Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years

This article is the first in a three-part series written by Dan Laird, a teacher of 17 years who quit at the top of his game and found success in private industry. In part one, Dan explains what led to his decision to give up on teaching. In part two, you will read why Dan will never go back now that’s he seen “the other side.” In part three, Dan will offer hard-won advice to any teacher who is looking for a job outside of education. 

Dan Laird

When I first decided to become a teacher back in the 20th century, my parents tried to talk me out of it. It wasn’t because they looked down on the profession. My mom is a retired teacher. My sister is a teacher. And some of my cousins are teachers. It’s in the genes. While I will also certainly make an attempt to talk my children out of becoming teachers, my parents’ reasoning was simple: There were more opportunities for success elsewhere.

Today, however, the reasons for avoiding the teaching profession are more serious. The pay has become a stagnant system of scratching and clawing for an occasional measly half-percent off-schedule “raise.” In many years, not taking a pay cut is considered a success. But there is a bigger issue. Teaching is demoralizing. The strain of unrealistic demands has made it even more exhausting than it already was. Sacrifice is now the expectation and that expectation is typically rewarded with criticism and a demand for more.

The Beatings Will Continue

When Detroit teachers walked out of their classrooms in 2016 to protest the atrocious working conditions that included everything from overcrowded classrooms to mold and mushrooms growing on the walls and floor, I read comments on social media demanding that these teachers be fired and that they “knew what they were getting into when they took the job.” Of course, there were also comments criticizing teachers for hurting kids by denying them an education and arguing that these teachers needed to go through the proper channels to effect change. These conditions were not new in 2016. Where were the commendations for using the “proper channels” in previous years?

The crisis in Detroit and subsequent ones like the lack of heat in Baltimore this winter demonstrate two things: Drastic measures are sometimes needed to draw attention to the most basic of educational needs and drastic measures make it uncomfortably difficult for others to ignore the problem. Education professionals suffer when they don’t advocate for their students, but they suffer even more when they do. A friend of mine has a toy plaque with a pirate skull that says, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” I can’t think of a more appropriate motto for the teaching profession.

The Height of My Career

I resigned from my teaching position in 2017 after 17 years. To provide some perspective, I spent all 17 years (plus an additional full year as an intern) in the same district. I was invested in the school. I put down roots. Leaving the teaching profession meant leaving much more than just a job. My colleagues were my family. An entire generation of parents in the community sent every one of their children to my classroom at some point. I was even starting to see the children of students from my internship year.

My connection to the community wasn’t the only reason it was difficult. I was at the height of my career. I had just co-authored the book Real Writing: Modernizing the Old School Essay with Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. I was presenting my work at national conferences in cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. And I was collaborating on educational initiatives with teachers across the country through my work with the National Writing Project. I even earned my administration endorsement the year before I left. I was invested in advancing in my profession all the way to the end.

This isn’t a story about one man hating his job for years until he finally had enough. There was no gradual decline. Quite the contrary. I loved teaching and spent countless hours advocating for it. I spent over half of my career as a building representative, vice-president, or president of my local education association. I marched. I picketed. I protested. I voted!

The Least Trusted Source

While I did love my time in the classroom — the connections, the light bulb moments of discovery — my workplace was becoming a constant reminder of what was happening to the teaching profession. New restrictions, meritless legislation, evaluation tools that hadn’t been properly evaluated themselves, mandated standardized tests that were thrown away or redesigned year after year while their results were nevertheless used to compare one year’s performance to the next, a demand from politicians and parents to “make our kids better, but don’t you dare tell them what to do.”

Somehow, the professional became the least trusted source, and the growing trend for outsiders in showing they cared about education had become to point a finger. I think it’s fair to say that the emotional drain had surpassed the physical one. Something had to change. My change was to become selfish and walk away. I quit.

A New Job

I dipped my toes in the waters of a career outside of teaching when I created my own professional development consulting business. I formed an LLC, created a website, ordered business cards, and even hired a former student to create the logo for me. I sent promotional materials to just about every school in Michigan. It seemed like a logical fit. I’d get to continue in the world of education using all of the knowledge and experience I had gained in almost two decades of teaching. More importantly, I could enjoy focusing on instruction. No more grading papers past midnight, no more parent/teacher conferences, no more battles about sound educational practices with school board members who’d barely earned their high school diplomas, no more spineless administrators who pretended to be uninformed so they could avoid making difficult decisions. The thought of it was exhilarating.

