When Teachers Should Be Selfish

selfish

Selfishness can destroy a school. We’ve all sat in meetings where a teacher complains how a new plan will negatively impact her, without giving any thought to how that plan may benefit the school and its students as a whole. We’ve seen selfish teachers hijack meetings with their own problems, step on egos, and take their metaphorical balls and go home when they don’t get their way. There are teachers who give not a single thought to how a schedule will affect others if that schedule inconveniences them. Most of the time, selfish teachers are malignant lesions that should be excised with prejudice.

But there is one thing that all teachers should be selfish about.

Teachers should be aggressively selfish about taking care of themselves.

A Crisis

We have a crisis in education. Eight percent of teachers leave every year, while across the border in Ontario, Canada, the rate is five points lower (Source). 17 percent of new teachers quit within five years, and the numbers are higher in high-poverty schools, where students are in desperate need of experienced educators (Source). Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen 35 percent over the last five years (Source). One of the major causes of teachers running for the exits (or never considering the profession in the first place) is stress, which leads to exhaustion, which leads to burnout. Teachers report some of the highest stress levels of all professions in the U.S. (Source)

In some ways, teachers do this to themselves. Most teachers don’t want others to view them as selfish. They don’t want to think of themselves that way, either. We would rather be called ineffective than self-interested. We chose a profession that is all about giving and helping others. It’s one of the major reasons why our employers so easily take advantage of us, and why if districts want a teacher to attend an unpaid after-school event, show up for the school Relay for Life team on a Friday night, or do unpaid committee work, they need only to deploy the weapon of guilt. Teachers give and give and give in service to their students and their schools. They believe that doing so makes them better at their jobs.

When Selfishness is Generous

But these teachers have it backward. Vigilantly protecting your personal life by limiting the number of hours you work under what are regularly stressful conditions doesn’t make you selfish. It’s the exact opposite. Only when you take care of yourself are you able to give generously to others.

Teachers can’t help their students if they’re not at their best. It’s hard to be patient and kind when you’re stressed. It’s difficult to be observant when you’re not getting enough sleep. It’s a challenge to be energetic and on top of your game when you’re tired. When you exhaust yourself because you’re trying to do everything you can to help your students succeed, you’re actually sabotaging your own efforts.

Tired runners run slower times.
Tired spouses are cranky and short-tempered.
Tired drivers are almost as dangerous as drunk ones.
Tired engineers make disastrous mistakes.
Tired cops are more likely to use excessive force.
Tired doctors are more prone to errors.

Tired people perform worse in every area of life. Why should teachers be any different?

The best thing — the most selfless, giving thing–that teachers can do for their students is achieve a healthy work-life balance that doesn’t leave them stressed out and exhausted. They should go home shortly after the kids have left, and find ways to reduce the amount of work they take with them. They should detach from work and eat an early dinner, followed by exercise, relaxation, fun, or time with people they care about. They should get at least seven hours of sleep. Happy, well-rested teachers, like every other professional, are better at their jobs.

Give Yourself Permission to Be Selfish

You, the teacher, are the most important person in your classroom. It’s your presence that makes a difference. It’s your effectiveness that impacts student achievement more than any other in-school factor. You are the reason kids are either excited to come to school or feigning illness to stay home. Parents trust you with their children. Your district will, over the course of your career, invest millions of dollars in you. It’s your obligation to be at your best, and you can’t do that if you don’t take care of yourself.

So be selfish.

Stop killing yourself under the mistaken impression that working more, giving until there’s nothing left to give, and being constantly stressed and exhausted will make you a better teacher. Give yourself permission to relax, knowing that looking out for your health and happiness doesn’t just benefit you. It helps your students, your colleagues, your family, and your friends. It’s easier to help others when you have first helped yourself.

—————-

Note: Many sleep-deprived people don’t realize they’re sleep-deprived. Here are 8 Unexpected Signs You’re Sleep-Deprived

You can read more about this topic in my book, Happy Teacher, and in my upcoming book, Exhausted, available in mid-October on Amazon.

A More Effective Way for Teachers to Say No

no

.

