How one teacher set boundaries and stopped bringing work home
I’m talking today with a member of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club named Jessica Holdaway about how she balances home and work.
I encourage you to listen for specific things she’s done to create boundaries and consider how you could find approaches that work for you. We’re not prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach here. Every teacher’s workload is different, and maybe bringing work home is the best or only possible way to get things done for you — that’s fine!
My hope is that Jessica’s story will inspire you to think outside the box, and figure out a schedule that allows YOU to have clearer boundaries between home and work and more time for self-care.
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ANGELA: So tell us about you — where and what you teach, and what kind of responsibilities and interests are competing with school for your time?
JESSICA: I am a first-grade teacher in Alpine, Utah. This is my eighth year in the classroom. So I’ve taught kindergarten for five years and then I’m starting my third year in first grade, which I absolutely love.
In addition to teaching, I’m also a graduate student. I’m working on a master’s in educational administration.
Outside of my professional life, I’ve been married for 20 years to my husband Dave, and we are the proud parents of seven children. They range in age from 17 down to two. Our oldest is a boy and then we have six girls, so my plate is very, very full, but my family and my work both bring me a lot of joy — it’s great.
When the work gets done
I know that one of the ways that you balance home and work is by not bringing any school stuff home. So I’m wondering if you can share how you manage that. If you’re not taking anything home, when does the work get done?
Well, when I went back to teaching after 10 years of being a stay-at-home mom, I was super stressed and overwhelmed. I was very fortunate that year that the teacher next door was a seasoned professional who worked while having children, and she’s really understood the struggles with balancing my work and the rest of my life. So one of the very first things she said to me was, “Don’t take any work home.”
I thought she was crazy and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it, but I found out that she was right because I soon realized that if I brought all my work home, it rarely got done anyway. So then I have to just bring it all back to school the next day untouched. Finally, I came up with a system to make that possible.
I plan one month in advance and I go to school the last Saturday morning of every month and I plan out the entire upcoming month. It takes a few hours, for sure, but it’s worth it because going on a Saturday when no one else is there, I can’t get distracted and I can just get it done.
I pull out all the lesson plans, the cubbies, all the other resources and everything I need, and so it’s just right at my fingertips. Then each Friday before I go home, I pull out all the materials for the upcoming week, and because it’s already done and prepared, it just takes a few minutes. Iprint out my lesson plans and I’m good to go.
So you’re going into school one Saturday a month for a couple of hours in order to plan so that you’re not doing things all the time during the week?
Yes, then that frees up my time before school, after school, and during school to do the million other things that teachers often have to do.
Tell me about your hours before and after school. Do you go in early? Do you stay late?
I have three of my own children who go to school at my school. So I can’t come early every day, but I do usually come early one morning a week just because that works out with my schedule, and I like to be here nice and early because it’s just quiet and gives me time to work.
Then after school, we’re required to stay for 30 minutes after school gets out. I stay for an hour, but after that hour is done, I stop where I am and go home.
So what time are you leaving usually?
I usually leave at about four o’clock. There are occasional evenings, sometimes if something big is happening, like parent-teacher conferences or something like that, where I may stay later, but I really try to be conscious of the time that I’m spending at school just because there’s so much outside of school that I have to do as well.
Figuring out what you can take off your plate and what’s most important
One of the things that we talk a lot about in the club is about letting go of the good in order to make time for the great, and recognizing that you have to eliminate some things that are working fairly well in order to have the time needed for the stuff that really makes the biggest impact. That’s because there just isn’t enough time for all the good things that you could do, so we have to think about what are the truly great things that you should do. I’m wondering if there’s any specific task or other “good things” that you’ve stopped doing in order to simplify.
That is seriously the million-dollar question, right? You have to distinguish between good, better, and best, and it’s hard to say definitively because every teacher and circumstance is so different.
I will say that for a long time, I knew that I was a “good teacher,” but I was always tired and always stressed. I realized that being a “good teacher” came at a really high price for me, and it came with the expense of my family, my relationships, and my health — mentally, physically, and emotionally.
One day, I just decided that that price was higher than I was willing to pay. So I sat down and I answered this question: “If I were to thrive, not just survive but thrive in my professional life, what would that look like?”
