“Selfish” Is Not A Bad Word

After 10 years of blood, sweat, and tears, spending nights and weekends at school, always putting my job first, and forming my identity around being a teacher, I clicked send on my resignation email at my old school district. And do you know what? I never even got a reply. Not even a “We will miss you” or “Sorry to see you go” or “Got it. Thanks for letting me know.” Nothing. Radio silence. And that was the moment it really clicked. I am replaceable. At that moment, I knew I made the right decision to leave.

Don’t get me wrong. I know what I did mattered. I taught hundreds of kids. I made a few life-long friends. I earned money for my family. And after getting laid off during my first year of teaching due to budget cuts, I understood how lucky I was to have a job. Working is a great thing. Lord knows I’m not cut out to be a stay at home mom. Much respect for parents who can do that and keep their sanity!

This post is not for complaining about work. It’s not about getting a pat on the back or sympathy. It’s simply my musings on the balance between healthy work versus letting your work take advantage of you. From what I’ve seen, it’s all too common especially for those working in a service industry like teaching or nursing. 

This post is also not about vilifying our bosses. The people who have pressured me to be their “work-horse” are also working damn hard. They are, in turn, being pressured from their bosses who are being pressured from their bosses and so on and so on. This trend goes all the way up into the elected officials who are pressured into divvying up a budget that never seems to have enough money to properly fund schools.

There is a difference between doing your job well and being milked for all your worth. I’ve learned that my time, talents, degree, and expertise are worth something, but it took me a long time to come to that conclusion and even longer to understand the power of saying no.

When Justin had his first teaching gig in North Carolina, right after we were married, he was a High School Theatre teacher. Part of his job was to direct plays. For anyone who’s ever been involved in theatre, you know how much time and effort it takes to put on a show. It’s hours of rehearsals, multiple nights a week and sometimes weekends too. We went days without seeing each other. And guess how much he got paid for this extra work. $0.

I also have a love of theatre and co-founded a Drama Department at my Elementary School. We put on a full-fledged show with costumes, sets, lights, and sound. It was months of work, and guess how much I got paid? $0 until after the 3rd year when I finally went to the school board and asked for compensation to continue.

The list goes on. My first year as the art teacher, I had 800 students and a $0 budget for supplies. The PE teacher at our school was expected to teach 2 classes at a time so they didn’t have to pay for another teacher. Can you imagine teaching over 40 kids running around a gym? It’s not pretty.

I gladly went above and beyond my contract for the “sake of the kids.” But in the end, I sacrificed the time I could have been spending with my own children. I felt guilty that I was being a bad mom when I was working late and I felt guilty about being a bad teacher when I was at home playing with my kids. All the while, I should have been taking care of myself, but that was always the last priority. The result was a burnt-out teacher, a stressed and distracted wife, and an exhausted and unhappy mom. That person wasn’t able to help anyone.

If you asked me to make a list of my priorities, I would have said my kids first, then husband, then work, then friends, and finally me, if there was anything left of me at that point. (By the way, that would not be how I would order it today, but I’ll get back to that later.) It sounded good in my head. It was accurate in theory, but if someone were to follow me around for a week and report back on how my life was actually reflecting my priorities, that person would say my top priority was work. That’s where I spent most of my time and energy. If you list out your priorities, and then compare it with where your time actually goes, do they line up? Mine didn’t.

But work was always pushing. There was always a new initiative, a committee to join, Open House Night or Science Fair Night or Parent Teacher Conference Night. Work always seemed to demand my attention. Those papers weren’t going to grade themselves. It’s not like I could show up unprepared in front of 20 kids without lesson plans and copies made. My “plan time” was always filled with meetings. But hey, occasionally I got a “jeans day pass” or a piece of candy in my school mailbox, so surely they cared about my mental health, right?

I’m not even remotely surprised by the number of teachers leaving the profession; beloved teachers who are passionate and committed. I once heard a community member openly state during a board meeting that the way to solve the budget crisis in schools is to pay teachers less. “Teachers aren’t doing it for the money. They are doing it because they love it.” If that’s not enough to make you throw in the towel, I don’t know what is! But it’s a prevalent and dangerous misconception. If you love and care about your job, you shouldn’t care about the compensation. Sacrifice yourself for the good of others. And the shitty part is, it works. Teachers continuously work for free and as long as they do that, it will remain the expectation. Not only is it wrong, but it devalues your expertise and devalues the profession. If we don’t care enough to stand up for ourselves and why should anyone else?

Now, here comes the good news. I am still teaching BUT

  • I have hours of plan time each day to get work done.
  • I no longer spend my nights and weekends at school.
  • Typically I have a teacher assistant to help with things like grading and making copies.
  • My classroom doesn’t look like something off of Pinterest, but miraculously the students still learn. In fact, I feel I am a more effective teacher than I’ve ever been before.
  • I have enough money and time for vacations.
  • I come home to a clean house and dinner ready so when I’m tired from a busy day at work, I can actually relax.
  • I go to social events, date nights, and a dance class every Monday night.
  • I’ve rediscovered my love of art and writing.

Too good to be true? Hint, hint, it’s recruiting season for International Schools!

With that said, it takes more than just a new job to break out of unhealthy work-life balance habits. It would be easy to go gung-ho and fall right back into the old trap of misaligned priorities. You can still work at an International School and be a workaholic. There will always be pressure to do a little more, and I am more than happy to lead a Professional Development session or sponsor a once-a-week after school activity or join a committee that could use my help, but I also know my limits. I’m not willing to be the rubber band that gets so stretched that it snaps. 

Is that selfish? Hell yes! I now embrace my selfishness. I love to take care of me. And the magical thing about taking care of myself is that it benefits the people around me too. I’m not as quick to yell at my kids. I’m more relaxed and happy with my class. I flirt and laugh with my husband. It seems counter intuitive, but when I stopped trying to please others, I became a better partner, friend, mother, and teacher. My priorities might not match where my time is spent 100% of the time, but it’s a whole lot closer than it used to be. I have the work-life balance I never thought I’d get. I live with less guilt. I mean it’s not completely gone. I went to Catholic School for 13 years. That Catholic Guilt is part of my DNA at this point, but it’s better! I live with the power of knowing I am replaceable at work, but not at home. I respect myself and my family enough to not get swept away by work. It wasn’t an easy lesson to learn, but I’m glad I figured it out.

2 thoughts on ““Selfish” Is Not A Bad Word

  1. I wish more teachers would read this and stand up the way you have and make a change. I agree with how you said the teachers who work for free and burn themselves out, spend thousands of their own money for their kids, etc. it’s amazing and selfless but it’s not helping actually fix the issues of dangerously underpaying teachers, not paying for overtime, WAY to high of expectations, etc. I was treated like garbage at my last school and resigning was one of the best days I’ve had in a while. My life has he exponentially better since I left and I am baffled at the way education has been going. I LOVE teaching but not in the way these systems are now.. it’s horrible. The priorities are all messed up. I’ve been subbing at a Dodea (department of defense education activities) and can already such a massive difference in the way things are done and teachers are treated. I’m still really not sure if I’ll ever go back no matter how much I loved being a teacher. Thank you for writing this April!

    Liked by 1 person

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