The 5 Options Exhausted Teachers Have

For most teachers, another school year is in the books. If you’ve been off for a couple of weeks, you have probably already started to forget the suffocating exhaustion you felt over the past ten months. If you’ve just begun your break, then you’re probably still catching up on sleep, relaxation, and your favorite Netflix shows. But one thing is for sure: if nothing changes, you’ll be just as tired next year as you were this past year.

If this is you, then you really only have five options.

1. You can persist.

My suspicion is that most teachers choose this option. They put their heads down and keep going. They accept that they’re going to spend much of the school year stressed out, beaten down, and just plain physically whipped. Some may have made peace with it, while others grudgingly accept it as part of the job; after all, they know plenty of teachers in the same boat. These teachers will return in the fall, and the fall after that, and the one after that, and they’ll keep on keeping on, plugging away and doing their best, all the while wishing things could be different but not taking any steps to make them different.

2. You can neglect.

Those who don’t persist may neglect their responsibilities. These are the teachers who hang on to their jobs but have allowed the spark they once felt for it to flicker and die. They’re the ones that give the rest of us a bad name and offer critics of teachers’ unions just enough fuel to keep their criticisms burning. Unfortunately, we’ve all known a teacher like this, either as a colleague or from our days as students. These teachers have been tired for so many years that they’ve given up hope of things ever changing and they’re counting the years to retirement. They do as little as possible and hope to be left alone. Don’t be this teacher.

3. You can quit.

Many teachers walk away, either from their district in the hopes that the grass is greener at a different school, or they leave education altogether. There’s no shame in quitting, especially if you’ve decided that your heart just isn’t in it anymore and you have something else you want to do with your life. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting out of a profession that’s harming your mental and/or physical health or in taking your talents where they might be more appreciated. My friend Dan quit a few years back and has never regretted it, as you can read here.

4. You can fight.

If the causes of your exhaustion were mostly external and you’re thinking of quitting because of them, then next year might be the one you decide to fight back. There are a lot of things that exhaust teachers — I wrote about four hidden contributors in my book Exhausted — and many of those things are the result of demands placed on you by others. Time is always in short supply for teachers, so when you’ve got unsympathetic administrators who require lessons plan while regularly gutting planning time, it’s understandable when teachers let their frustrations be known. If you’re on the verge of quitting, then you might as well see if you can’t first change your situation by bringing your concerns to administration. Nothing changes on its own, and if you’re about the quit anyway, then you have nothing to lose by knocking over a few metaphorical chairs on your way out the door.

5. You can change. 

If you’ve been exhausted every year you’ve taught, then it’s time to consider why and what you can do about it, since you know it’s untenable over a long career. Knowing that the only other choices you have are acceptance and suffering, submission and resignation, quitting, or pitching a fit (however diplomatic it may be), you might decide to look inwardly and control the only thing you can: yourself.

Chances are there is a mixture of external and internal factors contributing to your fatigue. There are ways you can satisfy the requirements of your job without pouring all your energy into it. How you do that is essentially the purpose of this blog and the subject of the books I’ve written. If this is the choice you will make — if you decide to try changing your mindset and practices — then I ask you to start by checking out my books Exhausted, Leave School at School and The Teacher’s Guide to Saying No. They’re quick reads that can put you on a more sustainable path.

For those who need more help and are serious about lasting change that will turn your career around, try Angela Watson’s acclaimed 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Thousands of teachers swear by it; you can see what they say here. If you decide to give it a go, do so quickly so you can take advantage of the Early Bird benefits, such as these three free resources to help you spend your summer effectively and early access to the Facebook group so you can begin sharing best practices with other teachers who’ve decided to make a change.

 

 

How to Get a Refreshing Sleep Despite a Busy Schedule

Guest post by Dr. Omiete Charles-Davies

 

Getting a good night’s sleep is very important for your physical health, mental health, and overall quality of life.

