Help! I’m A 28 Year-Old Teacher and I Have No Time for a Personal Life

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I need help setting boundaries with work. My workday is from 8 am to 6 pm almost every weekday. I work for at least a few hours each weekend on top of that. As a result, I feel like I have almost no personal life and struggle to get even basic things done around the house. As a 28-year-old single woman, that really sucks. Unfortunately, there are no other teachers on my team who will step up and share the workload. I teach high school chemistry and have different classes to prep. I’ve thought about switching schools, but the boundaries issue is still me. A new school will be the same story, just a different setting. When is something “good enough”? Literally, anything that will help me be a more efficient, healthy, and well-balanced human being?—Boundary Deficient

Dear BD,

You definitely are not alone with your desire to shift to healthier relationships with yourself and others. Most educators can relate to long workdays and struggle to stay energized, motivated, and joyful in and out of work. In fact, the 2020 Education Support Teacher Wellbeing Index found that 74 percent of teachers and education staff said an inability to switch off from work was the major contributing factor to a poor work-life balance. Your awareness and desire to make changes in the quality of your life are foundational to establishing stronger boundaries and ultimately more fulfilling life experiences.

Author Nedra Glover Tawwab of Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself defines boundaries as “expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships. Expectations in relationships help you stay mentally and emotionally well.” So what might this look like in our lives? Discerning what you value in your life and learning when to say yes and no is an integral dimension of nurturing healthy boundaries.

Tawwab goes on to say, “Inventing a life with relationships is an ongoing practice, but it gets more comfortable with time and practice. The moment that I let up on setting perimeters, my old problems resurface. Because of this, I’ve made healthy boundaries a part of my life practice. Consistently, I’m practicing assertiveness and self-discipline to create the life I want that I want. In the past, I carried around a lot of resentment, hoping that others would guess my mood and wishes. I’ve learned that people will not guess my needs. They went about their day while I suffered in silence.” Maybe you can relate to some of these ideas too. Have you suffered in silence? Do you feel moments where you feel resentful towards others?

So when is something “good enough”? How can you infuse space into your compressed schedule in order to have more experiences that help you feel restored and inspired? Embracing a “good enough” mindset can mean that you are prepared and strategic while also staying away from perfectionist tendencies. “People who are perfectionists typically believe that nothing they do is worthwhile unless it is perfect. Instead of being proud of their progress, learning, or hard work, they might constantly compare their work to the work of others or fixate on achieving flawless output.” Ask yourself: Are you focusing on the product over the process? Do you avoid getting started on tasks that you do not feel confident with?

Consider focusing less on “juggling all the balls” and more on envisioning what you want in your life. It’s OK to drop some balls along the way. They bounce and can be picked up. My sincere hope is that you start protecting space little by little for what makes you feel alive.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
My first-grade class is exhibiting intense emotions every single day. I do class meetings, but I just feel underprepared. I’m not one of those people that opens up a lot about my feelings. It’s getting harder and harder for me to manage the kids’ irritability and outbursts towards each other when someone doesn’t get their way. And there are a couple of kids who cry often about family members who passed away due to COVID. I contacted our school counselor, but he talked to the kids on his own, and I didn’t really get ideas for what I could do. What do you think? —Out Of My Depth

Dear OOMD,

We’ve been living and working in the context of a global pandemic for over two years. The challenges around school closures and social separation have impacted our students, families, and educators alike. In some circumstances, mental health issues have been magnified due to the lack of school resources in families’ lives. People of ALL ages are feeling weary, teary, and reactive. You aren’t the first educator to feel like the emotional needs of your students are out of your league.

So, what can we do about the intense emotional needs you and so many of us are experiencing? We all know that establishing a positive classroom culture is absolutely foundational, but it’s super challenging at the same time. In addition to asking for more support from your counselor, I recommend setting up daily morning and closing circles that focus on social-emotional well-being. I’m not only referring to a quick check-in about how students are feeling. That’s a way to start, but I’m referring to tasks that help students build compassion, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and solid decision-making.

