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.

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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

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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.

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Related:

The Expectation of Free Work

How Teachers Can Get Paid for Extra Work

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

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The Expectation of Free Work

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I have a neighbor who’s a math teacher. He’s also the owner of a landscaping business. I figured the guy must really love taking care of people’s lawns to do it after teaching all day and on the weekends. Lawn care must be his passion to sacrifice like that. His calling in life, even. So I phoned him and asked if he could mow my grass once a week. He said sure. Then he quoted me a price. “Oh, you misunderstand, I’m not going to pay you,” I explained. “I figured, since you obviously love it so much, you’d just do it for free.”

My daughter’s pediatrician’s office left a message on my voicemail the other day. She was due for a checkup. I scanned my calendar to find a convenient time to take her in. I had to work all week, so after five or over the weekend looked good. I told them that when I called. They said they closed at five and weren’t open on weekends. I waited. “We can get you in at 11:00 am on Thursday,” the lady said. “I’ll be at work then”, I told her. “Listen, I can get there by quarter after five. We’ll just meet with the doctor then.” She didn’t seem to understand. I think I’m going to change doctors. This one’s obviously not very dedicated. Doesn’t she know she’s supposed to be there for the kids?

My mom had to stay overnight at the hospital a couple months back following a surgery and she had this great nurse. Rachel was kind, patient, funny, and explained everything she was doing to everyone in the room. She was very attentive. Mom loved her. But then, around 8 o’clock, a new nurse popped in. “What happened to Rachel?” mom asked. “Oh, her shift ended at eight.” We couldn’t understand. Rachel seemed so dedicated. She obviously loved her patients. How come she wasn’t doing everything she could for them?

I was in a golf tournament last summer to raise money for the local school’s athletic program. After our round, we were served an excellent dinner catered by a local restaurant. They had a number of staff there. There were a few waitresses going around refilling drinks, a couple of others tending to the buffet line, and one of those meat carving guys. I was really impressed. As he was slicing off a slab of prime rib for me, I told him, “Wow, this is really great of all you guys to give up your Saturday to do this. Thanks for helping out the kids of our community.” He smiled and said thank you. But I learned later that he was paid to be there. Here I thought he was carving that meat out of the goodness of his heart.

When we expect people to work for free, to bend over backwards to meet our needs, or even to donate their time in the interest of a worthy cause, it makes us, not them, look bad. It’s insulting to suggest others work for free. It shows exactly how much we value their time, their work, and their lives outside of work.

If teachers choose to donate their labor that’s their business, but they should never be asked or expected to.

Lawyers charge, doctors keep office hours, cops get paid overtime. Taking advantage of a teacher’s passion, dedication, generosity, or sense of obligation is wrong.

If a committee is important enough to create, then it’s important enough to pay teachers to be on it. If meeting with parents is a necessary part of the job, then those meetings should take place during paid hours. If teacher attendance at an after-school event is critical for the success of the night, then pay teachers to attend. The fact that teachers are “there for the kids” doesn’t excuse mistreatment, it makes it worse. If the work teachers do is so important, they should be paid to perform it.

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Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

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There is one thing every teacher can and should do if they want to be less tired and use their time at work more efficiently:

Quit working shortly after the kids have left. Go home.

There are many reasons teachers stay late at school. Some feel a sense of pride at being one of the last to leave. They believe their late nights reflect greater dedication to their students. They enjoy their reputation as a hard worker. Others feel guilty when they leave quickly. They keep working out of a misguided sense of obligation. They worry what others will think of them, fearing they’ll be thought of as lazy and apathetic. Many teachers act as if they have no choice in the matter. They’re on committees, run after-school clubs, or just have so much to do that they have to stay after work to get it done.

No matter the reason, all believe that staying late after school makes them a better teacher. But they are wrong.

Quitting, for lack of a better word, is good.

Quit for Your Health

I was jogging the other day when my back started to hurt. I tried to keep going, but it got worse. So I quit running and my back instantly felt better.

Restaurants have gone crazy with the size of their nachos.

I mean, will you look at this thing?

I get full about halfway through. So I quit eating them.

Smart people quit when their body tells them to. No one feels bad about it. But when it comes to work, we suddenly start believing we’re Superman and that no matter how tired we are we can and should just keep going.

Teaching is a unique job. One of the reasons it’s so exhausting is that we have to be on all day. To do the job properly, you need to be well-rested. You need to be enthusiastic and observant. Going home will help.

No matter when I get home, I want to maximize the time I have for myself.  On nights when I’m home by five o’clock, I’ve got six hours to do whatever I want. That’s a nice balance. Ten hours for preparing for work, commuting, and working, six for my personal life, and eight hours of sleep. Because I value my personal time, any day I get home late leads to a late night and a lack of sleep.

Getting home earlier also means you can eat earlier. Your body will have longer to digest dinner before you go to bed, and eating early gives the food enough time to settle so you can exercise without discomfort.

Quit to Be a Better Teacher

A lot of teachers stay after school because they have work to do, but they’ve chosen the worst possible time to get it done. By the end of the day your willpower is exhausted. Willpower is limited, and once it’s gone only eating and sleep can restore it. Willpower is what you need to make yourself check papers, read essays, plan lessons, and respond tactfully to emails. A lack of willpower means your after-school efforts are going to be inefficient. You’ll be more easily distracted, more tempted to check Facebook or gossip with colleagues, and more likely to head to the lounge to eat whatever you can find because your body needs fuel.

Parkinson’s Law is also working against you. It states that work will expand to fill the available time. I wrote and published my first two books, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss and Happy Teacher in two months each. I was able to do that because that’s how long I gave myself to complete them. Because of the topic of my next book, I planned an October release. I started working on it in May. The book is taking me longer because I gave myself more time to do it, so many days I don’t write much and on some days I don’t work on it at all (I write long blog posts like this one instead).

This is Parkinson’s Law at work, and it will strike you as you sit at your desk after school. Instead of working until you complete a certain amount of work, give yourself 30 minutes. You’ll be more focused, your work will be of better quality, you’ll cut out any distractions or cute but unnecessary extras, and you’ll get it finished. Give yourself less time, and you’ll get more done.

Quit to Be a Better Person

Psychologists discovered something they call the morning morality effect. Basically, you’re a better person in the morning. Your body needs glucose for pretty much everything, including willpower and decision-making. Since teachers expend a lot of willpower and make a ton of decisions, we burn through glucose pretty fast. When it runs out we’re tired, cranky, impatient, have stronger cravings for sweets and other junk food, and we experience stronger emotions. All of which lead to bad decisions. The morning morality effect explains why you’re more likely to ruin your diet at night than in the morning, and why people are more likely to commit immoral acts like lying, cheating, and stealing in the afternoon. School is not a place you want to be when you’re more likely to make bad decisions. Go home.

Quit Because Science Says To

Many teachers reading this will still stay after school because they believe it’s the only way to be effective at their jobs. They’ve fallen victim to the culture of overwork. So a fair question to ask is:  Do longer hours make you more productive?

The research is clear. More work doesn’t equal more output. In one study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80-hour weeks and those who just pretended to (which actually sounds worse). Numerous studies have shown that overwork leads to stress that causes health issues, sleep deprivation, depression, heart disease, memory loss, and greater alcoholic intake. Researchers have also found that working too much impairs your abilities to communicate, make judgments, read others’ nonverbal language, and modulate your emotions.

Also, your cat will miss you.

So go home. Eat dinner. Hit the gym. Kiss your spouse. Watch Netflix. Play Uno with your kids. Leave work at work. Detach. Live your life. And when you’re tempted to choose more work over all those things, remember this Arianna Huffington quote:

“Have you noticed that when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success?”

You can read more here: Stop Working More Than 40 Hours a Week.

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Related Content:

Why American Teachers Should Work Less

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary If You’re Working for Free

Why Teachers Are So Tired

 

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7 Tricks to Keep Yourself (& Your Students) Engaged After Lunch

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GUEST POST by Shundalyn Allen, University Instructor & Contributor to Wisewire

What time of day are your students most disruptive? When asked this question, many teachers identified the transition from lunch back to the classroom. Tiredness after meals is common because energy diverts to digestion. How can you boost your energy after lunch? Here are seven tips to boost your energy and keep your students engaged after eating.

1. Get Moving

When blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, you feel energized and alert. Get your blood circulating with some light exercise. Walking around your building or stretching for a few moments are simple ways to incorporate physical activity into your day.

