5 Things I Learned During a Year Off Teaching

After my experience leaving - and returning to - the classroom, I’m now convinced that if more teachers had options for a sabbatical, America’s teacher retention rate would look very different.

Now, some teachers justifiably leave the classroom and don’t look back. Unsustainable pay, the toll of a teacher’s workload, finding one’s “true” calling elsewhere, or putting family first are all valid reasons why teachers quit for good.

HOWEVER, if K-12 education gave teachers more flexibility to take a short break or make small changes, instead of only letting a small percent of college professors do so, then fewer teachers might think the grass is greener outside of the classroom.

Here’s why I think so.

What happened (my story)
I always swore I wouldn’t quit teaching. As a workaholic and perfectionist, I felt I was tough enough to endure a teacher’s workload. Even when my mentor teachers, colleagues, and even acquaintances left the profession like a receding tide, I believed it would all be fine. When I eventually had children, surely I would figure out how to be a working parent - other teachers have made it work, right?

After all, Beyonce said it best: “Strong enough to bear the children/ then get back to business.”

So it was a shock when I held my newborn in my arms and realized that, between our current finances and some recent concerns with my husband’s job security, it would be wisest for me to take a year off to stay home with my son. (Yes, my district has a one-year “child-rearing leave” which temporarily held my job until I return. It was a safe risk.)

In June 2017, I turned in my keys and walked out of my empty classroom - ironically, with my husband and newborn on one side and my team of co-teachers on the other. (As an English teacher, I couldn’t have set up that symbolism better myself.)

I had more questions than answers. Would I go crazy at home with a baby all day? Did this make me a quitter and/or failure? Would I actually return to the classroom in a year as planned? What could I accomplish with a sudden sabbatical from teaching?

Would the grass really be greener if I left the classroom?

What life at home (with baby) was like
Short answer: NOT EASY. In his first year of life, my son was a terrible sleeper, had constant growth spurts (off-the-percentile-chart for height) and got his first 8 teeth in 12 weeks (constant teething pain), so my first summer and fall at home were rough. I also didn’t have a great support system (didn’t hire babysitters soon enough and didn’t have any of our parents in town), so my first summer and semester at home were more about surviving than thriving.
I did AND didn’t miss the classroom. I really enjoyed having no grading. Back to school season (and everyone else’s cute classroom photos) was hard, as was Christmas. It was also difficult to have an idea and not be able to craft and implement it with students. I missed my fellow teachers the most.

I also got a dose of my own medicine. My husband changed job titles, and thus I experienced him working from home more, not being able to turn off his work brain as easily, and not always being done by his usual time. I bit back my irritation quickly and realized that this was probably how he felt when he had to compete with my grading pile and my worrying about the latest bit of school drama.

THUS, here are my biggest takeaways from that year “off” (a term that I use with sarcasm).

Takeaway #1: There will NEVER be enough time
You know how summer/winter vacations and spring breaks seem to not only go quickly but fill up with things that need to be done? That doesn’t change. It’s part of “adulting” whether you have kids or not.

It’s undeniably true that if you got a non-teaching job, you MIGHT have more free time. However, it’s better to just be honest about how you’re spending the time you DO have and how to use it better. (See #2.)

Takeaway #2: Make a better to-do list system (habits)
My iPhone’s Reminders app wasn’t enough, nor was going off of memory or any paper list I attempted. I now use Todoist, especially the ability to have recurring reminders, so that I can establish which “little” tasks will get done on which days. It also eliminated my Sunday night anxiety, the feeling that I’m forgetting something, and the feeling that my life is out of control.

My home/work balance is now a (little) better because I finish the little stuff that needs to be done instead of trusting myself to remember and “get to it later”.  

(Here’s my referral code if you want an extended free trial, but this is not an ad.)

Takeaway #3: Let go of social guilt
I used to think that my lack of a social life was my fault, but I was shocked to discover that even during my year off, everyone else was busy, too, and didn’t make time for me. Relationships are a two-way street, and since then, I’ve decided to quit chasing people as much. I need to put in my “half” of a friendship, but so do they.

Takeaway #4: Stop waiting to fix what’s broken
I used to make lists of what I would do later, “when I had time”... such as the books I would read during winter break, the doctor appointments I would go to this summer, the novel I wanted to write, the back pain I would eventually fix.

During my year at home, all my baby’s nap times were spent getting caught up on the things I’d been putting off, but it felt more like an atonement than a joy-sparking cleanse. I shouldn’t have let certain things pile up in the first place.

You know that drawer in your house that you desperately need to purge? That doctor appointment you really should break down and schedule? The photo album from your wedding that you never finished? It might be worth it to evaluate which areas of your life shouldn’t wait. (See #5.)

Takeaway #5: A little every day really does matter
I lost all the baby weight because of how often I put my son in a carrier and walked - no epic dieting or workout program. I also drank enough water, finally went to physical therapy, and did NaNoWriMo.

Every single thing I accomplished during my year off was in the “little at a time” fashion - not in a marathon or in immersion like I would have preferred. It made me re-examine how I could go back to the classroom and still meet health and personal goals.

Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, says that you shouldn’t take more than 2 days off from your novel at a time because you won’t be in “the zone” anymore, and it will be harder to come back and keep going. I’ve come to see the wisdom of this mindset. I might not make the same progress as a full-time novelist, but if I write a little every day, I will still end up with a book.

The bottom line
Staying home and/or quitting teaching isn’t right for everyone, but putting your personal life into a drought for the sake of your classroom isn’t right, either. You have to water your own plants instead of waiting for rain (or summer vacation) to come.

You have to actually put down your flair pen and clean a sock drawer sometimes.
You have to use moisturizer daily (because wow) and go ask the doctor about That Thing That Hurts instead of just putting on a bandaid and grinning to your students.
You have to date your partner instead of treating them like a roommate.
You have to get on the floor with the baby before he grows up.
You have to read the PD book or watch the TED talk that will inspire you to keep teaching.  

The grass outside the classroom wouldn’t be greener if you watered yours. I now feel that fewer educators would leave the profession if, at least sometimes, we spent our home hours like people who are NOT teachers.

I hear you complaining already. Trust me, I get it. I’m (still) the biggest workaholic of them all. It took total teaching deprivation for me to learn certain balance lessons (and I’m still prone to overcommitment).

But a year at home, looking around at all the dead plants in my life, made me realize that I needed to pursue balance and not just excellence.

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