A very insightful friend of mine once said to me, “Andy, bad teachers never burn out.”
The great paradox of teaching (and other service professions) is that the practitioners will often give so much of themselves that they reach a point where they have nothing left to give. On many occasions, I’ve felt like the personification of one of those tropical drinks – with multiple straws begging people to come and draw from me. When I reach that point, I know that I have allowed my life to tip out of balance.
This is not new information, but it is critical in teaching to maintain a life that is balanced. Taking time for your own needs does not preclude excellence in the profession. For the past ten years, my New Year’s resolution has been the same each year – “Improve my balance.” When I am taking time for myself and my family, yet meeting or exceeding the expectations of me at work, the little things seem to take care of themselves.
I’ve always had a need for physical activity. In college, my friends and I were in the weight room at UCSB on a nightly basis. Shortly after I got married, I began doing road biking as well. I took up playing guitar in my early twenties and took up bluegrass banjo in my late forties. Of course, somewhere in there I taught myself how to use a computer and build a website. When I was in college, the rich kids had electric typewriters, so it was no simple thing to become a “techie”. But none of those activities has ever been a burden – they are all among the many ways that I play and maintain my tenuous grip on sanity. My wife would probably add that I read a lot, and spend many hours in our very large garden.
Young teachers need to learn to make time for the lives that they want for themselves. Veteran teachers need to know that miserable, workaholic teachers become miserable, workaholic retirees. The students benefit from having a vibrant, balanced adult in charge of the classroom.
Be especially careful at the beginning of a school year. I’ve learned that I often make work commitments at the beginning of the year that I will later come to regret. I return to school from summer break feeling energized and nearly invincible. It is so easy to say “Yes” to requests for time and assistance. Before agreeing to something that you may later regret, ask yourself, “would I be equally willing to make this commitment in the Spring when I am tired and often short on the time I need for myself?”
I have several “favorite” quotes, but certainly one of them is from Bob Dylan – “He not busy being born is busy dying.” A balance in activities, and a willingness to try new things keeps us young enough in spirit, even if we cannot deny the progression of years. I turn 54 today. I am enjoying life more now than I ever have in the past. I have an amazing wife, and beautiful daughter, and MANY interests. I cannot remember the last time that I said to myself, “I’m bored.” Make the time to have a life outside of school. Your students, friends, family and peers will all benefit from a more balanced you.
Of course, as teachers we need to recognize the need for balance in the lives of our students. Our highest achievers often have lives out of balance as the result of their own drive, or the demands of parents, teachers, and college admissions. But that is a subject for another time.