Why Teachers Should Help Less

When Helping Isn’t Helping

There is an epidemic in our schools. Teachers are helping too much. Like most epidemics, it probably started small. A teacher somewhere in Kansas didn’t want Jimmy to cry anymore because he couldn’t solve a math problem, so she came to his rescue. She did the problem for him. Oh, I’m sure she told herself she was “teaching,” but we all know the truth. We’ve been there. Frustrated with a child’s struggles, worried that he won’t learn what’s in the standards before he leaves us, and fearing what might happen to his self-esteem when he realizes he can’t do it, we help. We reteach. We give hints. We take the pencil right out of his hand and show him exactly what steps to follow. We do the damn thing for him.

For what I can only guess were misguided but honorable intentions, the helping spread. It’s everywhere now. In elementary classrooms from kindergarten to fifth grade. I suspect it’s spread farther than that, maybe even all the way to college lecture halls.

We’ve justified our actions along the way. We’re teachers, so we teach. If a kid doesn’t understand something, we figure it’s our fault, so we act to rectify the problem. We teach it again. Besides, what are we supposed to do, sit our desk checking papers while Julia scribbles away futilely or gives up in frustration?

Yes.

 
That’s exactly what we should be doing far more often. We should check papers, respond to emails, plan next week’s social studies lesson, or just sit and reflect on how things are going. We should get out of our students’ way and see what they can actually do on their own. We should stop coming to their rescue. This disease is highly contagious, and we need to self-quarantine.

My daughter started playing softball last year. Like most people trying something new, she wasn’t very good. In her first game, she stepped to the plate, sort of swung the bat three times, and struck out. That’s how the game is played. Three strikes, you’re out. Don’t care how old you are or if you’ve got Coke-bottle glasses and a bad case of vertigo. Three strikes, you’re out. Now go sit down. Them’s the rules.

Everybody watched her fail. Her teammates, her dad in the dugout, her mom, grandma, and grandpa in the stands. How humiliating. And yet, she didn’t crumple into a ball in the corner of the dugout and cry. When it was her turn to bat again, she strolled up to the plate, a little less confident than before.

And she struck out again.

My daughter didn’t make contact with the ball until the third game of the season, and that was a little nubber that squirted six feet into foul territory. She finally got a hit in the fifth game. When she did, she ran to second base on a throwing error, and once planted safely on the bag, threw both fists into the air, the universal gesture for victory. You should have seen the smile on her face. It almost matched my own.

It’s that smile, that sense of accomplishment, that ineffable pride (although if it was effable, it would probably sound something like, “Fuck, yes!”), that we rob students of when we swoop in to help.

We’ve Created a Monster

If softball leagues treated players as delicately as schools do their students, there’d be a rule about not striking out. After three strikes, they’d bring out a tee, or maybe the coach would go up there, take the bat out of the kid’s hands, and hit it for them. We’d tell ourselves we were protecting their fragile psyches, when in reality we’d be sending a clear message: You can’t do it, so I’ll do it for you.

This is where learned helplessness comes from. And while many teachers complain about it, most of us have had a hand in its making. It’s everywhere in schools today. Well-meaning teachers, responding to external pressures, their own guilt, and an excessively literal interpretation of the verb “teach,” have caused the epidemic. I’m as guilty as the rest of you.

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. The drama teacher leaves the stage, and it’s on the students to perform. The piano teacher lets her pupil sink or swim in front of everyone at the recital. The basketball coach rolls out the ball, stands on the sidelines, and simply observes.

Let Them Fail First

Reformers have managed to get teachers to believe that a student’s failure is the teacher’s failure. We take it personally. So we want to eradicate it. But 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. Thank goodness the rules prevented my daughter’s coach from interceding in her struggles. All she could do was encourage from the dugout. That’s what teachers should do, too.

“You can do it,” we tell them. And then we see if they can. But if they can’t, we let them fail. And only after they’ve failed, maybe a few times, do we reteach. We go back to the practice field the next day and throw them fifty more pitches. We correct their technique, we model, and they practice, practice, practice. Then we remove ourselves again and see what they have learned. No helping allowed.

Kids can handle failure.

We teachers need to let them.

Teach Like a Cat

A couple summers ago I read Dave Burgess’s book, Teach Like a Pirate. If you’re not familiar, Burgess focuses on the presentation aspect of teaching. He advocates dressing up, incorporating movement, bringing a ton of energy, and lots of other strategies to enliven your lessons. You can watch him in action here. It’s an inspiring read, and when you’re done you want to ramp up the energy level of your instruction.

That feeling lasts about a week.

Then reality returns, and you realize you just can’t do that for every lesson, not even most of them, because it’s mentally and physically exhausting. Because I want teachers to have long careers impacting many, many lives, I disagree with Burgess’s approach, even as I admit that he’s right. Being a showman will lead to more engaged students. But it will also wear out most teachers really quickly.