For many reasons, a lot of teachers have a hard time saying no. People who go into teaching want to help others. We often satisfy others’ needs over our own. Many teachers were good students, which often means they were rule followers. Many of us tend to be conformists. When we see other teachers joining committees, we have a difficult time saying no. We also know our schools are strapped for cash, so we agree to work for free, knowing there just aren’t enough people to do everything that needs to be done. We don’t like disappointing others. We fear what will happen if we don’t say yes. We don’t want to be perceived as lazy. Knowing this, some administrators lay on guilt trips and appeal to our selfless natures. It’s for the kids, they remind us.

No matter the reason, many teachers end up agreeing to join committees, attend after-school parent nights, tutor students before class, organize book rooms or science materials, or agree to be their school’s union representative even though they don’t really want to.

They recognize that there are trade-offs. By stretching themselves thin, they’re unable to do anything as well as they would like. They become less prepared teachers, which leads to less effective teaching, which leads to greater stress, more exhaustion, and a higher likelihood of burning out and quitting. Having said yes to every request, they look around one day and wonder where all their time went. How come they can’t get anything done? Why are they so tired all the time?

It’s important for teachers to say no. Teachers need to say no a whole lot more often than they do. But how do you say no respectfully, yet firmly? How do you say no in a way that will lead others to respect you instead of question your dedication, collegiality, and work ethic?

I have found that the best way to say no starts with two little words: I don’t.

I Can’t

Many people, when they say no, start with, “I can’t.” They then give reasons explaining why they can’t.

“I can’t be on that committee because it meets at 7:00, and I can’t get to work until 7:30.”

“I can’t work on that report because I just don’t know enough about what was done.”

“I can’t chaperone that dance because it’s the same night as my son’s football game.”

The problem with “I can’t” is that circumstances can change. The meetings can be moved to after school. You’ll be given the information you need to write the report. You can’t work this dance, but you can work the one in the spring when it’s no longer football season. “I can’t” says to the person requesting your involvement that, while you can’t do this thing this time, you might be able to do it next time. It invites future requests for your time. If you really don’t want to do the thing, it demands that you create even more explanations for why you can’t. And when you always have a reason for getting out of things, it looks like you’re making up excuses. People don’t respect that.

Instead of saying, “I can’t,” start saying, “I don’t.”

I Don’t

When teachers say, “I don’t,” they send the message that they are in control of their lives. They have rules for how they live. They know what they want. They’re committed. “I don’t” is non-negotiable. It establishes boundaries, instead of just providing what could be perceived as an excuse to get out of doing extra work.

“I don’t” is rare, and that is why it will lead to more respect. Most people don’t really know what they want. They don’t take principled stands. They fail to proactively control their lives. They’re like driftwood, caught up in a current, tossed this way and that by circumstance, instead of captains of their own vessels, intentionally navigating their lives toward predetermined destinations. People respect those who know what they want.

The next time you’re asked to do unpaid work, say, “I’m a professional, and I don’t work for free.”

When asked to join a paid committee you have no interest in, say, “I don’t take on projects that have the potential to diminish my effectiveness in the classroom.”

You might even develop a mantra for any opportunity that doesn’t appeal to you: “I don’t do things that don’t further my goals or excite me.”

“I don’t” works for establishing boundaries in all areas of your life. Once you use it to say no, move on to letting others know what you will and won’t do.

“I don’t read work emails on Sundays.”
“I don’t come into the classroom on weekends.”
“I don’t allow toys in my classroom.”

Making these two little words a part of your lexicon will head off future requests for your time. They will force you to decide what kinds of things you will and won’t do. They will require you to analyze your own goals and priorities. And they will result in more respect from others. Try it out this week, and let me know how it goes in the comments.

_____________

Related:

The Expectation of Free Work

How Teachers Can Get Paid for Extra Work

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

_____________

Are you a subscriber? If not, sign up here to receive articles in your inbox. Once a week, I’ll send you an email with my latest articles. You’ll also receive an early offer to buy my next e-book, Exhausted: Why Teachers Are So Tired and What They Can Do About It, for half-price when it is released in a couple of weeks.

 

The Myth of the Ideal Teacher

ideal teacher myth

.

I have a lot of problems with teacher evaluations. I’ve written about them here and here. And while I appreciate the work of people like Robert Marzano, John Hattie, Charlotte Danielson, and others who take seriously the research on effective teaching, I reject how that research has been used to label teachers. And I abhor how it’s led to the myth of the Ideal Teacher.