With the hustle and bustle of our daily activities, a night of refreshing sleep may seem like a luxury. Not getting between 7 to 9 hours of sleep as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation can affect your level of productivity and energy levels.

For many of us, our day to day activities and busy schedules can keep our minds churning and over thinking, preventing us from getting the sleep that we need.

Making some adjustments to your day and nighttime habits can have a great impact on how well you sleep. This article aims to tell you how to get a more refreshing sleep despite having a busy schedule.

How To Get A More Refreshing Sleep

1. Be In Sync With Your Circadian Rhythm

Getting in sync with your circadian rhythm is very important in getting a refreshed sleep. Having a regular sleep-wake schedule keeps you more refreshed than sleeping the same number of hours but at different times. The following tips can be helpful.

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day as this helps to set your internal clock and optimize your sleep, an alarm clock might help.
  • Limit afternoon naps to about 15 to 20mins. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, long naps in the afternoon can only make it worse.
  • Do activities such as washing dishes or getting clothes ready for work the next day if you feel sleepy before your bedtime. This will prevent you from sleeping too early, waking up later at night and be unable to go back to sleep.

 

2. Control Your Exposure To Light

A naturally occurring hormone called melatonin is controlled by your exposure to light, this hormone regulates your sleep-wake cycle.

It is secreted more when it is dark, making you feel sleepy. Too much light exposure decreases its secretion, making you more alert.

Here are some tips to control your melatonin levels:

  • Expose yourself to bright sunlight during the day as this affects your alertness. Let as much natural light into your workspace during the day.
  • Avoid bright screens like television, phones, and tablets within 1-2 hours of your bedtime. The light emitted from these devices can be very disruptive and prevent you from falling asleep on time. Listen to relaxing music or audio books instead.
  • Make sure the room is dark when it is time to sleep.

3. Exercise During The Day

Regular exercise helps to improve sleep at night. For a night of better sleep, the timing of your exercise needs to be right. Exercising too close to bedtime can interfere with your sleep pattern.

  • Finish moderate to vigorous workout at least three hours before sleep time.
  • Low impact exercises like yoga or stretches can help promote sleep.

4. Eat And Drink Smartly

Your eating and drinking habits during the day play a huge role in how well you sleep.

  • Reduce your intake of caffeine and nicotine especially close to bedtime. It is important to know that caffeine-containing products like coffee can cause sleep struggles even up to 10 to 12 hours after taking it. Smoking can also disrupt your sleep pattern.
  • Avoid heavy meals at night, try to eat dinner early in the evening. Very spicy or acidic foods should also be avoided as these can cause heartburn.
  • Avoid taking alcohol before bedtime.
  • Avoid drinking too many liquids near your bedtime because it results in frequent trips to the bathroom during the night.
  • Cut back on sugary foods, they can interfere with the deep stages of sleep.

5. Relax And Clear Your Head

Stress and worry from a very busy day can make sleeping at night very difficult. When you eventually sleep, you may find yourself waking up to think, making falling back to sleep a struggle. These steps can help you relax and make you stop worrying.

  • Learn how to manage your time effectively and handle stress in a more productive way.
  • Try not to overstimulate your brain during the day because it becomes hard to slow down and unwind at night. Set aside specific times to check your phones or social media and focus on one task at a time.
  • Leave office work at the office. If you really have to bring it home, try and finish up at least 2 hours before bedtime. This also applies to school work and homework.
  • Try leaving the office on time so you can also avoid traffic and get home on time.

6. Improve Your Sleep Environment

A regular and peaceful bedtime routine is very important as it sends a signal to your brain that it’s time to shut down. Your sleep environment can also make a big difference in the quality of your sleep.

  • Keep your room dark so that you can fall asleep on time. Also, make sure that your room is cool with adequate ventilation and quiet. If you can’t avoid noise, try using earplugs or a sound machine.
  • Ensure your bed is comfortable and these includes your bed covers, pillows, and mattress. You don’t need to break the bank for this, you can get a good budget mattress.
  • Reserve the bedroom for sleeping and sex. Try not to watch TV or use your computer in bed. This makes it easier for the brain to shut down and falling asleep becomes a breeze.