But since making this my primary source of income wasn’t exactly the soundest financial decision, I started looking at job postings that could supplement the venture. Unfortunately for the business, it wasn’t long after all of the momentum started to build that I was offered a job as a Training and Development Specialist for a privately operated company that had nothing to do with education.

I accepted and within one month I discovered every reason why I will never return to teaching again.

____________

I’ll be publishing Part 2 of this series, Why I Left Teaching and Will Never Go Back, in the coming days and part 3, The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers shortly after that.  If you want to be sure not to miss those, the best thing to do is subscribe to the blog. I’ll email you new articles (check your promotions tab, Google hides them there). You can also follow me on Facebook or Twitter, where I link to my articles.

___________

Have you also walked away from teaching?

Or maybe you left the corporate world to become a teacher?

I’d love to hear from you. Comment on this or subsequent articles in this series and I may get in touch with you for a book I’m writing. Thanks!

Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 3: Say No

teacher burnout

In part one of this series, I discussed why it is that teachers fail to protect themselves from burnout, even though high numbers of teachers report being stressed, exhausted, and disengaged at work.

In part two, I previewed the strategies I use to work 40 hours per week. I also talked about the importance of having a plan if you’re serious about cutting your own hours back.

Today, I’ll share my number one strategy for working fewer hours. Like many solutions, it’s simple but powerful.

Say no.

Many people have a hard time saying no. They have good reasons. We’re social creatures who are wired to cooperate. Society reinforces this biological urge to get along. No feels negative. Saying it disappoints other people. Pop culture contributes with messages about having no regrets, being a doer, and squeezing every drop out of life. For a lot of people, just the thought of telling someone no makes them uncomfortable. They agree to every request and then wonder why they’re stressed out and tired all the time.

Teaching is hard. Putting more on your plate makes it harder. The easiest way to lower your stress, which will make it less likely you will burn out somewhere down the line, is to do less work in such a stressful environment.

First, you have to give yourself permission to say no.  That requires a shift in mindset. No feels bad. It’s by definition a negative word. It means letting others down. It’s these negative thoughts and associated fears that lead people to say yes when they don’t want to.

Instead, think of it this way: When you say no, you are also saying yes.

  • When you say no to joining a committee, you are saying yes to having more time to prepare high-quality lessons or provide students with valuable feedback.
  • When you say no to attending an after-school night, you’re saying yes to your own family, your own interests, and your own energy levels, which will, over time, lengthen your career.
  • When you say no to solving another teacher’s problem for them, you’re saying yes to empowering that teacher to solve the problem herself.
  • When you say no to things that don’t impact your students, you are saying yes to things that do.

When you say no, you say yes to the opportunity to say yes to other things.

That’s because every decision you make has trade-offs. Saying no simply means you’re acknowledging this fact.  You can’t do everything and you shouldn’t try. Do a few important things, and do them well. If you do, you’ll be in excellent company.

Warren Buffett said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

Steve Jobs: People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

Seth Godin: “Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

Paulo Coelho: “When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.”

Meghan Trainor: “Nah to the ah to the no, no, no.”

Even Jesus said no. 

Many teachers will claim that they don’t have a choice. They have mandatory meetings to attend. They are contractually obligated to chaperone a dance, or three sporting events, or attend graduation. Some claim that even though certain work isn’t technically mandatory, it’s strongly encouraged.

All of that may be true. I, too, have meetings I must attend, parent-teacher conferences to run after school hours, and an open house every fall.

But there are a number of opportunities that teachers accept when they shouldn’t. When teachers say they “have to,” they often mean that the repercussions of not saying yes are uncomfortable. Or, more likely, the fear of such repercussions is uncomfortable. Elaine St. James, in her book, Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More, says:

“There are often many things we feel we should do that, in fact, we don’t really have to do. Getting to the point where we can tell the difference is a major milestone in the simplification process.”

And simplifying your job will help you cut hours off it.

An entire book could be written on why and how teachers should say no (in fact, I’m writing one), so for this article, I’ll stick to knowing when to say yes and when to say no. It’s actually very easy.

Say yes to opportunities that:

  1. Excite you
  2. Further your goals

Tim Ferriss goes so far as to say, “If it’s not a hell, yeah, it’s a no.” Saying yes to only those things that excite you or that further your goals is a way of prioritizing, and all teachers must do more of it. We simply can’t do everything, so we must choose.

Let’s practice:

Would you like to join the March is Reading Month Committee?

