DAY ONE: Carolyn Holmes, 27, has a master’s degree in education and teaches kindergarten at a challenging Title I school in Leadville, Colorado with a majority of low-income students who have a long way to go to meet state standards. She loves her students and she loves her job. But she knows her evaluation, and her students’ future success, depends on her performance. So she frequently spends 10 hours a day at work, tutors after school, plans lessons on weekends and doesn’t have time for anything else – her friends, her boyfriend, her health, or her life.
Like so many young, dedicated teachers, she’s burning out. Studies have found that as many as half of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. She just wants a little sanity. She moved to Colorado for the outdoor lifestyle. But she’s always too busy working or too exhausted to go outside. “Spending all your time inside when you’re looking out on the beautiful mountains is horrible,” she said. “I’m not living a happy life.”
THE TIMEHACKS: Holmes worked with coach Melissa Heisler of It’s My Life just outside Chicago. Heisler suggested five Timehacks:
1. DECIDE: DO YOU EVEN LIKE YOUR JOB?: Because Holmes is spending so much time at work, and yet is so unhappy, Heisler said the first question she needs to ask herself is – “Is this for me?”
2. FOCUS ON THE WORK THAT MATTERS MOST: “Carolyn’s lack of time and organization is due to her stress level at work. She is doing work over and above what is necessary,” Heisler said. Holmes volunteers to write the school newsletter. She spends hours decorating the classroom to look like something straight out of Pinterest, and organizing fun activities for her students.
Heisler said Holmes needed to focus on what is most meaningful to her – teaching her students well and helping them meet educational standards – and let everything else follow.
“When we love our job and find what we are doing to be important, we often create unachievable expectations for ourselves,” Heisler said. “Re-evaluate what you are doing and what you really need to do. Look for the quality, not quantity of work. Stop equating hours with doing a good job.”
3. MAKE A PLAN TO LEAVE WORK AT WORK, ESPECIALLY ON WEEKENDS: With the core mission of the job in mind, the next step, Heisler said, is to plan the day and week to get what’s most important done during work hours. Heisler suggested Holmes:
• Work 30-60 minutes every morning on lesson plans before school. On Friday, she should work a bit after school to get ready for the next week. “The goal is to not work weekends, and instead hike, visit friends, take care of your home, and create experiences you can share.”
• Put lesson plans in Google docs in order to build on them for the following year, instead of always starting from scratch.
• List To-Do’s by week, not day “to add flexibility of doing them when you are in the right frame of mind and diminishing the tension of a deadline.”
• Make tasks fun or enjoyable; they are not tasks but just part of your life. Experience them.
• Put everything back into its place so you don’t have to hunt for it.
4. GIVE YOURSELF THE GIFT OF FREE TIME: “It’s not just becoming more efficient at work. Carolyn needs to grant herself permission to do less, and to begin living her life again,” Heisler said.
She suggested finding ways to recoup her energy in the evenings by going on a run, making a nice dinner, doing nothing, meeting with friends, going to movies or reading books. To de-clutter her house, which was a mess with all the time she devoted to work, Heisler suggested spending no more than 15 minutes a day for seven days, and start by clearing one room at a time. Once a month, Carolyn should try to invite friends over to cook together.
5. LET GO OF THE SUNDAY NIGHT BLUES: Holmes gets terrible migraines on Sunday nights as her anxieties rise about her job and all the work she feels she has to do in the coming week. Heisler suggested she write about her worries, then tear the paper up and throw it away every Sunday.
DAY 21: By the time we caught up with Holmes, she’d completely restructured her workday. She’d lost 12 pounds without really trying, just by making more time to get outside and hike or run, getting more rest so she hasn’t been hunting for soda or candy for energy in the afternoons, and cooking better meals. She’d cleaned out and donated eight bags of clothes and stuff she didn’t use from her house. With her house and classroom more organized, she can find things easily, rather than wasting a half hour or more hunting around.
And, she said, most importantly, 80 percent of her very challenged students – a significant improvement over earlier years – finished the year ready for first grade.
“With the time hacks, I was able to provide a much higher level of academic rigor, differentiate my lessons more, spend more time analyzing student data, and finding activities that really focused on what they needed, rather than blanket fun activities for all students,” she said. “And all because I found more time in my day.”
She said she started with Heisler’s first question, and spent a lot of time contemplating whether she even liked her job. “I realized I do love what I do, and I love my job,” she said, “It took me awhile to realize that.”
Then she began to focus on what was most important at work, instead of worrying about her own expectations. “It’s important that the students are learning a lot –it doesn’t matter whether the classroom or my worksheets look all Pinterest-y.”
Before, she had elaborate, color-coded and stickered binders for every reading group with matching duct-tape bins and different colored paper and color- coordinated pens for each group. “They were super cute,” she said. But every time a student moved up a reading group, it required an equally elaborate reshuffling. “In hindsight, it was ridiculous,” she said.
So she switched to plain manila envelopes, black pens and plastic bins. Everything looks the same, but the focus is on the students’ reading, not how cute the bins and binders look.
Next, she focused on the organizational and planning skills.
She began going into work early to get her lessons planned. “It’s been great,” she said. “We have so many new teachers, and instead of always feeling interrupted, it was great to say, ‘I’m happy to meet with you at lunch,’ or ‘Let’s take 15 minutes and meet after school.’ It enabled me to get my work done because no one bothered me that early, and it enabled me to leave work at work.”
And once she started getting her work done during the day, even taking time Friday afternoon to plan for Monday, her dreaded Sunday night migraines cleared up.
She’s still working on not worrying about her students outside of work. But she’s realizing that when she takes care of herself first, she actually takes care of them better.
“I’ve been able to spend more time with my boyfriend, and my friends,” she said. “I’ve been getting outside. I don’t apologize or over-commit anymore, and I’m getting better about recognizing when I want to do things because I want to, and when I’m doing things to impress people.
“I just feel really good.”
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