4 ways to leave School at School

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If you had told me that it would take me 5 years of teaching to figure out how to mentally leave work at work then I might not have continued in this career. I’ve gotten incrementally better at it each year but this year I’ve committed to prioritizing it. Here’s a few things I’ve learned that help me do that. I hope you can, especially if you’re just starting out, find a piece of advice that will help you live a more balanced life.

Before you leave work

I use a to-do list like it’s a religion, so before I leave school I go through my list (in Todoist) and do three things.

  • I check off everything I completed but forgot to check off during the day.
  • I look for anything on the list that can be taken care of in less than two minutes. If time permits, I do those things. I schedule times to do the other tasks.
  • I look for any task I can do now, that will save me exponentially more time in the future.

This leaves me cognitive space for the way home and when I get home. I don’t have to worry about when I’m going to tweak that lesson, write that letter of rec, or grade those papers. I may have 20 tasks to do in the next 24 hours but each one has a time pinned to it.

The drive home

First, if you have more than a few minutes to drive from work to home, leverage that time to mentally leave work. I’ll do a few things to do this, depending on how the day went.

  • If I it was an especially busy day and I have lot’s on my mind I will ride in silence and simply let my mind think about whatever it wants in regards to school. It’s like letting a cold run it’s course. I just get out of the way and let my mind go. Although I am thinking about work, this gives my mind a chance to empty. If I don’t, like if I turn on a podcast or audiobook, I find that although I distract myself during the ride, my concerns about work pop back when I get home. If I empty my brain in this way, I don’t think about work nearly as much at home.
  • After I’ve done the above, or if I don’t think I need to, I often listen to stand up comedy. Laughing puts me in a good mood and also helps me walk through the door with a positive attitude. I sometimes listen to novels or music that I’m really into. Anything that puts me in a good mood and provides for a transition from work to school.

Embrace the moment

Yeah, this is cliché, but if you take it to heart and try to frequently exercise this idea you’ll be in a better place at home (and at work). The success of this, at least for me, depends a lot on the previous two points. When I’m home I try to focus on my kid, my wife, my dog, cooking, or whatever I’m doing. This is important for me because I want to enjoy the limited time I have to spend with them. But it may be more important for them to have a husband/father that is present in the evening and not thinking about why 8 of my students blew off the activity from 3rd hour. (And by the way, I’m not gonna be able to fix it at that moment anyway, so it’s wasted cognitive energy.)

Understand you can’t fix everything

Somewhere deep in the dredges of my brain I used to think that if I just spent as much time as possible thinking about how to fix the problems that arose at school (or in education in general) then I’d be able to fix them.

This is obviously not the case.

I’ve found that teaching, not unlike many professions, is a push and pull between idealism and pragmatism. The fact is that there are a lot of problems that I can’t influence. And many problems I could influence, but only with a large amount of time and effort, that would end up with uncertain results.

The takeaway for me was that I need to pick and choose carefully the problems I’m going to tackle. And then only take on those problems that I have space in my cognitive bandwidth to deal with. If it means that I’ll be sitting at the dinner table trying to figure out how to solve the problem of poverty in my community or big money in high stakes testing, my resources are probably misdirected and infringing on my life in other ways.

They’re problems. I’d like to solve them. But I don’t have the time, skill set, or resources to do it. So I let them slide out of my mind.

I see teachers all the time that are just surviving. Trying to get from one hour to the next, getting beat up along the way, and then dragging all the stresses from school home with them. We are inclined to do this. We go into the profession to help kids and we love to see them succeed. When they aren’t, we take it personal. So it invades our personal lives. But I’ve been there, and I can tell you it’s not worth it.

You can’t solve all the problems. There will always be kids that don’t meet their potential, think your activities are boring, have awful home lives, and otherwise break your heart. I’m not saying I’m okay with it, I’m just saying that I’ve gone the route of devoting an inordinate amount of mental and physical energy to worrying about it, and guess what. I still had those problems. And by trying to solve them all, all the time, I harmed myself (mentally through stress) and my relationships (stress spillover, not being present, etc.).

Take care of yourself and the time you do devote to your students and profession will be more effective.