Say yes if the idea of meeting with others to design fun activities around reading is exciting to you or if you think that joining such a committee will further one of your goals. If you feel like you should, or if you’re worried what others will think if you don’t, or if you haven’t joined a committee this year but you know Joyce is on three so you probably ought to and this one doesn’t sound so bad …say no.

I’ve really been impressed with how you use technology in your classroom. Would you mind sharing some of those ideas with the staff?

Your body does this thing when it’s presented with an offer. It is either immediately excited or it wants to get the hell out of there as fast as it can. Listen to your body. If the very mention of an opportunity gets you excited, then say yes. If you love technology and like sharing ideas with others, then this one is a no-brainer. If you love technology but the thought of presenting to your colleagues creates a pit in your stomach, say no (and maybe offer to make a video or send out links to the stuff you do). If the idea of spending time on any of it makes you instantly resentful — if you immediately start figuring out when in the world you’ll find time to pull it all together — then say no. It’s not a priority right now and other stuff is.

Remember, saying no means saying yes. What could you do with the time you would have spent on this committee or doing that presentation or attending that event? The reverse is also true: Saying yes is saying no. So if you’re a teacher who just can’t stomach the thought of telling people no, consider this: every time you say yes to something, you are also saying no to lots of other things. Saying yes to donating your time over here means you don’t get to use that time over there.

If you’re a teacher who always says yes, then when you return to work after the break, say no to something. Say no to anything. Don’t apologize. Don’t give excuses. As Susan Gregg says, “No is a complete sentence and so often we forget that.” No is empowering. Try it. You might like it.

If you want more ideas on how to prioritize, check out Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Over the course of a calendar year, she’ll give you tips in the areas of lesson planning, grading papers, communicating with parents, establishing routines, and many others, all with the aim of helping you cut hours from your typical workweek. It’s great stuff, which is why Teacher Habits is an affiliate partner and all links to the club are affiliate links.

If you want to read more about prioritizing, acknowledging trade-offs, and the importance of saying no so you can focus on your greatest contribution, check out Greg McKeown’s excellent book, Essentialism. It will change how you think about no.

The rest of the series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part 2: Making a Plan

 

If you’re interested in keeping up with this series, the easiest thing to do is subscribe to the blog. I’ll email you each new article as it’s published.

 

 

 

Preventing Teacher Burnout — Part 1: Why Teachers Fail To Protect Themselves

Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout is a problem, and not just in the United States. Nearly half of teachers in India suffer from burnout (Shukla and Trivedi, 2008). In the U.K., 77% of teachers who are considering leaving the profession cite the volume of work as the reason (Source). Here in the U.S., teachers report symptoms of burnout at very high levels.

61% of teachers in a 2017 AFT survey said their jobs are “always” or “often” stressful, a rate twice as high as workers report in the general population.

All 30,000 teachers surveyed by the American Federation of Teachers in 2015 “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they were enthusiastic about teaching when they began their careers. Only 53% still agreed at the point they took the survey. Those who “strongly agreed” dropped from 89% to just 15%.

Gallup found that only 30% of teachers are “engaged” at work. 57% aren’t and 13% are “actively disengaged,” which describes teachers who express unhappiness at work in ways that undermine their colleagues’ accomplishments.

Perhaps most alarming, teachers’ mental health is at risk. In 2015, 34% of surveyed teachers said their mental health was poor for seven or more days in the last month. In 2017, that number climbed to 58% (Source). In the U.K., 10% of teachers use antidepressants to get through the day, and the suicide rate among primary school teachers there is twice the national average.

You Are At Risk

All of this means that if you stay in the classroom, you have a good chance of burning out. But in spite of these cold, hard numbers, many teachers do nothing to protect themselves. They keep plowing ahead, working too many hours, stretching themselves too thin, stressing themselves out, steadily trudging down the path to either an early exit from the classroom or a long, slow slog of uninspired teaching until they’re old enough to retire. That’s sad for their students. And it’s sad for the teachers. What a waste of the best years of their lives.

So why don’t teachers take what should be clear warning signs seriously? Why don’t they take steps early in their careers to prevent burning out later on?

A survey out of Clark University asked young people an interesting question that may help explain. Researchers asked 1,029 people, aged 18 to 29, both single and married, whether or not they expected their marriage to last their whole lives. 86% said they did. Researchers concluded that the other 14% didn’t anticipate ever tying the knot in the first place. Which means that, even though the U.S. has a divorce rate of about 50%, almost every single young person believes it won’t happen to them.

