One of the most common teaching challenges is knowing how to switch off from work. Here’s how to leave work at work: teacher edition.
If I asked you to close your eyes and picture the thing most important to you in your life, what would you see?
Would it be the smile on your husband’s face when you turned to him in the morning, and snuggled in for a cuddle before the alarm went off?
Would it be the text from your teenager saying that he loved you?
Would it be the small hands of a child clasping around your waist as you worked in the kitchen?
Chances are your picture featured a version of those things.
While we claim we value our families above all else, is this claim reflected in how we show up on a day-to-day basis?
Close your eyes again.
Now imagine this.
It’s you as you pull into the driveway of your home after a long day teaching.
You’re waiting for the garage door to open.
Now you’re getting out of the car.
You’re walking down the hallway.
Your kids are running towards you, your husband is standing behind them.
But instead of taking the time to let all other things go – to focus solely on that moment – you push them aside. Your bags are heavy, you need to go to the bathroom, you just want a second to yourself after yet another day of everyone wanting something from you – from students to administrators to parents.
Your body might be home – but your brain is not.
Instead it’s focused on the last email you saw before you shut down your laptop. It’s playing back that conversation you had in the staff-room where you might have said the wrong thing. It’s thinking about the to do list you had to leave behind.
It’s still at work.
Unfortunately, this, or a version thereof, is a common experience for many of us teachers.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone else – and my husband and I even share the drive home from where we work together.
We’ve tried strategies such as only talking about school when in the car and when we are home that’s it – but a) that doesn’t always work and b) just because you’re not saying it doesn’t mean that you’re not thinking it.
However by ending your teaching day right, using your commute to debrief, visualizing yourself walking in the door, breathing, building in some transition rituals, creating some pathway smoothers, minimizing work intrusions, and / or practicing self care, you can leave work at work and focus on what matters most.
End your school day right
How you organize your school day, including how you end it, is key to not only productivity, but also to creating that break between work and home.
Now if you have young kids maybe you want to bolt out the door as soon as the students leave (meetings excepted) and that’s understandable. I used to do that too – but I made up for it by working a couple of hours every night instead.
But if you have the ability to stay at school for an hour or two, you have the power to end your workday in a way that is calming, orderly and sets you up well for the following day.
Start this approximately one hour before you decide to leave.
- Firstly, take the time to review your emails. Although I am guilty of checking mine throughout the day, I take chunks of time to deal with them. The last chunk I suggest you start at the beginning of this final hour.
Take 20 minutes to skim over what’s remaining in your inbox. Reply to the quick wins, move more complex emails to “to do” folders or tasks, and get back to inbox zero.
- Secondly, clear your desk. I have scrawled notes, marking that’s come in, and other various bits and pieces lying on mine. I work through the pieces of paper, creating tasks or to-dos from this, file things, put marking into careful piles and then do a general tidy up.
- Finally, review both your task list for the next day and your schedule. If there was something important you didn’t get around to, then schedule it in for the next day during a free period just the same way you would a class or meeting.
The purpose of finishing your day this way is to add closure to all the things. You have nothing super important that hasn’t been attended to. You’ve created a tidy and orderly space to return to. You’re ready to leave work at work.
Use your commute wisely
Now just because I said that the debrief in the car didn’t always work, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it a try.
If you’re lucky enough to be sharing the commute with your spouse, then give yourself five minutes each to talk about the highlights, (and the lowlights if you have to – we’re teachers so that’s pretty much par for the course!), of work that day.
If you’re commuting at the same time but in different cars, consider giving each other a hands free call to debrief. Again, that should be limited to a five minute period.
If you don’t want to be thinking about the time as you talk, tie the ending of your conversation to a specific location.
We have a long private road so when we turn into it that’s meant to be the signal to stop all school chat.
Let’s return to the example that I shared at the beginning of this post – thinking about what you are like when you walk in the door.
Now, I am a huge fan of visualization, as it’s a part of my Miracle Morning strategy. Visualization works because our neurons “interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement. This creates a new neural pathway… that primes our body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined” (source).
The art to this strategy is to consciously visualize how you want to be – how you want to show up at home.
So when you pull up the driveway next time, before you get out, close your eyes.
Now visualize yourself getting out of the car, getting your bag, and walking into your home.
Imagine calling out your greeting, hugging your family, and smiling and laughing as you talk about how happy you are to be at home and to be together.
Imagine yourself fully focused on your husband as he talks to you, as you listen – not to interrupt with your own story, or to zone out – but really listen to understand.
When you have played through the scene a few times in your head then you can get out of the car.
Breathing is another way to destress and focus.
The trick with breathing is to imagine a triangle.
- Inhale to the count of four, moving from the left side of the triangle to the top.
- Then hold for four, imagining moving down the side of the triangle.
- Then exhale for four, moving across the bottom of the triangle.