This is something I’m passionate about. I know people always say, “post your thoughts in the comments”, but I really am curious as to where people are on this. Do you have other ideas for going home with a clear mind? Do you struggle with other aspects of work-life balance that I left out?

48 Comments

  • Tina Palmer Reply

    Great thoughts here! Thanks for sharing.
    I have also tried to reduce the amount of work I do at home, so I give shorter quizzes for faster correcting, and hand out sheet with the entire week’s worth of hwk (which I limit to 4 probs a day for underclassmen). I also plan the upper classmen’s hwk for the entire week, so it is ready for them each day.

  • Xavier Reply

    Very good post. Dreaming hours are the worst: when you are awake and you are thinking what I have to do today. And you cannot sleep again, until some (much more) time ago.

    I always plan class but the classroom has its own life and plans are never go as planned.

  • Kevin Hall Reply

    Hi, Dan Meyer mentioned your blog to me recently. This is a nice post. Thanks, and keep up the good work.

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      Hi Kevin. Thanks for reading!

      You mean like the 3 Act Math Dan Meyer?

      • Jennifer Poole Reply

        3 Act Math Dan Meyer linked your post from his blog, that’s how I got here too!

      • Kevin Hall Reply

        Yup. Shouldn’t be a surprise now that he’s posted about you.

      • Rosa Ojeda Reply

        Yes, I also found your your blog thanks yo Dan. This is my secret nd year teaching and I really appreciate your help!

  • Kathy Reply

    Thanks for the tips. I have a lengthy commute home, so I might try turning off the audiobook and letting my brain unwind instead. Right now I’m giving my husband a play-by-play version of my day as soon as I walk in the door. (Let’s just say that he is very patient with me.)

    I’m in year 19 of my teaching career and I still struggle with this. I admit that part of it is my pride. I like to think what a good teacher I am because I never stop thinking about this student or that lesson. But I’m tired. Really tired. And I would love to learn to do this. BTW, I also got here from Dan Meyer’s blog link.

  • Kevin Hall Reply

    I just wanted to add one thing that has helped me. I used to have a really hard time grading. It can be so demoralizing to grade a set of tests and see that some students still don’t know how to graph a line after all you’ve done on the topic. What’s helped me enormously is rediscovering the music I used to love. The music distracts my judgmental mind enough that I don’t spend the grading experience second-guessing my instructional decisions.

    • Kathy Reply

      I have that same issue – so judgemental of myself when I grade! Mid-year exams are the worst. But then a lot of times, when I actually add up the scores, they’re better than I thought. I was wondering if switching to grading by points earned instead of points lost would help my mood?

  • Lisasolt Reply

    I think the best way to convince myself to leave school at school is to ask, who needs my time most right now? My students or my children. Usually I can legit say my kids even though they enjoy privileges that some of my students do not. I am the only mom they have. My MS students have (and will have) lots of teachers. It’s not all on me.

  • Jethro Reply

    I have a designated spot on the way home where I “drop my kids off”. When I drive by the football field, the It is time for those kids (my thoughts about them) to go play. I can always pick them up in the morning, but having a physical place to drop them off at really helps make that connection.

  • Andrew Busch Reply

    I do wonder whether Twitter is hurting me more than helping me in this area. Maybe I need to treat it more like email–give it a certain time and then leave it there. Not sure about that one. I get so much but it takes so much time. Sigh.

  • Stacie Reply

    I left teaching for four years and enjoyed my time away but came back because I missed the classroom and feeling like I’m helping young people grow. Last year was brutal -3 preps, new books (Common Core with no transition), 6 classes of 150 students in 4 classrooms with 6 moves a day. I worked for 3 hours after dinner every night and 4 – 8 hours each weekend day. I lost sleep, my house was a mess, my family was incredibly patient.

    I learned that your brain doesn’t function well past 55 hours. Exercise like running helps brain function. Jotting things down on a post-it in a dark office irregardless of whether you can read it in the morning often sets the mind at ease so it can go back to sleep. No matter how good your plans are, you can always find something to tweak. You can’t please all teenagers all the time (or any of them sometimes).