One of the researchers, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, explains why:

“We still have a very romantic view of marriage as a society. Other surveys have shown that close to 90 percent of emerging adults say that they expect to find their soul mate as a marriage partner. That’s a very romantic ideal.”

The Downside  of Idealism

A new teacher is no less idealistic than a new bride or groom. Like marriage, they go into teaching with romanticized notions. They’re going to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Jaime Escalante teaching kids calculus, Rafe Esquith turning kids on to Shakespeare, or Michelle Pfieffer saving teens from the mean streets. They’re going to get in there and make a difference.

I’m all for youthful exuberance, but lying to ourselves hasn’t helped us avoid burnout (or divorce). A better approach would be to look at the statistics with clear eyes and actually believe them. Returning to the marriage analogy, wouldn’t it be better for young people to view the divorce rate as a warning sign for their own marriage? Shouldn’t the new bride and groom figure out what causes people to split up and then take proactive steps to avoid repeating those couples’ mistakes?

Shouldn’t teachers learn from those who came before them?

Perhaps we refuse to learn from other people because we believe they have nothing to teach us. In his fascinating book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes:

“We tend to think we’re unique, and that just because someone else feels a certain way about a set of circumstances does not mean that we will.”

But we’re wrong.

Illusory Superiority

While we spend more time noticing the differences among individuals, the reality is that humans are far more alike than different, and not only biologically. Research has shown that people’s emotional responses are far less varied than we assume. So while the best way to predict our futures is to ask someone who has done the thing we’re considering doing, we won’t, because, as Gilbert writes, “We don’t realize just how similar we all are, [so] we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations.”

And our imaginations stink. Because we don’t stop at thinking we’re different from others. We think we’re better.

  • In a 1977 study, 94% of professors rated themselves as having above average intelligence relative to their peers.
  • 32% of employees at a software company rated themselves better than 19 of 20 coworkers.
  • 90% of drivers think they’re better than the average driver.
  • Most people, when asked to rate themselves from 1-10 on any positive trait, will give themselves a 7. (Source)

None of us like thinking we’re just like everybody else. From childhood, we’re told that we’re special, unique, an exceptional snowflake. It might help protect our delicate egos, but it does nothing to impel us to take action so that we can avoid ending up just like everyone else.

Believe the Data

The numbers don’t lie. None of today’s burned out teachers expected to be so when they started their teaching careers. They looked around and said, “Nope. That won’t happen to me.” They said:

  • Others might get stressed, but I won’t.
  • Others might not be able to juggle all of these responsibilities, but I can.
  • Other teachers aren’t as good as me.
  • I don’t need as much sleep as others.
  • I don’t need to decompress after work.
  • I’m more capable than others.
  • I’m more selfless than others.

Today’s stressed out teachers failed to learn from the stressed-out teachers who came before them and therefore repeat the selfsame mistakes.

So what can young teachers do to avoid the pitfalls laid before them?

Some things are difficult to control. You have little say over your boss or how the community perceives teachers. You can extend your career by becoming an expert classroom manager so that student misbehavior doesn’t drive you from the field. Likewise, there are proactive steps you can take to alter the environment in which you teach. But the elephant in the room, the one thing many teachers could exercise more control over but don’t, is their volume of work.

Teachers have too much to do and not enough time to do it. But there are things every teacher can do to cut back on the hours they commit to the job without sacrificing effectiveness. In fact, as I’ve written in the past, I believe that trimming hours off each workweek will make you a better teacher.

I intend to teach for 30 productive years. To do that, I started taking steps a few years ago that limit the number of hours I dedicate to the job each week. Most weeks, I work 40 hours or less.

In the rest of this series, I share the strategies that have worked for me. Circumstances differ, and I have some built-in advantages that you may not, but I’m confident that while you may not get all the way down to a 40-hour week, you will be able to reclaim precious hours for yourself.

Many of the things I do are recommended by my good friend Angela Watson in her 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. If you find my articles valuable, you’ll get even more out of Angela’s club. She goes into more detail than I do and provides you with tools that will help. Check it out, and if it looks appealing, sign up tomorrow. It’s an amazing product and a tremendous value. If you’re not sure if it’s right for you, take this quiz to see.

Keep reading:

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

 

Links to the 40 Hour Workweek Club are affiliate links. I will earn a commission should you sign up for the club via those links but you won’t pay a dime more. So thanks!

