A post about the challenges of finding a work, study, and life balance with some advice for busy or stressed teachers.

One of the greatest challenges I have faced over the previous 12 months was finding a balance between teaching, studies, personal projects, and time for me. At times, it has felt like there haven’t been enough hours in day, days in week, weeks in a month, and months in the year. During my confirmation interview for my doctoral thesis, I was given the advice – be kind to yourself – unfortunately, I wasn’t able to heed this advice, and in the end it impacted on my health.

Like most teachers, I have a pretty busy schedule. When I’m not in class, I spend time during the day preparing and planning for classes or grading learners’ work. Also, over the last 12 months I have been working during the evenings on my website, http://dreamreader.net/. Then, on the weekends and holidays, I would work on my PhD thesis. I know many other teachers are in a similar situation. I have friends and colleagues who have completed a PhD whilst teaching and I have seen the stresses this can cause. Why take so much on? Well, for me there is the desire to improve my resume in order to have a chance of finding a secure position, a teaching job where I have time to pursue research and have time to plan good lessons.

As my self-imposed deadline for my thesis grew closer, the balance between work, study, and my time became more skewed. I started to push myself harder. I would stay up an hour or so later in the evenings. I would spend more of the weekend in my office working on the thesis. I could feel myself getting more tired and stressed. I squeezed in every moment I could to study and work. Without realising it, I had almost no time for myself. I stopped reading for pleasure, cut right back on exercise, didn’t watch any TV or listen to much music, and I would constantly find myself working through lunch.

With a few months to go before the submission date, I was spending approximately 12 to 14 hours a day in front of my computer. If I wasn’t studying, I was either planning lessons, or updating http://dreamreader.net/. My stress levels were extremely high and I wasn’t sleeping or eating as well as result. I started experiencing chest pains particularly after eating a heavy meal which the doctor told were caused by acid reflux. This was most likely caused by the stress and my lifestyle. In addition, I started experiencing shooting pains in both my arms. These weren’t so painful at first, but after a week they had become excruciating. In fact, they got so bad one evening that I found myself in the A&E of a local hospital to get pain relief. I was diagnosed with tennis elbow, a condition caused by my overuse of arm, forearm, and hand muscles when using a computer.

I was so close to finally completing the thesis after five years of hard work, but I knew I would need to make some changes to my lifestyle or risk damaging my health further. I am quite stubborn, so postponing the deadline was never an option, but I knew I would have to address this work, study, personal life balance issue I had. I decided that I would continue taking medication for the pains in my arms, but that I would take regular breaks from typing and only use the computer when absolutely necessary. For the stress and acid reflux, I did the following three things.

A change in diet
First, I cut coffee out of my diet completely. I had bought myself a nice espresso maker to help me get through the thesis, but realised that the caffeine was accentuating the stress and anxiety. I started to drink chamomile tea instead and I felt this helped to relax me more. I also started to eat regular smaller meals. I stopped working through lunch and gave myself plenty of time to have my meals away from my desk. I also switched to eating more fresh and raw vegetables. I think this helped my energy levels and became a healthy substitute for coffee.

Regular exercise
In the evening, between working on the thesis and working on the website, I would go for a long walk. I couldn’t run or do any work in the gym because of the pain in my arms, but these long walks really helped. I would put on my headphones and set off. The music would also help to relax me. It is pretty hilly around where I live, so these got my heart pumping. They were also a great way to reflect on my studies and classes during the day.

Meditation
I have never been able to meditate. I find it very difficult to empty my mind at the best of times, but around that time I thought this would be impossible. However, I found a form of mediation that worked for me. I would lie down in a dark room with my headphones on and listen to some relaxing sounds. I found some recordings of the sea washing up on the shore and these were great. The technique I tried was to tense a muscle for a couple of seconds and then relax. I would start with my feet and work my way up to my head. I would do this for 30 or 40 minutes. After this, I always felt more relaxed and actually felt more refreshed.

In the end, I managed to submit my thesis on time. The pain in my arms is still there, but not as extreme and I no longer need medication. The chest pains have subsided too. It was certainly a very challenging period, but I made it through…just. My one piece of advice to anyone who is busy working and studying is the advice I didn’t heed – be kind to yourself!

Comments

Making short term plans and long term plans may help busy and stressed teachers avoid their stress. Enjoy what you have finished in the plans and always prioritize the things in your work schedule.

Hi!
I'm 41, from Italy. I teach EFL English in 8 primary classes and have 2 baby children...
I totally agree with you.
in 24 hours / a day I had to: prepare lesson plans, check the tests, check homework, meet the parents and the colleagues and the boss, go ahead with my studies, stay with my wife, my two baby children , no sleep at night...no time for myself and for us as husband and wife...too much stress!!!!
It's a hard job to be a teacher, no doubt.
I've been trying with an autogenic training and a theatre course...and to be as you wrote more and more "kind to myself"!!!

Thanks! I really understand your situation, but please take the advice that I didn't...be kind to yourself! I hope it all works out well for you.

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