10 Things Overworked Teachers Can Stop Doing

If there’s one common thread that runs through the most popular articles on this blog it’s that teachers ought to do less.  I suspect those articles generate the most shares and responses because the topic is divisive. Some teachers read them and nod along, their beliefs affirmed in digital print. Others read them with varying degrees of bafflement and anger. The self-righteous will insinuate that those of us who want a life outside of school aren’t as dedicated as our more exhausted colleagues. Others, like one Facebook commenter on my article Dear Teachers, Please Go Home, ask some version of, “Then when are we supposed to get it all done?”

Which is a revelatory question.

Such a question presumes that most teachers have relatively equal amounts of work to do and that the only way to get it all done is to devote untold hours to the job, usually at the expense of other areas of their lives.

But such an assumption is wrong. Teachers vary greatly in how much work they have to get done and it’s not because they teach in different buildings or teach different grade levels or have different bosses. Some teachers have less to do because they’ve decided to have less to do. It’s usually that simple.

There are a number of items you can likely take off your to-do list tomorrow if you’re willing to swallow some pride, care less about what other adults think of you, and stop trying to knock every lesson out of the park. Here are ten.

Stop Decorating Your Classroom Like It’s In a Magazine

I know teachers who spend weeks getting their rooms looking just so for the start of school. They then devote even more time to maintaining its immaculate appearance throughout the year. They organize, straighten, color-code, label, redecorate, change bulletin boards, hang curtains, and dangle doodads from the ceiling, and for what?

Hardly anyone is going to see it. Of the people who do see it, at least half of them won’t care. Of those who are impressed, what does it matter? How does their being impressed help you or your students? I don’t know of a single study that shows a connection between teachers’ interior design talents and student performance. In fact, the research that does exist indicates that a heavily decorated room actually disrupts student attention and learning. Save yourself a ton of time and stop decorating your classroom like it’s in a magazine.

Stop Writing New Learning Goals on the Board

I’ve watched a lot of TED talks and I’ve never seen a speaker start their speech by displaying and reading aloud the thing they’d like me to learn in the next 15 minutes.  Having a goal for your lesson is important. Writing it on the board isn’t.  Prominently displayed learning goals aren’t for you; you know what students are supposed to learn. They aren’t for your students; a good lesson makes clear what students should come to understand. The requirement to write learning goals on the board exists for one reason and one reason only: administrators want you to do things that work, but they don’t really want to spend a ton of time in classrooms actually watching you do those things. With learning goals, they can peek their head in your room, see them on the board, and tell themselves that in their buildings, teachers are using research-based practices. They can check it off a list and pat themselves on the back.

Writing new learning goals every day is busy work. By themselves, they will do nothing to move the student achievement needle. So write some beautifully crafted learning goals using whatever format your leadership has decided is best. Then leave them up all week. Or all month. See how long until someone calls you on it, and when they do, claim you forgot that day. Most administrators spend so little time in classrooms, this is one tick-suck you can cross off your list.

Stop Creating Lessons

Once upon a time, teachers had to create their own lessons. They don’t anymore, and they shouldn’t. For today’s teachers, finding lessons isn’t the problem; choosing among hundreds of them is the greater challenge. Creation takes time that others have already invested (and in many cases, been paid for). Take advantage by teaching their lessons instead of creating yours; they’re probably better anyway because of something psychologists call the IKEA effect, which is a cognitive bias where people place disproportionate value on products they had a hand in creating.

The IKEA effect poses two problems for teachers. The first is that what you make is likely not as good as you think it is. Your lesson is not better than another teacher’s. You just think it is because you made it. You would almost assuredly be better off using a product made by someone else. And as much as you don’t want to hear it, you’d be best off using products created by people whose job is to create those products. So while it may offend your sensibilities, stick with the program your district spent thousands of dollars on because it’s probably better than anything you’re going to design.

The other problem is the time required to create this stuff. If you spend three hours making a magnetism unit because you tell yourself it will be better than anything you currently have in your filing cabinet or that you can find online, then you’ve lost the opportunity to spend those hours doing other things, like going home at the end of the day.

More here: The IKEA Effect of Lesson Creation

Stop Creating Materials

Google is your friend. So is TeachersPayTeachers. Every worksheet, rubric, and graphic organizer you will ever want already exists. Spend more time clicking and less time creating and you will have more time for the important stuff.

