The Best and Worst Lie Teachers Tell Themselves

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I used to dread notes from substitute teachers. Upon arriving at school following an absence, I would see a note on my desk and delay reading it as long as possible. I’d make copies. I’d fine-tune lesson plans. I’d check some papers, answer some emails. Eventually, curiosity would get the best of me and I’d read the note. Invariably, I’d learn about the awful decisions made by the usual suspects. My blood pressure would rise. I would rehearse the cutting words I was itching to hurl at them. Didn’t they know how to behave? How dare they be so disrespectful! It was a horrible way to start the day.

An Epiphany

After a while, I came to realize that the way my students behaved for a sub usually had far less to do with my students and far more to do with the substitute. So instead of getting mad at my students, I would toss the note, unread, into the trash, and tell myself that whatever happened the day before was mostly a reflection on the adult at the front of the room. That led to an epiphany. If I blamed substitute teachers for how my students behaved, why should I not blame myself for what went on in my classroom on a daily basis?

It was the single most productive question I’ve asked as a teacher. It forced me to view every problem in my classroom as the result of something I had or hadn’t done. It led me to realize that every issue in my room was something I could work to resolve. Through research, collaboration, and trial and error, I could improve my craft and enjoy the fruits of my growing competency. I could influence student behavior, effort, and motivation.

  • When students didn’t learn, it was my fault.
  • When a student misbehaved, it was because of my classroom management, or my lame lesson, or my failure to build a positive relationship.
  • When students were bored, it was because I was not making things interesting enough.
  • When transitions were sloppy, it was because I hadn’t taught them clearly enough or didn’t have high enough expectations.

There’s no question that I started to improve as a teacher when I stopped looking for excuses. Instead of labeling students as lazy, disrespectful, or selfish, instead of blaming their parents, or lamenting the effects of generational poverty, the ugly side of capitalism, or other outside circumstances for what happened in my room, I looked in the mirror.

My mantra was, “I am responsible for everything that happens in my room.”

It’s the best lie I ever told myself.

The Best Lie

It’s an empowering lie. We can’t do anything about our students’ home lives. We have little control over district policies. We can’t alter the standards. But we can control what happens in our classrooms. This is the way teachers who want to get better have to think. It’s what we must believe. It forces us to evaluate our practice. It compels reflection. It leads us to seek out solutions, which means we’re observing others, seeking information from multiple sources, and trying new approaches, all in the interest of improving our craft.

What’s great about believing this lie is it forces you to do something about the only thing you can control: you.

But it’s still a lie.

The Truth

The truth is that you are not responsible for everything that happens in your room. Sometimes, a child’s poor decision has absolutely nothing to do with you.

The truth is that some kids are lazy. They were lazy last year, and they’ll be lazy this year. They’ll grow up to be lazy adults. Look around. They’re everywhere. They didn’t start becoming lazy because of a teacher.

The truth is that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t reach a kid.

The truth is that some students have very little self-control, and no matter how much you try, they still won’t have much self-control when they leave you.

The truth is that some kids know damn well what they’re supposed to do and they don’t do it for reasons that have nothing to do with you.

The truth is that no matter what you do, some students will find it boring.

The truth is that some students don’t want to accept responsibility for their learning, and so it’s easier for everyone — the student, their parents, your boss, politicians, people who don’t know jack diddly about teaching — to blame you.

The truth is that sometimes, it’s the kid’s fault. Sometimes, their failures are on them. In fact, we rob something important from a student when we accept blame for their failures, just as we would rob them by taking credit for their successes.

The truth is that your impact isn’t nearly as great as you have been led to believe.

When you believe the lie that everything that happens in your classroom is because of you, then you will improve as a teacher. You will constantly problem solve. You will try new things, read more, and connect with other teachers. You will experiment, fail, tweak, start over, fail again, and try anew. You will learn. You will grow. You will get better.

The Worst Lie

But lying has consequences. The more you put on yourself, the greater frustration you’ll feel when things don’t go well. The more accountability you accept for others’ choices, the more stress you’ll feel when those choices are poor ones. The more stress you feel, the more exhausted you’ll be. And the more exhausted you are, the more likely it is that you’ll burn out.

I know teachers who go home in tears over their students’ poor choices. They expect to make a difference, and when it seems as if their efforts are going to waste, they feel incredibly disheartened. When it seems like we’re not having an impact on our most challenging students, we feel like failures. We lose sleep. We stress over how the behavior of a few students affects our classroom cultures and how the learning of the other students is harmed. We become anxious over even the thought of anyone peering into our rooms, seeing our struggles, and judging us because we have already judged ourselves so harshly. When we put everything on our shoulders, it’s hard to stand tall. Our knees buckle. Some of us collapse.

What teachers need isn’t more accountability for things over which they have little control. I know very few teachers who don’t already feel tremendously accountable for what happens in their classrooms. Teachers need to know that they can’t solve every problem in their rooms because they can’t solve every problem in their students’ homes, in their communities, and in society. Yes, teachers should always try to improve. They should look at themselves first. But they should also admit that they’re not miracle workers. And just because parents, administrators, policymakers, reformers, and even teachers themselves believe they can do it all, doesn’t make it true.

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 o’clock 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 employees there. There were a few waitresses walking around refilling drinks, a couple of people 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 backward 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 labor that’s their business, but they should never be asked or expected to.

Lawyers charge, doctors keep office hours, cops and nurses 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

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.

For those of you who would love to spend less time at work but just aren’t sure how, check out Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club (affiliate link. )It’s the best resource I know of for stressed out, exhausted, and overworked teachers.

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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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