Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

teacher burnout

Every minute of planning time that you waste is a minute you will have to work some other time. So if you want to cut the number of hours you spend on teaching, do not waste a minute of your planning time.

Many teachers do. Angela Watson, in her 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, calls them “unintentional breaks.” Over at Smart Classroom Management,  Michael Linsin says, “Most teachers prepare inefficiently. They get distracted.”

We tell ourselves we’re working all day but sometimes we’re actually chatting with colleagues, making personal phone calls, checking personal emails or Facebook, or just sitting there staring off into space and trying to catch our breaths. It’s understandable. Teaching is exhausting and sometimes we just want a break.

But if your goal is to cut down on the amount of time you spend on the job so you have more time to spend on the rest of your life, then maximizing your planning time has to be a priority. You can’t do anything about the number of hours you are required to spend in your classroom with students. So if you’re looking to eliminate taking work home, then a large part of that has to be optimizing your planning time.

Personally, I hate donating time. Unlike money, I can’t make it back. So I protect my hours vigilantly. For me, that means making the most of the 45 minutes my school district gives me, as well as using class time to complete some of my professional responsibilities (a topic I’ll address in Part 10 of this series). Here is how I optimize my planning time:

Make a To-Do List Before Going Home

The last thing I do before walking out the door is sit down at my desk and write down the things I will do when I arrive the next morning. That way, as soon as I roll in, I can get right to work and start checking off items. Remember to consider each item carefully and ask the three questions all time-saving teachers must ask:

1. Is it necessary?

2. Is there a more efficient way to do it?

2. Could students do it instead of me?

To read about slashing your to-do list, see Part 4 of this series.

Come In Early

Most days, I have two planning times. The first is contractual. I get 45 minutes of planning time when my students are in specials. The second is voluntary. While this series is about avoiding burnout by cutting your hours, the one part of the day where you will need to donate some time to your district is before school. No matter how efficient you are, there just isn’t enough time in the contractual day to do everything you need to do. But if you arrive an hour before school and leave within 30 minutes of dismissal, you’ll still be on track to work 40-hour weeks, as long as you don’t take work home and remember to say no to additional responsibilities that will sap your energy and detract from your effectiveness in the classroom.

Here’s how my schedule breaks down:

8:00  Arrive at school

8:50  Students enter

8:55  – 9:40  Contractual Planning Time

9:40 – 12:20  Teach

12:20 – 12:55  Lunch

12:55 – 3:51  Teach  (20-minute supervised recess included)

4:20   Go Home

Each day works out to eight hours and twenty minutes, minus a duty-free 35-minute lunch, which puts me at seven hours and 45 minutes. I usually have one 45-minute staff meeting every Wednesday morning, so altogether I typically work 39.5 hours in a week.

Coming in an hour early means I have an hour and 45 minutes each day to do all the parts of my job that don’t directly involve kids (planning, checking papers, sending and replying to emails, finding and gathering resources, making copies, assigning things online, etc.)

If at all possible, your voluntary planning time should take place before school. That’s because one hour in the morning is worth two in the afternoon. As I explain in my book, Exhausted, people are more productive in the morning. They benefit from a full tank of willpower. They’re less likely to give in to distractions and temptations. They also benefit from Parkinson’s Law, which states that work will expand to fill up the time available. By coming in before school, you are up against a deadline. The students are going to arrive at a set time. This will force you to be more efficient.

Prioritize your to-do list

Upon arriving at school and reviewing my to-do list, I put first things first. Anything I can’t do while students are in the room gets done first. This usually includes all the copies I’ll need for the week and assigning things in Google Classroom. It may involve preparing resources for social studies or science for that day. I may need to locate a picture book that introduces a new unit of study. Goals for the day are written on the board, since my district cares about that sort of thing.  If I’m making a video for a flipped lesson, I usually make it before school on the day of the lesson.

