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Four Steps to Balance Competing Demands

stressed teacher

When I talk to teachers these days, no matter where they work or what they teach, the refrain is often the same: “A lot of people are quitting.” “We can’t keep doing this.” “I’m covering so many classes that I can’t plan my own.” “This job has become impossible.”

Conditions in schools may be improving in this period of pandemic recovery, but relatively few schools have figured out how to manage an altered educational landscape. Everyone has changed, and the ultimate impact of what we have all been through over the past few years remains unclear. In the meantime, as the world attempts to move on, educators are left to put together the puzzle pieces of how schools will function in a new reality. Amid all the hubbub, what is within the realm of any one individual’s control to stick with kids and be effective in the classroom while maintaining both mental and physical wellbeing? 

Know Yourself

Self-awareness is the key to finding life balance. If I know that my inclination is to hit the snooze button in the morning and be late for work, I can use that information to put alarm clocks out of reach so that I’m forced to get up and face the day ahead. Likewise, if work starts to feel so demanding that remaining well becomes an issue, know the warning signs of a possible breakdown or even a less noticeable period of burnout. When little things start to feel unmanageable, focusing on what is within a personal locus of control can help. Perhaps that means being more selective about which assignments to grade. Maybe instead of being available every day at lunch, it’s okay to find a secluded spot to just chill out for 45 minutes. Sometimes, it means telling someone who is piling on the work that they need to find a way to lessen the load because you are nearing the limit of being okay. If they do not listen, that is their prerogative, but they have the opportunity to mitigate the problem before calamity hits.

Understand the Job

It is not uncommon for people to sign contracts for jobs without reading every detail fully. When educators make a legal commitment to their jobs, they often fail to read much of the fine print about what they can or cannot be asked to do within the bounds of what is permissible. As a result, people wind up working far longer hours and doing much more within the school day than is contractually required. Educators reading this may scoff at that idea since we know that the contract doesn’t even begin to cover what effective teachers do each day to help kids. But here’s an thought to chew on: even with all the extras that are necessary, most of us are still doing a lot more than we should be. Piling the work on is not only a habit that gets worse with time; it is also considered a virtue in a society driven by work ethic. Challenging ideas that are engrained is hard, but the more we start prioritizing the “must do” over than the “can do” while refusing to go above and beyond when the tank is nearing empty, the more balance everyone will achieve.

Find a Safe Zone

When stress is ever-present, cortisol levels rise and lead to unhealthy outcomes. Everyone needs a place to breathe and find acceptance. Whether that represents a physical location (like a favorite park bench) or a trusted colleague, having a safe zone can prevent the kind of angst that results in eventual burnout. Both finding and using a safe zone on the regular is key to keeping our heads about us. In other words, teachers must carve out time to spend in this place every day. Otherwise, the world shrinks to the size of a classroom and all its attendant demands, and it is hard to get perspective on anything. Very few can survive in a profession as complex as education for any extended period without specific coping mechanisms that are planned into the day with specific intention.

Get Comfortable with “No” 

Culturally speaking, Americans frown upon using the word “no” in the context of refusing to do anything that is outside the bounds of expectation. We are all supposed to be eager martyrs, willing to give up our personal lives and wellbeing for the sake of a larger good. Well, enough of that. Really. Yes, teachers believe in helping students and that is a truly worthy goal that deserves professional attention each day. However, no real progress can be made at the expense of any one individual. When anyone (however well-intentioned) asks for a favor in the form of time, energy or devotion to a task that is outside the bounds of instruction, get comfortable with saying no. It is more than acceptable to explain with perfect truth, “I just have too much on my plate right now. I wish I could.” With few exceptions, opportunities to be helpful or take advantage of a professional offering do come up again, ideally at times when it is more tenable and even enjoyable to say “yes.”

While we may be justifiably frustrated at demands beyond our control, acceptance is not the only option available. Last week, I took my first mental health day off ever, which was a difficult thing to accept for someone who spends the majority of each day packing in the work from dawn to dusk. Much to my surprise, not only was the day itself pure joy (with my email on auto reply, of course), but I had more energy the next day than I had felt in weeks. Since taking days off all the time isn’t realistic, the next-best thing is to develop coping mechanisms for ensuring that life remains manageable in a world that has become anything but. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS