10 Things Overworked Teachers Can Stop Doing

If there’s one common thread that runs through the most popular articles on this blog it’s that teachers ought to do less.  I suspect those articles generate the most shares and responses because the topic is divisive. Some teachers read them and nod along, their beliefs affirmed in digital print. Others read them with varying degrees of bafflement and anger. The self-righteous will insinuate that those of us who want a life outside of school aren’t as dedicated as our more exhausted colleagues. Others, like one Facebook commenter on my article Dear Teachers, Please Go Home, ask some version of, “Then when are we supposed to get it all done?”

Which is a revelatory question.

Such a question presumes that most teachers have relatively equal amounts of work to do and that the only way to get it all done is to devote untold hours to the job, usually at the expense of other areas of their lives.

But such an assumption is wrong. Teachers vary greatly in how much work they have to get done and it’s not because they teach in different buildings or teach different grade levels or have different bosses. Some teachers have less to do because they’ve decided to have less to do. It’s usually that simple.

There are a number of items you can likely take off your to-do list tomorrow if you’re willing to swallow some pride, care less about what other adults think of you, and stop trying to knock every lesson out of the park. Here are ten.

Stop Decorating Your Classroom Like It’s In a Magazine

I know teachers who spend weeks getting their rooms looking just so for the start of school. They then devote even more time to maintaining its immaculate appearance throughout the year. They organize, straighten, color-code, label, redecorate, change bulletin boards, hang curtains, and dangle doodads from the ceiling, and for what?

Hardly anyone is going to see it. Of the people who do see it, at least half of them won’t care. Of those who are impressed, what does it matter? How does their being impressed help you or your students? I don’t know of a single study that shows a connection between teachers’ interior design talents and student performance. In fact, the research that does exist indicates that a heavily decorated room actually disrupts student attention and learning. Save yourself a ton of time and stop decorating your classroom like it’s in a magazine.

Stop Writing New Learning Goals on the Board

I’ve watched a lot of TED talks and I’ve never seen a speaker start their speech by displaying and reading aloud the thing they’d like me to learn in the next 15 minutes.  Having a goal for your lesson is important. Writing it on the board isn’t.  Prominently displayed learning goals aren’t for you; you know what students are supposed to learn. They aren’t for your students; a good lesson makes clear what students should come to understand. The requirement to write learning goals on the board exists for one reason and one reason only: administrators want you to do things that work, but they don’t really want to spend a ton of time in classrooms actually watching you do those things. With learning goals, they can peek their head in your room, see them on the board, and tell themselves that in their buildings, teachers are using research-based practices. They can check it off a list and pat themselves on the back.

Writing new learning goals every day is busy work. By themselves, they will do nothing to move the student achievement needle. So write some beautifully crafted learning goals using whatever format your leadership has decided is best. Then leave them up all week. Or all month. See how long until someone calls you on it, and when they do, claim you forgot that day. Most administrators spend so little time in classrooms, this is one tick-suck you can cross off your list.

Stop Creating Lessons

Once upon a time, teachers had to create their own lessons. They don’t anymore, and they shouldn’t. For today’s teachers, finding lessons isn’t the problem; choosing among hundreds of them is the greater challenge. Creation takes time that others have already invested (and in many cases, been paid for). Take advantage by teaching their lessons instead of creating yours; they’re probably better anyway because of something psychologists call the IKEA effect, which is a cognitive bias where people place disproportionate value on products they had a hand in creating.

The IKEA effect poses two problems for teachers. The first is that what you make is likely not as good as you think it is. Your lesson is not better than another teacher’s. You just think it is because you made it. You would almost assuredly be better off using a product made by someone else. And as much as you don’t want to hear it, you’d be best off using products created by people whose job is to create those products. So while it may offend your sensibilities, stick with the program your district spent thousands of dollars on because it’s probably better than anything you’re going to design.

The other problem is the time required to create this stuff. If you spend three hours making a magnetism unit because you tell yourself it will be better than anything you currently have in your filing cabinet or that you can find online, then you’ve lost the opportunity to spend those hours doing other things, like going home at the end of the day.

More here: The IKEA Effect of Lesson Creation

Stop Creating Materials

Google is your friend. So is TeachersPayTeachers. Every worksheet, rubric, and graphic organizer you will ever want already exists. Spend more time clicking and less time creating and you will have more time for the important stuff.

Stop Controlling Everything

When students do more, you do less.

Teachers looking to trim hours off their workweek should constantly spend their days asking, “Is this something students could do?”

Most of the time, the answer is yes. Students can do bulletin boards. They can staple, cut things out, and rewrite the lunch choice every morning. They can organize your classroom library and replace all the science materials used in an experiment.  They can check their own work. They can help each other understand the math assignment. It’s true that your room might not look as pretty and the agenda on the board will be written askance and the books won’t be as neat as they would be if you had organized them, but it’s also true that most of that stuff doesn’t matter and students will feel a stronger connection to the room if they have a large hand in its appearance and day-to-day functioning. Save yourself time. Stop being such a control freak.

