One of the best things about being a teacher is we get to start anew each fall. With the school year around the corner, exhaustion is probably far from your mind. After a restorative summer, you are likely itching to get started. You have new ideas you picked up at conferences, new strategies for dealing with behavior you can’t wait to try, new technology in your classroom, new colleagues or principals, and what feels like a new lease on your career. The stress and fatigue you felt at the end of last year has drifted away like a dandelion fluff on the summer breeze.
So I hope you’ll forgive me for raining on your vacation and dousing your enthusiasm.
The stress and exhaustion will be coming back unless you do something different this year.
There are many steps you can take, all of which I outline in my forthcoming book, Exhausted, but there is one you must absolutely do if you hope to have more energy at the end of your work days. And you must start before students show up on the first day of school. What is it?
Plan and Perfect As Many Procedures As Possible
Every teacher knows the importance of teaching, modeling, and practicing classroom routines until students have them down. Teachers who want to avoid student confusion and the resultant behavior problems know they must establish procedures for nearly everything that happens in their classrooms. We also know that well-executed procedures make our classrooms more efficient: students get more done when routines are followed.
What many teachers don’t realize is that having routines can help with their own fatigue.
One of the major causes of teacher exhaustion is decision fatigue. Every time you make a decision, you use some of your limited store of self-regulatory resources, often called willpower. Willpower is like a muscle in that it gets fatigued the more you use it. Each decision you make is like another rep in the gym. And just like your muscles, the strength of your willpower fades with more and more decisions.
Teachers make a ton of decisions, which is one reason they come home feeling drained. Although you intended to go to the gym, you can’t get off the couch. You meant to cook a healthy dinner, but it was easier to drive through McDonald’s. You planned to finally check those math tests, but you can’t bring yourself to even think about work. Those are the results of decision fatigue.
One trick to coming home with more energy is to make fewer decisions. You do this is by establishing habits. It’s estimated that 40% of the actions you take in a day are the result of habits, from hitting the snooze twice, to putting your left leg in your pants first, to the route you take to work, to ignoring most of the menu at a favorite restaurant because you always order the same two or three items. There are many choices for which we don’t use mental energy because they are ingrained as habits.
A procedure is a habit you want students to internalize. When they learn it, it saves them and you from deciding.
Instead of students asking you where to turn in their papers and you having to decide how you’d like them to do so every single time, you establish a routine for students to turn in their work. Instead of deciding each time whether it’s okay for a student to get out of their seat to grab a Kleenex or sharpen a pencil, establish set times during the day for these activities and teach routines so that students don’t have to ask you and you don’t have to decide. Instead of deciding for a student what he or she can do when she’s finished with her work, make a poster of all possible options ahead of time.
Small decisions add up. The fewer of them you make, the less tired you will be.
Be proactive by going through your entire school day and deciding ahead of time, while you have the energy that summer provides, which components of your day can be turned into a routine. If you find yourself making too many decisions once the school year starts, ask yourself if a new procedure is needed. Figure out ways to decide ahead of time so you don’t have to make decision after decision in the moment. Your future self will thank you.
Here is the list of procedures I teach:
I teach third grade, so not all will apply. Feel free to make a copy and change what you need to.
For help on how to teach routines, check out these posts by Michael Linsin:
For more information about willpower and decision fatigue, read the book Willpower.