2. De-stress

Exercise is not a one-trick pony. It directly affects stress. Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that make you feel good. Don’t panic if you don’t have a lot of spare time or don’t feel fit enough for a high-impact workout. The Mayo Clinic reports that three ten-minute walks can take the place of one thirty-minute walk. You might even incorporate walking into a work duty. For instance, if you supervise recess or lunch, you can move around the playground, gym, or cafeteria as you monitor the students.

3. Stay Hydrated

Water prevents dehydration, which causes fatigue and makes it difficult for your body to operate properly. Drinking plenty of water will help your body maintain a state of alertness. For an additional boost, add a little lemon juice to your water bottle. Studies have shown that the smell of lemon promotes concentration, memory, and accuracy. In fact, it’s common in Japan to diffuse lemon-scented essential oils through the ventilation systems of businesses because it stimulates the mind while calming emotions.

Bonus: It tastes good! Track and maintain your daily water intake with this app.

4. See Yourself Where You Want to Be

Tired of being tired? Practice visualization by creating a mental picture of a desired outcome. For instance, teachers who mentally immerse themselves in a scene of a successful lunch-to-lesson transition increase the likelihood that they will experience the same smooth transition in real life. How can you do it? Picture your students’ engaged faces, the sounds of them pulling out their chairs to sit down, an intriguing question or problem written on the white erase board, and so on.

Another type of visualization involves envisioning each step of a process. Athletes do it all the time, but studies reveal that it also benefits the average person. In one study published by the Library of Medicine, thirty young volunteers exercised or visualized using their muscles. At the end of twelve weeks, both groups were stronger. The researchers concluded: “The mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength.” In other words, when people imagine physical activity, the brain’s responds almost as if they were exercising in real life. The benefits of visualization aren’t limited to physical tasks. What an ideal option for teachers with little time for a full workout! Educators who incorporate visualization skills, such as guided imagery, into their lessons notice that students focus more on the subject matter. Will you try it out in your lesson plan?

5. Implement a Routine

Have you heard of the PAX Good Behavior Game (GBG)? According to the Game’s website, players work towards shared goals, cooperate with one another, and “self-regulate.” These skills translate to more engaged learning and significantly less time-wasting disruptions. Research indicates that the GBG reduces aggressive and disruptive behaviors in elementary school classrooms.

Even upper-grade classrooms flourish with an effective routine. Structure facilitates calm and focus. Whatever re-centering activity you choose—from answering a writing prompt in a journal to solving an equation or watching a short video—students should know the daily expectations. That way, they can begin working on the task as soon as they return to the classroom. And remember, routines shouldn’t be boring. Anticipating a fun video or an active game will give everyone something to look forward to in the afternoon.

6. Tap into Animal Energy

Playing with animals releases oxytocin, a hormone that inhibits stress and promotes focus and tranquility, according to a research study by the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine. You probably can’t bring your dog to school, but some schools do allow small classroom pet, such as a goldfish, hamster, or lizard. Even watching the birds outside your window or installing a fuzzy bunny screensaver on your laptop can raise your spirits. Researcher Jessica Gall Myrick discovered that even people who viewed cat videos on the Internet experienced heightened energy levels and an increase in positive emotions.

7. Take a Nap

In Mediterranean cultures, it’s traditional to take a short nap called a siesta after the midday meal. Does sleep affect stress levels? Yes, according to SEMERGEN (Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians), brief naps improve heart function, mental alertness, and recall. One caveat, however, is that the benefits only appear if you nap on a regular basis. You might dismiss the idea of taking a nap at work. Who has the time? However, sleep expert Sara C. Mednick says that “you can get incredible benefits from [as little as] 15. . .minutes of napping.” Can you arrange your schedule to include a brief power nap during your free period or take a short nap after school before you start grading? If so, you can stave off the after-lunch drag.

If your students are rowdy after lunch and your energy is at its all-day low, you might find it extremely tough to get your class on task. Don’t lose hope. With a few small tweaks to your afternoon routine, you can turn your most challenging time into your favorite period of the day.
Shundalyn Allen is a University Instructor & Contributor to Wisewire. She started her career as a high-school French/ESL teacher in 2004. When she’s not in the classroom, she’s helping her clients, such as Grammarly and Wisewire, to provide engaging and practical content for their readers.