Consider starting the day by writing a letter to your class. You can embed some of the recurring issues that you are observing. For example, you might say something like:

Dear Class,

Today is a new day! Lately, we’ve been talking about what it means to be respectful. Think to yourself about what respect sounds, looks, and feels like. Let’s do our parts to make today a day where everyone practices being respectful. Will we make mistakes sometimes? Yes, we will. Can we learn from mistakes? Yes, we can! I’ll be reading aloud a book called When Sophie Gets Angry Really Really Angry, and hopefully, we can learn from her. So, let’s get started with our day. Take a deep breath. And take another one.

With gratitude,

Ms. Pappas

It doesn’t always feel easy to do, but try a little self-compassion and give yourself some grace as you invest in building a positive classroom culture. You give to your students and colleagues and families in that way. Save a little for yourself. Kristen Neff, Ph.D. , is known for her expertise in self-compassion. Neff explains, “…when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.” She goes on to say, “Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, you stop to tell yourself, ‘this is really difficult right now,’ how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m a 7th-grade teacher gearing up for a parent meeting and looking for advice. This child transferred in late November. He’s turned in almost nothing, despite my calls and emails home. I also provided work online and printed assignments that he could complete at home. I’ve been working with him in small groups, providing extended time, and so on. Still, it’s, of course, my fault that he is in danger of failing, and the mother is saying I never communicated or helped him. I have the paper trail to prove otherwise, so I’m looking for feedback on how to communicate with her in this meeting. How do I respectfully tell her that she’s wrong, and that I can prove it, without provoking her? —It’s Not My Fault

Dear INMF,

This situation sounds intense, to say the least. You’ve provided varied levels of support and communication. Also, good job on remembering to keep records of the levels of support you provided. Hopefully, your meeting will include someone from your leadership team. Be sure to fill the principal in on what’s been happening with the student and parent.

I agree that telling a parent they are “wrong” is a recipe for disaster. Remember that you are an advocate for your students. And proving that a parent is wrong will not cultivate a productive conversation. Yes, we all have had parents respond in defensive ways. We also know that behavior has meaning, and when parents (or people in general) are defensive, it may mean they are insecure or uncertain about ways to effectively support their child. In other words, they want to help but don’t feel skilled.

You can begin this difficult parent meeting by focusing on your common ground of wanting to help the student socially, academically, and emotionally. When you are in the thick of complex issues with parents, it helps to set small, doable goals. Work together with the caregiver and student to identify common educational goals. Specifically, discuss what some milestones might look like along the way. Stay open to a collaborative relationship with the parent even though it’s super hard.

In addition to setting small and doable goals, challenge yourself to spark your empathy towards the student and family. Districts all over the country are delving into the power of “empathy interviews.” During your meeting, be an active listener and stay away from interrupting. Ask the parent and student to “say more.” Listen, listen, and listen some more. Try not to be afraid of long silences. The pausing can help to deescalate and foster a more reflective and intentional interaction for everyone involved. After you hold space for their perspectives and ideas, of course, you can provide examples of the ways you have been supporting the student.

I find it helpful to ask a few open-ended questions to help nurture empathy and understanding between all the stakeholders. Here are a few examples:

  • What do you wish I knew about you?
  • How can I support you?
  • What kinds of things or people inspire you lately?
  • What are your strengths in school and out of school?

All the best to you as you rise above the need to feel right or wrong and maintain professionalism and advocate for kids. Your meeting has the potential to be a “win-win-win” situation.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at askweareteachers@weareteachers.com.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
How in the world can teachers say, “I don’t like kids?” Recently, during a staff meeting at our middle school, a teacher blurted this out, and so many staff members laughed. This sentiment makes me feel so disillusioned! I was kind of stunned. When the comment was made, our principal just ignored the comment. I feel like I can’t just stay silent on this. I mean, why would people study to be teachers and spend most of their waking day with kids if they don’t like them?

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Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson

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