Stop Reading Everything Your Students Write

Students need feedback on their writing, but you do not have to be the only person who provides it. Technology allows students to share their writing with classmates and even parents. Ask them to provide the feedback. When my daughter was in third grade, she brought a journal home once a week and it was my job to write a response to her entries. For other low tech options, print students’ writing and put the papers in a three-ring binder. Insert a blank page after each piece and teach students how to leave useful feedback on it. Or set up a gallery walk where students place their writing on their desks and move around the room with a stack of sticky notes, using them to leave feedback on 10 different papers. You can also avoid taking student writing home by utilizing technology and the station rotation model. Catlin Tucker explains how here.

Stop Checking Papers

One enduring stereotypical image is that of a teacher, usually a woman, sitting at home on a Saturday with a stack of papers in front of her, vigorously scrawling across them with a red pen.  If we’re going to ask students to do all this work, the thinking goes, then we need to hold them accountable, and the way to do that is to give everything a grade. This isn’t where I argue against grades (although I certainly could). Instead, I’ll argue against everything needing a grade.  Consider most of the work your students do as practice and you’ll find it a lot easier to toss it into the circular file instead of bringing it home where it will cast accusatory glances your way all weekend. Instead of checking everything, only check assessments.

You can also significantly reduce the height of your stack by eliminating homework.  The research on homework is now well known and for elementary teachers especially, there’s no academic reason to give it; it just doesn’t work. The less work you assign, the less you have to look at. An easy and research-based way to reduce your own paperwork is to seriously curtail or eliminate homework.

Another easy way to reduce your stack is to take advantage of programs that do the grading for you. If you’re fortunate enough to have software that provides students with immediate feedback on their assignments, then your work is already done. You need only to look at the results. If not, go old school by having students check their own work as you go over the answers or do what I spent a fair amount of my school years doing and have students trade papers and grade each other’s assignments.

Stop Helping So Much

You can always tell the students who were “rescued” by their previous teachers. They’re the ones who can’t make it through a test without asking for help, even though you just explained that you can’t help on a test. A lot of teachers enable learned helplessness by constantly stepping in the moment students struggle.  Teachers have this notion that to teach means we must always be doing something. If students are in the room, we have to interact with them. We gotta teach! But sometimes, the best way to teach is to sit down and shut up.

Failure is part of learning. In fact, it’s the critical part. Sometimes, the best teaching is to let students flail, even fail. Because there’s more learning to be found in failure than there is in success. And while students are working things out, or seeking out others for assistance, or trying a different strategy, you can plan next week’s lessons, or grade a few tests, or locate resources online so you don’t have to do that stuff after school.

Read more here: Why Teachers Should Help Less

Stop Saying Yes

It’s impossible to do all the things you have to do if you’re spending hours every week sitting in meetings because you couldn’t bring yourself to tell your principal no.  We all have meetings we must attend, but too many teachers take on additional responsibilities out of feelings of obligation and guilt.

Before you agree to extra work, ask yourself this question: Will the time spent on this new thing result in better outcomes for my students than the time I would have spent if I were not doing this new thing?

The answer is usually no. So grow a spine and stop agreeing to waste time on work that won’t do your students any good and will leave you with even less time to do all of the really important stuff.

Stop Maximizing

Making every lesson shine is an honorable intention. Nobody will question your dedication, but they should question your long-term strategy. Teachers can’t escape trade-offs any more than the rest of the world can. Devoting two hours to planning a great civics lesson means two hours not doing all of the other things your job requires of you. It’s also no guarantee that the lesson will go well, and if it doesn’t you’ll feel demoralized on top of exhausted.

Many teachers are maximizers. They seek out the best option to arrive at the optimal solution, even if it means investing substantial time and energy.  Many are perfectionists, unable to let little things slide. Satisficers, on the other hand, are individuals who can accept good enough. They consider trade-offs. They know that you can’t “do it all” and they accept the reality that an extra hour spent on lesson creation won’t necessarily result in the kind of enhanced understanding from students they were hoping for. Sometimes, good enough really is good enough.

There’s also your mental health to consider. Psychologists have found that compared to satisficers, maximizing individuals are more likely to experience lower levels of happiness, regret, and self-esteem. While maximizers accept higher-paying jobs, they tend to be less satisfied once they start working those jobs because they second guess themselves. They constantly wonder if they made the best choice. They’re always looking over the hill for greener pastures. For this reason, maximizers have a hard time finding contentment in life.

Not every lesson has to be a Lexus. Most of the time, a reliable Camry will get the job done. Stop trying to make everything shine. Be willing to accept good enough, and you’ll be a happier teacher with more time for yourself.

A Disclaimer

None of the above are things you should stop doing if you love doing them. If it fills your heart with gladness to color-code your classroom supplies or if creating lessons from scratch gets your heart racing, then by all means, keep doing those things. Just don’t complain about how many hours you work. Those are choices you’re making, and there are plenty of teachers out there making different ones and going home a lot earlier than you are.

Stop wondering how you will get everything done if you leave work where it belongs and go home shortly after the kids. Instead, give yourself less to do.

If you need a step-by-step guide to the above and many more time-saving techniques, I recommend giving Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club a look. It’s the most comprehensive resource I know of for overwhelmed teachers. Angela offers a money-back guarantee that her club will help you trim hours off your workweek.

If you’re wondering if the club is right for you, take this fun quiz!

To get a taste of what the club has to offer, try Angela’s free 5-day challenge, “Goodbye, Teacher Tired: 5 Days to Doing Fewer Things, Better”

If you’d like to read reviews from club members, click here.

