cover image for podcast episode Navigating #TeacherLife: The Dangers of Making Teaching Your Whole Identity

Navigating #TeacherLife: The Dangers of Making Teaching Your Whole Identity

podcast Sep 05, 2023

Today, I'm diving into a topic that hits home for many of us: the dangers of tying our entire identity to our role as teachers or educators. It may seem harmless enough that every mug you have was either given to you by a student or another educator ("But first coffee!" or that wine glass that says "Paper grading juice!"). What's the harm if three-quarters of your t-shirt drawer is either school spirit shirts or other teacher-themed attire? Most people you follow on social media are educators; you "like" all those snarky teacher memes. Heck, maybe your dream night out is even going with your besties to watch the Bored Teachers Comedy Tour. #teacherlife, right?

Actually, #wrong. 

Lack of School and Life Balance

Have you ever seen Rita Pearson's legendary TED Talk Every Child Needs a Champion? It's like the grandmother of educational TED talks. I love it. I've seen it many, many times, and it starts this way:

I spent my entire life at the schoolhouse, on my way to the schoolhouse, or talking about what happened at the schoolhouse. "

Now, this gets quite a few laughs from the audience because it hits home; school is our life. We're either at school, thinking about school, talking about school, or worrying about school, and so much of our identity is wrapped in this idea of being a teacher. Maybe we come from a long line of educators. Maybe lots of people in our family are teachers. Most of our friends are teachers.

The problem with mindset is that it means our lives are out of balance. When 100% of our life is about teaching, we neglect our other interests, roles, and relationships. It's a source of tension and resentment in many homes where families feel it's hard to compete with "school talk" and lesson planning. It places stress not only on our relationships but also on our mental and emotional health.

Teaching is a verb (what we do), not an identity (who we are). Failing to recognize this puts us on the fast track to teacher burnout.

Teaching Often Lacks the Gratification and Validation of Measurable Results

Many of us feel that teaching is a "vocation" and a "calling." The problem with this is that it reinforces the idea that our worth is tied to our work and outcomes. And with education, there are very few measurable outcomes.

Sure, some will argue we have "standardized test scores." Few of us became educators with the dream of administering tests. What we wanted to influence was not grades but lives. We measure success by how we've impacted lives. However, the realm of education is unique. Unlike many professions or trades where results are immediate and tangible, the fruits of our labor in the classroom might not be visible for years to come (if at all). We simply don't know what the ripple effect of our belief in a student's abilities and the power of their perceived success in our presence has to impact their lives and future generations' lives. If we tie our worth to student outcomes, there will be many days that we will feel discouraged and disillusioned. That constant feeling of never doing or being enough is unhealthy for you and your students and is not sustainable.

What Happens When You No Longer Have the Roles You So Identified With?

Tying our whole identity to being a teacher is not the only risk for some of us. The other tole we are 100% vested in is being a parent. Then, guess what? Often, stepping out of education (retirement) comes not long after you experience your children moving out of your whole and building their own lives. It can be a overwhelming time for many people who have gone years without asking themselves, "What do I like to do? What interests do I have?" The loss of identity can lead to stress and depression, which is exactly the opposite of what we hoped and dreamed our "less busy" years would bring.

Three Tips to Avoid This Cause of Teacher Burnout

If you stick around my world long enough, you will learn that I always come back to this premise - the first step is awareness. With awareness comes choice.

1. So first, gain some clarity on the roles with which you identify. I have some detailed lessons on this in my Balance Your Teacher Life On-Line Course, but for now, there's no need to get fancy. Just grab a piece of paper and draw a stick figure (you!), and off the stick figure, draw lines with the roles you have. Examples would be things such as educator, leader (if you are an admin), coach, friend, parent, child, sibling, and community/church leader. 

Then, along the side of the page, write down your hobbies and interests. So, for me, that looks like writing, cycling, pickleball, quilting, yoga, and traveling.

Finally, take an honest look and evaluate - how much time and energy have you given all of those roles recently? And how much time have you spent engaging in your hobbies and interests? For example, on my page, I wrote "yoga" as an interest. In truth, my yoga mat has been gathering dust for over a year, other than when I used it to kneel on and help my knees when repainting the baseboards in my house. You get the picture.

2. So the next step, after we've discovered where we are out of balance, is to intentionally block time on your calendar to reengage in these activities and with these roles. We need to proactively block out time on our schedule and not wait until we "find time." Recognize that we'll never "find time." School-related tasks will take up every waking minute (and then some of our precious sleep) if we let them. Once we schedule these commitments to others (and ourselves), we need to keep them as religiously and consistently as we keep commitments at school. We'd never simply blow off a parent meeting or a school event. We need to have that same level of commitment to finding and honoring balance in our lives. 

3. The last tip is to conduct an informal time audit. Really look at your day and your habits. Where are pockets of time that are lost to tasks that don't necessarily support your self-care? Hint: some of them might involve you holding your phone or your computer mouse :)

Carve out 15 minutes for yourself and start treating it as a "sacred" time that you will honor every day. Spend this time quietly. You can read, journal, or daydream. It doesn't matter as long as it's 15 minutes where you are alone with just you, without catering to anyone else's needs or demands. For some of you, that might mean you must get up 15 minutes earlier and sneak somewhere quiet. It might mean you pull your car into a nearby park or street on the way home for a few minutes. You may have to get creative but remember, there are 1440 minutes in one day. Investing 15 of them in mental and emotional self-care is not selfish; it's vital.

What I Know For Sure

What I know is this. Even if you never stepped foot in a classroom again, your life, your role, your ideas, and your energy would still have enormous value. Who you are is not tied to what you do. And who you are is amazing. Please remember that!

Additional Resources:

This blog post is based on a podcast episode. To listen to the entire episode click below:

Listen on  Apple Podcasts

Listen on Spotify

To watch Rita Pierson's Ted Talk go here:

Rita Pierson's Ted Talk

To learn more about my signature Balance Your Teacher Life Course with Group Coaching go here:

Balance Your Teacher Life On-Line Course/Coaching


Educator Friend, are you ready to take back control of your time and energy? Do you need a CRASH COURSE in:

  • Overcoming your blocks setting healthy boundaries?
  • The exact steps and scripts needed to "say" no in a student-focused way to demanding administrators and parents?
  • How to set boundaries with your teacher besties who interrupt your prep time?
  • The ULTIMATE boundary playbook with scripts for every situation in your educator life?

I GOT YOU! Give me 90 minutes - I'll give you results!


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