Stop Controlling Everything

When students do more, you do less.

Teachers looking to trim hours off their workweek should constantly spend their days asking, “Is this something students could do?”

Most of the time, the answer is yes. Students can do bulletin boards. They can staple, cut things out, and rewrite the lunch choice every morning. They can organize your classroom library and replace all the science materials used in an experiment.  They can check their own work. They can help each other understand the math assignment. It’s true that your room might not look as pretty and the agenda on the board will be written askance and the books won’t be as neat as they would be if you had organized them, but it’s also true that most of that stuff doesn’t matter and students will feel a stronger connection to the room if they have a large hand in its appearance and day-to-day functioning. Save yourself time. Stop being such a control freak.

Stop Reading Everything Your Students Write

Students need feedback on their writing, but you do not have to be the only person who provides it. Technology allows students to share their writing with classmates and even parents. Ask them to provide the feedback. When my daughter was in third grade, she brought a journal home once a week and it was my job to write a response to her entries. For other low tech options, print students’ writing and put the papers in a three-ring binder. Insert a blank page after each piece and teach students how to leave useful feedback on it. Or set up a gallery walk where students place their writing on their desks and move around the room with a stack of sticky notes, using them to leave feedback on 10 different papers. You can also avoid taking student writing home by utilizing technology and the station rotation model. Catlin Tucker explains how here.

Stop Checking Papers

One enduring stereotypical image is that of a teacher, usually a woman, sitting at home on a Saturday with a stack of papers in front of her, vigorously scrawling across them with a red pen.  If we’re going to ask students to do all this work, the thinking goes, then we need to hold them accountable, and the way to do that is to give everything a grade. This isn’t where I argue against grades (although I certainly could). Instead, I’ll argue against everything needing a grade.  Consider most of the work your students do as practice and you’ll find it a lot easier to toss it into the circular file instead of bringing it home where it will cast accusatory glances your way all weekend. Instead of checking everything, only check assessments.

You can also significantly reduce the height of your stack by eliminating homework.  The research on homework is now well known and for elementary teachers especially, there’s no academic reason to give it; it just doesn’t work. The less work you assign, the less you have to look at. An easy and research-based way to reduce your own paperwork is to seriously curtail or eliminate homework.

Another easy way to reduce your stack is to take advantage of programs that do the grading for you. If you’re fortunate enough to have software that provides students with immediate feedback on their assignments, then your work is already done. You need only to look at the results. If not, go old school by having students check their own work as you go over the answers or do what I spent a fair amount of my school years doing and have students trade papers and grade each other’s assignments.

Stop Helping So Much

You can always tell the students who were “rescued” by their previous teachers. They’re the ones who can’t make it through a test without asking for help, even though you just explained that you can’t help on a test. A lot of teachers enable learned helplessness by constantly stepping in the moment students struggle.  Teachers have this notion that to teach means we must always be doing something. If students are in the room, we have to interact with them. We gotta teach! But sometimes, the best way to teach is to sit down and shut up.

Failure is part of learning. In fact, it’s the critical part. Sometimes, the best teaching is to let students flail, even fail. Because there’s more learning to be found in failure than there is in success. And while students are working things out, or seeking out others for assistance, or trying a different strategy, you can plan next week’s lessons, or grade a few tests, or locate resources online so you don’t have to do that stuff after school.

Read more here: Why Teachers Should Help Less

Stop Saying Yes

It’s impossible to do all the things you have to do if you’re spending hours every week sitting in meetings because you couldn’t bring yourself to tell your principal no.  We all have meetings we must attend, but too many teachers take on additional responsibilities out of feelings of obligation and guilt.

Before you agree to extra work, ask yourself this question: Will the time spent on this new thing result in better outcomes for my students than the time I would have spent if I were not doing this new thing?

Before you agree to extra work, ask yourself this question: Will the time spent on this new thing result in better outcomes for my students than the time I would have spent if I were not doing this new thing? Click To Tweet

The answer is usually no. So grow a spine and stop agreeing to waste time on work that won’t do your students any good and will leave you with even less time to do all of the really important stuff.