So instead of teaching like a pirate, I propose you teach like a cat.

I have a cat. Her name is Gizmo. She has a lot of qualities that teachers who want long and fulfilling careers should make their own.

How To Teach Like a Cat

Be More Chill

Gizmo spends 90% of her time just chilling out. She’s almost always calm and in control. While the rest of us are running around getting dinner ready before softball practice, Gizmo is lying on the couch watching us with seeming bemusement.

Teachers should also spend most of their day in a state of calm. I detail why in this post, but to summarize, calm teachers tend to have calmer classes. Calm leads to more focused work. Calm people make better decisions during stressful moments. When you’re calm most of the time, your moments of enthusiasm will have more impact. And, most importantly of all, by remaining calm, you conserve your energy so you don’t burn out.

Bursts of Energy and Fun

While Gizmo is almost always calm, she has moments of energy and playfulness. She chases after a balled up Hershey’s Kisses wrapper, batting it across the hardwood floor. She swipes at me as I walk by, inviting me to play with her. She boxes with me, patting her paw against my palm over and over.

To keep things interesting, teachers should present fun and energetic lessons on occasion. They should provide highly engaging activities for their students where possible. While most of the day will be calm and focused work, bursts of energy and fun make learning memorable and school a fun place to be. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to make every day a Vegas show, but do look for opportunities to liven things up.

Ask For What You Want

Sometimes my wife gets home late and it’s left to me to feed Gizmo. I usually forget. But Gizmo won’t allow me to forget for long. Every time I get up, she runs to her food bowl. She rubs against my leg to get my attention. She meows. Gizmo wants three things in life: the attention of my wife, to be left alone by the rest of the family, and food. She makes these desires known in no uncertain terms.

She asks for what she wants.

So many teachers are afraid to self-advocate. They beat around the bush, engage in passive-aggressiveness, and avoid any potential conflict. Instead of asking their principal to stop micromanaging them, they avoid the principal as much as possible. Rather than asking for money to purchase classroom materials, they assume the answer will be no and never ask. Instead of asking for a day off to attend a conference that will improve their teaching, they just assume the district won’t pay for it.

Teach like a cat. Ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is someone says no. (Or, you get fired for being pushy and annoying.)

Stop Feeling Guilty

Sometimes, Gizmo horks up a furball right in the center of the living room. One time, she did it into the opening of one of my daughter’s hats. Another time, she deposited one just outside my bedroom door so that I stepped in it. As far as I can tell, she’s never felt bad about it. Not once. I’ve watched her do it. She spits one up and walks away, as if it’s a perfectly natural thing to do.

Which of course, it is.

It’s also natural for teachers to want to take a break. I know teachers who come to work sick because of the guilt they feel over leaving their students with a sub. On some Friday afternoons, it’s totally normal to want to put in a movie because you’re beat and your students are done listening to you anyway. It’s natural to not want to check a pile of papers on Sunday night. Teachers need to be like my cat and stop feeling guilty for doing what our bodies and brains are telling us to do.

Ignore the Critics

Gizmo could not care less about what we think of her. She’s totally dismissive. Rude about it, even.

Sometimes I’ll walk into the closet and she’ll come shooting out of her weird hiding place. I’ll damn near fall down trying to avoid stepping on her. I shout at her. “Gizmo, get out of the way!” She doesn’t give a rip. She just yawns and relocates to the couch or meows at me to feed her again. If we leave the piano keys uncovered at night, Gizmo will prance across them, playing a lively, discordant tune that wakes up the entire house. We’ve learned there’s no point in scolding her.

She just doesn’t care.

Many teachers care entirely too much about what others say or think about them. Be your own critic. Ignore the rest. Stop allowing others to make you feel bad about yourself. Be like my cat: do your thing, and screw what people think about it. You won’t please them all anyway. (I do recommend that you be less obvious about it than my cat.)

Sleep More

Like all cats, Gizmo loves to sleep. I’m pretty sure it’s her favorite thing to do. Teachers, like many Americans, don’t get enough sleep. It’s recommended that you get 7 to 9 hours a night. But the CDC estimates that one in three Americans don’t get that much. You can’t be your best if you’re not well-rested. Teachers, even those who stay calm most of the day, must be on. They must be mentally engaged and observant. You can’t be any good if you’re tired all the time. Get your sleep.

Don’t teach like a pirate. Pirates are scary and they die early deaths. Teach like a cat instead.

American Teachers Should Work Less

A Facebook friend of mine (and former Superintendent) posted an infographic yesterday that compared the number of hours worked by an American teacher to the number of hours worked by other professionals. Here it is:

I took some issue with the 53 hours listed for teachers and said that the difference between those hours and the 40 listed for other professionals is that teachers aren’t required to work 53 hours. In fact, we’re required to work fewer hours than almost every other full-time employee.

