The summer of 2011 was one that changed the future of my career as a teacher. I was severely burnt out and seriously considering not returning the next school year. Instead of summer being enjoyable, it was filled with anxiety about the year to come (if I were to stay). Part of me knew I had committed to way too much that upcoming school year--teaching a new grade, moving classrooms, and heading up a committee that I felt obligated to take on but really had little interest in. My stomach knotted up with anxiety just thinking about the stress that awaited me in seven weeks if I made the decision to stay.
But making the decision to quit teaching altogether seemed like such a massive decision and what gave me pause was that the actual work of teaching children was something I greatly enjoyed--it was evvvvverything else.
Before I made such a huge decision I knew I needed to try something drastically different. I hired a Life Coach.
Now, I know it might sound a little "out there" to some, but here's the thing: like a couple who tries counseling before divorce, I knew that if I was going to make such a drastic decision, I would need to feel that I had tried everything I could to make it work. I knew an outsider's perspective was necessary, too--I couldn't think through this anymore and get a fresh perspective. I think it's easy for us to know when things aren't working in our lives, but more difficult for us to see ourselves objectively--the habits & patterns that keep us stuck.
I resisted her at first because, after listening to me talk, one of the first things she said was "it sounds like the problem isn't your job--sounds like the problem is you. And, if you leave your job, these problems are likely to follow you to the next one." She believed the root of my problems were grounded in one common theme: I had difficulty setting limits, saying no, and speaking up for what I needed. And I share this because these are not uncommon traits for any teacher--many of us are caretakers by nature. Of course, this wasn't just an issue in my professional life, but in my personal life as well.
My takeaway from the coaching experience was this: the uncomfortable feelings that come up when saying no & setting boundaries with people end once the conversation is over, but the discomfort of NOT doing so drags around with you everyday, robbing you of precious time & energy. Here are some highlights of what I worked on that summer to make the next school year less stressful and, yes, it ended up being a MUCH more enjoyable year! (Again, these were great practices outside of school as well.)
1. Commit to only taking things on that are an "Absolute Yes". Caretakers, by nature, tend to take on way too much and have difficulty saying no--we love to help. But burning your candle at both ends doesn't help you or anybody else & leaves you with nothing great to give anyway. When considering involvement in committees, activities, get togethers, etc. for the upcoming year, instead of responding "yes" right away out of obligation, buy yourself some time (i.e. "let me think it over & get back to you") and then ask yourself a little later "how would I feel if I were NOT part of this?" If it would leave you feeling disappointed to miss out or you feel really enthused about the project, then it's a YES. If it's just "eh" or you feel like you could take it or leave it, it's a NO. And that leads us to #2...
2. Say no with grace & don't overexplain. Saying no gives a people-pleaser like me some major anxiety. But it doesn't have to be confrontational or awkward. Rather than avoid the situation, be direct, say it with grace, and avoid overexplaining (which opens the door for "hmm...maybe I can talk her into it!") As my coach said, if you overexplain or come off "wishy-washy", you are sending the message that you can be manipulated into doing the very thing you're saying no to. What's key is walking into the conversation with the energy of this being non-negotiable. You can say no in a kind way yet still be direct.
3. Protect your time & energy fiercely. I complained to the coach I worked with that one of the problems with my job was that I had "no time for myself". But when we looked more closely at how I spent my time, it again came back to the issue of having difficulty speaking up for myself and saying no. For example, I would often find myself stuck in a conversation in the teacher's lounge that went on and on as my mind raced through all the things I had to get done back in my room, wasting a half hour. Or I would be brought into a gossipy kind of conversation about a coworker that I didn't feel comfortable being a part of, making me feel yucky the rest of the day. With so much on our plates as teachers, we have to really guard our time and energy wisely because
1) we have lots on our plates and little time to accomplish it
2) we need time and energy left when we get home for ourselves & our families
3) no one else will!
While trips to the beach and actually getting to SIT and have a cup of coffee in the morning are freaking awesome, the real gift of having summers off is that, unlike many other professions, we have the wonderful opportunity of stepping away, looking at what we can improve on for the next year, and hitting the "reset" button, allowing us to make the year ahead better than the one before.