Help! I’m Only Working My Contract Hours This Year, but Now I’m So Behind!

What if you’re still an amazing teacher who takes care of herself now?

Illustration of a teacher committed to only working contract hours but is now behind

Dear WeAreTeachers,
This year, I jumped on the train of working only while I’m being paid to work, i.e., my contract hours. While setting boundaries has helped me have a better home and personal life, my work life is in shambles. I’m constantly behind. I feel like I’ve simply traded one bad thing (unpaid labor) for another bad thing (mediocre teaching). What do I do? —Feeling Like a Lose/Lose Loser

Dear F.L.L.L.L.,

Teachers in particular can be really hard on themselves when they think they’re not performing at their best. For several years, I taught three different preps that met all in one class period. I told a coworker how much it bothered me that I had to choose between being the best teacher I could be and having no life outside of work, or being a mediocre teacher and maintaining a work-life balance.

“No, no, no,” she told me gently. “We don’t reduce ourselves to that kind of thinking. What if you’re still an amazing teacher who now takes care of herself?”

So, I ask you the same question. Do you know your teaching is mediocre, or is this a narrative you’re creating from a mix of teacher guilt and perfectionism? If someone’s in the 99th percentile of teachers and drops to the 97th, does that mean they’re mediocre?


If you’re not sure if you’re seeing yourself adequately, calibrate your standards by asking your appraiser (if you have a good relationship with them). Ask a team member to observe you. Ask your students to take a survey of how things are going. If these people say you’re really dropping the ball (my guess is they won’t), then you can reevaluate. Here are some ways to work more planning/catch-up time into your schedule without doing unpaid labor:

  • Once a month, have a day where students are working on a project, reading, or doing something else independently.
  • Ask your principal if they will pay for a sub for an on-campus planning day for you once a semester.
  • Coordinate with your team to combine classes once a month on a specific assignment, giving you and your teammates the morning or afternoon to plan together.

Dear WeAreTeachers,
I’m already cringing at what I’m about to write. I teach middle school and have a coworker who is an absolutely lovely person but whose body odor is really tough to stomach. I’ve thought about talking to her, but it’s hard for me to imagine that she hasn’t had this pointed out to her before (even though I wouldn’t dream of doing it in a hurtful way). Now that I’m pregnant and my nose is super-sensitive, I can barely stand to be in the same room with her. What would you do? —Sniffing and Suffering

Dear S.A.S.,

Students of all ages are brutally honest with us, so I doubt she hasn’t been made aware of her body odor before. Normally I’m all about having tough conversations head-on. But with something like this that is both a sensitive topic and something that could potentially be out of someone’s control (i.e., genetic condition or allergies), I would leave it to a boss or HR. Because it’s affecting your ability to work with her, it would be unfair to her to let this go unresolved and distance yourself from her.

It sounds like you’re already being sensitive about this, so continue to choose compassion. It’s never the wrong choice.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I called a parent to schedule a conference today about her son. I’ve been teaching for five years and was really caught off-guard when the parent began asking me questions I wasn’t prepared for. At first I thought she was just being conversational, but then I noticed they took on an interrogative tone. How long have I been teaching social studies? Where do I get my news? Where did I go to college—the “real” school or a satellite campus? How long have I worked with kids? I’m feeling really uncomfortable about our upcoming meeting. Can I cancel it at this point? —I Want to Crawl Out of My Body

Dear I.W.T.C.O.O.M.B.,

I wouldn’t recommend cancelling the meeting at this point. I wish it was an acceptable response to say, “Can’t make it, sorry. I’m busy forever, actually.”

As uncomfortable as it may feel, this could be a really good opportunity to clear the air with this parent and start building trust. And who knows? Maybe they’re just very curious and lack the social cues to know the difference between a conversation and an interview.

That said, definitely don’t go to this meeting alone. Ask an administrator you trust—or, at the very least, a seasoned “take no bull” teacher on your campus—to go with you. You can tell the parent they’re there to take notes, which is a good idea anyway. But your partner can also intervene on your behalf, get things back on track, and end a meeting if they need to. Just having another person in the meeting can often keep a parent’s behavior in check. And read our other tips on surviving scary parent conferences.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I really love working at my school, except for one issue. Teachers who have children are excused from having to do morning or afternoon duty … ever! Here’s how it works: The options for duty are lunch, recess, A.M. car pickup, and P.M. car pickup. Our administration “randomly” assigns duty positions at the beginning of the year. But somehow, the teachers with children magically have lunch or recess duty both semesters, while teachers without children will have at least one A.M./P.M. duty, or sometimes both. Other teachers have brought this up before but are met with “This is the way we’ve always done it.” But this just seems super unfair and like borderline discrimination. Am I overreacting? —My Dog Matters Too