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Oct 01

Susan Shiney

How to Balance Teaching and Writing

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I am sure it is hard to balance full-time work and writing with any profession, but teaching can especially zap your energy if you are not implementing tools to cope. I started off by reading Kristy Acevedo's blog post 12 Tips to Help Balance Teaching and Writing Life (Kind of), which is a great resource. I also liked Jennifer De Leon's article Patience and Courage: Finding the Balance Between Teaching and Writing.

I have been in the education field for almost twenty years and fitting in writing more seriously for the last ten. I have learned a couple of things along the way.... Is it easy breezy now? Nope. But, it is way better.

Here is what I have found:

1. Stay healthy - take care of yourself.

This has to be the number one priority. We hear a lot about diet and exercise and that is absolutely true, but a common issue has to do with drinking enough water and getting enough sleep. Even more so is stress management, yoga and meditation work wonders. If your body is balanced then your mind can multi-task and you will have more energy. If you get behind on these aspects, it will be very difficult to fit in writing and you will be on the train to burn out town.

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2. Collaborate.

Every situation is different, but it is worth it to analyze the dynamics of your work environment and try to identify people you can work with to divvy up some tasks. Work smart and not hard. Know your strengths and what you like to do that doesn't take much energy and see if you can find someone that is good at the things you hate or are time consuming for you. It requires good communication skills, but these are important to acquire anyway. If you do the same curricullum as someone else, build a bridge. Want everything you do to have your personal stamp on it? Ok, but is it so important that you will give up precious writing time?

3. Keep it Quiet - Don't share too much with your co-workers about your writing.

Of course, you will find people you trust, hopefully, that can know. I would recommend not making a show of it. In a perfect world they would be happy for you juggling another job (basically) and working toward a dream. Some personalities might get resentful and yuck your yum.

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4. Keep it Simple - Don't do extra tasks.

I am not saying be lazy and don't do a good job. What I am saying is don't do MORE than you have to. The overachievement in your life will be the fact that you are focusing on your writing too. This might be a totally different mindset. Pull back all that energy you give to everyone else at work, conserve it, give it to your creativity. Think about your tasks at work and identify the things you do that you don't have to and stop. This has helped my enjoyment and love of teaching actually, because I don't resent it for me giving it more than anyone asked me to in the first place.

5. Get comfortable asking for help.

This is also in connection with being a good communicator. At work, at home, with friends and family during holidays and vacations, let them know what you need. It could just be as simple as getting some quiet or alone time. When you need more time to write, the best way to get it is to ask people in your life to pick up the slack in various areas. This is a muscle, you will get better at it, you are interacting with other adults, if they can't help, let them tell you and don't assume they aren't willing to do something so you can work on your writing more.

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6. Chart Your Year - Identify the busy periods.

If you are new to a job, sit down with some other teachers with a planner of the year at a glance and identify the busy periods for parent-teacher conferences, meetings, grading periods, etc. They are usually pretty uniform year to year. It is helpful to know when you will not write or at least bring down your productivity. When it is your second and third year at the same job, same grade, etc. Chart how you feel at certain points of the year so you can be kinder to yourself and accept not much will get done then, and don't beat yourself up about it.

7. Adjust your timeline expectations.

Fast full-time authors can take two years to get a new book out. As a teacher, your energy requirements mean it will take you longer to finish a book. So? Four to six years instead of two, ok, better than no books at all. Make sure you love the project you are working on because it will take you longer and will definitely be a marathon and not a sprint. Be aware in general of how much you are comparing your output to full-time authors. Ok, full disclosure, I have to tell this to myself all of the time.

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8. Be Flexible and Adapt your Schedule.

Keep experimenting and trying to find what works for you. Is it better in the morning, at lunch, in the evenings, on the weekends, during vacations? What is better at one point of the year, might not be better at another. For example, my winter writing is different than my summer writing. In alignment with number 6, sometimes you won't be writing at all. If you have the same grade and curriculum you will have a lot more time for writing, if anything changes, you won't.