  • Mary Reply

    Well written post! I’m in my 12th year and I’ve found the to do list before I leave to be extremely effective. I too was directed your way by Dan Meyer.

  • Dawn Burgess Reply

    Schedule a time a few times per semester to go do something fun outside of school with people you like, whether co-workers in the school or friends from other parts of your life. It’s too easy to say there isn’t time, and give up the opportunity to refresh and reconnect.

  • Alyssa Facer Reply

    As a very young teacher (in my 2nd year now), I feel like this has come fairly naturally to me because I give myself a few “big rock” goals to work on each semester and deliberately turn away from things that do not forward my progress on those goals. I simply cannot do everything and be everything for every student, but over time and with lots of practice, I know that I will become the teacher I want to be…because I am deliberately planning for that. I also repeatedly told myself last year that “I will survive then and they will survive me” when I felt the weight of my early career mistakes heavily. And I have had fairly easy beginning years! Great post! I’m gonna use my commute more deliberately from now on.

    • Alyssa Facer Reply

      Typo! I will survive them, not then.

  • Chester Draws Reply

    It took me three years to get there. Lying awake at night was the worst.

    I now work quite a lot at home, but only on mechanical things like marking, making worksheets etc. I never think about students when at home. I actually find such work quite calming.

    Because I do those things at home, I have slightly more time at work to worry about things like students.

  • Ryan Allen Reply

    I get on Twitter the last few minutes before I leave work and read the tweets and blogs of the Mathematicians that I respect and follow (Dan Meyer, Robert Kaplinsky, etc…) What I find is that this gets my brain fired up with innovation and excitement! I get to see the great/engaging/new lessons and ideas that others are coming up with and it gives my brain a positive challenge to chew on. What is a better lesson I can do? And then I don’t give much thought to it after that. I ride in silence or with music that I enjoy for my 10 minutes home and then I hang out with my wife. My brain then throughout the rest of the evening is subconsciously working on thinking of a better lesson. But I don’t force it and if I come up with something, fantastic! I look into it the next day, if I can’t think of anything no sweat, I’m no worse off than I originally was. I do find that those moments of inspiration fueled by others keeps me engaged in teaching and desiring to be better.

  • Cathy Reply

    Hi Zach,

    I found your post through Dan’s blog. One way I try to leave school at school (not always successfully) is to refuse to check my school/work e-mail in the evening. I can’t access my work e-mail on my phone or other personal devices unless I intentionally go to Gmail in a web browser and log in. Simply leaving those communications for the next day sets healthy boundaries, so I can be more present in the evenings for my own son. Additionally, this keeps my brain from spinning about any issue(s) brought up in an e-mail that, quite truthfully and frankly, CAN wait until tomorrow.

    I have the Serenity Prayer hanging on the wall next to my teacher desk. It’s a good reminder for all things in life, and speaks to your post about wasted cognitive energy regarding things we can’t change… at least overnight… and by ourselves.

    Even with a 10%-breathing-room rule in our teacher-lives, 90% is still an “A”. I like the idea.

  • Patti Reply

    I also found this through dy/dan.
    One of the best things I have done as a teacher is join a national association (NSTA) and use the list servs to get the advice of other teachers. Have gotten amazing advice and lessons. Also have learned to accept “good enough”! Will never be perfect for everyone. Although I do keep a google doc with lesson notes on what worked and what didnt for reference from year to year. Few minutes at end of day for updating notes is all it takes.

  • Telanna Reply

    Thank you for this post. The most difficult part of leaving my work at work is probably not trying to fix it all. I find it very satisfying when a lesson blows up, you come back next day and build something beautiful out of the pieces or you finally find the strategy that works for one of your struggling kids. I might try to convince myself to prioritize. I will also try to go over my to-do list before leaving school…much better than doing it at home!

  • Leonard Reply

    Excellent post! For 10 years, I have been working both at work and at home. This year, I decided that I needed to stop bringing so many things home. After school (and after any faculty meetings or clubs that I am sponsoring), I give myself 1 hour to complete anything for the next day or so. This includes making copies, writing/grading quizzes, organizing areas in the classroom, etc. So far, I have stuck to it every day this school year, and some days I do not even need the full hour! Of course, every once in a while there might be something that needs to be completed once I get home, but I have been doing less of that throughout the year.

