Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 9: On Writing

teacher burnout

Let’s say that in the name of avoiding burnout you decide you’re never again going to take student work home. You stop assigning homework. You move paper assessments over to computer-scored ones. You grade in-class work as students finish it. But what do you do about student writing? How can you read 30 or 60 or 120 student essays without taking them home?

So much of cutting the hours you work is simply actually wanting to cut the number of hours you work and doing what’s necessary to make it happen. It requires you to challenge the way you’ve done things and maybe the way it’s “always been done.” You need new mindsets.

If you have 120 student essays to grade over a weekend, it’s because you chose to have 120 student essays to grade over a weekend. Choose differently.

Let’s start with the end in mind. You want each student to get better at writing. What actions can you take to achieve that goal? Or, another way to think of it, how do writers improve? 

Thinking of my own writing, the things that have helped me get better are:

  1. Reading
  2. Lessons (usually in the form of books or articles on how to write effectively)
  3. Practice
  4. Feedback

That’s it. You’ll notice the omission of the word “grades.” Grades do nothing to improve creative work. I have three books on Amazon that have “grades” in the form of little stars. Those stars don’t tell me anything about what I did well or what I need to do to get better. In the same vein, think of movie ratings. You might see a low rating and decide not to watch that particular movie. But if you’re the director of that movie, a 2-star rating doesn’t tell you anything. If you wanted to know what people actually thought about your movie, you’d have to read the reviews. In other words, creators value feedback, not grades.

So the first mindset change is: Grades don’t matter. Feedback does.

But whose feedback? Is all feedback the same? Can students become better writers by getting feedback from students or parents, or does all feedback have to come from the teacher?

Again, thinking of my own writing, I would benefit more from feedback from an expert. That’s why the master-apprentice relationship works. I have little doubt that I’d be a better writer today if Phillip Roth reviewed everything I wrote and offered pointers before I published. But that doesn’t mean others’ feedback is worthless. Every book I write gets sent to a handful of readers. Their feedback always results in a better final product.

The same is true for your students. They need your expert feedback, but that doesn’t mean peer feedback won’t also help them improve. Having students share their work with peers and requiring that they comment on others’ writing is a way for students to see how their work is received by readers. That’s the second mindset shift:

Not all feedback has to come from the teacher.

Alice Keeler says, “The longer a student goes without feedback, the less they care about the feedback when they get it.” Technology allows for faster feedback. I have my students do their writing in Google Docs so I can jump into their document at any time and provide suggestions and so that they can share their writing with classmates. It’s a recursive process of them writing, receiving feedback, and them improving their writing based on that feedback. It’s immediate and the feedback actually gets put to use. So that’s the third mindset shift:

Provide feedback on students’ writing while students are writing.

If you spend class time doing that, you won’t have to take their work home. You’ll also know where every student is in the writing process and you’ll use what you observe in their writing to decide which lessons to teach next. For an excellent article on how a teacher does this, read Catlin Tucker’s article “Stop Taking Grading Home.” 

But what about the grade? First, delay it as long as possible. Grades tell students that the work is over. If you want students to ever go back and improve it, then giving them a grade is a way to ensure that they won’t. If permissible, never give a grade on a student’s writing. They don’t help them improve.

If you can’t go that far,  grade as few of their writing assignments as possible. Provide targeted feedback. Require them to consider that feedback. Have them highlight areas where they revised to demonstrate how they used that feedback. But grade as a little as possible.

In those instances where there’s just no getting around it, grade the writing using a single-point rubric. It will save you tons of time and provide just as useful information to students as more complicated rubrics do (probably more, since students might actually read these less wordy versions). Limit the number of writing traits you score. Grading ten elements is too much. Pick three or four for each piece and focus your feedback on those. This will save you time and also help your students get better.

As with everything in the classroom, it’s not what you do but how you do it. De-emphasize the grade and stress their growth. Encourage them to go back and look at old papers they wrote. And if you were able to refrain from grading those earlier pieces, you might be surprised to see them returning to them and making them better.


The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club is designed to help you regain hours of your life without sacrificing effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, like the article above, it provides new ways of thinking that will save you time and help you be a better teacher.


Other Articles in this Series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

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






One Reply to “Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 9: On Writing”

  1. I have struggled with keeping up with grading several writing-intensive courses every year for the 8 years I’ve taught. I love student writing,but I get so far behind! I am going to print this entry to try some of these strategies. I do see some new ideas here – but some of the extra time is from pressure I put on myself thinking I need to grade every part of the writing – even in early drafts. The trick is changing my expectations of myself. Thanks for a chance to reset my practices.

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