Sometimes learning to take a step back is the most important lesson and your priority goal
It wasn’t long after I started working with teachers that I realized personal accountability was the only way to get actual change in the classrooms. I went from one-and-done trainings to cohort-based, long-term professional development. Part of that includes asking teachers to commit to try one of the new elements they used. It doesn’t have to be huge, but there needs to be a commitment to try something – even if it’s small. For example, the session may have gone over direct instruction. Some teachers may have committed to all parts of the lesson – modeling, showing relevance, closure. Others may take the smaller step of incorporating more “I” statements during modeling. It’s up to the teachers, but they own their goals. And, for the most part, teachers like the accountability of having instructional goals. And it’s an amazing feeling for me to witness classroom change from the teachers who embrace it.
But sometimes instructional change or development needs to take a backseat. During one of my cohort sessions last month, I was talking to one my strongest teachers. She’s a department chair, an athletics coach, and I ask her to present professional development each year. And it’s clear she’s tired. From dealing with things in her own life (because life happens even to the most put together) to dealing with her department, it became clear to me she needed a break. So I said to her, “You know your goal this time, it can be self care.”
To use an airline safety metaphor, you need to put on your oxygen mask first.
I saw her and a few others of my best teachers a few days later at an instructional material adoption meeting – another requirement assigned to your best, most trustworthy teachers. I listened as they discussed how much was on their plates and the daily stresses of the classroom and everything else they did on campus that was above and beyond. I mentioned it again – “really, focus on self care.”
The truth is I need these teachers for the long haul and the students do too. They are change agents in their classrooms. But they can’t do everything or be everything to everyone. If you’re familiar with situational leadership, these are the high competence, high confidence group. They’re the group to which you delegate because you know they can get it done. But how much is too much? How often do I see campus administrators lean on these teachers? And the teachers don’t say no.
I’ve had to learn the hard way that saying no is necessary. Otherwise, you train other people that you will always be there to pick up the slack, get the job done, make it happen when others abdicate responsibility. And it’s exhausting. When you’re the teacher always making sure the lesson is spot on and copies are made and the class of the teacher who’s out has something relevant to do and… the list goes on. You do it for the students, you do it to help, you do it with the best intentions until you’re out of energy. But what does that mean for you and your students?
To use an airline safety metaphor, you need to put on your oxygen mask first. You’re not going to end up being any good to anyone including yourself, if your stressed, sick, tired, and emotionally exhausted.
So what do you do?
Define what is your actual responsibility
First look at what is your actual responsibility. You need to make sure you’re ready for your classes and your students. Second, what additional roles do you have? What are the actual responsibilities you have for that role?
Figure out what you can do
Be realistic. What can you accomplish? What do you have time for? I’m the queen of overcommitting, and sometimes I have to push myself to take items off my plate. Or I re-prioritize. What’s the most important to me? What stays on my plate? Sometimes I have to force myself to step back or take a break.
Identify others who might be able to help
If there is something the department needs to do, that’s not all on you. Spread out the work and ask for others to participate. I witnessed one of my department chairs do just that during a meeting and saw teachers volunteer. She said to me “I just can’t do it all by myself.” And that’s true.
Learn to say no
This is the hardest for a lot of people. We want to be the team player, the go-to person, we want the respect and admiration of our peers and bosses – but at what cost? Are they taking advantage of our willingness? Our kindness? Are they allowing us to take on their responsibilities? I don’t think people do this maliciously, but I do think we sometimes make it easier for people to walk away from doing things they should be doing themselves. Sometimes we may even need to explain to them what taking on that extra responsibility is doing to us. Learning to say no may be difficult, but it’s part of respecting yourself and giving others boundaries.
Take time for you
Don’t take those essays home over the weekend. Don’t stay hours after work. Take care of yourself. Don’t feel bad for sleeping in, taking a personal day, having some quality time with Netflix. You’re a better you when you’re rested, energized, and motivated than when you aren’t those things.
I am by no means perfect in this respect. I still take on more than I should and overcommit, but I’m working on it. It’s getting easier to say no. It feels good to have boundaries and focus on work that I view as important. It also feels good to have others own their responsibility and enjoy the work.
So the next time you’re tired and stressed, instead of giving yourself a goal that puts more on your plate, think about making your goal about taking care of you. That’s definitely something I would say “yes” to.