And then beyond that came the second and third question, which were: “What would I have to do that I’m not doing to be able to thrive and what do I need to stop doing to be able to thrive?”
And of course, like I said, every teacher’s answers were different, but for me, for example, I realized that I was neglecting to take care of myself, and to thrive, I realized that was something I needed to do.
I made a list of “should do” things that became non-negotiables, like exercise. That became something on my list of priorities because it gives me energy and helps me deal with these six- and seven-year-olds all day, and gives me greater focus for the day ahead. So I get up at 4:00 AM every day and I’m in the gym by five.
Another thing that helps me thrive is having a few minutes to chat with my colleagues just on non-school related stuff. So I build that into my actual schedule: it’s on there, that I will spend 15 or 20 minutes just visiting with my colleagues or my friends at school.
I know that for me to thrive, it helps me to be completely organized well in advance. So my planning system is a by-product of that.
I think when it comes down to it, you have to remember to pick choosse what will give you the most gain for your effort.
And just because something is easy to do doesn’t mean it should always be done. Also, we shouldn’t avoid doing things that are harder or that take time and resources because those things are necessary, too. It’s about being intentional about what you choose to take on.
For example, for me, one of the things that help me thrive as a teacher is strong relationships with my students and their families. So for the last two summers, I have chosen to go to their homes and meet them before school starts. That’s not because it was something super easy that I was told I had to do. It was because it cultivated strong relationships and opened the door for communication right from the start for me.
So yes, it took time. Yes, it took resources. But it paid dividends in the end. We should be conscious of whether or not an activity supports whether we can thrive, and if it’s something that drains our energy and our resources, maybe it’s time to reevaluate.
I know some people say, “Well, wow, that’s a lot of focus on how you feel. What about your students?” But really the truth that I’ve come to understand is that if you are thriving, your classroom culture and your students will be thriving, too.
Wow. You made so many important points there and I love how you’re talking about really investing your time. Going to your students’ home, for example, is obviously not the easiest, fastest way to start developing those relationships, but it’s an investment that hopefully pays off throughout the year. You have better understandings of your kids, their families, their home lives, and that, for you, makes it easier to do a good job later.
I also liked that you mentioned how you had to figure out what was helpful for you to thrive because it’s going to look different for each and every person. I think that’s one of the things that makes prioritizing really tricky because there isn’t anyone else who can decide for you what’s most impactful and what’s most important. It’s something that every teacher has to evaluate, and I’m wondering if you can share your process for that.
How do you figure out what’s most important to get done?
Well, priorities. Prioritizing is hard, but I try to simplify it as much as I can. I think sometimes it’s easy to overcomplicate things, and so that’s where the club has been super helpful for me because the checklist system has been critical in helping me to prioritize.
So what I do is when I sit down, it’s just a complete brain dump on that checklist – I write down everything, but when I can see it laid out in a weekly format, I can see what needs to be done before that meeting tomorrow, what can wait a few days.
The key is getting everything down on the paper no matter how small it is, because if we only write select things, then it’s not really realistic representation of what needs to be done, and sometimes that can cause problems later.
So you’re writing everything down and then you’re prioritizing from there. Are there things on the list that you then decide you’re not going to have time for, they’re not going to actually happen? Do you weed tasks out at that point?
Absolutely, because once I start, I’ll write down everything, and then I’ll number them. I’ll say, “Okay, this is number one and is high priority,” and then as I look at how much time I have and how many tasks I have, I can look at number three and go, “You know what? Maybe this is a great idea, but it will have to wait until next week, or next month, or next school year.”
I think sometimes, we get a lot of great ideas and things we want to do, but I try to remember there’s a season for everything and sometimes, there’s just too much on my plate to fit it all in at this time.
It doesn’t mean it’s not a great idea, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen later. It just means that right now, it’s not a good time.
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That’s a great point, because I think if you’re a creative person or if teaching is also a hobby for you–not just your work, but there are aspects of it that you just genuinely enjoy–then it’s really easy to get shiny object syndrome. You think about all the fun, cool things you could be doing, like, “Oh, this unit will be so much better if I made this.” That’s the fun part of the job. It’s really hard to limit that sometimes.
It’s very, very hard to limit it, but maybe I’ll say, “Well, I wanted to improve these three units, and instead of doing all three, maybe I’ll pick one.” And so it’s kind of my reward — I can still work on that creative process, but I’m not tackling three things at one time, and that makes me more productive in the long run.
Yes, and as you said, there’s a season for everything. It doesn’t all have to be done right away, and if you are a creative person, you’re going to have more good ideas than you will ever have time to implement. So you have to choose the ones that you think are really going to make the biggest impact for kids, and the ones that you’re really going to enjoy and that are just going to be super meaningful for everyone involved. You’re not necessarily telling yourself you don’t get to do these other things or these things will never happen, it’s just it’s not a priority right now.
Giving yourself permission to stop before all the work is done
I think for many teachers, one of the hardest parts of creating these boundaries and deciding what to do and what not to is giving yourself permission to find a stopping place. I’m sure when four o’clock comes for you, you don’t look around and think, “Okay, everything is exactly the way I wanted and it’s all done and there’s literally nothing left for me to do, so I get to go home.” I’m sure you’re allowing yourself to leave some things incomplete. So I’m wondering how has this been a challenge for you? How does this work for you?
This is absolutely a challenge for two reasons. Number one, I’m a perfectionist by nature — I want it to just be perfect. And number two, I am one of those people that genuinely enjoy the process of planning and prepping to teach. So it’s really easy for me to get caught up in the planning and lose track of time if I’m not consciously thinking about it.
What I do is make my to-do list with the most urgent task and work my way down. I set a timer after school for 45 minutes, and then at that point I reevaluate, and if I’m at a good stopping point, I give myself permission to go home, and if I’m not, I give myself an extra 15 minutes and then I leave whether I’m done or not.
Sometimes, if I’m really in the middle of something, I’ll have to decide if it’s worth coming in a little bit early the next morning, or moving something around in my day the next day to get it finished up. More often than not, because I know that I only have this set amount of time, I tend to be really productive in that time.
Normally when I leave, yes, nothing is ever perfect the way you want it or completely done, but I feel good about what I’ve done and I think that’s an important thing. I think sometimes, as teachers, we’re always looking at what we haven’t gotten done, and I think it’s important to give yourself credit for what you have accomplished all day, which is a lot.
That’s right. When you set that timer, immediately there’s something that happens in your brain that makes you realize you don’t have unlimited time, and you can’t just stay until it’s all done.
It does make you work faster, and the fact that you’re really being intentional ahead of time about what tasks are most important and starting with the most important ones is so good, because it’s a lot easier to find a stopping place when you know you have knocked the most important things out.
Making the mental shift from school to home
How do you make the mental shift from work to home after school so that you’re fully present with your students during the day, but then you’re able to turn off your teaching brain and attend to the other aspects of life in the evenings?
Oh, that’s a hard one. I know some people decompress in the car on the way home, but for me, because three of my children attend the school where I teach, it makes it a bit trickier. So I chat with my kids on the way home about their day and I greet my other kids when I get there, but then my kids know that I have 30 minutes downtime.
When I arrive home from work, I go into my room and I shut the door, and I might change and have a quick nap, or I might just sit there and enjoy the silence. Sometimes, I chat with my husband or call a friend. It just depends on the day, but after that 30 minutes, I’m ready to be all in with my kids and all in with my family.
So it works really well and it’s a routine that we have established and it works great. The 30-minute timeframe is good for them, too, because after a busy day, they just need to decompress. So we’re all doing our own thing for about 30 minutes and then we resume with normal family stuff.
I love that. How did you explain this to them?
I said, “I just need a half an hour to just attend to some things and then we’ll move on with whatever we need to do.” And they understood.
It’s interesting because I have two that are still in daycare, so I don’t see them all day. When I come home, I just say, “Hi.” And then I kind of disappear. I’ll tell them, “Well, I’m going to go upstairs and have a quick nap.” And they say, “Okay.” They understand that, but by the time that the timer that I’ve set for them goes off, they’re ready to come and engage with me and I’m ready to engage with them.