Lunch is not typically counted in the 40 hours for other professionals, so we should subtract it for teachers. My teaching day goes from 9:00 to 4:00 with a half-hour lunch, so that means I’m required to work 6.5 hours per day. Multiply that by five for 32.5 hours a week. So the infographic above suggests that teachers work an extra 20.5 hours a week, or about four per day, which seems high. But okay, throw in weekends and maybe.

The response to my suggestion, as I’m sure you can guess because some of you are mentally shouting a similar response at me right now, was that those extra hours may not be required, but teachers have to work them to do the job the “right” way.

And that’s the problem.

If the only way a teacher can effectively do his or her job is to work an extra, unpaid 20 hours every week, then there is something seriously wrong with the system. 

And the only way to fix such a system is for teachers, lots and  lots of them, to stop working so many extra hours.

Of course, making that suggestion sets one up to be criticized as lazy, cynical, lacking dedication, not being in it for the kids, et cetera et cetera.

Which is a huge problem. 

American teachers spend more time in the classroom than any other nation’s teachers.  So don’t tell me it’s necessary; other countries manage to educate their kids. All that time spent teaching means we have to do the other parts of our job at some other time.

Society’s expectations — including those of fellow teachers — that we should be expected to donate an extra 10-20 hours per week or risk being labeled lazy or ineffective, perpetuates the problem. It puts zero pressure on government to reform things. And it matters because unrealistic work expectations lead to burnout. We have good teachers exiting the profession at alarming rates and we have great students never even considering the job in the first place.

Teaching has the highest burnout rate of any public service job in America.  There are many reasons for it: loss of autonomy, bureaucratic nonsense, student misbehavior, bad bosses. But undoubtedly the stress of the job due to absurd workloads and the expectation that teachers give freely of their time is a huge factor.  Many who quit simply say they were always exhausted.

Now you might be one of those teachers for whom the job is your passion. You bring high energy to your classroom every day. You attend every training you can. You look forward to professional development sessions. You spend your free time designing engaging units and interacting with other teachers on social media. You read professional journals. You coach, volunteer, and always go the extra mile for your students and their families.

Good for you. I mean that sincerely. The country is lucky to have teachers like you.

But the data is clear: you are the exception.

And you don’t design a system based on exceptions.

When you do, the thing falls apart, which is what is happening in schools across our country right now.

The belief that teachers have “answered a calling,” as if we were somehow spoken to from some God of Teachers, is damaging. It’s this idea that we’re selfless martyrs who only exist to serve our students that has led to society’s unrealistic expectations for how we should do our jobs.

I attended a retirement luncheon a few years ago where a number of the district’s teachers were honored for their years of service. The entire district’s teaching staff was invited to the event and a principal said a few words for each of the retirees.

One teacher’s principal spoke in laudatory terms about how the teacher’s car was always the first one in the parking lot in the morning and the last one to leave at night. She admired the woman’s dedication.

I thought it was the saddest thing. I vowed then and there that no one would ever say the same thing about me. I have a life to live outside of work. A family. Hobbies. Friends to hang out with. As the famous saying goes, no one on their deathbed ever said they’d wished they’d worked more.

That principal’s message, that old industrial-era American reverence for slavish devotion to one’s job, is a damaging one, especially to young teachers. Here is the ideal, it says. This is what you should strive for. Here is what we want from you: Nothing less than large portions of your best years.

I guess if I owned a business, I’d want 20 free hours every week from my employees, too. And it would be even better if I could somehow establish that expectation as part of my company’s culture. And better still if that culture could spread across the entire industry.

Why, if workers felt like the only way they could be any good at their jobs was to donate 20 hours of work every week, and if their colleagues criticized them when they didn’t,  I could ask them to work late, or come in early, or work on special projects, or…hell, I could ask them to do damn near anything and not have to pay them for all that extra work.

What a deal.

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Bad teachers need to be fired. You hear it all the time. It’s part of most education reformers’ guiding philosophy. Most people would have a very hard time justifying any opposition to it. Sometimes, in order to appease actual teachers and soften the harsh message, the phrase “after being given an opportunity to improve” is added, but the sentiment is the same:

Our education system would be so much better if only we could fire the crappy teachers.

What strikes me most is what happens after someone says it. Never is the logical follow-up question asked:

Just what exactly is a bad teacher?

Teachers are unique. I’m not just saying that because I am one. Unlike many jobs, there is no one metric that can be used to assess a teacher’s performance. If you’re a salesperson and you don’t sell stuff, you’re a bad salesperson. If you’re a lawyer who can’t get clients, you won’t be a lawyer for long. If you’re a preacher whose sermons cause parishioners to switch churches, you probably went into the wrong line of work. If you make widgets and nobody buys them, you’re going to go out of business. If you’re a chef that makes food nobody wants to eat, you’re not a good chef.

Reformers want to equate teaching to other jobs because it makes their agenda easier to accomplish. So they have to come up with a metric and the one they’ve settled on is:

 If you’re a teacher and your students don’t learn, then you’re a bad teacher.