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      It’s funny you mention this as I’ve been doing that for about six months now and it helps so much! Im never rushing to make copies before school or whatever. I am more relaxed knowing that if I don’t do anything when I get home, I’m at least ready to teach the next day.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Doug Reply

    I try to remember that perfection is the enemy of the good. Fine-tuning an assignment often requires a lot of time for a relatively small payoff. I’d much rather spend that time with my family and/or pursuing a hobby.

    I also try to get some exercise on a regular basis, even if it’s just a 20-minute walk at night. I find that when I forget to get enough physical activity my life and teaching suffer.

    I also got here from Dan Meyer!

  • Mariam Brunner Reply

    This was just what I needed to read today, Thanks! – I added a little more detail about these on my blog, but in a nutshell, this is how I leave work at work:

    To Do list – I’m right there with you – getting them done at work is much better than thinking about it at home.
    Using the MTBoS and TpT to find and building on great lessons.
    Switching out my chrome profile. Closing the work one at work and opening my personal one at home. If I turn my phone down, I can let work go completely.

    I posted this next bit on my blog, but I want to share it here too. I was thinking about how to “turn off the caring” which seems a little heartless, but there is only so much worry I can do and with three children of my own, they need me to have worry left for them.

    Thinking back on those things Zac said he lets slide out of his mind, I know there are big problems and hard things in the lives of my students. I also think they need an example of adults who are successfully navigating life without everything being in crisis mode. They need to see adults who have a balance, who have limits (for what they allow and for what they will do) and who show up consistently to love them and teach them. I can do those things, I can be that person, even if my lesson plans don’t meet my ideal every or any day.

  • Yolanda Reply

    Thank you so much. This is exactly what I needed to hear today.

  • Jennifer Potier Reply

    Hi Zach, like everyone else, your post really resonates with me! Reflection is a powerful tool, which can drive you into either a negative spiral of self doubt, or a positive spiral of self belief. What I have found, over my 13 years of teaching, is that if I shift the focus from ‘what can I do better, how can I improve’ to just relaxing a focussing on how to make the classroom a place where students want to learn, then they will learn, and I can leave work knowing I have left happy, normal, teenagers, and really, isn’t that all that matters? The nighttime dreaming becomes positive and deep, instead of frantic and hard work.
    The other thing – find or make time to collaborate, or ‘de brief’ with a fellow colleague before you go home! Sharing the thoughts and reflections will lighten the load…as you probably already see with these comments!
    My thinking about work after work now is more focused on how can I support my colleagues to provide better learning experiences for their students. But as you stated in your post, ‘there are some things you cannot influence’…I am learning to let that go by writing my own blog. You can lead a horse to water…….

  • Brian Reply

    A couple of years back, Audrey Watters wrote about the Hippocratic Oath in edtech and I actually wrote up a version for myself becuase it really gets to the heart of caring for the person. We’re all familiar with, “Above all else, do no harm,” and that definitely includes no harm to yourself.

    I left teaching in 2013 because I was overworked, overwhelmed, and not good at setting boundaries for myself. After 18 months in a different industry, I came back to teaching feeling refreshed and excited again. Since then, I rarely, if ever, take anything home. When I’m home, I’m dad, husband, friend…not teacher. It took me a while to be okay with not staying any time a student needed extra help (set an appointment before, please) and not volunteering for every after school activity.

    We all have seasons. Right now, my season is teacher during the day. Once my obligations for that time are finished, I transition into home-mode. Being intentional about it has helped me maintain energy and positivity, which makes me a better teacher in the long run.

    • Kathy Reply

      I feel like my seasons come in periods of weeks instead of years. From August to early October last year and this year I was fired up about all the new things I had learned about the prior year/summer and wanted to implement in my classroom. Then, after working 60+ hour weeks that whole time, I had a minor burnout and switched to only doing what I could accomplish during school and the occasional hour in the afternoon or couple of hours on Saturday. At some point during the holidays I get refreshed and settle into a more regular 50 hour week with weekend off.