They’ve been really, really great about understanding that I just need a little bit of time so that I’m able to be the best mom I can be to them, because after being inundated with lots of responsibilities and children all day, I just need a minute to take a deep breath.
Yes, and it’s amazing how kids can adapt to any kind of structure that you set up for them. If you set the expectation that as soon as you walk in the door you are available to meet their every need, and they’re all asking you things, and you’re doing things — that’s what they’ll expect.
If you teach them that when we get home, this is our routine (everybody has a half hour to go do their own thing and then we start doing family stuff again), they’re able to do that. I think that’s really awesome that you have done this in your family.
And I know that my kids — especially my older kids — see a difference. If I’ve had that 30 minutes, or for some reason something has happened and I haven’t, they can tell a difference and I can tell a difference, and I just think I’m a much better mom when I do that.
And you’re also getting that time for you first thing in the morning too, right? Because you mentioned that you were exercising.
Yes, I go to the gym. That’s a time when I get up really early, I go to the gym, I come home, and I usually have time for a quick breakfast and to read something, and just quietly decompress, and then the chaos ensues with getting everyone up and ready for school.
But I’ve tried really hard to create those times in my day when I have a few minutes to quietly sit and reflect or take care of myself in some way, and it really pays dividends later on in my day when things get particularly hectic because I really have done what I needed to do to just feel centered and focused.
How the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club has helped
I love how intentional you’ve been about all these different things that allow you to really be your best as a teacher and in every other role that you play. How has the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club helped you get to this place that you’re at now in terms of staying on top of things?
Oh my goodness. I’m the first to admit that I’ve been a member for more than a year, and there’s a lot of materials still left for me to explore and I’m working on that.
But with that said, the biggest mindset shift for me was just using that time throughout the day to be productive and understanding that a few minutes here, a few minutes there can add up to big productivity if you are organized and intentional with your time.
That has just been huge for me, and it’s always one of those things you think, “Why did I never think of that before?” But it totally changed the way that I look at being productive and managing all the things.
Are there any other mindsets or habits that you developed through the club that have made a big impact for you?
Oh yes! The filing system — and I just call it a drawer system because I use drawers — has made a huge difference. S
o like every teacher, we’re inundated with paperwork from the moment we get to the school to the moment we leave. So those drawers in that filing system that sit on my desk, they’re labeled and they keep me on track. When I get papers, I know exactly where it needs to go, when I can get to it, and it has kept my desk clutter-free, and I find that when my desk is clutter-free, that helps my mental state and I’m feeling much more able to tackle what I need to tackle without having to weigh through the clutter on my desk. That has been seriously life-changing for me as far as organization goes and keeping things where I can easily access them.
I have six drawers on my desk. They’re labeled today, this week, grade, file, read, and reference. Those are the ones that I use. Whenever anyone hands me something or I grab it from my mailbox, I just put it in the right drawer, and then I always know where to find things, so it’s super helpful. That “today” drawer always gets emptied before I go home, and then the “this week” one gets emptied every Friday, and so on.
But it’s been so, so helpful because I think sometimes when our physical space is uncluttered it helps our mind to be uncluttered, and it really helps us to focus on what the most important things are and what needs to be done.
What’s something that you wish every teacher understood about reducing their workload and having better balance?
I wish everyone understood that it honestly is possible to be a teacher, to find a balance that’s comfortable or workable for you, and really thrive in your classroom and in your life. For so many teachers, we’re living our lives in survival mode thinking, “It’s just what teachers do,” and it’s sort of this rut that we can sometimes fall into.
But I think when people are willing to slow down and say, “Hey, look, this isn’t working for me,” and really think through the systems and the processes in your classroom and in your life, you might meet a surprise to discover that there is a better way.
Go to 40htw.com to learn more!
This episode is sponsored by ViewSonic Education. They’re the creator of ViewBoard, an interactive whiteboard for the classroom and myViewBoard, a digital whiteboarding app. Together they help teachers create engaging lessons at home and present them in the classroom. Search the internet, open your favorite apps, and play educational videos — all from your digital whiteboard. Finally, a solution that teaches the way you do. To learn more, visit viewsonic.com/education.
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