The need to have a single metric creates some other problems that garner a lot of attention. You have to be able to say how much learning is the right amount. Then you have to have a way to figure out if students learned that much. Right now the US uses standardized tests to provide the numbers that are necessary to justify the labeling of teachers (and schools) as bad. Putting aside for a moment all of the problems inherent in rendering a verdict based on the results of a single test, the method has other obvious flaws, all of which stem from the initial error of viewing teachers the same as other professionals.

Let me know which of the following four teachers is bad. Which one(s) would you fire?

Ms. Jackson is young, smart, and energetic. Just out of college, she wants to make a difference. Although she could probably get a job in the suburban district where she grew up, she wants a greater challenge. She gets hired at a poor district where many of the parents didn’t graduate high school, much less college. A lot of them work two jobs, which means they aren’t home with their kids much. Many of her students read well below grade level. A lot of them don’t want to be there. She sends home books for students to read but they don’t read them. Additionally, she spends much of her day dealing with behavior problems and feels like she can’t teach. When she contacts the parents about these problems, they sympathize; they have the same behavior problems with their kids at home. At the end of the year she gives the state test, and despite her best efforts, many of her students perform poorly.

Mrs. Davis is old and set in her ways. She doesn’t like to try anything new. She’s got her way of doing things and it’s worked pretty well, thank you. She teaches in an affluent district where many of the parents are professionals. They volunteer in the classroom. They send in extra supplies. They follow through with homework and assigned reading. Mrs. Davis doesn’t worry too much about her students. Most of them already read well when they get to her and she figures that as long as she doesn’t screw them up they’re going to be okay. She’s right. Despite ignoring best practices and an over-reliance on worksheets, her students regularly pass the state test. They will again this year.

Mrs. Jones is one tough cookie. She’s the teacher kids don’t want. You can’t get away with anything in her class. There is no fun allowed. It’s work, work, work. And if you don’t work you can forget about recess. Mrs. Jones regularly calls parents when students don’t turn in assignments or if they slip up in class. The parents don’t like her much either. She’s opinionated, blunt, and often confrontational. A lot of parents skip out on parent-teacher conferences. This is fine with Mrs. Jones. She doesn’t need them anyway; her kids are going to learn come hell or high water. And learn they do. Every year, Mrs. Jones’s students outperform the other classes in the school. Her students are too scared to not do well, but they don’t enjoy school much. They’re frequently stressed. Many of them pretend to be sick. Some cry in the morning. Shelby in the back of the room is so worried about getting in trouble she goes through most days with a stomachache.

Miss Violet isn’t too bright. She doesn’t know the curriculum very well and isn’t very effective at teaching what she does know. She doesn’t have great control of her classroom. What Miss Violet really likes–no, loves–is the kids. She spent her high school years babysitting every chance she could and there’s really no better way she can spend a day than with a group of students. She loves talking to them about their lives. She asks about their weekends. She tears up when she finds out about the challenges some of them face at home. She greets them all with a smile every morning and is always nice. Her students adore her and they can’t wait to come to school. In fact, if you ask them their favorite place in the whole world, a lot of them would tell you Miss Violet’s classroom. At the end of the year, Miss Violet’s students don’t do very well on the state test, but they love school and the idea of coming back next year is exciting to them.

Which teachers are bad?

Which teacher would you want for your kid?

Would your friends agree, or do their kids have different needs that would be better met by one of the other teachers?

Which teacher would a school district value the most? What about the state?

Should students get a say? After all, aren’t they the “clients?”

If the answer isn’t the same for every one of those questions, then can we truly identify any of the above teachers as bad?

The problem is that the single metric of student achievement doesn’t come close to measuring all of the things we want in good teachers. Yes, we want effective educators. But we also want professionalism and kindness and energy and creativity.  We want collegiality and good communication skills. Some want teachers to lead, others want them to follow. Ultimately, each of us wants what’s best for our kid and what’s best for my kid isn’t necessarily what’s best for yours. We have different values and those values are often not the same as the state’s.

So here’s a crazy idea: Before we start labeling teachers as “good” or “bad” maybe someone should actually watch them work. Maybe we should measure the impacts they have on things other than test scores. Maybe we should stop trying to measure things that are immeasurable. And maybe we should recognize that teachers are unique, which is a good thing because so are our parents and students.

How to Handle Principal Observations

I know a lot of teachers who get nervous about being observed by their principal. With only a couple of observations each year, teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform. They worry how a poor observation will impact their overall evaluation. Some are simply uncomfortable being observed and judged. The irony, of course–and it’s one recognized by even those teachers who feel this way–is that worrying about an observation is likely to lead to a worse performance.

So how do you not stress over a principal’s observation? 