      I’ve definitely stopped doing extra help before and after school every day. Now I take two afternoons a week off, one to do my own work and one to leave before traffic hits (which cuts my commute from the typical hour to only 30 minutes.) I’ve also started allowing myself to do small tasks during classes, if the students are productively occupied and I can complete the task while keeping an eye out for questions. I don’t like doing my work while they are in my room, but it has become necessary in order for me to produce lessons I am proud of and still take care of myself.

  • T. haslam Reply

    This might sound contradictory and maybe isn’t a good idea for everybody, but I’ve realized that my involvement with extra curricular activities helps create a transition from classroom to home. I coach football and track, and–while time consuming–my time spent with the athletes helps me unwind after a demanding day of teaching math. Yes coaching can be demanding as well, but there is something about it that helps my mind reset. Maybe it’s being outside, maybe it’s using a different part of my brain. Whatever the reason, I find it distracts me from the worries of the classroom just enough that when I get home I don’t think about them as much. I’ve noticed that in the winter time when football has ended and track has yet to start there isn’t that distraction and I often find myself ‘taking my work home with me’ a lot more often.

    • T. Haslam Reply

      I should add that I don’t have kids and my wife works, so the extra time spent coaching doesn’t interfere with any relationship. It’s also nice to get to know the student’s in a setting outside of the classroom.

  • Mike Reply

    Great post. Someone earlier talked about grading, and I’d just like to add that I recently (2 yrs ago) started holistically grading tests. I try to get through each test in under 20 seconds. I quickly note things like the student was perfect on solving systems through graphing and elimination but struggled with substitution–they got the concept of substitution by had issues distributing. Then I grade it accordingly. It’s had an amazing impact on my mood and therefore my teaching. Students still get the same grades they got before, and when questioned I can always defend the grade (the grades are not arbitrary). I highly recommend doing this.

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      This is an interesting idea. I’ve often thought about how I could significantly reduce grading time, and what effect that would have on my stress level and instruction (as I’d have some more time to plan better tasks and activities). I’m going to do some research on holistic grading. Have you written about it on your blog?

      Also, thanks for reading!

      • Mike Reply

        Thanks for replying. I have not blogged about it, though perhaps I should. My very first 2 posts were about SBG, but back then I was foolishly taking way too long to grade 🙂

    • Kathy Reply

      Can you give some more details on this? Is it SBG, or do you make a rubric to detemine how to assign the grades based on the concepts mastered vs. the skills they’ve also mastered?

      • Mike Reply

        It is SBG (or probably more accurately SRG); I have a generic rubric that I don’t use directly as I grade but can be used to defend my practice if pressed. The generic rubric (which I can share if you’d like) just identifies a 4 as someone who has mastered the concept, etc. It’s not a very complicated process tbh.

        • Kathy Reply

          Yes, please do share. I’d like to move in that direction, so I have better records of which standards students have mastered and which they have not.

    • Monica Reply

      I’m trying a new idea this year. After six years of teaching , I feel pretty familiar with the most common mistakes. To streamline grading, I changed the last page of my chapter tests to multiple choice: a right answer, a couple good wrong answers, and the ‘none of the above’ option.
      Multiply: (x-7)^2
      a.) x^2+49
      b.) x^2-49
      c) something else
      Doing this still allows me pinpoint exactly where a student might go off track. I also feel good about quick feedback since grading that last page flys by and I can turn back tests that still have meaningful feedback.

      • Zach Cresswell Reply

        This is a good idea. I’ve thought often about switching large parts of my assessments to multiple choice to quicken feedback and free up time for be to develop better learning tasks and formative assessment during class. Thanks for reading and commenting!

        • Kathy Reply

          I’ve always shied away from this because it takes so much longer to write a good MC than a good free response. (Also, because where I teach lots of teachers do nothing but MC, and some kids only know how to work backwards from answer choices, not forward from the information given.) But this is making me realize that the thought processes that go into making a good MC question are valuable in their own right.

  • Keith Reply

    It’s funny that you mention listening to stand-up comedy. Besides de-stressing, it is also a good way to study how people very practiced at public speaking.

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