Even five minutes of this will help transition you into a calm state.
Build in a transition ritual
Another strategy to leave work at work is to incorporate a transition ritual. I’m a big fan of those rituals that incorporate other people.
Have a cup of tea time
The first thing I used to start doing when I got inside was to think about dinner.
Unfortunately that didn’t allow for those moments of connection. Instead it was all a mad rush to start cooking.
My husband and I have developed a love of a cup of tea that we usually have after dinner.
This summer, in an effort to mark a transition between school and home, we decided to add in another cup of tea. After making it, we go and sit on the outdoor couch, admiring the scenery and watching the dogs enjoy themselves.
This 15 or so minutes that we take enables us to do something that the debrief in the car does not. Because we are at home and watching the scenery, we are focused more on what’s in front of us than what we’ve left behind.
We have a strict rule we cannot talk about work during this “cup of tea time” as we call it.
Go for a walk
Another excellent transition ritual to ease that struggle of leaving work at work is to go for a walk.
This is an especially good activity if you have dogs.
Simply get home, get changed, put the lead on and go!
When I was a single mom and working full time, I would do this every day. I’d get home from school with the teenage kids in tow, then leave them to start their homework while I took the dog for a walk.
By the time I’d get back, I would have cleared my head from the day and be ready to Mommy 100%.
Create some pathway smoothers
Creating some pathway smoothers is my way of saying to develop some practices that enable the transition from work to home to flow smoothly.
This can minimize the work-stress hangover and slot you into the comfort of well worn and productive activities so you can leave work at work.
My pathway smoothers include:
- changing into comfortable clothes (which I have in a certain drawer) as soon as I get home
- completing my afternoon routine of unpacking my bags, checking mail and so on
- having my meals planned
To work out yours, identify the common “hot spots” and stress points between getting home and having dinner, and look to see what you can do to mitigate these with some regular routines.
Minimize work intrusions
Of course, all these strategies are meaningless if later on in the evening, especially if you have said you are no going to work, you heed the siren’s call.
The next thing you know you’re down a rabbit hole of email complaints and action items and you’re back to your brain being back at school.
There are several ways you can avoid this happening.
Don’t take work home
More than once, I’ve been a victim of throbbing bag syndrome.
Throbbing bag syndrome is when you jam pack your bag full of all kinds of crap including marking you need to do, memos you need to read, and that note you wrote to yourself after that hurried phone call from Sebastian’s mom.
You take your bag home, full of all the best intentions, imagining an evening spent dealing to everything so you can start the next day on a clean slate.
You bring in your bag, where it sits in the corner like a malevolent beast, and you don’t touch it at all.
But you never stop thinking about it.
Get rid of throbbing bag syndrome by simply refusing to bring work home as a rule (accepting there are always times when this is not possible).
Don’t use your phone for any work related tasks
The next method to avoid work intrusions when you are at home is to not use your phone for any work related purposes.
For example, I do not have any work related apps or shortcuts on my phone. This means that my phone is always about personal use. I don’t get “work” triggers by using it.
Considering how much time we spend on our phones in our off hours, this is important!
Don’t check work email at home
Closely linking on to this is the maxim – don’t check work email at home.
For most of us, doing so serves no purpose whatsoever.
Think about it – by checking work email you are more likely to:
- put your brain into reactive mode because now you’re working out what you need to do to honor the request in the email
- upset yourself by the contents of what you read
- reply in an unprofessional manner because it’s late, you’re tired and more emotional
- stew on it all night and be unable to sleep
I have a policy to not check emails for work when I am at home. In fact, I don’t even check my emails until I have been at work for close to an hour – this is a key part of how I start my workday and means I always focus on what matters most when I am at my most productive and clear-headed.
Top tip: If you are anxious at how your failure to respond to an email may look, my first answer would be – it would look like you have boundaries.
However if you can’t deal with that response, then set an auto-responder that informs people that they can expect a reply within the next 24 hours.
Practice self care
The final way to leave work at work is to practice self care.
Although self care in and of itself is about looking after the body, mind and spirit for optimal performance, I err on the side of self -indulgence when helping yourself switch off from your workday.
Now, I don’t mean to pig out on a carton of ice cream, but rather a small treat yo’self moment.
I’m thinking a new magazine, 10 pages of your favorite book, a foot soak… something that makes you feel good that you can also anticipate.
This helps shift your thoughts on to what you’re looking forward to and then, when you’re actually doing it, on to the present moment.
You might also like: How to create a self care plan for teachers.
By ending your workday right, using your commute to debrief, visualizing yourself walking in the door, breathing, building in some transition rituals, creating some pathway smoothers, minimizing work intrusions, and / or practicing self care, you can leave work at work and focus on what matters most.
That’s how to leave work at work: teacher edition!
You might also like: Tips for teacher wellness.