There’s a concept Angela Watson shares in her 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club that saves enormous amounts of time. She calls it “task-batching,”  and all it requires is some organization and preplanning. A lot of the time, teachers do things as they pop up. They need 25 copies of a math worksheet, so they hit print and run to the copier to get them, only to repeat the process seven or eight times throughout the week. Angela recommends batching similar tasks together. If you’ve planned out your entire week, you ought to be able to make copies for everything, all at once, saving yourself endless trips to the copy room. Same goes for digital assignments. Assign everything for the entire week in Google Classroom and use a numbering system to keep track of them, as Alice Keeler recommends in this post. Do the same with email. Instead of replying as you receive them, schedule time in your day to do nothing except read and respond to email.

Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do with students in the room.  In the last article of this series, I’ll explain how I create time during the day to chip away at work I used to take home.  Grading papers, providing students feedback on their writing, and digitally assigning things can all be done at nearly any time of the day.

Be Antisocial

My wife is a lot nicer than me. She has one of those friendly faces that induce strangers to walk up to her and ask for directions. They never ask me.  That might explain why teachers rarely swing by my room to talk, while, if my wife wants to get any work done, she has to go somewhere else or hide in her room with the door shut and the lights off.

And that’s just what you may have to do. If you’re a friendly person like my wife, it’s going to be harder for you to optimize your planning time. Coworkers like to chat and planning time seems to be a favorite time. If you’re an antisocial grump like me (especially in the morning), people tend to avoid you. Which means you can work without being distracted. Set clear boundaries, either with your words or your actions, and you’ll be able to use your planning time to get work done.

Remember the goal. If you want to cut hours off your workweek, you’ll need to make sacrifices. Save the socializing for lunch. Get your work done during planning time.


All of the articles in this series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves

Part 2: Making a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time


All links to Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club are affiliate links.


Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

teacher burnout


Part One: Why Teachers Fail To Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part Two: Make a Plan

Part Three: Say No

Teachers have a lot to do. But how much of it really matters? What’s impactful? What will make a difference in your classroom? How much difference will it make? These are questions that teachers who hope to work fewer hours must ask. They must be willing to question everything they’ve done and everything they think they know about teaching.

In my book, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss, I share how when I was growing up my mom never cooked fajitas. I didn’t have a fajita until I got to college. And when I had them there, I got them from a Mexican chain restaurant. I soon discovered that all of these restaurants served the meal in nearly the same way. You’d get a pile of steaming hot meat and vegetables served to you in a sizzling cast-iron skillet. You’d get three or four soft-shell tortillas wrapped in foil or hidden in tortilla-sized plastic container. You’d get a plate of toppings, some rice, and a pile of refried beans.

No matter where you went, you pretty much got the same amount of food. And it was usually more than I needed. When I started making fajitas at home, I made them the same way I was served them at restaurants, right down to the too-large portions and sides.

The same thing happens with teaching. We all grew up attending school and seeing teachers at work. We’re all conditioned to think certain things about the way we do our jobs. We accept timeworn practices like assigning homework, lecturing, and grading papers not because we’ve thought about them and declared them effective but because we haven’t thought about them all. They are the way things have always been done. They are the default.

But the way things have always been done isn’t really working for teachers. We’ve got a nation of stressed out, exhausted, disengaged educators who are counting the years to retirement or getting out altogether. Even many of our very best teachers jump ship at the first real opportunity.

If you want to stop burnout before it starts to sink its voracious teeth into you, you must start challenging the way you do things.

When looking at your to-do lists, ask these three questions:

Is it necessary?

Is there a way to accomplish it that will take less work on my part?

Can students do it?

Here’s a sample to-do list for a hypothetical third-grade teacher. See which things you can slash from the list without negatively impacting students. Are there things you just don’t need to do so you can have more time to do things that really matter, or, better yet, so you can have that time for yourself? Are there things students can do themselves?

