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.

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


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!

2 Replies to “Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 2: Making a Plan”

  1. Murph: I am now nearly nine years past my last full-time teaching post (which was actually three + posts teaching English variously junior high, senior high and at university level in Japan). Lots of positions, lots of colleagues and lots of students – local and from across the country. Lots of different levels of teaching objectives – and responsibilities to those students, colleagues and myself. I was easily teaching 20~24 hours face-to-face classes – and then more hours driving between campuses – and yes, homework reports were judiciously set – less at junior/senior high – and weekly at university level. Not graded in any event – all responded to as if a letter between them and me. For assessment purposes – every report I received was automatically awarded full marks/a check for fulfilment of task. By virtue of my P/T contracts – I had to spend almost NO TIME AT ALL in committee or staff meetings. I gave that time to the responses I wrote to all those reports received. I taught/worked more than 40 hours/week – but I was certainly building on my previous graduate studies (cultural and linguistic) and more than 30 years of teaching experience! My wife was for half of each year back in our home country caring for her aged mother – so I often had the time – if I went over the 40 hours. In any event I agree totally with Murph’s suggestions in this and earlier posts about taking your professional life seriously – not becoming some kind of “doormat” and abused by others assumptions that we should be lost to our families – in thrall to attacks by politicians and others ignorant of the teacher role. Of more value than lawyers and specialist medical personnel. Look after yourselves – don’t burn out! And Happy New Year 2018!

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