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Teacher Habits is a proud affiliate partner of the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club and all links to the club are of the affiliate kind. That said, I’m a member and it’s good stuff.

The IKEA Effect of Lesson Creation

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Leave School At School: Work Less, Live More, Teach Better. It’s available in both Kindle and print forms on Amazon.

I eat in the teachers’ lounge, and almost every day someone brings in one of those Lean Cuisine frozen lunches and pops it in the microwave.  You can trace the origins of such convenience foods to the years following World War II. The military had developed MREs and other foods meant to withstand long periods of storage and allow for easy preparation on the battlefield. After the war, several commercial food companies had leftover manufacturing facilities, so some of them created new freeze-dried and canned food products for domestic use. They pumped out boxes of fish sticks, canned peaches, and even ill-fated cheeseburgers-in-a-can. Jell-o introduced new dessert flavors throughout the 1950s. Sales soared.

With so many new products to sell, advertisements swept across the amber waves and purple mountains, reminding Americans again and again how busy they were, how hectic their days had become, and how desperately they needed quick meals. “If you’re a typical modern housewife, you want to do your cooking as fast as possible,” wrote a columnist at Household magazine who was promoting instant coffee and canned onion soup. Kellogg’s even created cereal that could be served faster. Their ads claimed that busy moms loved their presweetened Corn Pops. Because who had time for the laborious task of sprinkling on a spoonful of sugar?

TV dinners. Minute rice. Instant potatoes. “Hot breads—in a jiffy!” All were peddled to harried housewives who just didn’t have enough hours in the day to cook like their mothers had. “It’s just 1-2-3, and dinner’s on the table,” exclaimed an article in Better Homes & Gardens. “That’s how speedy the fixing can be when the hub of your meal is delicious canned meat.” [1]

But the faster the cooking, the less it felt like real cooking and the greater the potential for guilt on the part of the homemaker. That was the problem with instant cake mix. Intended to save busy housewives time by simply adding water to a mix, stirring, and popping in the oven, instant cake mix seemed like a fantastic idea. But sales fizzled after a few years. It turned out that TV dinners or the kids’ cereal were one thing, but a cake — well, that was another matter. Any homemaker worth her salt wouldn’t make a generic cake from a box that couldn’t be distinguished from a cake baked by the guests she was serving it to.

When marketers dove in to uncover what went wrong with cake mix, they discovered that it was too easy. The solution was simple: Have the baker add an egg. Once the powdered egg was removed from the mix, sales recovered and instant cake mixes became a mainstay in nearly every home in America. By adding one step to the mixing process, homemakers felt they were really baking again.

The cake mix lesson has since been repeated many times over. Build-a-Bear sends you the raw materials and the directions, but it’s up to you to actually build the bear. Cooks at “patron-prepared” restaurants like Mongolian Barbecue will cook the food for you, but only after you select the ingredients. City-dwellers take “Haycations,” where they pay farmers to do their work for them. And of course, there’s IKEA, which sells furniture at a discount because buyers have to build their own bookcases, cabinets, and tables. In each of these instances, people seem to place more value on items to which they have contributed some labor.

With this in mind, three psychologists, Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely, conducted a series of studies to find out whether consumers would, in fact, pay more money for products they themselves assembled. The research consisted of three different experiments.

In the first experiment, researchers found that participants were willing to pay 63% more for furniture they had built over furniture that came pre-assembled.

In the second experiment, Norton, Mochon, and Ariely asked subjects to make origami frogs or cranes. They then asked the subjects how much they were willing to pay for their own work. Following this, researchers gathered another group of volunteers who had not created any origami. These new subjects were asked how much they were willing to pay for origami built by the participants. Then the researchers asked how much they were willing to pay for origami built by an expert. These people, who had no personal connection to the creations, were willing to pay more for the expert’s products, which is exactly what one would expect. The participants who had made the origami frogs and cranes were then shown a display of origami that consisted of one set they had built themselves and one set that had been built by the experts. They were asked to bid on the different origami. The builders perceived the origami they had created as being of equal quality to those created by the pros.

The results of these studies suggest that when people construct a particular product, even if they do a cruddy job of it, they will value it more than if they had not put any effort into its creation.

Participants, wrote Norton and colleagues, “saw their amateurish creations as similar in value to experts’ creations, and expected others to share their opinions.”

The psychologists dubbed this the IKEA effect.

Two Problems For Teachers

There are two problems the IKEA effect creates for teachers. The first is that what you make is likely not nearly as good as you think it is. Your rubric is not better than another teacher’s. You just think it is because you made it. Same goes for everything else you’ve created. You would almost assuredly be better off using a product made by someone else. And as much as you don’t want to hear it, you’d be best off using products created by people whose job is to create those products. So while it may offend your sensibilities, stick with the program your district spent thousands of dollars on because it’s probably better than anything you’re going to design.

The second lesson is that there is a cost to spending time creating stuff. If you spend an hour making a magnetism unit because you tell yourself it will be better than anything you currently have in your filing cabinet or that you can find online, then you’ve lost the opportunity to spend that hour doing other things. You could have used the time on something that will make a difference for your students. You could have spent it doing an activity you enjoy. You could have even taken a nap during that hour and gone to work the next day better rested. The science is harsh but clear: If you’re a teacher who creates his own materials, you’re wasting your most precious resource making stuff that isn’t very good, in spite of the fact that you can find better resources with a few clicks of your mouse, or even more simply, by opening your teacher’s guide.

For the teacher looking to improve his effectiveness while spending less time working, the IKEA effect gives you permission to stop making stuff and steal (or purchase) from others.

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[1] Shapiro, Laura. Something from the oven: reinventing dinner in 1950s America. Penguin Books, 2005.

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Your Messy Classroom is a Problem

Are you one of those teachers who never throws things out? Is your closet stuffed to the gills with clogged glue bottles, science kits for topics no longer in your curriculum, and student projects from 1998? Do you have multiple filing cabinets filled with worksheets that haven’t seen daylight since the second Bush administration, totes containing manipulatives you’d be surprised to learn you own, and a box of confiscated toys that lost their popularity five years ago? If so, you may be making your job and the job of your students harder.

We hold onto things for lots of reasons, and the more committed emotionally or financially we are to an item, the more we want to keep it. We might hold onto a box of old road maps because we have fond memories of using them to teach scale. We refuse to get rid of The Mailbox magazines because there are good ideas in them (never mind we haven’t opened one in a decade and all those ideas are on the Internet, taking up no physical space at all). We wrote and won a grant that we used to purchase keyboards for iPads, and even though the iPads have been replaced with Chromebooks we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of the keyboards.

One reason we don’t like to purge is that we may have made a mistake when we purchased or accepted the items in the first place. It’s painful to admit we’re wrong. Science has found that our brains react to the loss of a valued possession the same way they respond to physical pain. But although it might hurt, clearing out some of your crap will help you and your students.

Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that subjects in a disorganized environment had a harder time maintaining attention than those working in an organized environment. The study showed that physical clutter competes for our attention, resulting in poorer performance and increased stress. You and your students will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better in an uncluttered classroom.

The cleanliness of your room can also impact students’ behavior. A study conducted in 2006 by the University of Sussex took an in-depth look at over 100 English families with small children. Researchers found a clear link between cleanliness and order, and well-behaved children.

Like other teacher characteristics that harm student learning, we shouldn’t excuse a teacher’s messy classroom as a personality quirk. We don’t look the other way when teachers are unable to give clear directions because they’re scatter-brained. If we agree that students learn more from people they like than those they don’t, we shouldn’t permit teachers to be jerks. A teacher who’s a bully doesn’t get a free pass just because he experienced rejection as a child and has low self-esteem. Messy classrooms are a hindrance to student learning, and teachers should be encouraged to clean them up.

If you’ve got too much stuff, take these four steps to conquer your clutter:

Yearly Cleaning

Near the end of each year clean out your closets, filing cabinets, and desk. Do it while school is still in session. Many students like to help. Plus, it’s free labor. Your district isn’t going to pay you to de-clutter over the summer, and you shouldn’t work for free, especially when the work you’re doing will benefit your students. Get rid of anything you haven’t used in two years. Toss it, sell it, or give it away. I’ve never once gone looking for something after this length of time.

Set Limits

Set limits. Don’t exceed them. Allow yourself three totes for science materials. Don’t buy any more bookcases. Get rid of a filing cabinet. When the totes, bookcases, and filing cabinets are full, you’ll be forced to get rid of something to make room for something new. Setting limits is like establishing a spending budget; when you hit the magic number, you’re done.

Cut Space

Force yourself to live within new constraints.  If you’ve got 12 boxes of stuff in your room, cut them down to six. You can do the same for digital clutter. Limit the number of emails in your inbox to 100. Limit the amount of Google Drive folders to 25. Limit the number of files in each folder to 50. Learn to live within new limits and you’ll be forced to carefully monitor your stuff.

Would You Buy It?

Finally, if you can’t decide whether to keep or trash an item, ask yourself this question: “If I didn’t already own this and I saw it in a store today, would I be willing to buy it?” If the answer is no — and it usually will be– then get rid of it.

What about you? Are there strategies you’ve used to stay on top of clutter and keep your classroom organized? Let us know in the comments.

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

There is one thing every teacher can and should do if they want to be less tired and use their time at work more efficiently:

Quit working shortly after the kids have left. Go home.

There are many reasons teachers stay late at school. Some feel a sense of pride at being one of the last to leave. They believe their late nights reflect greater dedication to their students. They enjoy their reputation as a hard worker. Others feel guilty when they leave quickly. They keep working out of a misguided sense of obligation. They worry what others will think of them, fearing they’ll be thought of as lazy and apathetic. Many teachers act as if they have no choice in the matter. They’re on committees, run after-school clubs, or just have so much to do that they have to stay after work to get it done.

No matter the reason, all believe that staying late after school makes them a better teacher. But they are wrong.

Quitting, for lack of a better word, is good.

Quit for Your Health

I was jogging the other day when my back started to hurt. I tried to keep going, but it got worse. So I quit running and my back instantly felt better.

Restaurants have gone crazy with the size of their nachos.

I mean, will you look at this thing?

I get full about halfway through. So I quit eating them.

Smart people quit when their body tells them to. No one feels bad about it. But when it comes to work, we suddenly start believing we’re Superman and that no matter how tired we are we can and should just keep going.

Teaching is a unique job. One of the reasons it’s so exhausting is that we have to be “on” all day. To do the job properly, you need to be well-rested. You need to be enthusiastic and observant. Going home will help.