Stop Maximizing

Making every lesson shine is an honorable intention. Nobody will question your dedication, but they should question your long-term strategy. Teachers can’t escape trade-offs any more than the rest of the world can. Devoting two hours to planning a great civics lesson means two hours not doing all of the other things your job requires of you. It’s also no guarantee that the lesson will go well, and if it doesn’t you’ll feel demoralized on top of exhausted.

Many teachers are maximizers. They seek out the best option to arrive at the optimal solution, even if it means investing substantial time and energy.  Many are perfectionists, unable to let little things slide. Satisficers, on the other hand, are individuals who can accept good enough. They consider trade-offs. They know that you can’t “do it all” and they accept the reality that an extra hour spent on lesson creation won’t necessarily result in the kind of enhanced understanding from students they were hoping for. Sometimes, good enough really is good enough.

There’s also your mental health to consider. Psychologists have found that compared to satisficers, maximizing individuals are more likely to experience lower levels of happiness, regret, and self-esteem. While maximizers accept higher-paying jobs, they tend to be less satisfied once they start working those jobs because they second guess themselves. They constantly wonder if they made the best choice. They’re always looking over the hill for greener pastures. For this reason, maximizers have a hard time finding contentment in life.

Not every lesson has to be a Lexus. Most of the time, a reliable Camry will get the job done. Stop trying to make everything shine. Be willing to accept good enough, and you’ll be a happier teacher with more time for yourself.

A Disclaimer

None of the above are things you should stop doing if you love doing them. If it fills your heart with gladness to color-code your classroom supplies or if creating lessons from scratch gets your heart racing, then by all means, keep doing those things. Just don’t complain about how many hours you work. Those are choices you’re making, and there are plenty of teachers out there making different ones and going home a lot earlier than you are.

Stop wondering how you will get everything done if you leave work where it belongs and go home shortly after the kids. Instead, give yourself less to do.


I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

19 Replies to “10 Things Overworked Teachers Can Stop Doing”

  1. “So while it may offend your sensibilities, stick with the program your district spent thousands of dollars on because it’s probably better than anything you’re going to design.”

    So in essence, surrender to the corporate overlords at Pearson, because the best solution was a textbook arbitrarily chosen by an administrator who doesn’t actually have to *use* it, and who may have chosen that textbook over the strenuous objections of teachers?

    1. There is nothing wrong with textbooks. I think we don’t teach students to use them enough. But that’s not what the author was saying. Most districts buy a planned out curriculum for the core subjects that is based on best practices. The author is right; a stressed out teacher isn’t going to produce anything better.

  2. You said that all teacher have roughly the same amount of work o do. I beg to differ. First, as a self-contained SPED teacher, I have to do at least as much planning as other teachers, but often more because I potentially have 5 to 10 different preps. Many of my gen ed colleagues have 2 to 4. I have no curriculum, and therefore no materials, yet my students are expected to show proficiency in a arbitrary standards based on gen ed standards based on portfolios. Again, nothing that is appropriate from the county or even the state. And very difficult to find on the internet. Then there are IEPs and other mountains of paperwork, along with supporting evidence. And organize in-school work opportunities. I went from one teaching position that was not SPED self-contained, to SPED self-contained in the same building and probably doubled my workload. I did that knowing what I was getting into, but you will never convince me all teaching positions are created equally. That said, I did have to cut back on the “extras” and clearly prioritizeto maintain my sanity, and you do give some good tips. Balance is essential. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we are no good for others and we set ourselves up for burn out (been there).

    1. Hats off to all Special Ed teachers. Tons of mores work, difficult students, and under appreciated all for the same pay. No wonder there’s a shortage.

    2. In my defense, I did say it’s “usually” that simple. There are exceptions to everything in education, but most teachers who are overworked have chosen to be.

  3. I cannot agree more! I used to do these things, but now I pick and choose what things I want to do.

    I joined the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club two years ago and arrived quickly at my “sweet spot” for my work week, which is 45 hours. If I want to do something extra, I CHOOSE to do it and no longer feel obligated. I taught fifth grade for most of my teaching years but moved to a self-contained sixth this year. I learned a LONG time ago to hand off as much as possible to the kids! And subs LOVE that my students “run” the classroom. Their is much more buy-in when they do, also.

    I love what I do, but I no longer want it to be my entire life. Keep posting these real messages!!

  4. Some of the items on your list are actually required by some districts (writing learning objectives on tbe board, creating lesson plans in aspecific format) and others might be classified as good pedagogy and may influence one’s evaluation. Also, there are many reasons an online lesson or materials might not be adequate. I have used online materials but usually change them in some way. And there are manyteachers who must put in additional hours because their subject area requires it. While I don’t believe it is your intention, I think you are putting the problem of overwork back on the teacher when it is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed. Teachers should not be asked to make these choices in the first place. Teachers should be allowed to be balanced, well-rounded, life-long learners and they should be afforded the time to be those things without cutting corners. Currently, that is not an option – something has to give and it shouldn’t be teachers. If we find a way to make the current work load workable, they will add more.

    1. I agree that the problem is systemic. However, since I don’t see any attempt to improve the current systemic problems, it’s up to teachers to protect themselves inside such a system. This article offered some ways to do that.

  5. Love this. I have adopted a lot of these suggestions and I am leaving work earlier than ever now-usually with in 1 hour of dismissal. In terms of learning-I pick a lot of math games where they play but are learning using simple tools I do not have to make…ie dice, cards, counters, base 10’s. I adopted daily 5 – they get three choice times and love them all-and they love the word work choice option even tho they can pick listen to reading instead–and I have really simple tasks in my box they love to work on. They complain if they don’t got to do to work on writing. I use adopted curriculum but I don’t do it all because I bring in other academic activities.

  6. I’m trying to find out what teaching K-12 is like in other countries, especially European countries. It’s been difficult to get teachers there willing to share their experience.

    When my daughter taught a year in France a few years back, she said it was considerably less stressful: more holiday time, students off on Wednesdays, extra curricular activities were off-campus and not part of the school’s responsibility, and on and on.

    I have a more European sensibility when it comes to work. While I enjoy teaching, there are other things actually more important to me than what I do at work. Teachers in the U.S. have been brainwashed into thinking they’ve got to spend all this off-work time working for their job to show their dedication. In return, administrators demand accountability, as if teachers can’t hold themselves accountable for what they do.

    I think dedicating one’s life to their job partly comes from the guilt of having long summer breaks, Winter breaks and Spring breaks. One shouldn’t feel guilty because of the stupidity of the American work ethic. Life is short and needs to be lived!

  7. To add to my comments above…

    I believe that in order for me to be fulfilled as a teacher, I need to be an authentic teacher. And ultimately the students benefit from that authenticity, as they in turn become more authentic.
    Teaching from some script provided by the district, which probably spent thousands of dollars on, is the antithesis of authenticity and weakens me as a teacher. I tried it for about for several minutes on several different occasions throughout my teaching career, and it was always nauseating, requiring me to just toss it away and get back to who I was.

    This is not to say I don’t read or listen to what others have to say about how the brain works or how we learn or what motivates us. I do learn from others, But these are people that I either seek out or was lucky enough to happen upon them, maybe through the New York Times Op-ed, a TedTalk, friend’s recommendation, etc.

    But what I teach and how I teach comes from my authenticity, and what results are my own lessons based on what I know and believe will help my students on the life’s journey.

    After having said all that, I’m grateful to have Murph reaching out to see who shares similar opinions regarding this profession, and is willing to speak some truth.

  8. Love it! Totally agree that a Pinterest worthy classroom is a waste of time (unless it is something you really want to do). My students are learning English as An Additional Language and there is only so much headspace for them and for me so it’s definitely a case for me that less is more.
    I’ve also had an undiagnosed special needs student this term, so the number of ‘Lexus lessons’ which weren’t very many, have had to drop even further. And surprise, surprise, the rest of the students have continued to learn.

  9. I loved reading this! I already do most of these things and I am way less stressed than my coworkers. When I was student teaching, I was constantly told that I didn’t dedicate enough time to my job and that I must not care about it enough. They told me that I shouldn’t be getting more than a few hours of sleep each night, that’s just part of being a teacher. I’ve always disagreed with that, and this semester my students had the highest growth the school has seen for my grade/subject. You can get good results without having an unhealthy relationship with your job. (Also, what you said about writing learning targets on the board made my day. It’s spot on.)

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