The other day, I shared the first in a series of articles I wrote last winter on preventing teacher burnout. The end of the article included links to the rest of the series. There are articles on saying no, leaving soon after students do at the end of the day, leveraging technology to decrease your workload, getting paperwork done while students are working, and a number of other topics. I recognize that not every one of my suggestions will work for every teacher out there. Some of us have tyrannical principals. Others may be hamstrung by awful contracts. I’m sure there are many teachers whose students do not have one-to-one devices. I get that not everything I suggest teachers do can realistically be done.
But a comment left by a reader illustrated the kind of defeatist thinking I hear from too many teachers. She told me my solutions weren’t practical for most teachers. When I asked for specifics, she wrote:
Many times teachers don’t have the luxury of individuals having their own technology. After-hours activities are often mandatory, and when students are doing independent work the teachers need to monitor for behavior issues, students who need assistance, etc. Coming in early and staying late are often the only opportunities to clean the rooms. One janitor for an entire school doesn’t cut it, and reports, progress notes, lesson plans, IEPs, and state-guided binders all have to be done after hours.
All of that may indeed be true. But the sentiment behind the words strikes me as something along the lines of, “Well, I’ll never be able to get my life back and feel less overwhelmed because all of these obstacles are making it impossible.”
The solutions I offer in articles and books may not work for everyone. They might not even be possible for some teachers. But I know what definitely will not make your teaching life better: resignation. Throwing your hands up in the face of challenges that make it difficult for you to remain enthusiastic about your job, that prevent you from getting home to your family and having needed balance in your life, and that make it more likely you will become discouraged, frustrated, and burned out is not a solution.
The point of my advice is not that you do x,y, and z and everything will be hunky-dory. The point is that you do something to make things better.
If your students do not have one-to-one devices, most of you can still use technology to cut hours off your workweek. Take students to the lab. Check out the Chromebook cart. Rotate students through centers to take advantage of the six laptops you do have. Write a grant for more devices. Get on DonorsChoose.
If your contract requires you to attend after-hours activities, then go. But don’t go to the ones that aren’t required. And stop telling yourself events are mandatory when they aren’t. A principal “expecting” you to be there isn’t a requirement. The fact that the rest of the staff has been guilted into attending does not obligate you to follow suit. If you’re worried about fallout, then talk to some veteran teachers. Ask them how many teachers in the past five years have been fired for not attending after-school events. I’m confident you’ll find the number quite low.
As for getting work done while you students work, yes, you may have to deal with behavior issues. But some of those can be solved proactively. Sit the troublemakers at the table where you’ll be doing your work. Name some high-performing, early-finishing student mentors to help those who need it. Partner those who almost always need help (it’s not like you don’t know who they are) with those who like helping and are always asking you what they can do next. Most importantly, establish early on what independent work looks like and have procedures students can follow when stuck that don’t require your constant availability. And if none of the above works, try something else. You have the right to go home at night and not have a pile of paperwork to complete, but that will only happen if you do something to reduce the piles of paperwork you are taking home. So do it!
If you’ve been teaching more than five years and you’re staying after school for three hours every night, then do something different. That’s not tenable. If the room is filthy and your one janitor can’t get to it, then figure out why it’s filthy and make a change. Papers ending up on the floor? Collect them as soon as students finish. Pencils littering the linoleum? Pass them out at the start of class and collect them at the end. Stuff falling out of kids’ desks? Take everything out of their desks and have them retrieve needed items from a central storage area. Stop ten minutes earlier and have students clean.
If you’re swamped by lesson plans, progress reports, IEPs, and state-mandated paperwork, then start using other people’s lessons, ask yourself if anyone is really going to miss a progress report once in a while (and if they are, can you simplify them?), push your district to schedule IEPs during the day (and if they won’t, talk to your principal about maybe lightening your special education numbers next year since you got hammered this year), work on the stupid state-mandated nonsense while kids take stupid state-mandated tests (and don’t put much effort into them–do you really think anyone is going to spend much time reading it?)
We all have obstacles that make our jobs harder than they need to be. If your goal is to reduce the feeling that you’re overwhelmed and to gain back hours of your day to devote to things you want to do instead of things you feel like you have to do, then do what it takes to make that happen. Go around the obstacles. If that doesn’t work, go through them. But whatever you do, don’t stand there pointing at the thing in your path, telling others how it stubbornly refuses to move out of your way.
My books, Exhausted and Leave School at School both offer suggestions for how to make your teacher life my manageable. Some of those suggestions will speak to you, some will not. If you find that my ideas aren’t cutting it and are in need of different ones, then give Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club a look. It’s comprehensive. Angela will talk you through every aspect of your teaching life as well as changes you can make at home. Sign up now, and you’ll start receiving the July materials, “The Self-Running Classroom,” including topics on designing your classroom for maximum productivity, planning procedures for a smooth first week, automating classroom routines, and establishing productive daily habits for you and your students.