guidance. As you probably know, to be successful in teaching you must put in enormous amounts of preparation time and be accessible to students, however, you must also decide where to draw the line. Where should you stop?

In other professions, sales for example, the more work you do the more money you may get, so you can draw that line when you think you have enough. Teachers work by a very different equation. Many of us simply want to help kids. Kids, however, always could use more help whether it's a conference, feedback on an essay, or further practice of skills. So when we finally do turn our attention to other aspects of our lives, by choice or necessity, guilt sets in.

I can remember days where I’ve worked 16 hours plus, or weeks where I’ve done that and then when I finally stopped, I still felt guilty for stopping. Of course, ultimately everyone must figure out where to draw the line for themselves, but if you’re not drawing that line correctly or participating in martyrdom, eventually, on some level, you will be unhealthy, unbalanced and unhappy.

We must always keep in mind we are emissaries to the adult world or role models for our kids. If a teacher is always stressed or frazzled, and I know we’ve all had these teachers, that teacher provides a poor example of what it is to be a healthy adult. Kids pay much more attention to who you are and what you do than what you say (See Teach like Your Hair's on Fire on the bookshelf below).

Teachers often become surrogate parents, psychologists and social workers for their kids. You can and must do this at times to be an effective teacher, but I would recommend that you give yourself time, and plan for these necessities. Don’t let it eat up your whole life.

Planning can ameliorate guilt more than any other tool. Sit down and write out realistic plans for your days and weeks. Be the architect of your life (See Built to Last on bookshelf below). If you plan out those times and make your life organized in this way and say, this is the time I’m going to work, this is the time I’m going to play, exercise, write, or be with friends or family, you can leave work without guilt, knowing you are making sane and thoughtful choices. Perhaps this sounds rigid, but if you aren’t rigid and you have a big heart, as many teachers do, then all those little responsibilities are going to eat away at you. It took me years to learn this and in many ways, I'm still learning it.

Some people do take everything on. The kids love them and maybe they earn awards in the short term, but they may not be able to sustain those efforts in the long run of their lives and careers. What are you going to do to yourself if you keep neglecting your life and your own needs? Your married life? Your family? Your children? Do you want to look back at a destroyed marriage and kids that grow up without you, or a very stressed out you? Or do you want to be happy and be yourself?

If you are overwhelmed by work and just trying to keep up all the time, you may not be growing as a person or professional. How will you come up with those new lessons or innovations in your classroom if you are buried under paperwork and the personal problems of students? Create space for yourself to think, be happy and rise above! If you don’t, it can be devastating to your personality, your sense of hope.

Another way of decreasing guilt is to look at teaching through an existentialist lens. Just be the teacher. Shut down any feelings of worry or guilt before you’re in the classroom and after. Trust that when the time is on for you to “go,” you’re going to do it. Get into the flow of your work. Define yourself this way. Build off of the strong experiences that work, reflect on what doesn’t work and do it day after day. Trust in yourself, keep improving, and you will become a good teacher and healthy role model.


  1. I like your thoughts on this topic. It's so easy to give and give and give to others, especially kids (darn, it's hard to stop "doing" for them), but I agree that a line must be drawn. When you can find the time to give yourself a break, then you are a better person and a more accessible teacher in the long run...and your family will be strengthened by your "family time" as well.

  2. I agree with you. It took me a long time to figure it out too (and I still struggle with it). I've also found that many administrators play on the guilt they know you will feel to get you to do things they want you to do. They always have a way of making you feel guilty when you say, "No". I've finally gotten to where I can stand to say, "No" without feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt because I know that I will become a burnout if I don't take care of myself and my family. Thanks for sharing this post because I think this is something that all teachers go through.

  3. LightTeacher,

    I think you're right in focusing on the long run. That sense of perspective can help us overcome the day to day challenges and achieve some really wonderful things.


  4. Ms. P,

    Thanks for the post and for confirming I'm not the only one who goes through this! :)