Advice to Myself

Zach, on school-life balance:

If you had told me that it would take me 5 years of teaching to figure out how to mentally leave work at work then I might not have continued in this career. I’ve gotten incrementally better at it each year but this year I’ve committed to prioritizing it. Here’s a few things I’ve learned that help me do that. I hope you can, especially if you’re just starting out, find a piece of advice that will help you live a more balanced life.

and also:

Somewhere deep in the dredges of my brain I used to think that if I just spent as much time as possible thinking about how to fix the problems that arose at school (or in education in general) then I’d be able to fix them.

This doesn’t quite describe my situation. In my first few years I kept long hours, but it wasn’t from a perfectionist drive. The opposite, actually. I perceived (correctly) that I was doing an amateurish job in the classroom, and I wanted to throw hours at the problem (me). The hours would make me a better teacher, and I wanted my extra-miles to offset the trashy teaching I was offering the children.

I’m not sure if I have a message for my past. I’m pretty much the same person as I was in 2010, and I’d probably be inclined to react the same way.

I switched schools in 2013. My first school had a lot of problems, and it felt like there were a lot of big problems that were obviously outside of my control. (But you never can really be sure, can you?) And there’s no doubt that my move (to a school where things basically work) has reduced some of my pressure to put in extra hours.

I also had a kid.

But none of this is advice, either to my past-self or to others. So, let’s give advice.

To begin with, your life needs to be filled with something. You can’t simply stop thinking about the problems of teaching, children always win when it’s children versus the vacuum. You need to fill your life with something that is large enough to compete with your job. Possible candidates: religion, children, lovers, family, community, art, carpentry, any craft, any art, mathematics, reading.

Second, get off the computer in whatever way is possible. My two big victories this year: I bought a notebook for daily planning, and another notebook to keep track of when kids turn in assignments. I can’t say enough about how important it is to me to have highly visible, tangible artifacts for my organizational life. Calendars, planners, notebooks, folders. There’s no way around it: planning ahead is easier with physical objects.

“No ideas but in things.” If you’re working on teaching, something should come out of it. Spending an hour agonizing over a lesson while flipping back and forth to twitter is not work. Recognize that most of your evening and weekend work time looks like this, and then simply give up on this.

Conventional wisdom is that we live in a time of intense distraction, and that conventional wisdom is correct. That’s the most important thing to remember, that we can choose how to direct our attention by crafting our environments (rather than imposing our will on our environments).

From Dan:

I’ve grown to admire a kind of teacher I used to disregard – the teacher who knows she could create a better lesson than the one she taught last year, who knows she could help a student bring a B to a B+ with after-school tutoring, who knows she could do wonders coaching the basketball team, and who makes a principled choice not to do any of that.

If you want to make the calculation, make it this way: how can you be the best teacher for all of your students, both present and future? Are you doing your future students a service by being a hero in the present? Are you making this life unsustainable?

Final advice: do fewer things. The very minimum, if you can.

3 thoughts on “Advice to Myself

  1. Man these three posts sure are interesting to me.
    “Final advice: do fewer things. The very minimum, if you can.”
    While in some ways I agree, I also disagree. I LIKE that I’m more of a jack of all trades then a master of one. School is from 7 to 3, and that’s pretty much it. That decision was made by me having young children. But I do a lot of other things outside of those hours. Some are non-school-based math-education related related (some voluntarily, some for $), most is family, some is taking care of me (exercise, weird math-art things). I suppose you’re right in the idea that I’ve minimized to the things that are important for me and for my family, and in those priorities, trying to be a better teacher is both a side-benefit and a implicit goal.

    That said, I’m not even sure I agree with my disagreement to your sentence. This is too complicated for me to adequately write out (while neglecting my schoolwork at school). Sigh.


    1. I tell myself to do fewer things, I think, because the opposite comes naturally to me. I took too many classes in college, before fatherhood my instinct was to go to every conference, and I still consistently over-commit myself.

      Everything in moderation, including minimizing responsibilities. But I need the reminder to stop tutoring, request to double-up on courses, to not take the random job that doesn’t interest me, etc.


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