3 Things Teachers Can Be Thankful For

thankful

While researching my book, Happy Teacher, I came across the work of Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology. Nobody has contributed more to the science of happiness. One simple exercise Seligman recommends to those wanting to improve their outlook on life is what he calls “Three Blessings.” He writes in his book Flourish:

“We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.”

This is especially good advice for teachers, who are regularly faced with negative events, stress, and anxiety. Because of our tendency to focus on problems and deficits, we can easily start to view our jobs as a burden. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, many of us are stressed and exhausted and we wonder how we’re ever going to make it through the rest of the year.

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to step back and force ourselves to acknowledge the things we should be thankful for. The Three Blessings exercise is really simple. You just write down three positive things in your life. Since many teachers start to view their jobs negatively around this time of year, it might be beneficial for you to take a moment this Thanksgiving break and write down the things you appreciate about your job. Here are some to consider:

THE KIDS

No blowing smoke here. A lot of teachers, when you ask them about their jobs, will start their answers with, “I really like the students,” and then go on to complain about the things that make the job annoying.

  • “The kids are great, but administration doesn’t support us.”
  • “I love my students, but I’m working 10 hours a day. I’m beat!”
  • “The best part of my day is when I’m in my room with my students. It’s everything else that sucks.”
  • I love teaching the kids. I just wish government would butt out.”

Yeah, except.

Students can make or break your day. The reality is that the lion’s share of our day is spent with students. If you happen to have a great class, then you probably enjoy your job. If you have three or four kids who are really challenging, you’re probably stressed out and tired. If you have more than that, you’re probably on Indeed.com every night. All of that extra, outside-the-classroom stuff matters, but so do the kids sitting in front of you every day.

Too often, we tend to focus on those who are struggling. Poke your head into a teachers’ lounge and it is these students who are being talked about. Attend a staff meeting, and it’s the behavior of these students that is being discussed. In fact, at our last staff meeting, the principal shared the number of office referrals and suspensions we’ve had this year in the building. It was a high number, but the great majority of them came from 12 students, which represents less than 5% of the student population.

So here is one thing teachers can be thankful for: Most of our students, the vast majority in most schools, are doing their best. Most listen. Most follow the rules. Most get along with others. Most are respectful. Most try hard. The next time you get frustrated with your class, stop and count. How many are doing what they’re supposed to be and how many aren’t? Chances are you’ll find most of them are doing the right thing. It’s important to remind ourselves of that and be thankful for it.

THE PAY

I read this piece from the Atlantic this morning as I prepared to write this article. It includes some depressing information:

“While public-school teachers made $30 less per week (adjusted for inflation) in 2015 than in 1996, around $1,092 from $1,122, wages for college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416. Where other college-educated workers used to make just slightly more per week than teachers, they now earn significantly more.

“There are only five states where teachers make within 10 percent of what other college graduates earn, and there is not a single state where teachers earn the same or more than other people with four-year degrees.”

So if you want to feel underpaid and unappreciated, you’ve certainly got some numbers to support that point of view.

But I’d rather feel good about how much I’m paid, so I look at different numbers.

In America, most of us are rich. The median per-capita household income worldwide is about $3,000. If you have just $3,210 in assets, you are wealthier than half the world’s population. You’re better off than 3.5 billion people!

According to the National Education Association, the average first-year teacher in the United States earns $36,141. If you’re a woman–and three-quarters of teachers in the United States are–then that income puts you in the 67th percentile for all female earners in the US. If you’re a male first-year teacher earning the average, your income places you in the 48th percentile of all males. Regardless of your gender, the average first-year American teacher makes more money than 57% of all US workers. Open a phone book (if you can find one). Pick two people. Odds are you make more than one of them.

According to Glassdoor, the average US teacher salary is $47,760. That figure puts the average teacher in the top 0.35% of the richest people in the world. That’s right, teachers are one-percenters. Actually, we’re more like one-third of one-percenters. In other words, if you want to be rich, you can stop wishing. Because compared to almost everyone in the entire world, you already are.

FIND OUT WHERE YOUR SALARY RANKS HERE

Regardless of how much the people I went to college with now make, or how much other professionals with similar education levels make, or whether my pay has remained largely unchanged for five years, I make enough to live a comfortable life. I can afford the things I need, plus a lot of stuff I don’t. I’m thankful for that.

THE TIME OFF

I am never ashamed to tell people that one reason I became a teacher is because of the time off. To the best of my knowledge, I’m only getting one life to live and I want to spend as much of it as possible doing things I want to do. The more time I spend at work, the less time I have to pursue other interests. Teaching is one of the very few professions that offers a middle-class income and lots of free time, if you choose to take advantage of it.

