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Nurturing Students and Yourself: Finding Work–Life Balance in Teaching

By: Christy Washington 07/09/2024
Learn how one teacher practices a healthy work–life balance both inside and outside the classroom.
The author, Christy Washington standing outside in a garden.

As a teacher for 15 years, I’ve learned that the heart of education is all about making connections. I take pride in my knack for engaging students who typically need help building relationships with teachers. Helping them find joy in a subject as structured as mathematics is so satisfying. It fills my heart when I see students make huge strides or when I get emails from former students who’ve been inspired to teach because of our time together.

A Teacher’s Influence Extends beyond the Classroom Walls

I reminded myself of this when I started at a new school recently. With no established rapport with students, I had to start over, proving to each student in my care that my investment in their success was genuine. I reminded them that I recognized their potential, even when they had trouble seeing it themselves. “I’m pushing you because I care,” I always say, and, “You’re too smart to waste your talents.” Kids can tell when teachers don’t like them, but they also know when you truly care and require their best effort.

Many of my students have faced significant trauma outside school, carrying a weight that no fifth grader should have to bear. Hearing a student say, “I’m just dumb. I won’t get it” shatters me every time. Despite this, I’ve seen remarkable progress. I had one student this year who was “too cool” to care about math. He grew 300 percent on his assessment, and he’s now starting to believe that it’s cool to be smart.

Acknowledging Progress in Creative Ways

One way we celebrate success is through our “Mathematician of the Month” program. Each month, we focus on one mathematical practice, like perseverance or modeling with math, and highlight the student who best exemplifies that practice. My classroom is a safe space where we can make mistakes and no one laughs. My students start off like quiet little mice, afraid to take risks, but over time, they start to speak up and get more involved. It gives me chills when things start to click for them.

We also do an end-of-year green (our school color) carpet event, where we celebrate all the students' growth and treat them like celebrities. This reinforces my belief in acknowledging the hard work and growth of all students while pushing them to go even further! Implementing the eight mathematical practices into my curriculum, like persistence and critical thinking, has paved the way for building lifelong skills in my students. I aim to develop not only academic proficiency in my students but also strong character traits that will serve them well in all walks of life.

Striking a Healthy Work–Life Balance in the Classroom

From juggling pedagogical strategies to managing multiple students’ needs and coordinating with co-teachers, teaching can be a 24-hour job—unless you set boundaries and carve out non-negotiables for yourself. For me, grading every assignment thoroughly isn’t a priority. I view grading as the autopsy of learning—by the time you’ve given a grade, it’s too late. Instead, I focus on checking for understanding as learning occurs, streamlining feedback to inform and enhance ongoing instruction.

I’ve also learned the power of systems and consistent routines. They minimize downtime and foster independence, allowing students to flourish in a structured yet adaptable classroom environment. Whether through group activities, independent stations, or playful learning through games, establishing clear classroom systems provides the foundation for student success and our peace of mind.

But how can you find the balance? Start by selecting a few priorities—understand what’s essential and what can be set aside. Batch lesson planning, where you group similar tasks in one chunk, helps with time management. Establishing these systems at the start of the year encourages student ownership of learning. This approach also rings true in my personal life.

Making Time for Myself Outside the Classroom

This journey has taught me to appreciate the off season too. I make it a point to switch off in June to dedicate time to my family and soak in moments that rejuvenate my spirit. Then, with a renewed perspective, I gear up for the new school year after July 4.

While I confess to reading math instructional books as a hobby, I’ve also found solace in gardening, diving into novels, and sharing long conversations with friends over tacos. Conversations with teacher friends always lead back to students and ideas for the next school year. Even over the summer, we teachers are always on the lookout for fresh ideas and tools to bring back to our students. Striking a healthy work–life balance ensures that while we teach our students to be creative problem solvers and good citizens, we don’t forget to live the lessons we impart to them.

For more on work–life balance, check out this blog about putting yourself first.