Any time you worry, it means you’re nervous. Nervousness comes from fear.   So what exactly are you afraid of? If you wrote out a list, I think you’d find that every single item on it comes back to this: You’re afraid of your principal’s opinion of your abilities. If you didn’t care about that, you would no longer be worried. So how do you convince yourself to not care, or at least care a lot less?

Try telling yourself these four things:

My Opinion Matters Most

You have reasons for everything you do in the classroom and no one knows all of them except you. Anyone judging you lacks the necessary facts to make an informed assessment. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but you have the right, and usually the duty, to ignore it. As Eleanor Roosevelt said:

So don’t give your consent. Set your own standards for professional success and judge yourself against them. Simply care less what your principal thinks about you. It’s nothing personal, you just shouldn’t give anyone that kind of power over you.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Observations are subjective. The truth is, nearly all of your evaluation is based on the opinions of a single person who watches you do your job for a total of maybe three hours out of the more than one-thousand you will spend on it. While you might be able to watch a single Nicolas Cage scene and feel pretty safe concluding that he’s a terrible actor,  I’d want a little larger sample size for most professionals.

Consider whether your school district would ever do the following:

To prove to teachers how valid their administrators’ observations are, they put all of their principals in a room. On a screen, they show a forty-five-minute video of a lesson. Each principal uses the evaluation tool to rate the teacher across the zillion or so items they’re required to assess. And then, after they’re done, they all compare scores.

How similar do you think those scores would be?

How many principals would feel comfortable sharing their numbers?

How many districts would dare reveal the results of such an experiment to its teachers?

I have a guess and it’s very, very small.

You Own the Moral High Ground

How many meetings have you attended where you were reminded that you, the classroom teacher, has the greatest in-school impact on student achievement? Eric Hanushek has even attempted to tie teacher effectiveness to future earnings for students. (Which I guess is what really matters???)

Every time I hear this fact, I internally roll my eyes. What other in-school factor would impact students more? The quality of the food in the cafeteria? The size of the rooms? The cleanliness of the hallways? Of course the person with whom kids spend six hours a day has the most impact.

But you can also use this finding to feel superior to your principal whenever you worry about her opinion of you.

It is the teacher, not the principal, who has the greatest impact on student learning.

That means that the person who is sitting in the back of your room evaluating your performance opted to take a job that has less impact on the only people who really matter in a school than the one you have chosen. Their reasons don’t matter.

Maybe they wanted to make more money. Perhaps they were frustrated by administrators when they were teaching and felt they could do better. Their talents could simply be better suited to leading adults than children. Or maybe they decided they didn’t want to teach anymore and there weren’t too many other jobs they were qualified to do.

Who cares. Choose whichever reason you like for them. It doesn’t matter if it’s accurate. Remember, you’re doing this to relieve your stress. So if it helps to imagine your principal as a completely ineffectual former teacher who got fed up, quit, and then decided to take out her frustrations on other teachers, go ahead and do it. Feeling superior does wonders for one’s self-confidence.

If All Else Fails

Remind yourself of this reality: the only thing that really matters about your evaluation is that it’s good enough for your employer to invite you back next year. Don’t get caught up worrying about your final score or whether you’re “effective” or “developing.” Who cares? Because guess what? Next year, you get to be evaluated all over again.

How to Act

Once you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t really care what your principal thinks of you,  you can relax and perform. Make it a goal to appear even calmer than you normally are in front of your students. The biggest thing you want to convey during an observed lesson is self-confidence. Here’s why:

Confidence inspires confidence. During the 2017 Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons were trouncing the New England Patriots. Atlanta had a 28-3 lead in the third quarter, but the Patriots had the most confident player on the field. Even though it looked hopeless for the Pats, there wasn’t a fan who watched that game that didn’t believe Tom Brady could bring them back. Tom Brady exudes confidence, and his self-belief rubs off on those observing him.

When the principal walks into your room, project confidence. Keep your voice calm and even. Don’t gesture much. Resist the urge to put on a show. It will come off as inauthentic and overcompensatory. Respond calmly to students, including any misbehavior. The message you want to send is: I do this every day. It’s no big deal. I can handle whatever comes my way. Smile, tell a joke, move leisurely throughout the room.

And don’t look at your principal.

If you keep looking back at the principal, you are signaling a lack of confidence. It shows that you care what the principal thinks. Every time you look, it’s like asking, “So what did you think of that? Was that okay?”

When a principal sees you looking at him, he thinks two things:

  1. You lack confidence.
  2. Your focus isn’t on the students, which is where it should be.

If a principal starts to think you lack confidence, his next logical thought is why? Followed quickly by: If the teacher isn’t confident in her abilities, then why should I be confident in them?

The principal won’t fear marking you down because you’ve already signaled self-doubt. You’re almost asking for it. It would be inconsistent of you to later stand up for yourself when you meet with him to discuss the lesson. People rarely act inconsistently.