7. Get Back To Sleep

Waking up briefly at night is normal but falling back asleep may be a struggle, especially if you have had a busy and stressful day. The following methods can help you go back to sleep.

  • Do not stress over the fact that you can’t fall back asleep as this only encourages your body to stay awake.
  • Relaxation techniques such as meditation can also help you go back to sleep. Remember that the goal is to be relaxed and not just to sleep.
  • If it is worry or anxiety that has caused you to wake up, make a brief note on a paper and try not to overthink. Tomorrow is a new day to resolve it.

The Easiest Way For Principals to Respect Teachers

Teachers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the work world, constantly complaining that we get no respect. We have to take second jobs to make ends meet. We work extra hours for no extra pay. The teacher wage penalty is at an all-time high. We have less autonomy than we used to in our classrooms. We must endure teacher evaluation schemes that measure our worth using the outcomes of standardized tests and the opinions of people who watch us do our thing for less than 1% of the year. And when we complain, nobody listens. Michigan State researchers studied resignation letters that teachers posted online and found that every one “attested to the lack of voice and agency that teachers felt in policymaking and implementation.”

Many teachers’ biggest complaints are out of a principal’s control (and principals are often just as victimized by stupid policies as teachers). But there is one thing every principal can do that sends an unmistakable message that they understand the demands of their teachers’ jobs and want nothing more than to make that job easier:

Value their time.

If principals want teachers to do their best work, they must protect their teachers’ time like a mother polar bear protects her cubs.

Time is every teacher’s scarcest resource. Teachers always, always need more of it. American teachers, because they spend more time in front of their students than any other developed nation, need it even more. Time is valuable to everyone. For teachers, and American teachers in particular, it is precious.

When principals protect teachers’ time they make it clear that they value their work, and they give teachers the opportunity to focus their attention where it will have the greatest impact: on the students in their classrooms. Here are six ways principals can protect their teachers’ time:

Cancel Staff Meetings

No employee in the history of employeedom has ever been upset over a cancelled staff meeting. Not one. Everyone feels like my favorite professor of education policy, Morgan Polikoff.

If I were a principal, I’d be tempted to overschedule staff meetings just so I could give my teachers the gift of cancelling the majority of them. There’s nothing better than found time; it’s why we all love snow days so much.

And let’s be real here: How many staff meetings have you walked out of where you felt the time was better spent than however you would have spent it had you not been required to attend? The content of most staff meetings (and I’ve attended 20 years’ worth of them) usually breaks down like this:

  1. Housekeeping stuff that could be shared in an email.
  2. Teachers bitching about things, most of which don’t apply to the majority of the people in the room.
  3. A timid attempt at professional development (book studies, jigsawed articles, a slick instructional video produced by some company selling something in which a teacher instructs a small group of perfectly behaved students using a technique that is obviously better than anything you do but that might not work quite as well in your classroom) that might apply to a small number of people in the room.
  4. The sharing of grand plans that have little chance of being implemented or pursued for longer than six months.

Principals, if you must conduct a meeting, then have a tight, relevant agenda, stick to it, and dismiss everyone as soon as the meeting is over or stops being productive. Your teachers, all of them, have better things to do.

You Don’t Need a Committee

Teachers should almost never join unpaid committees, and principals should not ask them to. This should be easy because most of the time a committee isn’t needed at all.

Then, ask these questions:

Whose decision is it to make? If it’s yours and you’d like some input, then run it by a few staff members. You don’t need a committee to do that.

Are you really going to listen to dissenting views? I’ve heard so many stories from teachers who’ve served on committees that made recommendations only to see them ignored by decision makers. That’s the leaders’ prerogative, but it’s also a waste of everyone’s time.