  • Plan next week’s lessons
  • Create weekly parent newsletter
  • Update the class Weebly
  • Check student reading response logs
  • Send Remind message about today’s homework
  • Tabulate the percentage of students who did at-home reading and update the class chart.
  • Find games for the class Halloween party
  • Copy math homework sheets
  • Change the monthly calendar to November
  • Change bulletin board for the magnetism unit
  • Respond to emails
  • Copy math tests
  • Design the next science unit on magnetism
  • Locate materials for magnetism lessons
  • Copy spelling worksheets
  • Create an anchor chart for spelling patterns
  • Create a writing rubric for persuasive essays.
  • Find persuasive essay exemplars for practice scoring with writing rubrics

When you make cutting hours from your week a priority and you create a plan to make it happen, you’ll start looking for ways to optimize your teaching practice. You will question how necessary things are. You’ll ask if something that will take an hour is twice as impactful as something that takes 30 minutes. You’ll recognize that every decision involves a trade-off.

Starting with your to-do list forces you to ask the one question every teacher must constantly ask:

Why are you doing what you are doing?

Take the parent newsletter, a staple of most elementary classrooms. It takes you 15-20 minutes to create each week. How many parents read it? Don’t know? Find out. Put a simple request at the end of it. Even if parents do appreciate the information, do they need all of it? Would a simple three-sentence email sent to a group list get the job done just as effectively?

A colleague of mine got rid of her weekly newsletter and now only writes one a month. Not a single parent said a word about it.

Are you changing bulletin boards because the students benefit from them, or because you’re worried about what others think when they pop their heads into your room?

Does your classroom website help students learn? Does anyone other than you look at it? If not, why are you wasting time on it? Be honest with yourself. Are you doing it because it makes you look like a better, more tech-savvy teacher, or because your principal is a techy guy and you want to impress him, or because you’re lying to yourself that parents actually check it, or because what you really want to do is web design and not teach? If it’s not helping students, quit doing it. 

Is changing the classroom calendar the best use of your time, or could you have a student who regularly gets his work done early do it instead? Do you even need a calendar? If so, would printing off an already-made one suffice?

Why are you creating a writing rubric from scratch for your persuasive essay unit when there are a hundred available on the Internet that are just as good as anything you’re going to make? Do you really think your rubric creating skills are that much better than everyone else who’s made one and uploaded it?

Why are you still doing weekly spelling lists? Do they work? Are you doing it because parents like and expect them? Are you doing it to kill ten minutes every day? Are you doing it because it’s in your ELA program? Are those good reasons?

Can’t you create anchor charts while you’re teaching the lesson, instead of preparing them ahead of time?

You can ask these types of questions of everything on your list, and you should if you’re serious about cutting hours from your workweek. Minutes add up, and the fewer of them you spend on unimportant things, the more you’ll have for the good stuff. Become obsessive about questioning everything you do that sucks your time and you’ll end up with more time.

In case you’re wondering, here’s what the above list would look like if I had my way with it:

  • Plan next week’s lessons
  • Create parent newsletter
  • Update class Weebly
  • Check student reading response logs
  • Send Remind message about today’s homework
  • Tabulate the percentage of students who did at-home reading and update  the class chart.
  • Find games for the class Halloween party
  • Copy math homework*
  • Change the monthly calendar to November
  • Change bulletin board for the next science unit
  • Respond to emails
  • Copy math tests
  • Design next science unit
  • Locate materials for science unit
  • Copy spelling worksheets
  • Create an anchor chart for spelling patterns
  • Create writing rubric for persuasive essay.
  • Find exemplars for practice scoring with writing rubrics

Some explanations:

  • I actually create a weekly parent newsletter, but that’s because I enjoy it. Still, were I pinched for time, this is something I could remove and replace with an email or Remind messages.
  • I’ve had class websites. Huge waste of time. I use Google Classroom for everything now.
  • I don’t require reading response logs because they’re a good way to make reading a chore.
  • I send Remind messages, but not about homework. I only give homework to those parents who requested it for the year (11 out of 22)
  • I don’t track at home reading. I have in the past but those who read would have anyway and those who didn’t weren’t inspired to by my tracking of it.
  • Let parents plan the class parties.
  • I copy math homework for the parents who want it, which is a significant reduction over what I used to do.
  • The only calendar in my room is the lunch calendar, which works perfectly well.
  • I reserve bulletin board space for student work and class information.
  • There’s no point in designing your own science units when others have already done this work or when your district has adopted a science curriculum. Use what’s there. Even if you could make one that’s better, it wouldn’t be worth your effort.
  • No weekly spelling lists. They don’t work.
  • Find a rubric online or in your writing curriculum or check with a colleague.

When you look at every part of your teaching practice with a critical eye, you’ll find you’re doing a lot of things and you’re doing many of them for poor reasons. Slashing your to-do list is a way of saying no to those things that don’t accomplish your primary goal of educating the students in front of you. Break out of default mode and question everything. You’ll increase your focus and decrease the amount of time you spend on the job.

Angela Watson cares about the same things I do. She wants teachers to have long, fulfilling careers making a difference for kids in their classrooms. To that end, she has created the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. While you may not get down to 40 hours right away, you will carve out large blocks of time from your typical workweek. Like me, Angela is a big believer in to-do lists and prioritizing. As part of her club, you’ll get resources that will help you do just what I wrote about above. Check it out. The enrollment window closes January 10 and prices rise January 1.

All of the articles in this series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves

Part 2: Making a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time

Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 3: Say No

teacher burnout

In part one of this series, I discussed why it is that teachers fail to protect themselves from burnout, even though high numbers of teachers report being stressed, exhausted, and disengaged at work.

In part two, I previewed the strategies I use to work 40 hours per week. I also talked about the importance of having a plan if you’re serious about cutting your own hours back.

Today, I’ll share my number one strategy for working fewer hours. Like many solutions, it’s simple but powerful.

Say no.

Many people have a hard time saying no. They have good reasons. We’re social creatures who are wired to cooperate. Society reinforces this biological urge to get along. No feels negative. Saying it disappoints other people. Pop culture contributes with messages about having no regrets, being a doer, and squeezing every drop out of life. For a lot of people, just the thought of telling someone no makes them uncomfortable. They agree to every request and then wonder why they’re stressed out and tired all the time.

Teaching is hard. Putting more on your plate makes it harder. The easiest way to lower your stress, which will make it less likely you will burn out somewhere down the line, is to do less work in such a stressful environment.

First, you have to give yourself permission to say no.  That requires a shift in mindset. No feels bad. It’s by definition a negative word. It means letting others down. It’s these negative thoughts and associated fears that lead people to say yes when they don’t want to.

Instead, think of it this way: When you say no, you are also saying yes.

  • When you say no to joining a committee, you are saying yes to having more time to prepare high-quality lessons or provide students with valuable feedback.
  • When you say no to attending an after-school night, you’re saying yes to your own family, your own interests, and your own energy levels, which will, over time, lengthen your career.
  • When you say no to solving another teacher’s problem for them, you’re saying yes to empowering that teacher to solve the problem herself.
  • When you say no to things that don’t impact your students, you are saying yes to things that do.

When you say no, you say yes to the opportunity to say yes to other things.

That’s because every decision you make has trade-offs. Saying no simply means you’re acknowledging this fact.  You can’t do everything and you shouldn’t try. Do a few important things, and do them well. If you do, you’ll be in excellent company.

Warren Buffett said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

Steve Jobs: People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

Seth Godin: “Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

Paulo Coelho: “When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.”

Meghan Trainor: “Nah to the ah to the no, no, no.”

Even Jesus said no. 

Many teachers will claim that they don’t have a choice. They have mandatory meetings to attend. They are contractually obligated to chaperone a dance, or three sporting events, or attend graduation. Some claim that even though certain work isn’t technically mandatory, it’s strongly encouraged.

All of that may be true. I, too, have meetings I must attend, parent-teacher conferences to run after school hours, and an open house every fall.

But there are a number of opportunities that teachers accept when they shouldn’t. When teachers say they “have to,” they often mean that the repercussions of not saying yes are uncomfortable. Or, more likely, the fear of such repercussions is uncomfortable. Elaine St. James, in her book, Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More, says:

“There are often many things we feel we should do that, in fact, we don’t really have to do. Getting to the point where we can tell the difference is a major milestone in the simplification process.”

