Rest and Rejuvenation – Feeling Good About Taking the Time Off You Need to Be at Your Best

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

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I'm a teacher. I teach a self-contained special education class of second and third grade kids. I have done the work I love for over two decades and there is no other role in which I can see myself.

But sometimes even teachers need a mental break and physical rejuvenation; ok, especially teachers.

The year has been one of the best years I've had in a long time. My students are motivated to learn and their parents are supportive. Our classroom schedule works great and behaviors are in check.

But that doesn't mean the year hasn't been without its challenges. My parapro's (necessary!) absences have left me having to train a parade of substitutes to do all things she does so effortlessly. The extra prep work left me feeling burned out and ready to run out the school doors as soon as the kids did.

Quarterly assessments had to be done. Individual assessments had to be done.

Plans had to be made. Paperwork had to be done and meetings needed to be scheduled and held. My students needed me to be present and on my game. They needed to have the routine remain consistent and it was a mighty task to keep it all flowing.

I was starting to feel overwhelmed, and it was time to consider some options for rest and rejuvenation.

Dealing with Feelings of Guilt About Taking Time Off from Teaching

My work attendance is excellent. I am always on time and know my areas of strength and areas of opportunity for growth. That means I'm self-aware enough to know when I'm tired.

When my parapro returned to school, I decided to do something I'd never done before: I took a stretch of time off. My body and brain told me a break was becoming a necessity. I listened.

As I sat at my desk contemplating how many of my banked days off I would use, a wave of guilt washed over me like coffee spilling on a stack of field trip permission slips. The angel sitting on one shoulder told me I needed to keep on truckin'. The frazzled Mrs. Frizzle-looking angel sitting on my other shoulder said, "Girl, fill out the dang form!"

I did.

Why was it even a struggle? The days were mine to take but when you're aware that extended teacher absences adversely impact student achievement, well, you think twice. Besides, I love being at school, I love my students, and Mrs. Frizzle was a heck of a lot of fun as a teacher.

While the internal dialog was raging in my brain, a colleague stepped in my room and spoke sharply to me about something I had no control over. Instead of simply letting it roll off my back, that negative interaction made me realize that time off could rejuvenate my soul.

A break could actually be the best thing for my students and my career since it will give me back the positivity that I'm known for.

Why Teachers Often Stop Themselves From Taking a Step Back

Surveys show that teachers have a lot of valid reasons for neglecting their personal well-being while looking out for the well-being of their classrooms:

  • Teachers know the importance of being in the classroom every day. We know consistency matters. Studies show that when teachers miss more than ten days consecutively, student achievement declines.
  • We love what we do.
  • We all know the importance of self-care and we can all name 35 ways to treat ourselves well. We just don't have time to do any of it because we have too much to do just to keep our heads above water.
  • There could be repercussions from administration even though we have the days banked.
  • We will get dinged on our evaluations.
  • The grade level or content team has to carry the extra load if another teacher is out. That doesn't seem fair.
  • Fear of not wanting to return to work after taking a brief leave.
  • Concern that the substitute will be seen as more valuable than the classroom teacher.
  • Concern others will gossip about why the teacher is away for a period of time.

As a general point, school vacations are pre-determined for us. We are expected to use those breaks for any appointments or vacations. But life isn't always neat and tidy enough to keep everything inside a specific time frame.

Making the Most of the Time Off You Already Have is Key

First of all, take full advantage of the time off you already have on weekends, breaks and in the summer… sleep in and relax, reconnect with things you have negated for too long.

It helps for me to remind myself of my priority system: faith, family, career. Over time, it has gotten easier to leave work at work so that when I go home, my focus is on my personal life and pleasures.

Here's a few tips that have worked for me to ensure my free time is truly my own…

The Art of Saying ‘No'

I had to resume my lost skill of saying, "No." It's freeing. With so many valuable ways to spend time committing to committees, activities, programs, and events, learning to voice that magical word will tilt the balance in your favor…. Just say, "Thank you for thinking of me for that activity but I don't have the time to give it the attention I know it deserves." Be done. Allow the guilt to drift away.

Weekdays are for Work… Weekends are for Me and My Family

Stay out of school on the weekends. It was not unusual for me to be in my classroom for several hours every weekend - Sundays too! School is my happy place and the idea of not waiting in line to use the copier made my heart go pitter-pat. It took my husband reminding me that I had missed out on some solid family fun on weekends. Adjustment made, balance tipping back toward even.

It's Ok to Talk to a Professional If You're Feeling Stressed

Finding a therapist or counselor is an excellent resource for finding your emotional center. A third party who is removed from the situation can listen and offer objective strategies to aid in righting what's wrong.

Scheduling Certain Tasks Allows Me to Maintain Focus

I've begun to set a specific block of time each day to review emails. Keeping this scheduled time allows me to better focus on doing what I was hired to do during on hours: teaching and maintaining my students' special education paperwork.

Taking a Mini Vacation Every Day

I started going outside at lunch to spend a few minutes during the day in an outdoor space. Doing so is proven to clear the brain and bring things back into perspective. A few minutes seeing the green grass and trees can increase productivity and clarity by 20%.

It's also good to just enjoy quietude at home or in nature. I noticed a colleague also does this-but she prefers to sit in her car, alone, savoring the silence. She said it has helped her mindset feel more at peace and ready to enjoy the afternoon with her class.

Ain't No Shame In a Well-Deserved Break

Teachers are incredibly hard workers and we are responsible for so much. We educate children. We keep them safe. We expend so much intellectual, physical, and verbal energy each and every day that it's only a matter of time before our engines simply wear out.

In order to be at our best we have to nurture ourselves without feeling guilty in doing so. Me? I'm back to work. I am focused, happy, and excited to complete the rest of the year. My break was only a week long but it has made all the difference in the world.

All teachers should consider the many ways that taking a step back when needed can help improve the teaching experience we provide our students. If it makes you a better teacher, then it's simply the right thing to do.

I encourage every teacher out there to strive for balance, and peace in your careers. Love what you do. Love yourself.

Mary McLaughlin