By Justin Ashley, author of The Balanced Teacher Path
I was just a few months into my first year of teaching. I’d thought I was going to change the world, but there I was, bawling my eyes out in the middle of the hallway, staring down at the floor as my mentor tried to talk me down.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Well,” I confessed, “I don’t have enough time. There’s no way I can get all this stuff done. It’s not possible. I’ve got a field trip to plan, a club to lead, parent phone calls to make, and kids to tutor . . .”
She stopped me mid-sentence before I could finish spewing out my to-do list. “How do you feel right now?”
I looked up at her, wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt, and responded, “Overwhelmed. Really, really overwhelmed.”
“So next time someone asks you to do something, remember the way you’re feeling right now and instead of saying yes, respectfully tell them no.” She followed the awkward silence with a pat on my back. Then she just turned and walked away.
That was when it hit me—I was saying yes to everyone at school. My students who wanted to be tutored before school. My principal who needed me to lead an after-school club because no one else would volunteer. I was staying up late grading papers and tweaking my lessons plans. I was even emailing parents with curriculum and school updates each week.
I was flying around the school trying to save the whole world like I was Superman. But even though everyone at school saw me as a superhero, I was being a villain to myself. I was miserable, but I believed I was saving my students, and that was all that mattered—until my breakdown and reality check in the hallway.
That was when I decided I could no longer teach this way. I couldn’t save everyone. I wasn’t Superman, but maybe I could be Wonder Woman. Think about her superpowers:
- She flies an invisible airplane and can travel undetected.
- She has a golden “Lasso of Truth” that forces anyone in its grip to be completely honest.
- She can easily run 60 miles per hour.
- She can pick up objects as heavy as 50,000 pounds.
- She can stop bullets with her bracelets.
Wonder Woman has only one weakness: chains. If chains are welded onto her bracelets, she loses her powers. She can be rendered powerless by the objects that protect her. It’s the same for teachers. We can use our power or give it away, based on our commitments. For teachers, overcommitment is the chain that binds us.
As teachers, we have a natural desire to help others. Heroism is in our blood. We need to save the world from ignorance and destruction. We need to fly to every student, parent, principal, and peer that yells for help. Though we can’t kill the Superman instinct, we can fight it by being Wonder Woman.
Look at teaching from her point of view: If we overcommit, if we try to do too much at school and to do whatever it takes so that all kids learn, we can’t accomplish anything in the long term because we’ll eventually lose our superpowers.
To be Wonder Woman, we can tell some people yes, but we will have to say no to others. By doing this, we can keep our hands free.
We need to prioritize ourselves first. This may seem counterintuitive, but putting ourselves first is not selfish. In doing so, we equip ourselves to be more giving to those in our network—students, peers, friends, and family members.
It’s about saying no to select situations. That’s the hardest part: making sure we choose which battles to fight and which ones to walk away from. Here are two strategies that might help.
1. Spend 95 Percent of Your Time on Your Top Five Priorities
Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, suggests a technique that I’ve found helpful: Determine your top five priorities and spend 95 percent of your time on them.
I listed my key priorities on a large, bright sticky note and taped it to the inside front cover of my planner. It serves as a reminder when I’m planning out each day.
Grab a sticky note and try it. Of course, your list might vary completely from mine, but here’s mine:
- Be happy and healthy.
- Be a loving, dedicated husband and father by spending time with my family.
- Make learning enjoyable and meaningful for students.
- Spend quality time with my closest friends.
- Act in accordance to my faith.
When a mother asks me about tutoring her son on Sundays, I pass on it because spending time with my family is higher on my list. When another teacher asks me to help start an after-school club, I decline because I wouldn’t be able to work out at the gym.
My priority list is a constant gauge that differentiates between great ways and good ways to spend my 24 hours each day. After you make your own list, post it where you’ll see it: in your planner, on your refrigerator at home, on your desk at work, on your phone, or in a desktop file on your computer.
Be respectful to everyone who asks, but say no to the non-required tasks that don’t align with your priority list. I’m not saying you have to say no to everything, but stick to doing the things that interest you and say no to the ones that don’t.
This will disappoint some people: administrators, students, parents, and other teachers. You will receive eye rolls, sighs, and condescending emails. But you’ll serve these people better in the long run if you’re not exhausted from overextension.
2. Quit One Thing in 2017
Identify three activities you do each week that eat up a chunk of your schedule, things that you could quit doing right now. It could be a committee role, a weekly quiz you grade, or an after-school club you volunteer for. When you’ve got three activities picked out, choose one to eliminate immediately.
By saying no to just one thing, no matter how small it is, you are changing your mindset from Superman to Wonder Woman, from whatever it takes to what I’m capable of and willing to do. You’re quitting one thing so you don’t burn out trying to do everything. You’re building up a new kind of strength and momentum.
Take advantage of the New Year. It’s a new chance at superhero status.
Be Wonder Woman. Protect your superpowers. Don’t overcommit. Don’t get chained up trying to be everything to everyone. Save yourself so that you can live to fight another day—for yourself and for your inner circle.
We start each school year similarly: full of energy, passion, and excitement to teach a new group of kids. Well, now it’s December and you’re a few months in. How are you feeling? Still got that fire? Or, are you feeling exhausted? Overwhelmed? Burnt out?
The good news is that you’ve almost made it to winter break. With a few weeks off from school, you can reflect and regroup. A new year is at your fingertips, so maybe 2017 can be your answer to a question—not “Am I strong enough to be Superman?” but, “Am I strong enough not to be Superman?”
Even better: “Am I smart enough to be Wonder Woman, instead?”
Justin Ashley is an award-winning teacher, motivational speaker, author, and public education advocate from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he began teaching in 2007. He is also a highly sought-after speaker for professional development. He has been an inspirational keynote presenter for thousands of current and future teachers, creating an atmosphere that bounces back and forth between rapt silence and raucous laughter. In 2013, he became the only teacher ever to win both North Carolina History Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year in the same year.
Justin Ashley is the author of The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.