Have you already made up your mind? If yes, then skip the dog and pony show. Teachers can see through the pretense. We can tell, usually very early on, when a committee has only been formed to give the appearance of consensus-building and hearing all sides. Skip the committee and make the decision.

If you decide that, yes, you do need a committee, then the next questions you should ask are:

What is the minimum number of teachers needed for this committee?

What is the minimum amount of time you need to meet to come to a decision or get the work done?

Rethink Professional Development

Don’t make teachers attend things that don’t apply to them. Yes, I know. There are state laws requiring x amount of PD hours. So what? Do you really think states that don’t want to fund public education are going to perform a thorough audit of teachers’ PD time? Do what’s best for your students and give teachers as much time as you possibly can to do their jobs as well as they can.

If you’re worried about compliance, then schedule your PD day and allow your teachers to develop themselves in the manner they see fit. Set some parameters, provide some resources, and allow teachers to decide how creative they’d like to be when they log their PD hours. Damn near anything can be considered professional development, and your teachers are already experts at justifying everything they do.

Lighten Their Load

Can someone other than teachers do the small things? That’s a question principals should regularly ask themselves. I changed districts this year and one of the first differences I experienced was in how many fewer small tasks I was asked to complete at my new school.

At my previous school, I had to print off and sign my own attendance reports every week. Everything related to a field trip, from scheduling the buses to creating, sending, and collecting permission slips and money was my responsibility. If I needed a sub for any reason, it was my job to put in for one.

At my new school, office staff deals with the attendance reports, every permission slip is made for me, copied, and put in my mailbox, buses are scheduled by the office, as are substitutes for anything that’s district-related. I’m going to a conference this week and the office signed me up and booked the hotel for me. All I have to do is show up.

Removing small tasks from teachers’ plates does two things. First, every minute that a teacher spends on administrative tasks is a minute not spent on things that have the potential to directly affect students, which is what teachers are there for. Second, it shows teachers how valued their time is.

Here are just five small things principals who want to give their teachers more time might consider. With some thought, you can probably come up with many more.

1. Office staff should find substitute teachers, sign teachers up for conferences, and submit extra duty hours to accounting. These administrative tasks are just better handled by people who do administrative work all day. Fewer balls will be dropped when one or two people are responsible for these tasks instead of expecting teachers to take care of them.

2. Data entry should be done by someone other than your most highly-trained professionals. Don’t ask teachers to scan tests or input numbers into a data warehouse. That’s a huge waste of time and literally anyone in a school can do it.

3. Expedite the process teachers use to request help with technology or maintenance needs. Make the online form easy to find and easy to complete and submit.

4. Consider the location of copy machines. The farther your teachers have to walk to pick up copies, the more time they’re spending doing nothing.

5. Assign recess, bus, lunch, and hall duties to non-teaching staff. It makes zero sense to have teachers stand around watching kids when they could be planning to better educate them.  

These may seem like small things. It feels petty listing them. Surely, teachers can take a few minutes to print off attendance reports, sign them, and put them in a tray in the office. But all of the above adds up, and teachers already don’t have enough time.

Make Planning Time Untouchable

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again:

Teachers cannot prepare effective lessons and provide useful feedback to students without prep time. If your district doesn’t provide it, or if they regularly take it away, then they are telling you one of two things:

We don’t care how effective you are.

Or, more likely:

We expect you to be effective, but we don’t want to provide you with the time you need. Therefore, we expect you to use your personal, unpaid time to ensure effectiveness.

If you work for a district that has taken away your planning time, you either work for people who have no clue what it takes to do your job well, or who do and don’t care what it does to your well-being.

This includes scheduling meetings during planning time. It includes forcing teachers to do PLCs during planning time. If those things are important, then schedule them outside of teachers’ planning time.

One of the more inequitable practices in schools occur in those that schedule IEPs and other parent meetings during teachers’ planning time. I worked for a district that did this and you did not want to be a teacher with more than a couple of identified students because it meant hours of additional work without pay.

