Why Protecting Your Time is Unselfish

I just finished publishing a 10-part series on how teachers can prevent burnout by vigilantly protecting their time.  Over the course of it, I recommended not grading homework, not creating new content, not taking student writing home, and saying no a lot more often.

One might read those articles and get the impression that I’m advocating for teachers to be selfish. To only look out for number one. To not do anything that doesn’t benefit them.

Clearly, a school can’t function if every teacher acts only in her own best interest. Compromise is essential. Many hands make light work. No organization can succeed unless it’s composed of more givers than takers.

But schools also don’t function very well if they’re full of burned out teachers. And the data suggests that lots of teachers are burned out or well on their way.

It’s hard to find research on how many teachers experience burnout. But we do know that six in ten teachers describe their job as always or often stressful. Only 30% say they are engaged at work. Just 15% “strongly agree” that they’re enthusiastic about the profession.

We also know that the great majority of teachers don’t stick with the job long enough to collect their full pensions. According to pension expert Chad Aldeman, only one in five teachers reach retirement age (Check your state’s numbers here). In spite of a financial incentive to remain in the classroom, only 20% do so. And one has to wonder how many of those are merely hanging on, teaching because it’s all they’ve known or because they’re old dogs who don’t want to learn new tricks. It seems likely that a lot of teachers burn out before they’ve spent 30 years on the job.

Protecting your own hours is important for career longevity, but it’s about more than you. It’s also about helping others. Just as people who have taken intentional steps to accumulate wealth have more money to give to others,  teachers who proactively protect their time and energy have a greater capacity to give at school. Who do you feel less guilty about asking for assistance, the overwhelmed rookie or the veteran who always seems to be two steps ahead?

The best thing — the most selfless, giving thing — that teachers can do for their coworkers and their students is to protect their time and energy. 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. They’re also in a better position to help others.

There’s a tweet I read a couple days ago that sums it up perfectly:


If you’re struggling with this mindset or you just need practical tips for how to effectively cut back on the hours you work, you’ve got just one more day to sign up for the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make for yourself. It’s also a great choice if you want to have the time and energy to give more at work. Enrollment ends tomorrow, January 9. Act now!


Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 10: Use Class Time

teacher burnout

I don’t know any teacher who thinks she has enough time during the school day to get done everything she needs to get done. That’s because most teachers split the time they have at work into two distinct categories. There is time with students and time without students. While we’re with students we are constantly interacting with them. We’re teaching, leading discussions, reteaching, modeling, helping, chatting, conferencing, and problem-solving. This constitutes the great majority of our workday. Time without students is used for all other aspects of the job: planning, grading, email, phone calls, making copies, locating resources, meetings, creating, and lots of other things.

Given that most teachers have a small amount of time without students, we struggle to accomplish all that needs to be done without taking work home or staying late after school.

But what if instead of dividing our time this way, we thought of our time at school as time to do the job of a teacher? 

Doing the job of a teacher involves interacting with students, but it also involves all that other stuff. Why should we limit those responsibilities to a small part of our day, thereby guaranteeing that we’ll have to work more hours before or after school and making the likelihood that we will burn out even greater? Why not structure your day so you can use your full eight hours to do all aspects of the job?

The first step to looking at your time differently is to let go of guilt. Guilt is the reason you feel “caught” when your principal walks in and sees you grading papers at your desk while students work independently. Guilt is why you walk around looking over students’ shoulders as they take a test instead of using that time productively. Guilt is what makes you reluctant to sit with your computer and provide students feedback on their writing instead of meeting with them in individual conferences.

Teachers have been conditioned to think that the only thing they should be doing when their students are in the room is physically interacting with them, even when doing so is detrimental.