And simplifying your job will help you cut hours off it.

An entire book could be written on why and how teachers should say no (in fact, I’m writing one), so for this article, I’ll stick to knowing when to say yes and when to say no. It’s actually very easy.

Say yes to opportunities that:

  1. Excite you
  2. Further your goals

Tim Ferriss goes so far as to say, “If it’s not a hell, yeah, it’s a no.” Saying yes to only those things that excite you or that further your goals is a way of prioritizing, and all teachers must do more of it. We simply can’t do everything, so we must choose.

Let’s practice:

Would you like to join the March is Reading Month Committee?

Say yes if the idea of meeting with others to design fun activities around reading is exciting to you or if you think that joining such a committee will further one of your goals. If you feel like you should, or if you’re worried what others will think if you don’t, or if you haven’t joined a committee this year but you know Joyce is on three so you probably ought to and this one doesn’t sound so bad …say no.

I’ve really been impressed with how you use technology in your classroom. Would you mind sharing some of those ideas with the staff?

Your body does this thing when it’s presented with an offer. It is either immediately excited or it wants to get the hell out of there as fast as it can. Listen to your body. If the very mention of an opportunity gets you excited, then say yes. If you love technology and like sharing ideas with others, then this one is a no-brainer. If you love technology but the thought of presenting to your colleagues creates a pit in your stomach, say no (and maybe offer to make a video or send out links to the stuff you do). If the idea of spending time on any of it makes you instantly resentful — if you immediately start figuring out when in the world you’ll find time to pull it all together — then say no. It’s not a priority right now and other stuff is.

Remember, saying no means saying yes. What could you do with the time you would have spent on this committee or doing that presentation or attending that event? The reverse is also true: Saying yes is saying no. So if you’re a teacher who just can’t stomach the thought of telling people no, consider this: every time you say yes to something, you are also saying no to lots of other things. Saying yes to donating your time over here means you don’t get to use that time over there.

If you’re a teacher who always says yes, then when you return to work after the break, say no to something. Say no to anything. Don’t apologize. Don’t give excuses. As Susan Gregg says, “No is a complete sentence and so often we forget that.” No is empowering. Try it. You might like it.

If you want more ideas on how to prioritize, check out Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Over the course of a calendar year, she’ll give you tips in the areas of lesson planning, grading papers, communicating with parents, establishing routines, and many others, all with the aim of helping you cut hours from your typical workweek. It’s great stuff, which is why Teacher Habits is an affiliate partner and all links to the club are affiliate links.

If you want to read more about prioritizing, acknowledging trade-offs, and the importance of saying no so you can focus on your greatest contribution, check out Greg McKeown’s excellent book, Essentialism. It will change how you think about no.

All of the articles in this series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves

Part 2: Making a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time





Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 2: Making a Plan

Teacher Burnout

In part one of this series, I explained why so many teachers fail to protect themselves from burnout. You can read that article here, but the short version is:

  • Like newlyweds entering marriage, teachers enter the profession with a romanticized view of teaching. They therefore fail to take steps to prevent burnout because they believe – as newlyweds do about divorce – that burnout won’t happen to them.
  • Almost everyone thinks they’re special. Not only do we see ourselves as different, we also see ourselves as better. This overconfidence leads teachers to assume the things that caused other teachers to burn out won’t affect them the same way. We tell ourselves it won’t happen to us because we’ll handle the pressures better.

Part two is about how teachers can take steps to prevent burnout from happening to them later in their careers. It’s about being proactive, and as any proactive person knows, you must start with a plan.

Dave Ramsey is a financial guru who hosts a radio show each weekday and has sold millions of books on the topic of personal finance. If you boiled down his philosophy on personal money management to just three words, they would be, “Have a plan.” Ramsey often says that if you don’t control your money, it will control you.

The same can be said about your time.

