Three Tips for Surviving in Teaching

I’m in my 14th year of teaching. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about the landscape of education. In particular, I think I do a pretty decent job of prioritizing what’s important and what’s not important for surviving in the profession…or maybe it would be better said I’ve come to realize how to turn my job into a career. I’d like to share three of the biggest a-ha moments I’ve experienced that have meant less stress for me on a daily basis and help me keep a proper perspective on things.

1. Don’t worry about the ‘new’ thing your school has implemented this year.

It seems that every school year, there’s a new focus or program or strategy to implement. There will be something new every school year. Before I figured out how frivolous most (if not all) of these new and exciting changes were, I was quite stressed and anxious. I wanted to know the ins and outs of the program/strategy and spent a lot of time and energy familiarizing myself with it…only to have a ‘new’ new program the following school year. Or the focus from the previous year was completely forgotten and never spoken of again. Once I realized this cycle, I stopped placing much importance on the flavor of the year. And, consequently, my stress lessened and I was able to focus more on my students and instruction in my classroom.

2. Don’t care more than the students.

Ok, so this one comes with a few caveats. I teach high school AP Psychology. I’m teaching students who, for the most part, are quite motivated to succeed. And, throughout the year, I have to tell them that I’m not going to care more than they do. For instance, when a student misses an assignment in class, I put a zero in the gradebook. I have numerous times during the school week (every morning before school and 3 days a week during our hour long lunch break) when they can come make it up, but it is up to them to remember to make up the assignment. If they don’t? The zero remains in the gradebook. I’m not going to stress over it. I’m not going to care more than they do. As we get nearer and nearer to the end of this semester, I have more and more students asking what they can do to bring their grade up and erase some of the zeros they’ve accumulated over the course of the semester. Will I help them out? Of course. Come in during the prescribed times and handle your business…but I’m not going to remind you to do so. This may seem a little harsh, but this mindset gives me much less to stress about during the school year and, as an added benefit, helps my students learn a bit of responsibility…prioritizing what’s important for their success. Do special situations arise where I may stick my neck out a little more for a student? Of course. While I do believe in having somewhat strict expectations for my students, I am also aware that I’m human. They’re human. Stuff happens. And sometimes stuff happening means I break my own rules to help my students out. To be clear, I certainly understand that many do not teach high school AP and you sometimes have to care more than students because they don’t get it yet. I can certainly see how this rule may not apply in elementary grades or with every student you teach. Like I stated earlier, I even have exceptions, but the general idea that I’m not going to care more about a zero in the gradebook than the student who’s earned the zero (and doesn’t seem to care) helps me sleep better at night.

3. Figure out a way to leave work at work.

Easier said than done, I know. And not always possible, I know. But, as much as possible, leave school at school. I remember a time, earlier in my career, where I stayed up into the early hours of the morning creating materials, reading information, and stressing over being prepared for the next day. It wasn’t good. I wasn’t doing a good job of taking care of myself and my family (and actually wasn’t doing a good job of teacher, either). Currently, it is quite rare that I have any work to do after I leave the schoolhouse. Of course, some of this easing of work is due to knowing my material quite well (which would be tip #4…if there was a tip #4…know your stuff). Like I said earlier, it isn’t always avoidable, but when I can get home and focus only on my family and enjoy that time, I believe I’m better equipped to deal with the stresses that occur at school. We’ve all heard the statistics on teacher burnout and how many teachers leave the profession within X amount of years. One of the major causes of this is the inability to ‘turn it off’ and leave work at work. 

Looking at this from another perspective…consider that, if you left your position tomorrow, there would be a job listing posted by the end of the day. Someone would be interviewed, hired, and in place within a couple of weeks. But, your family and friends outside of that job will (mostly) always be there. As much as being a teacher can be described as a passion or a calling, it is just a job. You are an employee. Employees can (and will) be replaced when needed. So, consider what will possibly appreciate you more and place your priority there. 

Obviously, there is much to consider with these tips. They are not perfect and they do not apply to everyone all of the time. I derived these hopefully helpful hints from my own experiences…so, of course, they are biased and may not relate to all. I love teaching. I love being a teacher. I want to teach for a long time and these suggestions have taken me a while to completely incorporate into my own habits. I sincerely hope these tips are useful for you and can help to relieve even a little bit of stress and help you to survive in teaching. 

What tips do you have for surviving in this profession? Please share in a comment.

9 thoughts on “Three Tips for Surviving in Teaching

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  1. I’ll summarize this in two words: “Care less.” I know a lot of people that should care more than they do, but I bet the folks that read this blog would be happier (and maybe better teachers) if they cared a little less than they do. I know I could, but it’s hard.

    1. Working together as a team. Easy said for a elementary teacher (Netherlands, Amsterdam) in a school with 200 pupils. 😏
      But it really helps me to do al the things you mentioned in the blog.

  2. Don’t take on too much responsibility. Schools are notorious for happily loading teachers with extra jobs – could someone put the school yearbook together? for example. Also don’t work harder preparing lessons than you need to. The things you could do for your students are infinite and a lot of them won’t necessarily result in more learning.

  3. Locus of Control… define and relate what you can and cannot do in your workday. There is a huge collective pool of constructive concern that pushes most teachers into education. That concern is tapped by others to benefit students, and that in and of itself is still positive. The expectation that that pool of motivation is tied to non-compensated duties tends to burn out some teachers. I like the quote, “I give because I have something to give.” Good list, care less and define your locus of control.

  4. Great post! Reminds me of how I approached parenting as well. She’s 26 now and seems to be well-launched, so it seems to have worked out ok. Thanks for this post – I want to remind myself and my adjuncts of this in January.

  5. My main stress came from high stakes external exams.

    I changed positions so I was no longer the teacher of record for any high stakes exams.

    I’m much more relaxed now.

  6. Great article and well needed for whatever year a teacher is in at the moment. After 21 years, this is great for first year teachers first and foremost but a great reminder for any year after.

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