It’s that way of thinking that creates the feeling that we never have enough time. If you want more time, create it. Carve time out of your time with students to do the things you used to reserve for time without students. Here are a few ways:

Give Breaks

Breaks are good for everyone. Everyone needs them. Give students occasional breaks and use the time to catch up on some of your other work. Read the whole article about this: One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

Use Student Mentors

I turned to students mentors our of desperation. The first year we implemented our math program, I’d have eight students needing help at the same time. I’d dart around the room trying to get to them all. Tired of waiting for me and unable to do the work, students would start talking. I’d have to stop and refocus the class. It was frustrating and exhausting. But while those eight students needed constant help, there were eight others who breezed through the assignments. Why was I spinning like a dervish when I could enlist their help?

You have students who can help other students. It doesn’t have to be you. You might not be all that great anyway. You “help” Johnny every day, but there he is again today with his hand up every five minutes. Send the message to your students that you expect them to do the work, and that if they are stuck, a classmate will help them. Then use the time such an expectation creates to reply to emails, sketch out plans for next week, or leave feedback on some student writing, only helping when your student mentors are unable to.

Test Time

Use student test time to get other work done. Quit watching students like a hawk. You can’t help them anyway and you’re sending them the message that you don’t trust them. Walking around the room while students are taking a test is a waste of your most valuable resource.

Independent Student Reading

I defended independent reading in another article, so I won’t repeat all of that here, but let me address one frequent criticism.

Research indicates that independent reading doesn’t work for the lowest readers. It doesn’t work for the lowest readers because the lowest readers don’t read.  It comes down to what you think the role of a teacher is. If you believe teachers must ensure students learn, then you’ll constantly guilt yourself into doing more. But if you believe that it’s your job to do your best to establish an environment where learning can take place and that ultimately, it’s up to your students to take advantage of opportunities, then you’ll have no trouble providing students with time to read, explaining your expectations for this time, teaching students why it matters that they read, making reading as appealing as possible, and then getting out of their way and letting them own their learning. If this is your philosophy, then you won’t feel guilty about working on other things while students have the chance to engage in an activity that will make them better readers, should they only choose to do it.

Video Lessons

In part 8 of this series, I wrote about leveraging technology. By making video lessons, you free up time for other things. Having successfully cloned yourself, the video version of you can do the teaching while the human version can do the parts of your job you complain you don’t have time for. Check some papers, reply to professional emails, enter test scores into your online grading system. These are all professional responsibilities. They are part of your job. You shouldn’t feel guilty about doing them, especially when you created that time without harming students in any way.

Finding time during the day to accomplish those tasks you normally take home isn’t abdicating your responsibilities as a teacher. It’s doing your job during the hours you’ve been given to do your job. Look at your whole day. Where are some other places you can carve out time so you can go home at a reasonable hour, keep burnout at bay, and extend your teaching career?


If you’d like more productivity tips, check out Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. She’ll help you find even more ways to do less while being a more effective teacher. The sign-up period ends Tuesday, January 9, so don’t delay!


Other Articles in this Series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing




Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 9: On Writing

teacher burnout

Let’s say that in the name of avoiding burnout you decide you’re never again going to take student work home. You stop assigning homework. You move paper assessments over to computer-scored ones. You grade in-class work as students finish it. But what do you do about student writing? How can you read 30 or 60 or 120 student essays without taking them home?

So much of cutting the hours you work is simply actually wanting to cut the number of hours you work and doing what’s necessary to make it happen. It requires you to challenge the way you’ve done things and maybe the way it’s “always been done.” You need new mindsets.

If you have 120 student essays to grade over a weekend, it’s because you chose to have 120 student essays to grade over a weekend. Choose differently.

Let’s start with the end in mind. You want each student to get better at writing. What actions can you take to achieve that goal? Or, another way to think of it, how do writers improve? 

Thinking of my own writing, the things that have helped me get better are:

  1. Reading
  2. Lessons (usually in the form of books or articles on how to write effectively)
  3. Practice
  4. Feedback

That’s it. You’ll notice the omission of the word “grades.” Grades do nothing to improve creative work. I have three books on Amazon that have “grades” in the form of little stars. Those stars don’t tell me anything about what I did well or what I need to do to get better. In the same vein, think of movie ratings. You might see a low rating and decide not to watch that particular movie. But if you’re the director of that movie, a 2-star rating doesn’t tell you anything. If you wanted to know what people actually thought about your movie, you’d have to read the reviews. In other words, creators value feedback, not grades.