Pediatricians don’t work around parents’ schedules, and no one accuses them of being insensitive to the needs of their patients. If it’s important, and most meetings with parents are, then expect parents to find the time to attend, just like they do to get their kids to the doctor and themselves to the bank. 

Provide planning time. Treat it as sacred. Move mountains to ensure that teachers never lose it so they may use it for its intended purpose.

Stop Requiring Time Wasters

Every minute a teacher devotes to work that doesn’t improve students’ chances of success is a minute wasted. And schools love to waste teachers’ minutes with nonsense. Here are four examples:

Lesson Plans

As I wrote here, principals don’t need lesson plans if their teachers are required to teach a board-approved program with strict fidelity. The lesson plans are done for them. If principals want to know if those scripted lessons are being followed, then they need only visit teachers’ classrooms. The only time principals should ask for lesson plans is if they have a teacher who is struggling and the principal believes part of that struggle might be her inability to effectively plan. Even then, principals should only require plans for lessons they will observe, because plans don’t actually mean anything unless they’re followed.

Requiring lesson plans does two things: It sends a message of distrust, and it wastes teachers’ time. Why any principal would want to do those two things is beyond me.

Parent Communications

Good teachers communicate with parents; bad principals force them to. I’ve worked for a principal who required weekly newsletters that she wanted to see before they were sent home, a principal who strongly encouraged having a class website for parents to access, and a principal who expected teachers to make five positive parent phone calls per week. None of those things are bad (except asking to see the newsletters ahead of time), but there are good reasons teachers balk at being told to do them. The main reason is time.

Principals, everything single thing you require of teachers takes time that they do not have. Asking them to make five positive phone calls home is stealing 15-30 minutes from them. Either something doesn’t get done, it gets done poorly, or it gets done when your teachers should be detaching from work. Avoid mandates. Let teachers decide how to best use their time.

Posted Learning Goals

I’ve written about this here, here, and here, so I won’t belabor the point.

Homework

Principals should allow teachers to design their own homework policies and establish their own expectations. Since homework and grading has the potential to eat up hours of a teacher’s time, it should be up to the teacher to manage it.

 

Too many principals pretend as though trade-offs do not exist for their teachers. They see little problem with adding one more thing to teachers’ responsibilities. But principals who want to help their teachers do their best work don’t just avoid giving their teachers more to do. They look at the way things are done in their buildings and find ways to free up more time for their staffs. Teachers know they’ll pay for squandered time later. Principals who want the best from their teachers should recognize it, too.

 

 

 

 

 

5 Things Teachers Should No Longer Have to Do

Of all the nonsense today’s educators must endure, perhaps the most galling is the mixed messages we regularly receive about how to perform our jobs. Teachers, once upon a time, were essentially independent practitioners, trusted to choose their own topics of study, craft their own lessons, design their own tests (or not give any at all), enforce their own grading policies, and shepherd their students through whatever year they happened to have them in the manner they best saw fit.

In such a system, it made sense for teachers to always be learning. They needed lesson plans. They had to know why they were teaching what they were teaching. They were always on the lookout for more interesting ways to reach students. The success or failure of their lessons rested on their shoulders.

The legacy of such a model of teaching still exists, even though the reality is far different. Many school leaders act as though teachers are making decisions because teachers used to make decisions. As a result, these leaders still expect teachers to behave as though they are working in a system that simply no longer exists in many places.

When we started striving for “guaranteed and viable curriculums,” we began the process of standardizing classrooms. The adoption of common standards across many states accelerated this movement because it allowed publishing companies to sell to most of the nation. That resulted in the same programs being taught in thousands of schools. Finally, district leaders’ demands that such programs be implemented with “fidelity” drove the final nail in the coffin of autonomous teaching.

In many schools today, teachers are no longer expected to make curricular decisions. They’re told what to teach and often how to teach it. They merely deliver the content someone else created. It’s a bad model that’s led to disillusionment and ineffective instruction, but what makes it worse is that reformers and school leaders want to have it both ways: They want to treat teachers as if they’re still the chefs they used to be instead of the delivery drivers they more often are.