The easiest way to make it less likely you’ll end up a stressed out teacher on the road to burnout is to work fewer hours before you’re burned out. Teaching is enormously challenging and stressful. Even days where you show up 30 minutes before your students and leave 30 minutes after dismissal will leave you drained. Choosing to work even more hours in such an exhausting environment will make you more tired and susceptible to eventual burnout.

If you want to be less stressed about work, spend less time working.

Over the next eight days, I’ll lay out the strategies I’ve used to limit most of my workweeks to 40 hours. Depending on your circumstances, you might not be able to cut that much right away. But I am confident that you’ll be able to reclaim hours of your life without sacrificing effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, as I wrote here, you’ll probably be a better teacher.

Here are the nine strategies you’ll learn:

Make a Plan
Say No
Slash Your To-Do List
Optimize Planning Time
Ditch Homework
The Common Core Advantage
Leverage Technology
Stop Taking Student Writing Home
Use Class Time

Before we get to the Make a Plan strategy, you have to be sure you actually want to work fewer hours. If you’re reading this, I assume you do. But there are teachers who take great pride in working long hours. It’s become a part of their identity. You’ve seen them on social media or heard them at school “complaining” about their 60-hour workweeks. They work through breaks and work all summer. Of course, they’re not really complaining. They’re martyrs. They think all this work makes them more dedicated than other teachers and they want you to know how committed they are.

And you know what? They may never burn out. Good for them!

This series is for people who want to cut back but either don’t know how or worry about what impact it will have on their performance. This is for people who dislike working so many hours but haven’t figured out ways to effectively cut them back.

To start, you will have to change the way you think about work. Hours do not equal productivity. Repeat that over and over until it sticks like gum on the bottom of your shoe. Hours do not equal productivity.

Article: Bring Back the 40-Hour Workweek

I once worked with a teacher who spent untold hours at school. But she spent it on the wrong things. She created beautiful bulletin boards, made her own worksheets, and wrote comments all over her students’ writing. Nobody could question her commitment, but was she really a better teacher than those who spent their time on more impactful things?

Second, you have to commit to working less. You have to make it a goal. You have to set limits. You must make rules and default settings. Decide ahead of time how much you’re going to work in a week and then stick to it. Teaching will expand to fill whatever time you allow it. There is always more to do and a more time-consuming way to do it. It’s your job to draw lines and abide by them.

Start with the end goal. Mine is to be a good teacher for 30 years. In order to do that, I know I’ll have to avoid the burnout that has afflicted so many teachers before me. A big part of that is limiting the number of hours I dedicate to work. I know that a healthy work-life balance is essential to me maintaining a long career.

I have a weekly goal of working 40 or fewer hours. That may sound impossible, but if you make it a priority, you will look for ways to make it happen. I’ll be sharing specifics in the coming days. For now, know that there are three components of any plan that you will need in order to follow through and stick with it.

1. Set Rules for Yourself – I learned the importance of self-imposed rules when I first tried to lose weight. If you allow yourself to make bad decisions, you will. Rules are unbreakable. In the weight loss game, some of my rules were a) no soda, b) no fast food, and c) no seconds at dinner. When I’m actively trying to lose weight, I don’t break these rules. For limiting the hours you spend on school, you’ll need hard rules. One of mine is: Don’t grade homework. Another is: Don’t join any unpaid committees. With two rules, I’ve cut hours from my school year.

2. Set Defaults — Defaults are like rules, except they’re breakable in certain circumstances. You’ll likely have more of these than rules. Think of defaults as the font on your word processor. Most of the time, you’ll open Word or Google Docs and start typing, not caring about the font. Whatever the default is will do. However, there are times when you want to change font, or the size, or the color. When it’s necessary, defaults can be changed. Here are a few defaults I have that help cut hours off my workweek:

a. Say no.
b. Don’t take student work home.
c. Make a to-do list for tomorrow before leaving each day.
d. Don’t waste planning time.
e. Finish an outline of next week’s plans before leaving on Friday.

Defaults are what you’ll usually do, but circumstances can necessitate a change. Sometimes I’ve got to scoot right after school and I don’t have time to make my to-do list. Sometimes I say yes instead of no. Sometimes my plans don’t get done by Friday at 4 pm and I have to write them at home on the weekend. But most of the time, these defaults help me work no more than 40 hours in a week.

3. Set Limits — If you don’t set limits and stick to them, you’ll soon find others stealing your time. Using your planning time means not spending 10 minutes talking with coworkers. Not checking emails on Sunday might mean not being as helpful as you’d like to be to those who email you. Saying no to committees and after-school opportunities might lead to resentment from colleagues.
Setting limits can be tough. That’s a theme I’ll return to often during this series. None of this is easy. That’s why so few teachers do it. There may be uncomfortable consequences. The question you must answer for yourself is:

What are you willing to do to regain hours of your life and extend your career?

For me, this is about being healthy and happy. It’s about having a long, productive career in the classroom. It’s about making the most of my time on Earth.

As you read the subsequent articles in this series, you’ll have to decide for yourself which strategies you’re willing to implement. You’ll need to make your own rules, set your own default settings, and establish your own boundaries. You’ll have to decide how badly you want to protect your energy and stress levels. And once you do, you’ll be able to make your own plan to cut hours off your workweek.

If you’re looking for more, Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club is where you want to go. Enrollment is open for the January 2019 cohort. You’ll get weekly emails and audio files that will help trim hours of your working year. You’ll also get a truckload of resources that Angela scoured the net to provide.

Teacher Habits is an affiliate of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club.

All of the articles in this series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves

Part 2: Making a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time

Preventing Teacher Burnout — Part 1: Why Teachers Fail To Protect Themselves

Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout is a problem, and not just in the United States. Nearly half of teachers in India suffer from burnout (Shukla and Trivedi, 2008). In the U.K., 77% of teachers who are considering leaving the profession cite the volume of work as the reason (Source). Here in the U.S., teachers report symptoms of burnout at very high levels.

61% of teachers in a 2017 AFT survey said their jobs are “always” or “often” stressful, a rate twice as high as workers report in the general population.

All 30,000 teachers surveyed by the American Federation of Teachers in 2015 “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they were enthusiastic about teaching when they began their careers. Only 53% still agreed at the point they took the survey. Those who “strongly agreed” dropped from 89% to just 15%.

Gallup found that only 30% of teachers are “engaged” at work. 57% aren’t and 13% are “actively disengaged,” which describes teachers who express unhappiness at work in ways that undermine their colleagues’ accomplishments.

Perhaps most alarming, teachers’ mental health is at risk. In 2015, 34% of surveyed teachers said their mental health was poor for seven or more days in the last month. In 2017, that number climbed to 58% (Source). In the U.K., 10% of teachers use antidepressants to get through the day, and the suicide rate among primary school teachers there is twice the national average.

You Are At Risk

All of this means that if you stay in the classroom, you have a good chance of burning out. But in spite of these cold, hard numbers, many teachers do nothing to protect themselves. They keep plowing ahead, working too many hours, stretching themselves too thin, stressing themselves out, steadily trudging down the path to either an early exit from the classroom or a long, slow slog of uninspired teaching until they’re old enough to retire. That’s sad for their students. And it’s sad for the teachers. What a waste of the best years of their lives.

So why don’t teachers take what should be clear warning signs seriously? Why don’t they take steps early in their careers to prevent burning out later on?

A survey out of Clark University asked young people an interesting question that may help explain. Researchers asked 1,029 people, aged 18 to 29, both single and married, whether or not they expected their marriage to last their whole lives. 86% said they did. Researchers concluded that the other 14% didn’t anticipate ever tying the knot in the first place. Which means that, even though the U.S. has a divorce rate of about 50%, almost every single young person believes it won’t happen to them.

One of the researchers, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, explains why:

“We still have a very romantic view of marriage as a society. Other surveys have shown that close to 90 percent of emerging adults say that they expect to find their soul mate as a marriage partner. That’s a very romantic ideal.”