No matter when I get home, I want to maximize the time I have for myself.  On nights when I’m home by five o’clock, I’ve got six hours to do whatever I want. That’s a nice balance. Ten hours for preparing for work, commuting, and working, six for my personal life, and eight hours of sleep. Because I value my personal time, any day I get home late leads to a late night and a lack of sleep.

Getting home earlier also means you can eat earlier. Your body will have longer to digest dinner before you go to bed, and eating early gives the food enough time to settle so you can exercise without discomfort.

Quit to Be a Better Teacher

A lot of teachers stay after school because they have work to do, but they’ve chosen the worst possible time to get it done. By the end of the day your willpower is exhausted. Willpower is limited, and once it’s gone only eating and sleep can restore it. Willpower is what you need to make yourself check papers, read essays, plan lessons, and respond tactfully to emails. A lack of willpower means your after-school efforts are going to be inefficient. You’ll be more easily distracted, more tempted to check Facebook or gossip with colleagues, and more likely to head to the lounge to eat whatever you can find because your body needs fuel.

Parkinson’s Law is also working against you. It states that work will expand to fill the available time. I wrote and published my first two books, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss and Happy Teacher in two months each. I was able to do that because that’s how long I gave myself to complete them. Because of the topic of my next book, I planned an October release. I started working on it in May. The book is taking me longer because I gave myself more time to do it, so many days I don’t write much and on some days I don’t work on it at all (I write long blog posts like this one instead).

This is Parkinson’s Law at work, and it will strike you as you sit at your desk after school. Instead of working until you complete a certain amount of work, give yourself 30 minutes. You’ll be more focused, your work will be of better quality, you’ll cut out any distractions or cute but unnecessary extras, and you’ll get it finished. Give yourself less time, and you’ll get more done.

Quit to Be a Better Person

Psychologists discovered something they call the morning morality effect. Basically, you’re a better person in the morning. Your body needs glucose for pretty much everything, including willpower and decision-making. Since teachers expend a lot of willpower and make a ton of decisions, we burn through glucose pretty fast. When it runs out we’re tired, cranky, impatient, have stronger cravings for sweets and other junk food, and we experience stronger emotions. All of which lead to bad decisions. The morning morality effect explains why you’re more likely to ruin your diet at night than in the morning, and why people are more likely to commit immoral acts like lying, cheating, and stealing in the afternoon. School is not a place you want to be when you’re more likely to make bad decisions. Go home.

Quit Because Science Says To

Many teachers reading this will still stay after school because they believe it’s the only way to be effective at their jobs. They’ve fallen victim to the culture of overwork. So a fair question to ask is:  Do longer hours make you more productive?

The research is clear. More work doesn’t equal more output. In one study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80-hour weeks and those who just pretended to (which actually sounds worse). Numerous studies have shown that overwork leads to stress that causes health issues, sleep deprivation, depression, heart disease, memory loss, and greater alcoholic intake. Researchers have also found that working too much impairs your abilities to communicate, make judgments, read others’ nonverbal language, and modulate your emotions.

Also, your cat will miss you.

So go home. Eat dinner. Hit the gym. Kiss your spouse. Watch Netflix. Play Uno with your kids. Leave work at work. Detach. Live your life. And when you’re tempted to choose more work over all those things, remember this Arianna Huffington quote:

“Have you noticed that when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success?”

You can read more here: Stop Working More Than 40 Hours a Week.

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Related Content:

Why American Teachers Should Work Less

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary If You’re Working for Free

Why Teachers Are So Tired

How Teachers Can Get Paid For Extra Work

There are a number of studies that have attempted to determine how many hours teachers actually work. The Gates Foundation says 53 hours per week. The NEA claims 50. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics gave teachers a time-use survey and concluded teachers work about 40 hours each week. Teachers surveyed by AEI reported working an average of 44 hours, a little less than college-educated professionals in other fields.

Regardless of which study you believe, one thing is certain:

Teachers work a lot of hours for free.

In my last article, I argued that teachers are going to keep right on donating labor for a very simple reason: Employers like work they don’t have to pay for. If you’re willing to work for free, then don’t expect to ever be paid.

So how can teachers start getting paid for all the extra work they do?

The solution is simple. Stop working for free.

Don’t go in over the summer to set up and decorate your room. Don’t volunteer for committee work. Don’t attend after-school events. Don’t take work home to grade. Don’t meet with parents after school.

Unfortunately, that solution is also really hard. You’re probably uncomfortable just reading those ideas. That’s pretty messed up when you think about it. It shouldn’t be a radical idea to suggest that professionals be paid for their work. But most teachers with whom I share this idea react with at least one of the following emotions:

Anger

There is a subset of teachers who believe that teaching is a “calling.” They see it as special work that ought to be governed by special rules. They’re there for the kids. They’re selfless, often working to the point of exhaustion, and they wear that dedication proudly. The idea of them or their colleagues slacking off or demanding to be paid for things teachers have always done without compensation is offensive to them.

Guilt

A lot of teachers like the idea of being paid for all their work, but they know they’d feel guilty if they simply stopped. What will those colleagues who put in so many hours before and after school think of them? Are they being shallow or greedy for expecting pay for things others are doing for free? If they’re not working lots of hours, are they letting other teachers, their principal, their students, and their parents down?