Reformers and school leaders want to have it both ways: They want to treat teachers as if they're still the chefs they used to be instead of the delivery drivers they more often are. Click To Tweet

As I wrote in At What Point Do We Stop Blaming Teachers?, reformers occupy an enviable position where they get to greatly influence how teachers do their jobs but accept no responsibility for the failure of their ideas. In spite of disappearing autonomy, it is often the teacher who is blamed when other people’s ideas, programs, or “research-based” practices fall short in the real world.

Outdated Assumptions

 

My school is doing a book study on this:

It took nine pages to realize the authors were operating under the assumption that teachers have a level of autonomy they simply no longer have. I was ready to throw the book across the room when I read this sentence:

“The most effective teaching and most meaningful student learning happen when teachers design the right learning target for today’s lesson and use it along with their students to aim for and assess understanding.”

First, duh. Second, such a sentence, and indeed the entire first chapter (and the remaining eight chapters that follow) rests on the authors’ beliefs that it is the teachers who are still designing learning targets and lessons. How quaint.

Of course, this is just one of many examples. If you work in a district that expects you to be little more than a loyal soldier who does as she’s told, then it’s contradictory for those same district leaders to also expect you to take on the responsibilities of a general. The education world has moved on, and the generals are no longer in the classroom. That reality means there are things that teachers who labor in low-autonomy environments should no longer be expected to do. Here are five:

Determine Learning Goals

All of the hubbub about knowing (and posting) student learning goals for each lesson assumes that teachers have the authority to make decisions about what their students should learn. If you work in a state that has adopted standards (that’s all of them), and if you work for a district that has adopted programs that are supposed to address those standards (a lot of them), and if district leaders have told you that you should be teaching said programs with fidelity (way too many of them), then your learning goals for every lesson are already decided. They’re probably printed at the top of each student workbook lesson. You don’t need to know them.

And if district leaders tell you, “Well, no program is perfect. You still need to look at the lessons and determine what’s most important,” then it’s reasonable to ask them why in the hell they’ve put all their eggs in the program’s basket and point out that monkeying with imperfect lessons is the opposite of “fidelity.” They might have saved a lot of hassle by empowering you to make curricular decisions in the first place.

Write Detailed Lesson Plans

If you’re being handed a curriculum and told to teach it, then your lesson plans need to consist of nothing more than “Pages 131 – 135,” or “Lesson 4.1.” Everything else can be seen in your teacher’s guide or online portal. If you have a principal who demands you teach a program as it’s written but is still requiring lesson plans, then he’s just giving you busywork. Teachers in compliance-driven schools should never have to write down lesson plans; at most, they should simply be asked to photocopy the pages out of their district-mandated curriculum. But of course, if the principal is such a believer in whatever curriculum he’s mandating, he should already know the thing like the back of his hand and shouldn’t require any lesson plans at all.

Know the Standards

The state adopts a set of standards for each subject. The district chooses a curriculum for teachers to use to teach those standards. If it’s chosen well, then the teacher needs only to teach the lessons in the program and students will have been taught the standards. That is, theoretically, how it’s supposed to work. That is, in fact, the very reason districts adopt programs. Why, then, do teachers need to know the standards at all? If the expectation is that the board-adopted curriculum is better than anything teachers will decide to do on their own, then teachers need only to follow directions and students will learn what they’re supposed to.

Supplement the Curriculum

You have your standards. You have your curriculum. You’re teaching it the way it’s designed. But it’s not working for some kids. It’s at this point that leaders, coaches, colleagues, and your own brain might tell you that it’s time to try something else. So you ask other teachers what works for them. You Google. You head over to TeachersPayTeachers. If you’re lucky, you bail out the program you weren’t supposed to deviate from, the kids learn something, and nobody finds out. If not, get ready for a slap on the wrist, you incorrigible rebel.