Most people avoid conflict. Confident people send an unspoken message that if you jerk them around, they’re not going to accept it. That conversation will not be pleasant. Principals are far less likely to ding a confident teacher than a nervous, insecure one because they don’t want to deal with a possible future conflict. So even if you don’t feel confident, pretend that you do!

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What do you tell yourself before an observation? What mental tricks do you use to stay calm and confident? Tell us in the comments!

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Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm

Like most Americans, I associate success with passion and intensity. The Detroit Pistons of my youth would have never won back-to-back championships without the intensity of Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. Indiana basketball would have never been Indiana basketball without the passion of coach Bobby Knight. Fiery speeches never cease to motivate me, whether delivered in person or on the silver screen. I admire outward displays of passion.

This belief shaped my early years of teaching. I enthusiastically presented a lesson one moment, snapped angrily at misbehaving students the next, and passionately motivated my students to do their best on even mundane tasks. To be any good, I reasoned, I had to be intense. I had to bring it every day! Every lesson! I needed to be, as Anton Chekhov said, “an actor, an artist, passionately in love” with my work.

I have since come to believe that I was wrong. I now believe it is far better to spend nearly all of my teaching day in a consistent state of CALM. In fact, I try to be calm 90% of the time.

Here’s why:

In my article Why Teachers Are So Tired, I talked about four things that exhaust us: making too many decisions, using willpower, experiencing high-intensity emotions, and worrying.

High-intensity emotions wear you out because they activate your body’s fight-or-flight response system. Your heart rate rises, your sweat glands activate, you startle easier. This happens regardless of whether your high-intensity emotions are positive or negative. So getting angry at Billy for sticking a straw up his nose for the third time is just as draining as passionately introducing a lesson on fractions.

There are many teachers (and non-teachers like Chekhov) who believe that the only way to be a good teacher is to be intensely passionate, to put on a show! If I suggested to Dave Burgess that it’s better to be calm than intense, he’d likely throw his book, Teach Like a Pirate, at me.  Certainly, there are some teachers who can maintain a high amount of energy class after class, day after day. The rest of us are tired just thinking about it.

A calm teacher benefits herself and her students in many ways. First, students tend to reflect their teachers. Calm teachers lead to calm classes, and calm classes allow for more focused work. When was the last time you tried to concentrate while feeling intense emotion? It’s not easy. In fact, brain-imaging research shows that when we are feeling intense emotions, our amygdalas activate. We need to then use other parts of our brain to calm ourselves enough to get our work done.  Think of the last time you learned something new. Did you pump yourself up with some AC/DC? Did you do fifty jumping jacks to elevate your heart rate first? I doubt it. Those kinds of activities might be good before a football game, but they’re not very helpful if you’re trying to learn Portuguese.

Second, staying calm will allow you better self control. People who are calm have the ability to choose their actions instead of reacting emotionally. If you think of the worst decisions of your life, I bet they were made when you were experiencing high-intensity emotions–both good and bad. By staying calm, we can react to anything that happens in our classroom in a way we won’t regret later. So when Billy shoves that straw up his nostril, you’ll be calm enough to smile at Billy and say, “Throw the straw away,” and not “For shit’s sake, Billy, how many times do I have to tell you to stop sticking straws up your nose!?”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that we’re role models. When we seesaw back and forth between high-intensity emotions and when we react emotionally to events around us, we are modeling to students that it is acceptable to do the same. How many times have you told a student to think before they acted? Take your own advice.

Third, your emotional moments will have more impact. I’m not suggesting that teachers never show emotion. I am suggesting that we deploy emotions strategically for maximum effect. There are times when we need to be intense to get students’ attention or to get them excited about an upcoming lesson or unit. Go for it! That’s one of the joys of teaching! But there are other times–most times–when calm is the better choice. When you intentionally use emotion you’re still in control, and because you’re not always emotional, you’ll have more impact when you are.

The biggest reason to stay calm is your own energy. Remember, high-intensity emotions drain our bodies. When teachers get tired they do stupid things. They say things they regret. They damage relationships with students and colleagues. They fire off curt emails that they later wish they could retrieve from cyberspace. One study even demonstrated that, as the day goes on, people are more likely to engage in unethical behavior. They also burn out, and burned out teachers are far, far worse than calm ones.

So how do you stay calm? I use three strategies:

1-–Self-Awareness–I regularly check my own emotions at work. How am I feeling right now? How’s my heart rate? Am I calm? Do I feel edgy? I make it a challenge and see how calm I can be. When a student misbehaves, that’s when I really force myself to remain calm. A lot of the time, my seeming lack of interest has the effect of de-escalating the situation.

2—Deep Breaths and Perspective–When I feel myself feeling anything other than calm, I take some deep breaths and engage in self-talk. I like to use perspective, so I might say something like, “Is this really worth getting upset about?” or “In the grand scheme of things, does this matter all that much?” or “Just three more hours and I’ll be home with a beer in my hand.”

3—Classroom Management Plan–The best thing I can do for my own emotions is have a classroom management plan that I consistently follow. When students misbehave, my plan tells me what to do. I don’t need to make decisions, and there’s no reason to be emotional. I just deliver the predetermined consequence and move on.

I also remind myself that while Bob Knight had 902 career wins, John Wooden, a much calmer person, won 10 championships. He also lived to the ripe old age of 99.

What tricks do you have for staying calm in the classroom? Share in the comments so we can steal your ideas!

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How Teachers Can Use Less Willpower

In a previous post, I listed four things that contribute to teacher fatigue: making decisions, using willpower, experiences high-intensity emotions, and worrying. In this post, I addressed how teachers can make fewer decisions. Today, I will share how teachers can use less willpower so they have the energy to make good decisions, even after a long day at work.

First, it’s important to understand that willpower is like a muscle: it can be strengthened with use, but it can also be overworked, leaving you unable to use it without recovery time.

Teachers, of course, use willpower all the time. Recalling last Friday, here’s a partial list of times I needed willpower:

  • Garbage truck in front of me on the way to work. I wanted to pass, but it wasn’t safe.
  • Arriving at work, I had a bunch of tasks to accomplish, most of which were tedious. I didn’t want to do them.
  • Resisted the temptation to snarkily respond to an email.
  • Donuts in the lounge at lunch.
  • Students playing with something in their desks instead of paying attention. Wanted to publicly scold.
  • Wanted to just sit and relax during my planning time, but forced myself to plan for the following week and prepare materials.
  • Lesson interrupted by the office PA system. Wanted to swear.
  • A student walked in late to class and interrupted. Wanted to lecture.
  • A student was on a game website instead of doing research. I wanted to take his Chromebook and throw it through a window, since this is the 100th time it’s happened with him.

You get the point. I’m sure you’re already mentally making your own list. In every one of those instances, willpower was required. By using it, I depleted my store of it, making it less likely I would have any left at the end of the day and also seriously taxing my body. No wonder teachers are pooped.

So how can we use less willpower at work?

Plan Ahead

Most of the time, we can anticipate those things that will require us to use willpower. I know that certain students are going to press my buttons. I know that if I don’t work now, I’ll be stressed later and have to use even more willpower to accomplish things. I know that when I get on the highway at 5 pm, I am going to get frustrated with traffic and have to use willpower to remain calm at the wheel and avoid bad decisions. (Fun fact: most car accidents occur between 3 pm and 9 pm. You might attribute this to the high number of commuters, but those people drive to work in the morning too. Might it be depleted willpower that contributes to poor driving decisions?)

If we can anticipate these events, then we can plan for them. This is exactly what Starbucks did when they introduced their LATTE training system to improve customer service. Starbucks gave their baristas very detailed systems to use when dealing with stressful situations, especially for when their willpower was low.

You can do this too.  Prepare ahead of time for how you will handle behavior problems. Implement your classroom management plan with strict fidelity and calmness instead of anger. Leave work 15 minutes later or take a different route home if you know your normal path will frustrate you. Emails from your principal usually piss you off? Don’t read them until dismissal.  Do you snack at night? Quit buying snacks and having them in your house. Does Kathy the science teacher annoy the hell out of you? Don’t go where Kathy goes. Identify your likely triggers, and plan ways to avoid or deal with them.

Distract Yourself

If you’re a teacher you’ve likely heard of Mischel’s  famous Marshmallow experiment. The “high delayers” resisted eating the marshmallow by distracting themselves, such as covering their eyes with their hands or turning around in their chairs so they couldn’t see the enticing object, or singing to themselves.

It might not be in many teacher training courses, but sometimes you just have to walk away or direct your attention to something else. Elementary teachers are masters at this. Instead of saying, “Steven, get your hands out of your desk! I’ve told you ten times already!” they will turn to angelic Sarah and say, “Sarah, I really like the way you have your hands folded in front of you.” If you make this a habit, you’ll use less willpower.

You could also distract yourself by thinking about all the beer you’ll drink after work, but that might not be as healthy.

Delay

Postponing can be effective if you’re trying to break a bad habit. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister explains that people who tell themselves “not now, but later,” are generally less tormented by the temptation of something they are trying to avoid. So if you find yourself using willpower to not check your email throughout the day because it usually stresses you out, then simply tell yourself you will check it at the end of the day.

Vent

It takes a lot of willpower to suppress your personality, beliefs, and natural inclinations. Psychologist Mark Muraven and his team found that people who exert this kind of self-control to please others were more depleted than people who held true to their own internal goals and desires. When it comes to willpower, people-pleasers are at a disadvantage.