So the first mindset change is: Grades don’t matter. Feedback does.

But whose feedback? Is all feedback the same? Can students become better writers by getting feedback from students or parents, or does all feedback have to come from the teacher?

Again, thinking of my own writing, I would benefit more from feedback from an expert. That’s why the master-apprentice relationship works. I have little doubt that I’d be a better writer today if Phillip Roth reviewed everything I wrote and offered pointers before I published. But that doesn’t mean others’ feedback is worthless. Every book I write gets sent to a handful of readers. Their feedback always results in a better final product.

The same is true for your students. They need your expert feedback, but that doesn’t mean peer feedback won’t also help them improve. Having students share their work with peers and requiring that they comment on others’ writing is a way for students to see how their work is received by readers. That’s the second mindset shift:

Not all feedback has to come from the teacher.

Alice Keeler says, “The longer a student goes without feedback, the less they care about the feedback when they get it.” Technology allows for faster feedback. I have my students do their writing in Google Docs so I can jump into their document at any time and provide suggestions and so that they can share their writing with classmates. It’s a recursive process of them writing, receiving feedback, and them improving their writing based on that feedback. It’s immediate and the feedback actually gets put to use. So that’s the third mindset shift:

Provide feedback on students’ writing while students are writing.

If you spend class time doing that, you won’t have to take their work home. You’ll also know where every student is in the writing process and you’ll use what you observe in their writing to decide which lessons to teach next. For an excellent article on how a teacher does this, read Catlin Tucker’s article “Stop Taking Grading Home.” 

But what about the grade? First, delay it as long as possible. Grades tell students that the work is over. If you want students to ever go back and improve it, then giving them a grade is a way to ensure that they won’t. If permissible, never give a grade on a student’s writing. They don’t help them improve.

If you can’t go that far,  grade as few of their writing assignments as possible. Provide targeted feedback. Require them to consider that feedback. Have them highlight areas where they revised to demonstrate how they used that feedback. But grade as a little as possible.

In those instances where there’s just no getting around it, grade the writing using a single-point rubric. It will save you tons of time and provide just as useful information to students as more complicated rubrics do (probably more, since students might actually read these less wordy versions). Limit the number of writing traits you score. Grading ten elements is too much. Pick three or four for each piece and focus your feedback on those. This will save you time and also help your students get better.

As with everything in the classroom, it’s not what you do but how you do it. De-emphasize the grade and stress their growth. Encourage them to go back and look at old papers they wrote. And if you were able to refrain from grading those earlier pieces, you might be surprised to see them returning to them and making them better.


The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club is designed to help you regain hours of your life without sacrificing effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, like the article above, it provides new ways of thinking that will save you time and help you be a better teacher.


Other Articles in this Series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology






Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 8: Leverage Technology

teacher burnout

“If the computer can grade it, it should” — Alice Keeler

I used to attend the Michigan high school basketball finals. I was always struck by how many assistant coaches these high schools had sitting on the bench. One school, a perennial power that happened to be a private academy, had six assistants. They had seven coaches for a team of 15 kids. Imagine what we could do in our classrooms with that many caring, knowledgeable adults willing to donate their time and energy to helping kids learn.

I’ll avoid a digression here about the value our society places on sports over the value they place on education, and just say this: Most teachers would love to have even one assistant teacher in the room. One of them could teach the lesson while the other worked with those who needed more intensive help. One could instruct while the other monitored behavior. One could grade math tests while the other lectured.

Thanks to technology, teachers can do exactly that. They can clone themselves. Flipped lessons make you a double. They save you time.

If your teaching is anything like mine, a lesson that should take 20 minutes often takes 30. I stop to redirect students. I repeat things that I know students missed. I’m interrupted by the damn intercom.

