Throwing Your Hands Up Will Not Make Things Better

The other day, I shared the first in a series of articles I wrote last winter on preventing teacher burnout. The end of the article included links to the rest of the series. There are articles on saying no, leaving soon after students do at the end of the day, leveraging technology to decrease your workload, getting paperwork done while students are working, and a number of other topics. I recognize that not every one of my suggestions will work for every teacher out there. Some of us have tyrannical principals. Others may be hamstrung by awful contracts. I’m sure there are many teachers whose students do not have one-to-one devices. I get that not everything I suggest teachers do can realistically be done.

But a comment left by a reader illustrated the kind of defeatist thinking I hear from too many teachers. She told me my solutions weren’t practical for most teachers. When I asked for specifics, she wrote:

Many times teachers don’t have the luxury of individuals having their own technology. After-hours activities are often mandatory, and when students are doing independent work the teachers need to monitor for behavior issues, students who need assistance, etc. Coming in early and staying late are often the only opportunities to clean the rooms. One janitor for an entire school doesn’t cut it, and reports, progress notes, lesson plans, IEPs, and state-guided binders all have to be done after hours.

All of that may indeed be true. But the sentiment behind the words strikes me as something along the lines of, “Well, I’ll never be able to get my life back and feel less overwhelmed because all of these obstacles are making it impossible.”

The solutions I offer in articles and books may not work for everyone. They might not even be possible for some teachers. But I know what definitely will not make your teaching life better: resignation. Throwing your hands up in the face of challenges that make it difficult for you to remain enthusiastic about your job, that prevent you from getting home to your family and having needed balance in your life, and that make it more likely you will become discouraged, frustrated, and burned out is not a solution.

The point of my advice is not that you do x,y, and z and everything will be hunky-dory. The point is that you do something to make things better.

If your students do not have one-to-one devices, most of you can still use technology to cut hours off your workweek. Take students to the lab. Check out the Chromebook cart. Rotate students through centers to take advantage of the six laptops you do have. Write a grant for more devices. Get on DonorsChoose.

If your contract requires you to attend after-hours activities, then go. But don’t go to the ones that aren’t required. And stop telling yourself events are mandatory when they aren’t. A principal “expecting” you to be there isn’t a requirement. The fact that the rest of the staff has been guilted into attending does not obligate you to follow suit. If you’re worried about fallout, then talk to some veteran teachers. Ask them how many teachers in the past five years have been fired for not attending after-school events. I’m confident you’ll find the number quite low.

As for getting work done while you students work, yes, you may have to deal with behavior issues. But some of those can be solved proactively. Sit the troublemakers at the table where you’ll be doing your work. Name some high-performing, early-finishing student mentors to help those who need it. Partner those who almost always need help (it’s not like you don’t know who they are) with those who like helping and are always asking you what they can do next. Most importantly, establish early on what independent work looks like and have procedures students can follow when stuck that don’t require your constant availability. And if none of the above works, try something else. You have the right to go home at night and not have a pile of paperwork to complete, but that will only happen if you do something to reduce the piles of paperwork you are taking home. So do it!

If you’ve been teaching more than five years and you’re staying after school for three hours every night, then do something different. That’s not tenable. If the room is filthy and your one janitor can’t get to it, then figure out why it’s filthy and make a change. Papers ending up on the floor? Collect them as soon as students finish. Pencils littering the linoleum? Pass them out at the start of class and collect them at the end. Stuff falling out of kids’ desks? Take everything out of their desks and have them retrieve needed items from a central storage area. Stop ten minutes earlier and have students clean.

If you’re swamped by lesson plans, progress reports, IEPs, and state-mandated paperwork, then start using other people’s lessons, ask yourself if anyone is really going to miss a progress report once in a while (and if they are, can you simplify them?), push your district to schedule IEPs during the day (and if they won’t, talk to your principal about maybe lightening your special education numbers next year since you got hammered this year), work on the stupid state-mandated nonsense while kids take stupid state-mandated tests (and don’t put much effort into them–do you really think anyone is going to spend much time reading it?)

We all have obstacles that make our jobs harder than they need to be. If your goal is to reduce the feeling that you’re overwhelmed and to gain back hours of your day to devote to things you want to do instead of things you feel like you have to do, then do what it takes to make that happen. Go around the obstacles. If that doesn’t work, go through them. But whatever you do, don’t stand there pointing at the thing in your path, telling others how it stubbornly refuses to move out of your way.