If district leaders trust the programs they adopt so much more than they trust the decision-making of their teachers, then they should have to live with the consequences. One of those consequences is that the program won’t always work. When that happens, it shouldn’t be teachers who are on the hook, but those who chose the programs.

Grow Professionally

Consider a pizza joint. If it’s my pizza joint, it’s in my business’s best interest that I continually educate myself about toppings, cooking techniques, ovens, and whatever else people who own pizza joints must concern themselves. I want to serve the best pizza possible so that my business succeeds.

But if I’m a delivery driver who has nothing to do with the product being served, I don’t need to know about any of the stuff the owner does. I just have to know how to drive my car and follow my GPS.

This is the problem with asking teachers to do little more than deliver other people’s products. Where’s the motivation to learn and grow? If all I’m going to do for the next 20 years is open up a teacher’s guide and read scripted lessons, why do I need to know how to engage students, or identify learning targets, or design rigorous assignments?

Why do I need to behave like a professional when no one expects me to do the work of a professional?

 

All of the above, of course, is a terrible way to teach. Much of the disillusionment teachers feel doesn’t come from where many assume it comes. While pay could be improved, especially in some areas and especially for younger teachers, pay raises alone won’t restore meaning to teachers’ work. Better discipline and more supportive administrators would help. Mentoring is proven to help keep young teachers in the classroom.

But when districts strip away the agency of teachers, they destroy teachers’ motivation to do their jobs well. This is what teachers are talking about when they say they’re not listened to, not respected, and not trusted. If teachers can’t be trusted to decide what, or at least how, to teach, then what can they be trusted with?

Teachers who create lessons are more invested in those lessons. They will, therefore, be more invested in their students’ learning. Teachers who are asked to be nothing more than deliverers of others’ work will rightly question why they need to be any good at all. Schools that take away every reason for teachers to be motivated should not be surprised when they have unmotivated teachers. 

Let’s allow teachers to pursue the meaning that their jobs inherently have. We can start by allowing them to make more decisions about what goes on in their classrooms.


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I write books for overworked teachers. My latest, The Teacher’s Guide to Saying NO, is now available on Amazon.

Teachers Don’t Need To Find Their WHY

find their why

Every couple of years or so, a Big New Idea sweeps across the business world and ends up being adopted by (or forced on) education leaders. Fish! Philosophy, SMART goals, strategic planning, data-driven decision-making, and choosing your One Word have all found their ways into central offices and welcome back PD days. One of the latest of these fads is finding your WHY. This one is brought to us by Simon Sinek, who you probably know from this video:

Finding your WHY (he’s the one who capitalizes it) is about identifying the reason you do what you do. It’s your passion, your reason for existing. Sinek describes it as, “why you get out of bed in the morning and why anyone should care.”

Because we revere business in this country, schools love hopping on the bandwagon when these fads emerge from the ether. When a business management expert sells a few million copies of his new book and racks up a few million views on YouTube, you can bet there will be plenty of school administrators champing at the bit to shoehorn their ideas into their organizations. “How can this apply to teaching?” they’ll ask.

The truth is, sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, that rarely dampens people’s enthusiasm for it.  I’m willing to bet there are thousands of teachers across the country who have been asked to find their WHY in the last few years. Administrators who push this question have good intentions, but they’re focused on the wrong problem.

Teaching is pregnant with meaning. Teachers do not need to find their WHY. I know very few teachers who don’t recognize their purpose. All of us know our work is meaningful. That’s why most of us chose it instead of fields that paid more but offered less meaningful work. Teaching is a mission-driven profession entered into by largely selfless people for noble reasons. Most teachers are idealists at heart. You have to be, considering the challenges of the job and the modest tangible rewards for doing it.  No teacher enters the profession confused about its importance. In fact, one survey of 30,000 teachers found that 100% of them (that’s all 30,000!) were enthusiastic about the profession when they started. That’s because they were 100% sure of their WHY. Even veteran teachers haven’t forgotten why they’re there. Since finding meaning in one’s work is a major contributor to personal happiness, it’s not surprising that teachers rate their lives better than all other occupation groups except doctors. 

