Ideas for Reclaiming Your Personal Time

Beth Hanlon, OFLA Executive Recorder and Editor of The Cardinal
Spanish Teacher, Oberlin High School

Many years ago, I was in an interview to become a big sister for Big Brothers Big Sisters in my county.  The social worker was asking me a variety of questions so that she could appropriately match me with a little sister with similar interests.  She asked me “What activities do you like to do?”  I paused, and finally said “I like to create lesson plans.”  She stared back at me, smiled gently, and replied, “Is there anything else?  I need something better suited to match you with a teenager.”

As I think about that moment now, it makes me smile and laugh and I can not believe I said that.  If you asked me that question now, I would tell you I like to read, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, drink coffee, travel, and spend time with my animals and husband.  However, I really think that response shows how much I allowed my teaching job to consume my life and identity.  

During the 2020-2021 school year, we spent the first semester online with students.  During that time, our schedule was modified so that students had more time between classes to take a break from their computers.  On my end, this gave me time to stretch my legs and use the restroom more frequently, but I also found myself with a longer lunch period and longer prep periods.  I discovered how much grading and planning I was accomplishing during the school day.  Suddenly my evenings were more free and soon my weekends were as well. When students returned to the building during the second semester, I wanted to continue working more during my actual work hours even though we had returned to our traditional schedule.

The 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years arrived, and I was not willing to sacrifice so much of my evenings and weekends for “school stuff” anymore.  But how could I do that?  We have such a demanding job that leaves us little time to plan and grade because we are teaching all day.  

Here are some of the ways I have taken back my personal time:

  1. Logically prioritize tasks.  What needs to be done immediately for tomorrow’s lesson?  What can wait a couple days?  My type A personality demands that everything be done RIGHT NOW.  But everything doesn’t need to be done right now and seriously, it can be done in two days or next week.  I have made peace with leaving things undone, such as not having a test copied that I need in three weeks, but do I have the song ready for tomorrow’s lesson?  Yes?  Then we are good!  A good To Do list app, such as Things 3, really helps.
  2. Stop feeling guilty.  Instead of pressuring myself to put that stack of papers in my bag to go home, I leave it on my desk, knowing I have prioritized it for another reasonable time during school hours.  If it takes a day longer to be graded, it really is alright.  Maybe I am grading two or three of them here and there, but they still get graded in a timely manner.  There are times I bring home a stack of papers to grade with good intentions but then never touch them.  I think about them and decide to reprioritize them during school hours.  And I don’t feel guilty.
  3. Keep an eye on the future.  My husband and I always plan out our meals for the upcoming week before we grocery shop on the weekend.  He will ask me, “Do you have anything going on after school next week?”  This always makes me look at my calendar to see what is going on not only after school but during the school day.  Do I have a meeting during one or more of my prep periods?  If it is going to be a cumbersome week, I know I need to double down during my dedicated work time to ensure I can be ready despite losing planning time.  Sometimes some other little thing might have to be sacrificed but it works out in the end.  It might take a little maneuvering but hectic times can be managed if I know they are coming.
  4. Dedicated work time.  My dedicated work time used to be all the time.  Every weeknight, before school, all weekend…now it is before school and my prep period.  I arrive at school about an hour and a half before our contracted time.  The building is quiet and the copier is free if I need it.  I get a lot done in the morning and then when my last class leaves, I straighten up my classroom and my desk, grab my bag and jacket, and head home.  I know I am telling you this is how I take back my personal time, but this time in the morning enables me to get a lot done so that my afternoons, evenings, and weekends can be mine again…it works for me!
  5. Sometimes still…work at home.  Sometimes, I am inspired and am really excited to plan something.  If that happens at home and I am “on a roll,” I go with it.  I don’t feel guilty because I am being creative and enjoying myself.  It is time well spent and I hope the enthusiasm that pulled me away from a good book or podcast is evident to my students in my lesson delivery.  

This plan is not airtight.  There might be weeks where a hectic school collides with a hectic personal life week and I have to bring something home or there would be no other way to get through.  I am okay with that because overall, I am not spending much time doing “school stuff” at home.  

If you find that you are overwhelmed with school stuff and you don’t have time to enjoy your family, friends, and favorite activities, I encourage you to take a look at your schedule.  Start by finding small places you can prioritize your school day to maximize your at home time.  Hopefully once you start with something little, it will have a snowball effect so that when someone asks you what you like to do, you don’t answer “create lesson plans!”