Instead of suppressing your desires, you need to get them out. But you can’t go around telling off Kathy and you can’t respond to the principal’s email with your honest opinion because that would get you fired. Here’s a method I’ve used:

I sometimes receive an email from a parent or supervisor that angers me. My instinct is to fire back. That’s a bad instinct, but that doesn’t mean I have to hold in those feelings. It also doesn’t mean I should vent to other teachers or my wife because they’ve got their own problems and nobody really wants to hear about mine. What I do instead is write my honest, no-holds-barred response into a Google Doc and put it in a file. It gets my anger out and it’s there for me to revisit. On those few occasions where I have reread it, my anger is gone and I wondered why I was so pissed off at the time. If you do this a few times, you begin to realize that your initial feelings are likely an overreaction and it becomes easier to avoid indulging them.

Other Ideas

Other recommendations I have seen are getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and meditating. All of these things can help in any number of ways, but they’ve also been shown to help people manage willpower.

What about you? What do you do to avoid using up your willpower? Tell us in the comments!

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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

Why Teachers Are So Tired

Are you tired after teaching?

Better question: When was the last time you weren’t tired after teaching?

If you’re like most teachers I know, including me and my wife, being tired at the end of the day is a way of life. We’ve become so used to it that it’s hard to imagine how it could be any different.

Our non-teacher friends have a hard time understanding how we could be so exhausted. After all, we’re not building houses, or working under tight deadlines, or competing with co-workers to sell the most widgets, or working in some ultra-competitive office with an unreasonable boss breathing down our necks. We work with kids! We work seven-hour days! We have a lot of control over our own schedules. We have summer vacation!  Some teachers have these thoughts themselves and wonder what’s wrong with them. How in the world can we be so tired?

There are three reasons.

Decision Fatigue and Willpower

Psychologist Roy Baumeister coined the term “ego depletion” after he found that humans have a limited supply of willpower.  He compares willpower to a muscle, which can strengthen but also wear out with use. Ego depletion has a general effect, meaning that using self-control in one area of your life erodes your ability to self-regulate in other parts of your life. Baumeister found that exerting self-control results in a significant drop in blood-sugar levels.  Low blood sugar leads to physical fatigue, which is why you’re so tired, even though the heaviest thing you lifted was a textbook.

As a teacher, think of how often you use willpower.  We censor ourselves all day.  We hold back a sarcastic remark, walk away from a lazy student when we what we really want to do is lecture her, keep our honest thoughts about the principal’s latest idea to ourselves, respond professionally to a disrespectful email from a parent, work with a student when we want to do anything but, plan the next day when we’d rather check Facebook, hold it in when we’d like to drop an F-bomb. Teachers use willpower constantly.

But here’s the real kicker: making decisions uses willpower.  Researchers call this decision fatigue. The more decisions you make over the course of the day, the more willpower you use. There’s strong research that shows criminals are far better off going before a parole board early in the day than near the end of the day. Similarly, there is research that suggests the student’s paper that gets graded first gets a fairer score than the one graded last. After a day of making decisions, we don’t have the energy left to make good ones.

It’s estimated that teachers make about 1,500 decisions every school day. When you combine those decisions with all the necessary self-regulation involved with teaching kids, it’s no wonder our willpower is gone by five o’clock. We are exhausted.

High-intensity emotions

A second reason teachers are tired is the effect of high-intensity emotions. High-intensity emotions like anger, frustration, excitement, and elation are physiologically taxing. Positive emotions arouse the same physiological response as negative ones: our heart rate increases, our sweat glands activate, and we startle easily. Since it activates our body’s stress response, high-intensity emotions–whether positive or negative–wear us out.

Teachers are instructed to be enthusiastic in their lessons. Many teachers believe that to be their most effective, they must be energetic. They have to bring it! That might be true, but just know that your excitement, combined with your moments of anger, frustration, and even elation, will tire you out.

Worry

Not surprisingly, worrying is linked to fatigue. When we worry, we imagine and anticipate negative events. Our stress levels elevate and our bodies activate their fight-or-flight responses. Our hearts beat faster, we sweat, and our immune systems prepare to fend off threats. As a result, we get physically tired.

Teachers worry for all sorts of reasons:

  • students aren’t learning
  • behavior problems
  • a lesson is bombing
  • there’s a sub tomorrow
  • a parent is angry
  • the principal is coming for an observation
  • the copy machine is down and what am I going to do now?
  • my colleague is mad at me
  • I showed a movie and a character said “hell” and now the kids might go home and tell mom and dad and they’ll call the principal and I never even filled out the stupid form I’m supposed to fill out for the movie and…I’m sure you can think of many more.

So that’s why we’re tired all the time: we make a ton of decisions, we cycle between high-intensity emotions, and we worry too much.

There’s a lot more to it, and there are steps you can take to be less tired. I write about them in my books, Exhausted and Leave School At School. Check them out on Amazon.

What do you do to feel less tired at the end of the day? Leave your ideas in the comments so other teachers may benefit!

Related Content:

Fewer Decisions = More Energy

How Teachers Can Use Less Willpower

Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm

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