9. Socialize around Reading and Writing.

Time with friends is a hard thing to balance with writing as well. It is easier when you make it a priority to hang out with people in book clubs, book signings, writing groups, write-ins, writing conferences, and writing classes together. Guest blogger Nicolle Browne wrote a blog post about starting a writing group and saving yourself some grief if you are thinking about starting your own. I wrote a blog post about studying craft books with your critique partners here.

10. Accountability with other teacher-writers.

Along with number nine, it helps if you have people in the same boat as you (teachers that write or writers that teach) to brainstorm strategies and just reminisce about how hard it is to do both. Set goals together and share with each other how you make the time to fit in creativity. Non teacher-writers might say you finish at three and have summers, so why is it difficult, that is not helpful...

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11. Audiobooks and Dictate to rest your eyes and multi-task.

Writers need to read a lot. Incorporate more audiobooks while exercizing or doing chores to fit that reading time in. Dictate ideas on your phone, dialogue, brainstorming while on the go, or if you are just too tired to look at a screen and strain your eyes, you can still talk it out. Or if you are commuting, this is key time to be using for reading and writing as well.

12. Setting boundaries with your home life.

I know everyone has a different situation. Maybe you have a life partner, kids, a roommate, or live alone. If you live with others, make sure you are auditing your tasks at home the same way you are at work. Taking a close look at what you do with your time in your private life is extremely important. Do you have pets? That is a major time investment. Do you have plants? The fake ones have really come along in the last couple of years...Everyone has different priorities, make sure your home life is in tune with yours. Also connecting with asking for help in number five. My husband wrote about how he supports my writing life here if you are interested. Sheryl Sandberg also mentions the importance of setting boundaries at home in her book Lean In. Jeff Elkins, also discusses this in his article How to Write a Book while Working Full-Time.

13. Let it go.

The job of a teacher is never done, you could continue to tinker with everything endlessly, keep the longview in mind. Keep track of what needs to be fixed, leave some for the following year, and don't take on the whole world everyday, it is not realistic. Be comfortable with good and not excellent. Simplify complex activities so they will take less time to prepare. As you stay a teacher longer, you will continue to get better at this. Never spend more time on an activity than the students will spend actually doing it. I remember my student-teacher advisor saying that and I thought she was just jaded and I couldn't hear it at the time. She was right.

Have successes in your writing life will help you cope with the failures in your teaching life and vice versa. There will be ups and downs in both.

14. Soul-Search - Are you at the right school? Right subject? Right age group? Right city?

This is a hard truth to face, but could be huge in your ability to fit writing in. I had a great professor tell my collegues and I once to change the school, not the profession. Many teachers let it get to the point where they just want to quit. There is a wide range of subjects, private education versus public is a world of difference, adults versus kids as well.

I have tutored one-on-one, taught my own classes, co-taught, pushed in, pulled out, worked with preschoolers, elementary schoolers, middle-schoolers, high schoolers, and now I am at the college level. For certain personalities classroom management with children can be exhausting. For myself, working with adults and not having to manage their behavior leaves me with a lot more energy at the end of the day. Each experience is totally different. As a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages teacher I can move along the age spectrum easily. Think about what changes you could make? I find that we actually tend to have a lot more options and opportunities than we realize. Yes, change is hard, but in the long term, what would be better for your writing and your well-being?

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15. Make a vision board for your writing life AND your teaching life.

Let's finish on the positive!

Possibly a lot of us have vision boards for our dreams in writing. I have one I created for the background of my smartphone and see it everyday. I also work on finding ways to make writing more fun.

Do the same for your teaching life. Remind yourself what you love about teaching and the perks it has. Take notes of moments where a student or parent thanks you or when a student has a huge improvement. I have a folder in my work email with nice messages and I save kind notes from my students and collegues there and when I feel overwhelmed I read them and it helps me.

Teaching is an incredbily rewarding career, find a way to remember that.

*Final note. I recommend doing more reading on forming habits, understanding your personality, time-management, assertive communication, and setting boundaries for most humans, but as a teacher-writer it has been a life saver.

Some book recs:

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin.

Quiet by Susan Cain.

The Now Habit by Neil A. Fiore.

Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

How do you balance teaching and writing? Do you find it difficult to work full-time and find time for writing? Please leave a comment below.

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