Teachers who do decide to cut back on extra, unpaid hours almost always betray the guilt they’re feeling by justifying their decision with high-minded reasons, like spending more time with their family. They hardly ever say, “No, I quit that committee and go home right after work because I’m not paid for that stuff.”

But feeling guilty about not working for free is absurd.

Why should any professional feel bad for expecting to be paid for the work they do on behalf of their employer? For that matter, even if everything you do is “for the kids,” why shouldn’t you be paid for those things? Surely, acting in the best interest of children is deserving of compensation. Things are so backward in education that the party who should feel guilty –the district for taking advantage of their dedicated employees — actually have the audacity to lay guilt trips on teachers when they don’t volunteer their labor.

Fear

Some teachers worry that their districts might retaliate. They might ding them on their evaluations. They may put pressure on them by reminding them how much their colleagues are going “above and beyond” (which is perhaps the most insulting and manipulative phrase in education today). They fear what parents might say when they make what should be a reasonable request to meet during the school day instead of after hours when they’re no longer being paid.

Altogether Now…

There’s not much I can say to those who are offended by the suggestion they be paid for their work. For everyone else, the solution to guilt and fear is a unified teaching force that takes a stand and refuses to budge.

When teachers are unified in their conviction that they will be paid for their work, the ball is then in the hands of district leadership. They will no doubt respond by pressuring the staff to return to the status quo. They’ll argue that teachers knew the deal going in, that other teachers work for free, that it’s always been like this, that “professionals” do what needs to be done, that you’re there for the kids. They’ll lay on the guilt because they like not paying you. There isn’t an employer in the world that would turn down free labor.

When that fails (and a unified front that wants to actually get paid for their work must ensure that it does), then districts may seek to punish. They may threaten teachers with poor evaluations. They might engage in a public relations battle to convince parents you’re not working hard for their kids. They might not renew the contracts of the most vocal ringleaders.

This is what most teachers fear, but my suspicion is that it’s unlikely. Look at it from the district’s point of view. If no staff member breaks ranks, then the district will be in a difficult position. Are they going to give every teacher a low rating and risk their own reputation?Are they going to fire the entire staff and risk making the national news over refusing to give in to teachers who want nothing more than to be paid for their work? Are they going to convince parents they’re right and that teachers are greedy for wanting what other professionals get as a matter of course? It’s a losing argument, and teachers should force districts to make it.

Paying People Forces Decisions

Districts will have to decide whether or not that thing for which it’s been relying on free labor is worth enough to pay for it. There’s tremendous value in that. Schools try to be everything to everybody and waste a lot of their employees’ time. Committees are created that meet often but accomplish little. After-school events put a strain on everybody in a school and sometimes result in low turnout. They often draw only those parents who are most involved anyway.

If the work, the committee, or the after-school activity is important enough, then they’ll find a way to either pay teachers or free up time to get it done during contractual hours. Alternatively, they might negotiate new contract language that requires a certain amount of donated time (for which any decent bargaining team will gain concessions in other areas). They might also pay someone else to do the work. For teachers who complain that nothing is ever taken off their plates, their willingness to work for free is one of the reasons.

So will I be putting my money where my mouth is? Nope. As I said, this only works if everyone is in the boat and rowing in the same direction. Short of that, it would be foolish for teachers to go it alone or with just a few others. You’ll succeed only in making yourself look bad. So like almost all of you, I will be heading into my classroom in the next couple of weeks to get the copies made, the lessons planned, and the classroom organized. I’ll be doing those things because I take pride in my work. I’ll do them because I’m a professional.

And I ought to be paid like one.

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary if You’re Working for Free

Huffington Post publishes the writing of thousands of bloggers and they don’t pay them a dime. Why not? Because they don’t have to. When people are willing to work for free, they give up the right to complain about their pay.

And yet in almost any discussion about teacher workloads and salaries, teachers do exactly that. On the one hand, teachers will do everything they can to convince you that they work really, really hard. It’s not uncommon to read a laundry list of extra responsibilities submitted as proof of the teacher’s dedication and of how unappreciated her efforts are. On the other hand, they say they should be paid more.

A few days ago, The Educator’s Room Facebook page shared a post a teacher had written that outlined the pensions of a Texas educator and a Texas legislator. Needless to say, the teacher didn’t compare favorably. As usual, two points were made:

Texas teachers are paid poorly, and their pensions will be relatively paltry as a result.

Texas teachers work a lot harder than those bums in the legislature.

Both of which are true.

But the writer couldn’t help herself. She had to prove just how selfless and hard-working teachers are:

They are expected to work for free during the summer by attending professional development and preparing for the next school year. Their average workday during the school year is 12 hours and most devote weekend time to planning and grading.
In addition, most districts arrange to pay teachers for a ten-month contract over 12 months. This creates a common misconception that teachers have paid vacation over the summer. Actually, the teachers are providing an interest-free loan to the districts and are paid back during the summer. Teachers are contractors who work from year to year, contract to contract, but are only able to write off $250 of their business expenses like classroom supplies, tissues & hand sanitizer, and snacks for hungry kids. The average teacher spends $500 and many spend $1000+ on their classroom annually – and as budgets are cut, teachers take up the slack.

Some good points, to be sure. But what struck me, as it always does, is the contradiction between whining about low pay and bragging about working for free.