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My books, Exhausted and Leave School at School both offer suggestions for how to make your teacher life my manageable. Some of those suggestions will speak to you, some will not. If you find that my ideas aren’t cutting it and are in need of different ones, then give Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club a look. It’s comprehensive. Angela will talk you through every aspect of your teaching life as well as changes you can make at home. Sign up now, and you’ll start receiving the July materials, “The Self-Running Classroom,” including topics on designing your classroom for maximum productivity, planning procedures for a smooth first week, automating classroom routines, and establishing productive daily habits for you and your students.

 

The Total Time Transformation for Teachers

I started worrying about money when my daughter was born twelve years ago. Before that, I didn’t keep careful track of it. I usually had enough for what I wanted, so I didn’t bother to make a budget or record my expenses.  I never bounced a check and I didn’t abuse my credit cards, but I wasn’t getting ahead. I wasn’t saving anything.

My parents were able to pay for my college education. My wife was not as fortunate. Every month, I watched her pay off a little more of her student loans, but it seemed as if they would always be there. I didn’t want that for my daughter, so I opened a 529 account on the day she was born. Then I had to figure out how much to put into it so she could avoid borrowing money at what at the time seemed a very distant future.

It seemed less distant when I started playing with cost-of-college calculators.

I also wanted to save for retirement. I wanted to travel during the summer. I liked cruises and wanted to go on more. None of those things were going to happen if I kept doing what I was doing. I needed to change, but I didn’t know what changes to make. I had to learn.

I started with Dave Ramsey. His radio show was on every day when I drove home from school. I listened. Then I found his book, The Total Money Makeover, in a bargain bin. I bought and read it. That led to other books and resources. I learned how to make a budget, how to assign every dollar, how to track my expenses, what to spend on and where to scrimp, that I should never buy a new car, I should cut up my credit cards, and how I could save money on food by planning meals each week. I learned what to do differently, and now, 12 years later, I have a decent chunk of money set aside for my daughter’s college, a nice start to a nest egg that will supplement my pension in 12 years, and I’ve even gone on a few more cruises. 

What does this have to do with teachers transforming how they use their time?

I have no doubt that many teachers have done what I’ve done where it concerns their money.  They have monthly budgets. They watch their money closely with apps on their phones. They have automatic alerts set up to let them know of odd activity on their accounts. They check their credit scores. They sign up for services like Honey or Swagbucks so that they don’t squander a single cent. They cut coupons and follow their favorite brands on Twitter to learn about deals. They’ve bookmarked deal sites, receive emails from Groupon, and compare credit cards to find the best cashback offers. Like me, as they aged they underwent a total money makeover.

What many teachers haven’t done is a total time transformation, even though time is far more valuable than money. The same teachers who watch every penny waste countless minutes, not realizing that when time runs out it won’t matter how much money they’ve accumulated. Who among us won’t be willing to pay whatever it takes for just one more good hour with the ones we love?

Many teachers don’t like how they use their time. They know that if they don’t make changes, they will continue to spend too much of it on things that don’t the matter most to them. Each school year follows a predictable, undesirable pattern. They start out excited. They overcommit. They spend time on things they either don’t care much about or that have little impact on their students. They become frustrated, overwhelmed, and exhausted. They can’t wait for summer. When it finally hits, they take a deep breath. But then, instead of fixing the problem like they did with their wayward spending, they repeat the same mistakes. They never get the things they want.

Teachers who want more control over how they spend their time should follow the same process they did when they wanted more control over their money. 

Start with what you want. Do you want more time to spend with family? More time to exercise or devote to non-education interests? Do you want to feel less tired and more in control of your life? List those wants out.

Now, how will you get those things? What changes will you have to make to make them a reality? Will you need to leave work earlier? Stop staying yes so much? Find ways to reduce paperwork? Let go of teacher guilt? Stop comparing yourself to other teachers? Will you have to get more organized, prioritize differently, or decide to stop doing something you enjoy doing?

Whatever you need to do to get what you want, chances are you don’t really know how to do those things. If you did, you’d already be doing them. You need resources that will show you how to do the things you want to do, preferably produced by people who have done those very things you aspire to.

Fortunately, those resources exist. I recommend starting with the following:

Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club 

My last two books, Exhausted and Leave School At School

The Well-Balanced Teacher

These courses from Learners Edge

The New Brunswick School-Based Wellness Program’s website

 

Start there. Learn. Think differently. Try something new. Then, each June or July, once school is out and you’ve recuperated and can start thinking a little further into the future than what you’re going to teach next week, sit down, just like people do with their finances, review your goals, see if your plan is working, recalculate as necessary, and update to be sure you’re still on track to get you where you want to be.

Time is not money. You can earn more money. So devote more effort to tracking and protecting your time than you do to monitoring and saving your money and you will end up using it more wisely.