When I spoke to my father about the recent suicide in my district, he warned me about the consequences of dwelling on it and bringing my classroom problems home. He spoke about a man who would walk up to a tree in his yard when he got home from work and "place" his coat on the tree. While he was not literally hanging up his coat outside, he was using it as a physical and mental expression of leaving work at the curb.
As teachers, how do you do this personally? How do you not bring home the troubles of school (I am not talking about tons of papers to grade or things like that)?
I agree that one should be able to share both good and bad with their families. I guess the key is to not obsess about it, but better to let them know what may be bothering you than trying to guess.
I am lucky in that my boyfriend is also a professor, and therefore much more interested, and helpful, in giving advice about problems or frustrations I may be experiencing either with students or with administration. It's a harder row when your partner, through no fault of their own, has little clue what you are dealing with.
However, I do not think you can let the problems of your students encroach in a real way on your own life and personal time. I work with students who are frequently from troubled backgrounds. I've dealt with pregnancies and arrests, among other things. It's not your job to be their psychologist or social worker. Point them to those sources, but if you get too tied up in their dramas, you'll find your own life's needs crowded out, and quickly. You have to have a line. It was harder for me to define it as a younger teacher; not hard at all now.
Distancing oneself from the day and its events - you've heard lots of good suggestions. The key is to find the one that works for you and your life pattern. If your travel time to and from school isn't long enough to process and decompress, then you to figure out an alternative that will work for you. If you have time to take a walk or work out after school, that might give you the opportunity you need to vent. Some days, I could stir the ground beef particularly vigorously as I was preparing dinner to let out some frustrations. Whatever it takes!
And realize that, if you are truly involved with and concerned about your students, you are not going to be able to completely purge all thoughts of them when you are outside of the classroom. When you really care about someone, you can't turn those feelings on and off that easily. All you can do is create a space and a place where they don't dominate.
I often find I have to use the journey to and from school as a time to go through the process of hanging my problems up. I often find that when I leave home at the beginning of the day or when I leave school at the end of the day, I mentally begin the process of leaving my teacher-self behind and becoming once again the husband and father that I need to be at home. I do this by mentally imagining myself leaving my concerns behind at school and also picking up my concerns in my different role as a father/husband. I know this sounds a bit weird, but it really helps me mostly to separate my two roles and to focus on them as I need to.
I will dissent with the group opinion here. I think it's not only important to share both the good and bad of your day with your family, it's vital - because it's what makes us human. Isolating yourself is not healthy, and trying to ignore something that is bothering you doesn't make the annoyance go away, it gives it more power.
Using your commute time to decouple is a good strategy, assuming your commute is long enough and not so stressful as to simply raise your blood pressure further - if that's not the case, then work in a good brisk walk as soon as you get home. Use the time to get things organized in your head a bit so you know what you want to say. Then spend a little time discussing your day with your nearest and dearest.
Set aside a specific, regular time for discussion, and don't try to multitask. A pleasant setting is helpful - a coffee on the deck, a little lingering over dessert, something like that. I would suggest that you may want to have some ground rules for these discussions. First, everyone gets a turn. Second, when you are not talking your job is to listen and sympathize - you do not need to try to solve the other person's problem. You just need to give them your time and your attention. (Rule 2 is often difficult for the male of the species to master) Third, what you say and hear is family business and it goes no farther. Fourth, you should always strive to include one good thing that happened in your day.
These rules will work between spouses, or with a whole family. Healthy communication patterns are worth investing some time in. Spending all day at school and then pretending that part of your life doesn't exist when you are at home will only increase your stress. Let those who love you help take some of the weight off your mind, and return the favor to them.
There are some good suggestions in the previous posts. I usually vent with my closest friends, and there are usually a few teachers who are trustworthy enough to sound off with them. In my younger days, I used to have a few drinks after work to cool off, but that rarely worked sufficiently. Keeping inside is no good, either. Bad days--even really bad days--are a part of the teaching life, and they only seem to be getting worse.
If you have a very trustworthy friend at work, venting after work with this person who shares the same concerns is so helpful. Another technique is to keep a journal hidden at home (!) where you write down every ugly thought you have, draw pictures, etc. Be as juvenile as you want in this private book; seal it and close it in a drawer or box. The act of writing down feelings is very cathartic and the enclosing of the journal into a drawer or box psychologically seals the thoughts. Nevertheless, there are times that we all must share with our loved ones our distress; after all, they are part of our lives. Sometimes doing so is the only way we can cope.
And, there is nothing like a good, cleansing cry. Go in your office and weep if you have to; just don't let anyone see you or the evidence of this crying. For those of us who tend to be more emotional naturally, anyway, crying is a quick release. All I know is is that I should have bought stock in Kleenex my first year of teaching!
I concur with brettd on using the drive home as a chance to transition from work to personal life. It's not an exact science, but processing the worries of the day before I ever walk in my front door lets me plan and prepare for the evening ahead of me. Because teaching, for me, is so much about relationships, the events of the day are necessarily part of my free time, as well. I do value my drive time to leave the worst of my day behind me, though.
I live 35 miles from the school in which I teach, a 45 minute commute each way. It is a wonderful time to separate myself from school, undergo something of a mental purging process, and put everything bad that happened that day behind me. Even so, teachers who love and nurture their students cannot always do this successfully, particularly with drastic situations such as the untimely death of a student. These things wear on me for days, and I'm not so sure it's a bad thing; I think my students need to understand that I suffer also when something that bad happens. But as far as a garden variety "bad day," kids acting up, administratio on a high horse, etc., the drive home is quite therapeutic. Anything, I would think, that allows you to put a wall of separation between you and school will be helpful.
I think that's as good an idea for teachers as it is for police and firemen, or anyone else for that matter. Teaching as a profession has a tendency to invade your home life and free time in any way that you'll let it.
After my first few years of teaching (and those were more stressful times for me), we moved 30 miles from the town I teach in. My morning and evening commute then became my processing time, the place where I would "hang my coat" so to speak. So when I walk in the door, I'm home as opposed to still being at work. It can be the drive, stopping for coffee, 15 minutes of silence somewhere before you go home. Find some way to set aside the things of work you tend to carry home. What I've found is that the issues or events that bother me either a) I can't do anything about, or b) don't really matter in the big picture. This also lets me focus on simply being a better teacher and husband.
I also simply don't want to bring work issues home with me anymore. As hard as I do work, I want to enjoy life and be happy. It's cliche, but life is just too short to do otherwise.
To me, the only way to do this is by willpower. There's no physical way to do this, it's all just in the wanting to. For me, it's been pretty easy since I have young children and they demand enough attention that it's pretty hard to brood. Before we had kids, it was more difficult since I would be doing school work more of the time at home and so I would automatically think about school.
I suppose one physical thing to do would be to do as much of your school-related work at school so you weren't having to think about school while you are at home.