So I am thankful that I have nine days off for Thanksgiving break and two weeks at Christmas and one week in April and two months in the summer. That allows me to spend time with my family, write, exercise, travel, read, and live a complete, well-rounded life. I’m thankful that I’m not going to spend the best years of my life in a cubicle. I’m thankful that I get to “retire” every summer. I’m thankful that I’m a teacher.

There. I feel better already.

When Teachers Should Be Selfish

selfish

Selfishness can destroy a school. We’ve all sat in meetings where a teacher complains how a new plan will negatively impact her, without giving any thought to how that plan may benefit the school and its students as a whole. We’ve seen selfish teachers hijack meetings with their own problems, step on egos, and take their metaphorical balls and go home when they don’t get their way. There are teachers who give not a single thought to how a schedule will affect others if that schedule inconveniences them. Most of the time, selfish teachers are malignant lesions that should be excised with prejudice.

But there is one thing that all teachers should be selfish about.

Teachers should be aggressively selfish about taking care of themselves.

A Crisis

We have a crisis in education. Eight percent of teachers leave every year, while across the border in Ontario, Canada, the rate is five points lower (Source). 17 percent of new teachers quit within five years, and the numbers are higher in high-poverty schools, where students are in desperate need of experienced educators (Source). Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen 35 percent over the last five years (Source). One of the major causes of teachers running for the exits (or never considering the profession in the first place) is stress, which leads to exhaustion, which leads to burnout. Teachers report some of the highest stress levels of all professions in the U.S. (Source)

In some ways, teachers do this to themselves. Most teachers don’t want others to view them as selfish. They don’t want to think of themselves that way, either. We would rather be called ineffective than self-interested. We chose a profession that is all about giving and helping others. It’s one of the major reasons why our employers so easily take advantage of us, and why if districts want a teacher to attend an unpaid after-school event, show up for the school Relay for Life team on a Friday night, or do unpaid committee work, they need only to deploy the weapon of guilt. Teachers give and give and give in service to their students and their schools. They believe that doing so makes them better at their jobs.

When Selfishness is Generous

But these teachers have it backward. Vigilantly protecting your personal life by limiting the number of hours you work under what are regularly stressful conditions doesn’t make you selfish. It’s the exact opposite. Only when you take care of yourself are you able to give generously to others.

Teachers can’t help their students if they’re not at their best. It’s hard to be patient and kind when you’re stressed. It’s difficult to be observant when you’re not getting enough sleep. It’s a challenge to be energetic and on top of your game when you’re tired. When you exhaust yourself because you’re trying to do everything you can to help your students succeed, you’re actually sabotaging your own efforts.

Tired runners run slower times.
Tired spouses are cranky and short-tempered.
Tired drivers are almost as dangerous as drunk ones.
Tired engineers make disastrous mistakes.
Tired cops are more likely to use excessive force.
Tired doctors are more prone to errors.

Tired people perform worse in every area of life. Why should teachers be any different?

The best thing — the most selfless, giving thing–that teachers can do for their students is achieve a healthy work-life balance that doesn’t leave them stressed out and exhausted. They should go home shortly after the kids have left, and find ways to reduce the amount of work they take with them. They should detach from work and eat an early dinner, followed by exercise, relaxation, fun, or time with people they care about. They should get at least seven hours of sleep. Happy, well-rested teachers, like every other professional, are better at their jobs.

Give Yourself Permission to Be Selfish

You, the teacher, are the most important person in your classroom. It’s your presence that makes a difference. It’s your effectiveness that impacts student achievement more than any other in-school factor. You are the reason kids are either excited to come to school or feigning illness to stay home. Parents trust you with their children. Your district will, over the course of your career, invest millions of dollars in you. It’s your obligation to be at your best, and you can’t do that if you don’t take care of yourself.

So be selfish.

Stop killing yourself under the mistaken impression that working more, giving until there’s nothing left to give, and being constantly stressed and exhausted will make you a better teacher. Give yourself permission to relax, knowing that looking out for your health and happiness doesn’t just benefit you. It helps your students, your colleagues, your family, and your friends. It’s easier to help others when you have first helped yourself.

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Note: Many sleep-deprived people don’t realize they’re sleep-deprived. Here are 8 Unexpected Signs You’re Sleep-Deprived

You can read more about this topic in my book, Happy Teacher, and in my upcoming book, Exhausted, available in mid-October on Amazon.