The Ideal Teacher, we are told, is passionate about helping kids. She understands best practices and only uses instructional techniques that have been proven effective. She’s a disciple of John Hattie’s work and discounts anything below an effective size of .40. She wastes no time in class. She’s warm and caring, and is a master at classroom management. She’s a guru of engagement strategies. She provides specific, timely feedback. She makes sure that students understand their learning targets and that they know where they fall on the success criteria. She’s enthusiastic, patient, and reflective. She is, by every observable measure, a phenomenal teacher.

None of that makes her an ideal teacher to every kid sitting in her room.

Match-Ups

There’s a saying in sports that you’ll almost always hear during playoff time or college tournaments. Coaches sometimes use it to explain why their team was just upset by what everyone thought was a lesser opponent.

It’s all about match-ups.

It’s true of teaching, as well.

It’s about timing: The teacher and student coming together at the perfect point in the child’s life and the teacher’s career. There are students who I have this year who would have benefited more from having me ten years ago, just as there are students I didn’t reach ten years ago that I can now.

It’s about personalities: Some teachers are great for a handful of students in their room, while that same teacher struggles to get through to others.

It’s about luck: Sometimes a teacher can give exactly what a student needs, often without realizing it.

Two Examples

Oprah Winfrey has famously credited her fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan, on more than one occasion. She even had her on her TV show. About Mrs. Duncan, Oprah said, “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan. She so believed in me, and for the first time, she made me embrace the idea of learning.”

Actor Richard Dreyfuss also credits a teacher for where he ended up in life. He didn’t like Mrs. Wilcox. No many people did. But 20 years after sitting in her elementary school classroom he had the realization that a lot of the things he came to love in life, he learned from her: Shakespeare, literature, reading in general. Dreyfuss said, “She was a mean, impatient woman, who didn’t care about liking me or anyone else, and we didn’t like her. She was tough.”

I have no idea how Mrs. Duncan would have been evaluated under today’s systems. My guess is she would have done well. She sounds like the kind of caring teacher that students and parents adore. But although Oprah credits her for her success, Mrs. Duncan taught hundreds of other kids. You’ve never heard of any of them. That’s not to dismiss her influence on Oprah. It’s just to say that while Mrs. Duncan was the perfect teacher at the perfect time for Oprah Winfrey, she wasn’t for lots of other kids.

But I feel confident in saying that Marzano and Danielson would not hold Dreyfuss’s teacher in great esteem. She was not well-liked by students, probably not respected by administrators, and I imagine barely tolerated by colleagues. I’m also quite sure that had any of the effective teaching researchers observed her, she would not have scored highly on many of their seemingly endless criteria. And she wouldn’t have given a hoot about Hattie’s meta-analyses.

But for one kid, during one pivotal year of his life, she made a huge impact. Without Mrs. Wilcox,  who knows what happens with Jaws and Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Different Strokes

The checklists, effect sizes, and evaluation tools all send the same message: You too can be an Ideal Teacher whose students will all make more than one year’s growth and who will then go on to live productive lives if you simply do the things you’re supposed to do. We believe that a teacher who checks all the boxes will always get better results than her colleague across the hall who only checks half of them.

But the kids sitting in front of those teachers don’t care about checklists or effect sizes. And it’s important to remember that not all of them care if you’re nurturing, or patient, or positive, or fun. They’re individuals, each blazing their own paths in this world, each needing something different at one particular place and time. And they will be influenced and inspired by things we can never know.

There’s nothing wrong with reading the research and trying your damndest to be the best teacher you can be. Just don’t assume that because you can fill up a checklist you’re going to make a difference in the life of a child. And don’t assume that because you can’t, you won’t.

7 Things I Selfishly Love About Teaching

love teaching

.

My wife tells me that I need to write more positive blog posts. She has a point. I do tend to write more about how teachers are tired and should work less. I’ve written about what parents don’t understand, and how we should stop donating labor. One might infer that I’m complaining and that I don’t really enjoy what I do. But the truth is those kinds of articles get read more than positive ones, so I write more of them. Blame my audience.

In an attempt to balance things out, I shall now present a positive article. Never fear, I will not bore you with the platitudes most teachers recite when asked what they love about their jobs. There will be no mention of “making a difference,” or “seeing the light bulb go on,” or, worst of all, “Ah-ha moments” (thanks for that gem, Oprah–it’s called an epiphany and it already had a name).  I like those things fine, but they go without saying. If you don’t feel a sense of accomplishment when you reach a student, then you’re in the wrong profession. My list of seven things I love about teaching is far more selfish. It’s great when kids learn and all, but I went into this job because I thought it would gratify me.* And it has.  So without further ado, here are 7 Things I Selfishly Love About Teaching:

*For those lacking a sense of humor, this article should not be taken all that seriously.

1. A Captive Audience (Literally)

When you get to be my age, you think you know things and you want to tell people (hence, this blog). But most adults don’t really want to hear those things because they have their own things they think they know. Students, however, are stuck with me. I get to tell them stories, dispense advice, show my favorite YouTube videos, and read them awesome books. They have to listen! (Well, okay, technically they don’t have to listen, but I can convince myself that they are listening, which is pretty much the same thing.)

2. Appreciation of Fart Poems

I write poems sometimes. Gross ones. My wife doesn’t like them. My daughter pretends not to. There are always a few mature students who claim to not like them either. But most kids love my poems. These kids are my inspiration. What’s that? You want to read one of my fart poems? Well, okay then!

My father’s farts are powerful,
they punch you in the face.
My mother’s farts are delicate,
full of elegance and grace.
Grandma’s farts are old and stale,
you don’t want to be near them.
But granddad’s farts are loud and wet,
as offensive as Eminem.
My teacher never farts,
there’s something wrong with her.
If my preacher ever farted,
it would probably smell like myrrh.
One time my doctor farted,
I don’t think it was on purpose.
She coughed and it just happened,
maybe she was nervous.
My brother’s farts are frequent,
he lets loose all the time.
But my farts are clearly perfect,
just like this final rhyme.

3. I’m a Hero At Least Once a Week

I teach in a portable. We have our own bathroom. Which is nice, except when the toilet clogs. It clogs often. I could call maintenance and have them plunge it, but I’m a man with a fair amount of experience plunging toilets. I probably plunge our classroom toilet 40 times a year. Each time I do, I emerge victorious, with arms raised in an V. To those students who’ve been holding it, no greater hero ever existed. Eat your heart out, Ironman.

4. Being Treated Like a Celebrity

I don’t live in the same town where I teach. In the summer, I therefore rarely run into students. But during the school year, a short trip to Wal-mart almost always results in the full celebrity treatment. Students shout my name. They point me out to their parents. They run up to me and then appear unsure of exactly what to do next. They take selfies with me.* It’s like being famous, without the paparazzi, mindless interviews, overwhelming need for approval, drug habits, divorces, and money. It’s the best.

*They don’t take selfies with me, but that’s because they’re eight and most don’t have phones. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

5. Sleep

I’ve always been a good sleeper. It drives my wife nuts how quickly I can be out once I close my eyes. But I am a GREAT sleeper during the school year. Nothing wipes you out like teaching, and even though I’m writing a book about how to stave off teacher exhaustion, some days just do you in even if you know all the tricks. The feeling of hitting the hay after one of these days is exquisite.

6. Weight Maintenance

I’m sure there are teachers who have an easier time managing their weight during the summer. I’m not one of them. Although it’s easier to exercise during the summer, it’s also easier to eat. And beer is a problem. Also ice cream. I’m sometimes bored during the middle of the day, so I eat. I’m never bored at school, and as mentioned in my book The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss, one strategy I use during the school year is to eat the same low-calorie lunch every day. I don’t do this during the summer, so it’s nice to get back to work and not have to run so many miles to maintain my weight.

7. Weekends Are Extra Awesome

Weekends are always wonderful, but they just aren’t that special in the summer. In fact, I often stay home during summer weekends because everyone else is out there doing stuff and getting in my way.  I  just go on a Tuesday. During the school year, weekends are gold. They are the two days during the week you can live it up. They feel like a reward. You know how people say we wouldn’t appreciate the sun if it weren’t for rainy days? (Do people say this?) Well, weekends are like that.

And yes, I realize that in that analogy teaching is the rainy day and I said this was going to be a positive post. But whatever. Analogies are hard. A lot harder than plunging toilets and writing fart poems.

