When to say “No” (and “Yes”) to Opportunities: Finding Time for Creative Writing as a Teacher

Hiking on a recent vacation to Phoenix, Arizona while recovering from burnout

When I was in high school, I thought more was always better. More AP classes, more extracurriculars, more rigor. My overachieving may have helped me secure a spot at an elite college, but ultimately I had to unlearn the impulse to always say yes to opportunities. I might have looked successful on paper, but I remember times during high school where I felt so overwhelmed and anxious about all I had to do that I just kept my head down during class or during after school practice, for debate, Mock Trial, or any other number of activities I was signed up for. I was often short-tempered with people who cared about me, my friends and family, and took out my stress on them. I held it together though, in front of others, so I could keep up that immaculate image of effortless achievement.

In college, I continued the same pattern, double majoring with a minor while running a tutoring program and working a part-time job. One semester, I took on one activity too many and completely neglected one of my obligations, a role as a editor of an undergraduate journal. When it came time to produce the article the writer and I were supposed to be working on, both of us didn’t have anything to show for it. It was really embarassing, and one of the only times I’ve felt like an abject failure. I learned from that experience not to over-commit to too many things at once.

However, when you’re a teacher it’s hard to not over-commit when your job alone takes up more time than you have in a given working day. My first year as a teacher, I didn’t sign up to do any extra duties, but I was getting to work at 7:30 AM and staying until 6 PM on a regular basis. Of course, the first year is always exceptionally difficult because you’re creating most of the materials you’re using from scratch while getting used to having a full workload of students, but I definitely pushed myself too hard. I wasn’t drinking enough water, and at one point, I had to take a day off of work because I had vertigo so bad I couldn’t get out bed.

This year, my third-year of teaching and my first year back in-person since the pandemic started, I was concerned the same thing was going to happen, so I was hesitant to say yes to any extra duties at work. I knew this year would be extra stressful due to the challenges of COVID teaching: wearing masks, helping students who were out sick for weeks, etc. However, I surprisingly found that work was a lot more manageable then I expected, at least at the start of the school year. So I thought it might be doable to say yes to a few more duties: first, being part of the College and Career Readiness Committee at work, second, participating in the Grading For Equity initiative in my district, and third, trying to continue freelance writing in my spare time so I can work on my professional writing skills. I was able to keep up all of the above for months, though I was starting to feel the signs of burnout developing. I was often anxious and irritable, I wasn’t sleeping well, and I felt this constant pressure to always be working. Ultimately, it was the freelance writing and COVID stress that finally tipped me over the edge.

Don’t get me wrong– I really enjoyed the freelance writing that I was doing. I was writing study guides of books for an educational company, and I felt proud of the guides I was writing. However, in order to meet the deadlines, I had to take most of the free time I had after work and use it for freelance writing. This was simply not sustainable and also meant that even when I had put my teaching work aside, I had other work weighing on my mind, preventing me from relaxing. Although I benefitted from the extra income of freelancing, I realized I needed to take a break from it.

The past month, I’ve had time to reflect on what is worth saying “yes” to and what isn’t. I justified the freelance writing to myself for months, telling myself that I was learning valuable skills from it. I wanted to keep up the freelance position for a year so I could put it on my resume, but when the Omicron wave hit and I had to use most of my preparation time at school to sub for my colleagues, I realized it just wasn’t worth it to keep burning myself out with a second job. I had to focus on my full-time job, teaching, to make sure I was doing my best to support my students. Also, since I started doing freelancing, I barely had any time for creative writing. That lack of creative time went unnoticed at first, but then it started eating away at me. Without time to create freely for myself, an overwhelming sense of dullness filled my life. The world felt colorless and my tasks became tedious because I was living to work, not working to live. I was losing my sense of purpose and feeling unsatisfied with the work I was doing.

A month ago, I paused my freelancing, hoping that all the time I was able to put into my freelance position, I would be able to devote to creative writing. However, it wasn’t that easy to transfer time from one activity to another. First of all, I needed to reclaim some of that time for myself, just to exist, without being productive at all, so I haven’t been able to write creatively every evening the same way I was plugging away at my freelance job under a deadline. Second of all, creative writing requires a greater amount of energy and headspace than writing something formulaic, and I can’t always muster that after working a full day of teaching. I’ve started to accept that I will have to find time to write here and there, schedule it into my calendar, and treat it like a second job if I want to make sure it happens, but it doesn’t always have to happen as quickly as possible. Taking a pause and moving through a project slowly also has its benefits.

It’s taking me a while to get back into my creative writing, but the last month of only focusing on my teaching job and my creative pursuits has left me feeling refreshed and energized. I was on break this past week, and it felt so good to actually be able to relax while I wasn’t teaching. I hadn’t felt that relief during Thanksgiving or Winter Break because I had freelancing deadlines hanging over me.

I recently found out that I will be receiving a fellowship for creative writing this summer, the Jack Hazard Fellowship for Creative Writers Teaching High School. I feel really honored by this opportunity because it means I will be able to focus on writing this summer instead of trying to make money from a second job. I also feel excited to have my creative writing taken seriously. I am going to be paid for it, so I will treat it like a job: I will create a schedule for my writing time this summer, create deadlines, and hold myself accountable for writing a certain amount each day.

In the two and half years I’ve been trying to pursue creative writing while working as a public school teacher, I’ve learned that it’s hard to not put professional opportunities first all the time, whether it’s opportunities to be a leader at your school or freelance writing gigs. Since I don’t make as much as a teacher as I would in another profession with my level of education, it’s tempting to always pursue extra income whenever possible. We live in a hustle culture that convinces us that working more and being more productive is always better. But it’s not better if it means you can’t have time to do the things that are important to you. I’m lucky to make enough as a teacher that I don’t actually need a second job; however, not all teachers have that luxury. I’m in a position right now financially that I can say “no” to things and give myself permission to have time for myself and my passions in my free time. I hope I can maintain that balance for years to come, although I know it won’t be easy. Finding balance between teaching and creative pursuits require you to contantly reflect on how you are using your time and find ways to carve out the space you need for yourself.

When I first started out teaching, I heard from veteran teachers that as I got more experience, the demanding hours of teaching would lessen as I was able to re-teach materials I already created or find more efficient ways of working. While I have found this to be true, I don’t think I’ll ever fully find that holy grail of work-life balance because there are always forces constantly tugging on me to do more at my job; meanwhile, I never am completely satisfied with the free time I do have. It never feels like enough. I’ve accepted that I’ll always be caught in this constant vortex, feeling pulled between different obligations. If I have children in the future, that will be another element pulling me in yet another direction. It feels daunting but not impossible to find a way to balance my time between the things that are important to me. I just have to accept that I will have to savor the bites of time for myself here and there that I do have and make the most from them.

Reflection on a decade of writing (and about 4 months of teaching)

As the decade comes to an end, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on my personal journey as a writer and a teacher. I haven’t posted a blog post in many, many months, partially because I simply haven’t had time to write and partially because when I’ve had time to write I’ve prioritized other types of writing, such as creative writing or journal writing, that are not visible to people. It’s hard to write about struggle on a public platform, so I haven’t been documenting every anguished feeling I’ve had about the challenges of teaching for everyone to see.

I’ve only been teaching for 4 months as a full-time high school English teacher, and it’s been the most challenging job I’ve ever had. I don’t always love it, but I can see the value in sticking with it, and I hope that over time I will grow as a teacher so that I become more skilled at it. Right now, it’s mostly a struggle to survive each week, each day, each month, while trying to do the best job I can for my current students. I also have realized that as a first-year teacher it’s nearly impossible to strike a work-life balance. I tend to stay at work later than I should because I know if I don’t continue to plan, grade, or finish other responsibilities, I will regret it the next day. However, this eats into my personal time to relax, work out, and, most of all, write, so I’m trying to limit how much I work since I know that I need to have down time in order to stay healthy, mentally and physically.

Of course, by the time I do stop working, I hardly feel like writing. An idea might strike me, but I just don’t have the mental energy to explore it. I might jot down ideas here or there, but in order to really get into writing, I need to spend time easing into it by journaling or freewriting until I get into actually creating something that I feel has potential. I find that I lack the time for the full process, so in the past year I’ve written bits here and bits there, but nothing that has coalesced together. This is probably not a problem limited to people who work in education. I imagine that it’s a challenge for anyone working a full-time job who is also pursuing writing as their passion on the side.

I haven’t yet figured out how to set aside time for writing on a regular basis. I am absolutely NOT a morning person, and I don’t think I would be able to get myself up earlier than I already do for my job in order to write or exercise, despite people’s unhelpful suggestions that I make this a routine. It seems like my only opportunities to write are weekends or breaks, though I spend a lot of my “days off” working on grading and lesson planning. I know that I just have to squeeze in writing where I can for now and hope that as I improve as a teacher, I will become more efficient, which will allow me to carve out more time for writing, which for me is a definitively sprawling, disorganized process that I don’t want to restrict.

Despite the fact that I’ve barely written creatively this year, I am grateful that some of the seeds of my writing that I have planted over the years are coming to fruition. This year, I was published for the first time in two books, one a textbook on writing for college students, and the other an anthology of writing published by my alma mater, UCLA. My writing career may be progressing slowly, especially since my writing production has slowed to a crawl, but I’ve still come a long way since I was a senior in high school, ten years ago.

One of my first forays into the world of creative writing occurred when I attended the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) at CalArts in Valencia, the summer before my senior year. That summer, my teachers gave me tools to work on my writing that I continue to use to this day, and gave me the inspiration to keep writing through thick and thin. Since then, I wrote a play, helped produce it, attended creative writing workshops in college where I was fully converted into a short story writer, attended graduate school for creative writing, where I wrote a short story collection as my thesis but then also discovered creative nonfiction essays, and accumulated a handful of publications.

Along the way, I’ve been buoyed by privilege. I have had many opportunities others have not due to growing up in a upper middle class family, and I know that my path in life has been paved much more smoothly than others. Still the advantages I’ve had are only one part of the equation. I’ve also had to work hard on my writing to improve it and send it out places. I know that not everyone has the time, connections, or know how to do the same. One of the reasons I became a teacher in the first place is that I wasn’t satisfied with just letting my privilege lead me to an “easy” career. I wanted to use my privilege to break down educational barriers for others. How much I am actually able to impact my students for the better, at this point, is up for debate. But I’m trying at least.

So, here I am, ten years later, back in a high school classroom, but this time as a teacher. I don’t get the opportunity to teach creative writing that often in my current position, but I may have more chances to do so in the future. When I showed my students my first two book publications, I felt really proud. However, I didn’t just show them my published essays to have bragging rights. I did it because it was a way of connecting with them on a human level. They understood from what I showed them and discussed with them that writing is my passion, something that I do whether I get paid for it or not because I find it meaningful. While not all of them consider themselves writers or even enjoy writing, all my students are passionate about something. I want to be a role model for them, to demonstrate that you don’t have to be swallowed up by your day job, no matter how valuable that job is to society. I love teaching, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of my personal values. Maybe I’m asking for too much, especially under our ruthless capitalist system, but I’m hoping to prove in the next decade that it’s possible to have a career as a public school teacher while also writing for my own sake.