Because that’s usually what it is. Teachers who talk about working 12-hour days and going in on weekends and spending thousands of their own dollars aren’t actually complaining about it. They’re proud of it. They believe it’s proof of their dedication. It makes them feel superior to those who aren’t as selfless.

But these same people also feel like they’re getting the shaft. They ought to be paid more! Society doesn’t appreciate teachers! Their districts don’t respect the work they do! Look how much they’re working!

Whether or not you’re paid by the hour or earn a salary, you are involved in a transaction. You give your time and effort in return for compensation. In reality, all jobs are paid hourly.  Someone who earns $100,000 but works 80-hour weeks may have twice the money, but they only have half the time of someone who gets paid $50,000 for 40-hour weeks.

Teachers, then, have a really simple way of maximizing their hourly pay:

Work fewer hours.

Let’s consider two teachers:

Teacher A, we’ll call her Mrs. Balance, gets to work an hour before the kids and leaves about 15 minutes after they do. She doesn’t volunteer for extra responsibilities and says no to additional paid work because her time is more valuable than what the district offers for an hourly stipend. She works a 40-hour week and makes $40,000 per year.

Rate of pay: $40,000 / 1600 hours (40 hours x 40 weeks) = $25/hour

Teacher B, let’s call him Mr. Burnout-in-Progress, also arrives an hour before the kids, but he stays three hours after. When he gets home, he works another hour checking papers. On weekends, he puts in four hours every Sunday to get ready for the week. He’s on a few committees and does some paid advisory work. He also works over breaks and throughout the summer. Mr. Burnout-in-Progress averages about 55 hours per week, and he works about 46 weeks per year.  The extra duties earn him more than Mrs. Balance. He makes $50,000.

Hourly rate of pay: $50,000 / 2530 (55 hours x 46 weeks) = $19.76

Both teachers have reason to complain about their salaries. Mrs. Balance makes just $40,000, and Mr. Burnout-in-Progress, when he thinks about how much he works, feels like his district is getting a steal by paying him 50k.

And he’s right. His district is taking advantage of him. And the reason his district is taking advantage of him is the same reason Huffpo doesn’t pay its bloggers: He has allowed them to.

If you’re going to work for free, then why in the world would a school district ever pay you?

With the end of summer closing in, many teachers will be heading into their classrooms to donate some work. They’ll spend hours decorating their rooms for open houses and preparing plans for the first week of school. They’ll give and give and give some more. And their employers will be the happy recipients of their labor.

If this suits you — if you don’t mind working for free, if unpaid work makes you feel more dedicated, if showing up on a Saturday and being the only teacher in the building gives you a sense of pride no amount of money can match — then go for it.

But realize that nothing is going to change if you do.

So don’t complain about your pay.

You’re the one choosing to work for free.

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A reasonable question to ask after reading this is, “Well, what am I supposed to do, just not get my room ready for the year?”

I’ll address that in my next post.

Teachers, Stop Saying You Work All Summer

I know, I know. Some of you actually work. Some of you really do plan lessons, attend conferences, renovate your classrooms, teach summer school, or even work a part-time job. Some of you do all of the above.

But most of you don’t. I’ve been teaching seventeen years now. I know a LOT of teachers. Most of my friends are teachers. Hardly any of them work much in the summer. One teaches summer school for three days a week for about six weeks. Most of us do some planning for next year (“vaguely thinking about” would be more accurate). We might read a teaching book or two this summer (might I recommend Happy Teacher?). Almost all of us will, at some point before the year starts, head into our classrooms a few times to get everything in order. But most of us aren’t doing much work. Don’t believe me? Check out the Facebook pages of the teachers you know.

So can we please stop pretending? Can we stop lying?

Stop Being Defensive

I was on Facebook earlier today when I came across a video a friend had shared. You’ve probably seen it or one like it. It was about how teachers get no respect and how there’s a shortage in teacher prep programs. It listed some of the reasons teachers feel disrespected.

The first comment under the video trotted out the very tired, “Teachers have three months off” argument. Evidently, the commenter missed the part about teachers quitting and young people avoiding the profession. That would seem to argue that those three months off aren’t the incentive people think they are. The commenter was beset, of course, by teachers claiming, as they always do, that no, actually, we work those three months!  That’s not a vacation! We take classes and plan lessons and work other jobs because of our shitty pay. Reading them, you would think that most teachers are busting their asses all summer. We aren’t. I sure as hell am not.

And I won’t apologize to anyone for that.

Teachers Don’t Waste Time

I work hard during the school year. I work harder than a lot of people. I may not work the same number of hours as someone in another profession, but the hours I do work are not wasted. I’ve never participated in a Cyber Monday. I’m there the Monday after the Super Bowl, without a hangover, doing the same job I do every day. A 2014 survey from Salary.com found that 89% of workers admitted to wasting time at work. 31% waste 30 minutes a day. Another 31% waste an hour. 16% waste TWO HOURS each day. How are they wasting time? Well, Bitly found that traffic on Twitter peaks between 9 am and 3 pm, Monday through Thursday, and that Facebook spikes between 1 pm and 3 pm midweek. Those are curious times, aren’t they? It’s almost like people in cubicles are not really working that much. Usage drops off at 4 pm, when all those hard working business people go home.