We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

“We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

–The Who

I was talking with a teacher who has a new principal this year. Her new boss is going to turn things around. He’s going to fix what’s broken. It’s a familiar story.

When I started my teaching career, I went to six nights of training in Balanced Literacy. It was the Next Big Thing.

In my fourth year of teaching my district adopted a new math program that had been designed by some very impressive people in Chicago with PhD after their names. The program “spiraled,” and we were told this would raise those stubbornly middling math scores.

When large corporations started using SMART Goals, schools couldn’t wait to jump on board. If businesses were using them, they must be good!

Robert Marzano extolled the benefits of making your learning goals known to students, so it wasn’t long before schools started requiring “I Can” statements to be posted at the front of the room. This, we were told, was going to lead to greater student achievement.

Got behavior problems in your school? PBIS to the rescue!

Having a hard time differentiating? You need one-to-one devices!

Reading scores too low? This program sold by this huge publisher is bound to raise them!

Tired of achievement gaps and mediocre scores on international tests? Raise the bar! Tougher standards! Higher expectations! 100% proficiency goals! That will do the trick!

Once you’ve done this job for a few years, you start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. You’ve seen this script before, and you don’t particularly like the ending. Or the middle. Or that damn song that wakes you up each morning.

Don’t Believe the Hype

I have no problem with new programs. I recognize that change is inevitable and that schools should constantly strive to improve. As someone who writes his own books, I don’t resent the peddlers of new initiatives for repackaging some stale idea and trying to make a buck for themselves. Most teachers I know are willing to give new things a go. We know our schools and classrooms are far from perfect, and we’re constantly on the lookout for solutions.

But many administrators, in their desire to convince their staffs to buy in on the latest and greatest fads, go five steps too far. They promise too much, selling one magic bullet after another, as though teachers have a peculiar form of amnesia that wipes their memories clear of previous flops and lackluster results. Like the Super Bowl, the real thing hardly ever lives up to the hype.

We Don’t Believe in Miracles

Schools face complex issues. At best, problems can be mitigated. Success in most instances would be moderate, incremental improvement. But no one wants to hear that. So principals and other leaders zealously pitch their new ideas alongside the unspoken question made famous by Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles?”

No. No, we don’t. We don’t believe in your magic bullets. Because if magic bullets actually existed, we would have discovered them by now. We would already be using them.

The overselling of new initiatives isn’t just harmless zeal. We shouldn’t simply forgive those who promise the moon when there is no moon to be had. Failures shouldn’t be dismissed as the folly of an overeager instructional leader. Nor should the responsibility for such failures be left to fall on the shoulders of those who implemented them.  The damage is in the original lie, not the execution.

Every time some earnest and enthusiastic administrator tells his teachers that this new thing is going to be the cure-all we all so desperately want and it then inevitably fails to be such, that administrator loses credibility. Do it once and teachers might forgive him. Do it twice and staff begins to wonder. Do it three times and he better expect some serious skepticism and pushback. As George W. Bush famously said, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Nobody likes to feel gullible.

The Genesis of Cynicism

It is this baseless conviction in the potential of new things that acts as an incubation chamber for the cynicism veteran teachers are often accused of. It’s not that those teachers are negative and unwilling to try new ideas; it’s that they’ve been there and done that, and like The Who, they have decided that they won’t get fooled again. Their cynicism is hard-earned.

There’s a simple solution for principals looking to implement new programs. It isn’t sexy. Honesty rarely is. But the next time you want to try something you read about–the next time you want to hop on the latest bandwagon–don’t lie to your teachers. Don’t blow smoke up their hindquarters. Admit the truth: You don’t know if it will work. Concede that you cannot guarantee a solution to the problem. Acknowledge past promises and the uphill climb you face to gain your teachers’ trust. Make it clear that because what’s being done isn’t working, you’re going to try something else. Be up-front. Stop pretending you’ve loaded your gun with a magic bullet, when it looks the same as all the other ones teachers have seen slid into the chamber.

__________________

I left out about a 100 magic bullets. Share yours in the comments!

__________________

Other Stuff Worth Reading:

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Teach Like a Cat

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

__________________

Are you a member of the Teacher Habits Club yet? If not, subscribe here and starting getting new articles in your inbox.