The Downside  of Idealism

A new teacher is no less idealistic than a new bride or groom. Like marriage, they go into teaching with romanticized notions. They’re going to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Jaime Escalante teaching kids calculus, Rafe Esquith turning kids on to Shakespeare, or Michelle Pfieffer saving teens from the mean streets. They’re going to get in there and make a difference.

I’m all for youthful exuberance, but lying to ourselves hasn’t helped us avoid burnout (or divorce). A better approach would be to look at the statistics with clear eyes and actually believe them. Returning to the marriage analogy, wouldn’t it be better for young people to view the divorce rate as a warning sign for their own marriage? Shouldn’t the new bride and groom figure out what causes people to split up and then take proactive steps to avoid repeating those couples’ mistakes?

Shouldn’t teachers learn from those who came before them?

Perhaps we refuse to learn from other people because we believe they have nothing to teach us. In his fascinating book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes:

“We tend to think we’re unique, and that just because someone else feels a certain way about a set of circumstances does not mean that we will.”

But we’re wrong.

Illusory Superiority

While we spend more time noticing the differences among individuals, the reality is that humans are far more alike than different, and not only biologically. Research has shown that people’s emotional responses are far less varied than we assume. So while the best way to predict our futures is to ask someone who has done the thing we’re considering doing, we won’t, because, as Gilbert writes, “We don’t realize just how similar we all are, [so] we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations.”

And our imaginations stink. Because we don’t stop at thinking we’re different from others. We think we’re better.

  • In a 1977 study, 94% of professors rated themselves as having above average intelligence relative to their peers.
  • 32% of employees at a software company rated themselves better than 19 of 20 coworkers.
  • 90% of drivers think they’re better than the average driver.
  • Most people, when asked to rate themselves from 1-10 on any positive trait, will give themselves a 7. (Source)

None of us like thinking we’re just like everybody else. From childhood, we’re told that we’re special, unique, an exceptional snowflake. It might help protect our delicate egos, but it does nothing to impel us to take action so that we can avoid ending up just like everyone else.

Believe the Data

The numbers don’t lie. None of today’s burned out teachers expected to be so when they started their teaching careers. They looked around and said, “Nope. That won’t happen to me.” They said:

  • Others might get stressed, but I won’t.
  • Others might not be able to juggle all of these responsibilities, but I can.
  • Other teachers aren’t as good as me.
  • I don’t need as much sleep as others.
  • I don’t need to decompress after work.
  • I’m more capable than others.
  • I’m more selfless than others.

Today’s stressed out teachers failed to learn from the stressed-out teachers who came before them and therefore repeat the selfsame mistakes.

So what can young teachers do to avoid the pitfalls laid before them?

Some things are difficult to control. You have little say over your boss or how the community perceives teachers. You can extend your career by becoming an expert classroom manager so that student misbehavior doesn’t drive you from the field. Likewise, there are proactive steps you can take to alter the environment in which you teach. But the elephant in the room, the one thing many teachers could exercise more control over but don’t, is their volume of work.

Teachers have too much to do and not enough time to do it. But there are things every teacher can do to cut back on the hours they commit to the job without sacrificing effectiveness. In fact, as I’ve written in the past, I believe that trimming hours off each workweek will make you a better teacher.

I intend to teach for 30 productive years. To do that, I started taking steps a few years ago that limit the number of hours I dedicate to the job each week. Most weeks, I work 40 hours or less.

In the rest of this series, I share the strategies that have worked for me. Circumstances differ, and I have some built-in advantages that you may not, but I’m confident that while you may not get all the way down to a 40-hour week, you will be able to reclaim precious hours for yourself.

Many of the things I do are recommended by Angela Watson in her 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. If you find my articles valuable, you’ll get even more out of Angela’s club. She goes into more detail than I do and provides you with tools that will help. Check it out, and if it looks appealing, sign up now. It’s an amazing product and a tremendous value. If you’re not sure if it’s right for you, take this quiz to see.

Read the rest of this series:

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time


Links to the 40 Hour Workweek Club are affiliate links. I will earn a commission should you sign up for the club via those links but you won’t pay a dime more. So thanks!