There are other problems with whole group instruction. I’m never sure if I’m going too fast for students. I don’t always know when I need to hit an important point again. A kid asks to use the restroom right in the middle of a lecture, and despite knowing he’s going to miss important information, I let him go because it’s far, far worse to risk him having an accident in his seat.

All of those problems are solved with video lessons. I never have to stop teaching. Students can rewatch parts that are confusing. If their neighbor is distracting them, they can hit pause, move somewhere else, and replay the parts they missed. They can stop the video while they go to the bathroom, or get a Kleenex, or sharpen a pencil. They can even be absent and not miss anything upon their return.

And while you’ll need to invest some time up-front to make the videos, you’ll save it on the back end. While students watch the video, you are freed up to do other elements of your job. Meet with a small group.  Pull students back one at a time to discuss a math concept they’re struggling with or to conference about their writing. Take care of a few administrative tasks while they’re busy learning from your digital clone. Assign some work in Google Classroom. Grade a few tests. Provide digital feedback on work they’ve submitted. Since you’re not physically teaching, you’ve created time that never existed before.

Making instructional videos is my favorite way to leverage technology to save time and get other things done,  but it’s far from the only one. If you’re fortunate enough to have a class set of devices, you might also consider trying some of these three other ways I use technology to save time:

Google Docs

I still see the value in the printed word, so my students do their brainstorming, planning, and drafting in a journal. But once they’ve put their ideas on paper, I have them type their work in a Google Doc. I do this within Google Classroom so I can look at their work at any time. In fact, once the mini-lesson for the day is over, that’s what I do. I stand at my computer and try to get through 10 students’ writing in a 20-30 minute writing period. I provide feedback, both good and bad, and I try to limit the number of comments I leave because no one needs 10 things to work on. In this manner, I save time because commenting digitally is much faster than meeting with students.  There are a number of other advantages to having students write in Google Docs. I’ll talk more about this in part 9 of this series, “On Writing.”

Ask a Question in Google Classroom

I love Google Classroom. It serves as the central hub for my resources and students complete most of their assignments inside of it. One of my favorite features is “Ask a Question.” Instead of reading and then answering comprehension questions, students read or listen to selections from our reading program and then answer a question I pose in Google Classroom. This is where I have students practice responding with text evidence. Once they’re done, they’re required to give three classmates feedback on their answers. I also try to provide feedback on each answer (and I usually can, something that would be difficult on paper), but even if I don’t, I know that they’ll hear from a number of their classmates. In the past, I would have had a stack of papers to take home. Now, as they write their answers, I sit with my Chromebook open and read their responses as they come in. If they need to fix something, they know within minutes based on the feedback they get from me and their classmates. I’ll write more about other uses of the Ask a Question feature in another post. There are lots of applications.

Instant Feedback

I no longer grade any math except the paper tests I give students 12 times each year. That’s because Alice Keeler is right. If the computer can grade it, it should. Most of the math students do is practice. They need to know whether or not they’re doing it right, and I need to know who needs more help. Our district-adopted math program has daily practice aligned with each day’s lesson in digital form. After the “I do, we do,” part of the lesson, students work independently and the program provides instant feedback. There are also resources that allow students to understand and correct their mistakes. When students are done with their daily work, they have a number of other online options for extra math practice. I use Prodigy, Xtra Math, and Multiplication.com. All give students feedback that would take hours (if not days) for me to provide were they doing everything on paper.  The reports I can generate also let me know very quickly who gets it and who needs reteaching and extra practice.

One criticism of technology in the classroom is that it’s sometimes unnecessary. Having students do what amounts to a digital worksheet is no better than doing a paper worksheet. That’s true. Except when it comes to my time. Copying a paper worksheet and then taking a stack home to review takes much longer than assigning one in Google Classroom and having the ability to pull up each student’s work with a click or two. While technology can be used to improve instruction and to engage students, it can also benefit teachers by streamlining processes and creating time where it didn’t exist before.