But teachers are far less happy when they’re actually at work. 61% say their jobs are always or often stressful, and they rank their work environment lower than farmers, construction workers, and miners do. How can this be? If teaching is so meaningful — if teachers know their WHY — how can they be so unhappy at school?

Simple. Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose. 

Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose. Click To Tweet

The unanimous enthusiasm young teachers feel when they start quickly wilts under the crushing reality found inside today’s schools. While every teacher starts off believing in the promise of their jobs, just 53% said they were still enthusiastic about teaching at the point they took the above-mentioned survey. Those who “strongly agreed” had dropped from 89% to 15%. The most dangerous year for a teacher is her first. More teachers quit after year one than any other year. The job didn’t suddenly become devoid of meaning for these young idealists. They quit because of the disconnect between what they want to do (their WHY) and what they believe they can do.

Say I start a food pantry because my WHY is to eradicate hunger in my community. My job will certainly not lack meaning. I will be motivated to seek out donations. I’ll research neighborhoods and identify potential clients. I’ll use traditional and digital media to get the word out. I’ll work with schools and businesses to organize food drives. I’ll move heaven and earth to fulfill my mission.

Now say that upon starting my food pantry, the health department tells me I can’t accept certain types of foods. Then I discover that it’s hard to find and keep reliable volunteers. Then I run into capacity problems; I need more space! Then some of my clients start showing up too often and taking more than their fair share. I have to make new rules. Some clients hate my new rules. I regularly run out of popular items and have to purchase them with very limited funds. Some complain about the food I do provide. Then somebody gets sick and sues me. Now I’m paying a lawyer. At some point, I might decide that having a WHY isn’t enough. There are simply too many impediments.

That’s what too many teachers decide.

If a lack of purpose was a real problem for teachers, then we’d expect greater turnover in affluent schools than in high-poverty ones. Teachers might rightly question the meaning of their job if they’re teaching in a wealthy district where kids are going to go to college regardless of their teachers’ efforts. Teachers unquestionably have a better chance at improving the lives of those who come from less. Finding meaning in their work isn’t the issue. The fact that far more teachers leave high-needs schools than affluent ones suggests that it’s not the meaning of the job that makes the difference in whether teachers stick it out, but the likelihood that such meaning can be effectively pursued.

It’s the barriers that are the problem. The lack of resources needed to do the job. The outside factors that influence students’ motivation and abilities. The insufficient training. The absence of mentors. The lack of parent knowledge or support. These are the things that make it hard to remain passionate about a mission that grows increasingly unlikely to be realized.

Even worse is the bureaucratic buffoonery that tends to be especially egregious in high-poverty districts. It’s exhausting to fight for what should be basic needs and rational policies. Teachers are too often forced to do things that conflict with their sense of purpose. No teacher went into the job to focus on test scores and compliance. They shouldn’t have to give a weekly reading test to a kid they know can’t read the test. They shouldn’t be prohibited from reading a math test to a student who’s excellent at math but can’t decode the words in the problem. They shouldn’t be forced to use this grading scale and enter this many grades by such-and-such a date. The decision to assign homework or not shouldn’t be made for them. They shouldn’t be precluded from taking lethargic students outside for a break or discouraged from providing students time to read whatever they want because they have to teach from a canned program that the kids despise and that doesn’t even work.

Those teachers find their WHY, but the why they find is, “WHY did I become a teacher again?”

Teachers already have a WHY. They don’t need soul-searching and deep introspection. Those who are burned out haven’t mailed it in because they believe teaching lacks meaning. They’re demoralized because the meaning inherent in the job has been stripped away in service to some other less meaningful goals.

Teachers do not need to find their WHY. They simply need to be allowed to pursue it.

Teachers don't need to find their WHY. They need to be allowed to pursue it. Click To Tweet

 

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