Karen* is a teacher at a Title 1 middle school where I have been doing some on-going coaching. She is a hard worker who has been trying to implement more rigorous instructional practices in order to help more of her students be ready for advanced classes in high school. One day while working with me on developing a rigorous learning unit, Karen broke down crying.
“Why are you crying?” I asked, concerned.
Karen took a few moments to compose herself.
“It’s just that I am so overwhelmed,” she finally managed. “I am trying to do a good job, but when I hear you talk, it feels like I am doing everything wrong.”
I’d seen this before. Teachers who are working so hard that they eventually get burned out. They want so badly to do the right thing that they end up doing everything.
Karen wanted help with getting better at planning rigorous instruction but I knew that she was so overwhelmed that she wouldn’t get very far and would only end up more frustrated than before. She was doing too much, working too hard and needed to free up some space in her day before she could focus on developing rigorous lesson plans. So, rather than give her an easier way to plan rigorous lessons, I suggested that we create a “stop doing” list.
“A stop doing list?” she asked, puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“Well, as teachers we are very good at creating ‘to do’ lists,” I explained. We end up adding more and more things to our list and becoming more and more overwhelmed. Let’s take some time to clear some space in your day so that you can focus on rigor.”
From there, I used a strategy we often use in our “Quality vs Quantity” Workshops. I asked Karen to list all the things she did that day. Then we went back through her list and divided every activity into one of four categories: Time wasters, time consumers, empowerment failures, and finally the Important.
The Time wasters such as working on ineffective warm-up activities, getting into pointless arguments with students, and grading certain practice assignments, we immediately eliminated.
The time consumers we found ways to automate. For instance, Karen was required to keep a professional portfolio by her district. She spent hours each week adding material to her portfolio. I suggested that she streamline the process and organize her portfolios while sitting in faculty meeting during the house-keeping items that didn’t concern her. She could put it away when the meeting demanded more of her attention. Karen also was required to provide additional support for struggling students. I shared with her our Proactive Support Plan as a way to automate many of the support practices that were eating away at her time.
For the empowerment failures, we delegated to students or other adults in the building. We found that Karen had a lot of empowerment failures. Like many well-intentioned teachers, she was trying to fill all the gaps in the building – taking on extra duties outside of her area of responsibility because no one else on her team seemed to be stepping up. As a result, she was burning herself out. So, we identified areas she needed to delegate to other members of her team. Then we looked for areas where she was working harder than her students and worked on strategies to give the work back to her students.
Finally, we looked at what was left and discussed why it was important. Karen immediately began to relax as she talked about how much she loved helping students discover their own voice through her teaching process. But, with all of the time wasters, time consumers, and empowerment failures in the way, she rarely had time to do the things that mattered most to her and her students. So we talked about how she could spend more of her time investing in what was important and how doing so could reignite her passion for teaching.
When we finished, Karen was visibly relieved. She walked out of our session with a plan for how she would find the time and space in her day to invest in what was important.
So many teachers we meet in our work at Mindsteps face the same frustration that Karen faces. If you want to get better at your teaching but feel that district mandates, parental demands, curricular scope, or workplace constraints are getting in the way of your effectiveness, the answer is not to add yet another strategy, process, or responsibility to your plate. Make a “stop doing” list and find ways to eliminate, automate, delegate what is not important so that you can focus on what is.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the teachers involved.