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
- 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: