As teachers it is our mission to serve; so the idea of putting our own oxygen masks on first can often elude us. We are in the profession of offering our time, attention, care, and energy to others. And at the end of the school day, we do our best to be available to friends and family. But after the hardest teaching days, we hardly have anything left for those closest to us - let alone for ourselves. Over time, this can lead to anxiety and resentment - and even negative turns within our own relationships. Quite frankly, we can’t be everything, for everyone, all of the time. It’s too much pressure and it simply isn’t realistic. We need to learn (and remember) to fill our own cups, too. Read on to find out how.

Grant Yourself Some Self-Compassion

Pop-quiz: On a scale from 1-5 how highly would your rate the amount of self-compassion you offer yourself? Do you make time for yourself? Do you find yourself saying yes when your heart is screaming no? Do you feel like you deserve better while at the same time putting up with the way things are simply because: “It is what it is?” Or, do you ever feel like keeping those around you happy is the only way you can find happiness yourself?

Feeling you have to show people how awesome, helpful, and accommodating you are by always saying yes is a lot of work. It can take up a significant amount of time and energy without us even realizing it. Consider this scenario: You’ve just found your flow and rhythm in planning tomorrow’s lesson when in walks a colleague or student. They want to chat. Perhaps they’re just interested in catching up, perhaps there’s an issue. Either way, you stop what you’re doing to lean in and listen.

Now, don’t get us wrong, when you actually have the time available to help, by all means, be helpful. But if being helpful leaves you feeling annoyed or frustrated, then being nice isn’t really nice at all. In fact, it can lead to feelings of resentment. And if you end your work day with work left to be done, those negative feelings are almost guaranteed to grow.

In the long run, being a “Yes Man” won’t make you feel better. It will only make you feel rundown. And allowing yourself to get to that point is certainly not an act of self-compassion. To learn more, checkout Kristen Neff’s work on the transformative powers of self-compassion.

Schedule Your Day - All of It

While we don’t know many people who struggle with a surplus of free time, we do know plenty who are looking to maximize what little time they have. To form the habit of using every minute to its maximum, you may want to consider scheduling your day in full. Yep. We’re talking laundry, cooking, errands… showers. Sleep! Because teachers are so giving of their time (and it’s one of the things we love about them so much!) their time often finds a way to run out. So, take a look at your daily schedule. Where do you have 15 minutes without students? What can you get done in that time? Copies? Coffee? Grading those exit tickets? Now consider your evenings and weekends. What other commitments do you have - what else needs to get done?

By developing a clear plan for your time, you’ll start to notice the space you have to give - and the time you need to claim for yourself. No one should feel guilty for a night off, or a weekend outing - and once you know your to-do list is done, you’ll truly be able to enjoy your “me time.”

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Learn to say ‘No’

It’s ok to say no. Let us repeat: it is OK to say no. And while it’s totally ok, we also understand that it isn’t always easy. But the fact of the matter is, you don’t have to oblige every request of your time, energy, and resources - even if the request comes from your boss. Take a deep breath, and before answering with “Sure!” “No problem!” or some other variation of “Yes, I can do that for you.” really weigh your capacity, and the pros and cons of taking on one more thing.

Too often we find ourselves running on autopilot: saying yes to every request that comes our way simply because we don’t want to look bad, or we want to impress our supervisors, or sometimes even because we want to one-up our colleagues. No judgement here - we’ve been there! But when we practice showing up for ourselves first, then choosing who and what we are willing to give our time to becomes clearer. Career bonus? More often than not, your colleagues will also show you more respect. Having clear boundaries teaches others what you will and will not accept from them.

Plus, if you’ve done the work to schedule your day, you may find saying ‘no’ becomes that much easier. When you have a clear plan for “all that downtime,” quick responses let people know exactly why you just can’t: “I can't really talk right now, I have to prep my copies for the week.”

Here are some ways to add confidence (and ease) to saying ‘no:’

  • Acknowledge the person for reaching out. “Thank you so much for trusting me with this.”
  • Remember, less is more. It’s ok if the reason is that you just don’t want to. You don’t have to give a lengthy explanation. Keep your response short, sweet, and crystal clear. For example: “I’m sorry I just don’t have the time to offer the help you need.”
  • Make a counter-request. “I won’t be able to do that right now, but I may have time next week. Check back in with me on (day of the week) if you still need help with that.”

Get Clear and Be Firm

It’s amazing how much better you’ll feel once you start taking steps to protect your time and energy. While these two, precious resources are often better when shared - you shouldn’t be sharing to the point of self-defeat or exhaustion. And while hearing ‘no’ may make some uncomfortable, don’t let their discomfort sway you. When you know what your personal priorities are it becomes much easier to make sure your time and energy are being spent in intentional ways that make you feel fulfilled, rather than deflated.

Remember, your students depend on you to grow, to keep them safe, and to help them find joy in school. In order to serve, you absolutely must put yourself first. Developing healthier boundaries will allow you to approach your work, your students, and your relationships with more love and joy.

It is also important to note that workplace depression is a real thing, and if you find work conditions are having detrimental effects on your mental health, and overall well-being, please know there are ways to get help and change your situation for the better. You do not have to work in conditions where you feel unsafe, undervalued, and overworked. There are plenty of resources to help you find the school that is right for you.

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