Teachers don’t get to waste time. We don’t have the luxury of buying crap online while students are watching our every move. We can’t check Facebook six times a day to see how many people liked our cat photo from last night. We’re not getting into Twitter arguments at 2 pm. In fact, if you’re a teacher who tweets you know that educator chats always occur at night. #edchat runs from 7-8 pm on Tuesdays. #edtechchat from 8-9 pm on Mondays. #tlap is scheduled at Monday at 9 pm. When do Twitter chats for marketing professionals take place? #ContentChat is Monday at 3 pm. #BufferChat is at noon on Wednesdays. #BizHeroes is at 2 pm on Tuesdays. Must be nice to have tweeting considered “work.” If teachers waste time at school, it simply means we have more work to take home. Other professionals might work more hours than teachers, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing more work.

Stop Apologizing

Teachers, let’s just be honest: Summer vacation is perk. No one else apologizes for their work perks. Why should we?

I’ll start feeling bad for enjoying my three months off when business people start feeling bad about their hour-long leisurely lunches at restaurants (that some write off as business expenses), their corporate junkets to Aspen, free tickets to sporting events, paid air travel and hotel stays that allow them to see the country on their company’s dime, high salaries, the ability to take a week off in October to vacation during non-peak times, workdays that permit (even encourage) dicking off on social media, paid water cooler conversations about last night’s episode of “The Bachelor,” and lots of other perks I don’t get as a teacher.

But since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, I’ll just enjoy my three months off. Every glorious, sun-filled, relaxing day of it.

Fewer Decisions = More Energy

Every teacher I know wishes they had more energy at the end of the day. They want to give their best to their family, just like they gave their best to their students. They want to exercise, work on a hobby, play with their kids, talk with their spouse, and some of them even wish they had more energy for checking papers and planning lessons.

In my last post, Why Teachers Are So Tired, I wrote about the four reasons teachers are so drained at day’s end.

This week and next, I’ll look at what teachers can do to reduce decisions, use less willpower, avoid emotional peaks and valleys, and handle worry so that they go home with more energy. In this article, I’ll tackle the first of those: making fewer decisions.

How to Make Fewer Decisions

It sounds simple enough: just make fewer decisions. And for some people in some jobs, it might even be possible to simply, through force of will, decide fewer things at work. But as teachers, we are inundated with situations that require us to decide. Planning is nothing but a series of decisions. We decide every time we check papers, when we rearrange seating charts, when a student asks to use the bathroom, how to handle a behavior problem, and on and on. We don’t have the luxury of simply not deciding. Our principals, colleagues, students, and parents are all waiting for us to choose. So how do we decide less?

Actually, we’re already doing it. Now, we need to do more of it.

Make it Automatic

Mark Zuckerberg wears the same gray T-shirt to work every day. When asked why he said:

I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.

Zuck’s ‘Drobe:

President Obama explained his wardrobe this way:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.

Steve Jobs, Henry Rollins, Christopher Nolan, and even Albert Einstein later in life all subscribed to the same belief. They knew that the more decisions you make, the more tired you will be and the less energy you will have to make more important decisions later in the day.

Choosing your outfit is one decision you can easily remove from your day.* Once you start thinking about it, you will find there are many other decisions you can automate, and some you already do.

Most of you follow the same route to work and back every day. You don’t decide, you just do it. Same for nearly all of your morning routine. In fact, if you’re like me, you’re bothered when your morning routine gets thrown off for some reason.

You probably automate much of your banking. Thanks to technology, I make many fewer financial decisions than my dad did. I don’t have to decide when to deposit my paycheck, when and how much money to move into my daughter’s college fund, when to pay the bills, or how much to put into savings every month. All of that is set up ahead of time and now just happens.

It’s the key to making fewer decisions: automate as many of them as possible.

Go through your entire day. How many decisions do you already automate? What else could you automate? How about your workout routine? If you get to the gym and decide which equipment to use and what order to use it in, you’re using energy. If you just do the same thing every time or follow a predetermined schedule, you’re saving energy. Analyze every part of your day and eliminate as many decisions as possible. Don’t decide what to have for dinner every day. If you plan your meals for the whole week, then eating dinner goes on autopilot.

Decide Less At Work

At school, we’re well practiced in this. We call them routines, but the reason we teach them, model them, and have students practice them for the first two weeks (or two months) is so that they’ll become a habit and no one will have to waste energy thinking about them. How many other parts of your school day can you automate? Your entire morning routine? Your end-of-the-day routine? How students line up to leave the classroom? You probably already do these, and thank goodness. Can you imagine having to decide, every day, how you want students to line up?

Since many teacher decisions happen as a result of student behavior, a solid classroom management plan is a must. It can prevent problems that will require decisions from you. If consequences are clear and consistently enforced, there is no decision to make. You simply follow your pre-established plan. For more information on classroom management, I highly recommend Michael Linsin’s blog, Smart Classroom Management. He knows way more about it than I ever will.

Do a decision audit. List out everything you do in a typical day. How many of your decisions are already part of an automatic routine, and how many more could be with some simple, proactive changes?

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*If your principal has a problem with your wearing the same thing every day, just tell them that if it’s good enough for Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, then maybe they should worry about more important matters.

What other decisions could you automate? Share your ideas in the comments so we all benefit! Thanks.

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Sources:

8 Reasons Successful People Are Choosing to Wear the Same Thing Every Day

Why Mark Zuckerberg Wears the Same Clothes to Work Every Day

The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha