Cult of Pedagogy Search

Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Balance

January 9, 2016

Shelby Denhof


Can't find what you are looking for? Contact Us


“in balance” by glasseyes view is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


This is the third installment in a year-long series of written and video diary entries by Shelby Denhof, who is letting us follow her first year of teaching. To see all entries, click here.


It’s been months since my last entry. Months.

When the school year started, I told myself that I need to focus on one thing at a time, not stretch myself too thinly. But even as I type this, my mind is racing—I need to grade those articles of the week; I should apply for that summer program; I can’t forget to finish up my grant proposal; I should really read the next book I’ll be teaching in a few short weeks. It’s come to a point where I have so many projects to be working on, I find myself not working on any. I tell myself that there’s still time to do it all, justifying this procrastinating by saying I deserve to have fun. The problem, though, is that it’s hard to have fun with all of this mulling in the back of my head.

Needless to say, I’m not doing the best at time management.

These past two months have been a series of highs and lows in terms of balance.

The successes:

  1. Getting enough sleep: I’m a stickler about hitting the sack by 9:30. I’m convinced that I’m only able to maintain a level of sanity because of this.
  2. Bonding with the staff: As the only new teacher to the school, I’m the odd one out (not to mention I’m the youngest teacher by ten years). But I’ve gone out of my way to be social in and out of school, making work a welcoming environment.
  3. Incorporating fun into the classroom: I teach seventh graders, so they want to talk all the time and they want to move all the time. Games are an integral part of my classroom. I explain one of my favorite review games in my video below.

The failures:

  1. Keeping up with the grading: I put it off and then I regret it as the pile starts to build. But then I do it again. It’s a soul-crushing cycle of neglect.
  2. Wasting my prep hour: Somehow I find myself doing laps around the school. I think it has to do with my lunch feeding into my prep, so it feels like one long relaxation period when I could be using that time much more efficiently (to be fair, though, this failure is how I accomplish Success #2).
  3. Not getting far enough ahead with planning: I have these grandiose goals of planning out things that I will be doing in a month, but realistically, I plan week-by-week.

Even with all of the craziness that comes with teaching, my goal from the start has been to preserve a high quality of life: to be a present girlfriend, to go out and have spontaneous fun, to see and stay in touch with friends. I have to be intentional about these things because I can lose myself in my work, tackling project after project. I’m afraid of having my work-life balance out of whack again, but it sure is a struggle to balance both sides of the scale. I’m still working on finding that sweet spot.

Over break, I’d wholeheartedly stocked up on restful, lovely, and simple joys. I even did the seemingly impossible—one day, I stayed in bed all morning reading. I woke up, opened the blinds, grabbed my new book, and read until the last page. It was such a treat to have that kind of time. As break winds down, though, those moments disappear as my to-do list gets longer. It still feels heavy and the stress manifests itself in subtle ways. Many nights, I have a hard time sleeping and I can guarantee I’ll dream about work (which is super lame).

Even with that to-do list, even with the intermittent stress, even with those moments where I feel like I don’t know what the heck I’m doing, I love my job. I love it, and I know finding this work-life balance is something that will take time. While I figure it out, though, I know I’ll give my best to both parts of my life. Right before we went on break, one of my students wrote me a letter: “I really like how you are so kind and open,” she explained. “That’s the big reason why this is my favorite class… it’s the way you teach it!!”

That right there is the motivation to make anything happen. ♦


If you’re a new teacher, the Cult of Pedagogy New Teacher Checklist will provide a structure to follow as you progress through the school year. To download a free copy, just sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get the checklist, plus all the other free downloads in my Members-Only Library. (If you’re already a subscriber and want this resource, just check your most recent email for a link to the Members-Only Library!)



  1. Heather says:

    Shelby, I enjoyed your video post and look forward to trying this game during a poetry unit with my 8th graders. Thanks!

  2. I love everything you’ve said, but there is one thing in your list I wouldn’t be super concerned about and that is planning a month ahead. While I think you should have some future thinking on where your instruction is going, if you plan too far ahead, you may be compelled to ignore when students don’t understand something and just move on to stay on schedule. So don’t feel too concerned if you aren’t super far ahead with your planning–just make sure you’re reaching kids’ needs as much as you can!!

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      With planning a month ahead, I meant more like what you mentioned: having some future thinking about what’s coming next and not just thinking week-by-week. You’re totally right, though, and it’s great advice not planning too far ahead because that doesn’t leave space to meet students’ needs in the moment. Thanks for reading my article!

  3. Sharon says:

    Thank you so much – I’ve just found you! I’m a trainee Science teacher in the UK, and have been experiencing similar problems with work-life balance. I’m going to try the dice game with one of my classes, possibly as part of a pre-test revision lesson. Thank you, and good luck!

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      You’re very welcome! Thank you for reading my article and for taking the time to comment. I hope the game went well in your classes!

  4. Wow, Shelby…I have been teaching HS science for a dozen years and your post felt like I could have written it this week! Every year is different and every year has new challenges, but finding balance is a process, not a goal. You never get there but are always working on it. Just like teaching. It is never perfect but the rewards happen every day and you can look for the fun in every topic you teach. Keep up the good work!

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      Your insight was a breath of fresh air. I appreciate hearing from more veteran teachers. It reassures me that I’m on the right path. Thank you, Sally, for taking the time to comment and share your words of wisdom.

  5. Marina says:

    I agree with the above comment. Never stress about not planning in advance as there are always events and issues that render the best plans useless! A week in advance is much better than my day in advance anyway.

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      I’m going to stick with really fleshing out lessons on a week-to-week basis while always looking ahead at what’s coming next. So far, it’s worked out okay for me! I’m already looking forward to next year because I know it’ll go so much smoother after experiencing all of the units I’m teaching.

  6. A third vote for not stressing about lack of detailed long-term planning.

    And I love the game! I’m going to start working on some questions right now and play it next week!

    • Just wanted to come back and say–my sixth period class was restless today, only three kids had really settled into our silent reading time. I grabbed dice, paper, and pencils, and we played this game on the fly. They LOVED IT, and I felt great about working with their energy instead of trying to contain it. Thank you!

      • Shelby Denhof says:

        Hi Wendy! I’m very happy to hear that the game went well with your sixth graders. What I like most about this game is its adaptability and how it seems to engage students of all ages. Thanks for commenting back about how it went in your classes!

  7. Rose Warrell says:

    What a great idea with a die! Love it! Thanks for sharing.

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      Thanks, Rose! If you try it out in your classes, please comment back and let me know how it went 🙂

  8. Kelly says:

    If you know what you’ll be teaching next year (or even if you don’t) the best advise I ever got about planning was to keep a brief outline of topics and major assignments I gave in each week. It helped me so much my second year to remember and reflect on what to do differently, that it has made my daily planning easier…I’ve been doing this technique for 5 years now. Helped my work life balance so so much.

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      This is great advice! I’ve been doing all of my lesson planning week-by-week on Google Docs so I can easily pull up what I did during a unit next year. Hopefully my plans are detailed enough so a-year-from-now me can follow them, ha ha 🙂

  9. Alana says:

    I feel this so much. I’m in my first year of teaching (7/8 language arts) and I think we might be living parallel lives. All the things you’ve described in your posts are things I’ve felt or gone through this year. I procrastinate the same way with grading, kicking myself when I let it pile up but not learning from it. I want to plan these awesome, dynamic units but try to remind myself to take things slow. It’s incredibly heartening to know I’m not the only one going through all this. Keep on keepin’ on!

  10. Rachel says:

    I am a first year teacher as well for 9th/12th. I started late, and between coming in to my school about a week and half late, and not having any of the curriculum prior, I feel like I am constantly struggling for a minimal balance where I am even a few days ahead. The reality is that I am MONTHS behind on grading, and it is really coming back to bite me. The parents are upset, students aren’t taking my class seriously, and I have seniors whose grades changed dramatically when I finally put in assignments. Drowning during the first year would be an understatement.

  11. Holly says:

    Your comment about grading becoming “a soul-crushing cycle of neglect” made me laugh out loud. RIGHT NOW I have a stack of Socratic Seminar reflections that–for some reason–I just haven’t graded yet. Thank you for writing this post!

  12. Whitney Finch says:

    Thank you for your post! I am pre-service teacher getting ready to start my student teaching in January. I hope to teach middle school math. My biggest concern as a new teacher is finding the balance of self-care when “wanting to do it all.” As new teachers, I expect many of us want to live up to the values, reasons and personal expectations of why we decided to become a teacher and ensure students are learning. Yet, we also want to make sure we can do it for the long haul while living a full, happy life. I appreciated your openness in not just this piece but the others as well. I noted your best practices and honest insights. More importantly, I was relieved that your first year was about more than just surviving and you even took a day to read a book. (Yay!!!!) Sure, you had things you would do differently but accomplished a great deal with your instruction and getting to know your students. I hope I will be as good as first year teacher as you. Thank you again!

  13. I am a university student who will hit student teaching within a year. Everything you said here resonated with me in a big way because it has been my life during college. Working on that balance is definitely something that needs to be a daily part of life for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.