There are, of course, a ton of ways to use technology in the classroom. Two of my favorite go-to people are Matt Miller and Alice Keeler. Follow them on Twitter and you’ll get a steady stream of ideas. Look for those that benefit kids but also help you by freeing up your time so that you have less work to take home at night.

Have you checked out the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club yet? If you’re serious about reclaiming hours of life, click here to see what it’s all about.

Other Articles in this Series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

teacher burnout

Note: Parts of this post first appeared in my book, Exhausted.

Do you make your own clothes? Do you grow most of your own food? Did you build the car your drive? Not me. Those things are time-consuming, I don’t know how to do any of them, and I can go somewhere and buy all of them for less than I can make them (especially when you factor in the costs of inevitable mistakes).

Have you ever designed your own science unit? Do you make your own writing rubrics? Write your own tests? Ever create your own worksheets? Why?

Once upon a time, people did have to make their own clothes and grow their own food. And once upon a time, teachers did have to create their own instructional materials. They don’t have to anymore. Times change. And one of the biggest changes to education in the last twenty years was the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by most states.

It’s safe to say that the Common Core wouldn’t exist without Bill Gates’s money and influence. Gates once participated in an interview with the American Enterprise Institute, and spoke about his efforts to promote the Common Core:

“If [states] have two [sets of standards] they’re comparing, they ought to probably pick something in common because, to some degree, this is an area where, if you do have commonality, it’s like an electrical plug, you get more free market competition. Scale is good for free market competition.”

Scale is also good for teachers looking to spend less time making stuff.

Since nearly every state, even those that have nominally rejected the CCSS, has essentially the same learning expectations, there is now a mountain of available resources that align with the content educators are required to teach. Publishers have benefitted from the standards (as have sellers on Teachers Pay Teachers) because they can now sell to an entire nation of educators, not just those in their own states. Almost all of the online sites I use with my students did not exist before the Common Core State Standards.

No matter what you think of the Common Core or the motives of Bill and Melinda Gates and corporate publishers, every teacher should take advantage of the opportunity the standards provide to create less. There is almost never a good reason to spend your most precious resource making content anymore. Somebody somewhere has already invested the time and mental capital to do so. Take advantage of it, and spend your energies elsewhere.

The first place to start is your district-adopted curriculum. As much as teachers might resent being handed a program and told to use it, your district is doing you a favor when they do so.

To read more on this topic, check out this article: Expertise, Experience, and Ed Reform

I don’t love being told what (or sometimes, how) to teach. I resent the declining autonomy teachers have over the curriculum. But I’m also a realist and a pragmatist. I know that just because I create something does not make it better. I also know that when my district tells me what to teach and provides me the materials to use, they are freeing up hours of my time that I would have used locating or creating instructional materials. I can use that time for more important things. Stop looking for better lessons. Teach the ones your district paid for. Use your energy to bring life to them, not to create whole new units.

If your district hasn’t approved a curriculum, and you’re left to find lessons on your own, then hop on the Internet. Thanks to widely adopted standards like the Common Core and the NGSS, you’ll find no dearth of content. Don’t recreate the wheel. Use what someone else has already made.

Finally, If creating is really important to you — if it’s one of the main reasons you went into teaching — then go for it. Create as much as you want. Sell your stuff on Teachers Pay Teachers. There’s nothing wrong with creating content. Some people love to do it. The rest of us benefit from these creators’ work.

Just don’t complain about working 50-hour weeks.

Nobody is making you. There is no need to create yet another lesson on friction or another personal narrative rubric (I recommend a single point rubric, incidentally). That’s your choice. Recognize it as such. And if cutting hours off your workweek is a priority for you, then stop using your precious time making stuff that already exists.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can do fewer things better, check out Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Workweek Club. You’ll get new tips every week and access to a ton of resources to help you cut back without sacrificing effectiveness. In fact, prioritizing your time will help you be a better teacher.  It’s great stuff! If you’re not sure if the club is right for you, then click here to take the 12 question, personalized quiz to see what results YOU can expect with the club.