The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 119 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
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The first time my principal asked me to take on the role of yearbook sponsor, I said no. I was looking ahead to the upcoming school year: I would be teaching 130 seventh graders, and all five of my preps would be writing classes. Back then our state had formally assessed writing portfolios in seventh grade, and I was responsible for getting all of them done. It was a notoriously difficult teaching position, and I was actually excited to take it on, but I knew it would be even more time-consuming than other years had been, and adding yearbook responsibilities would put the workload way over the top.
So when he asked, I kind of grimaced and I said I’d rather not. Then I asked if there wasn’t someone else who could do it.
It turned out there wasn’t. Together, sitting in his office, we mentally checked off the rest of the faculty: If they weren’t coaching a sport, they were sponsoring an extracurricular activity or doing some other “extra” thing. Or they were brand-new. Or a year away from retirement. Or pregnant and heading toward maternity leave. After a few silent moments, I finally said what we were both thinking: “So if I don’t do it, then someone has to take on a second extracurricular.”
He shrugged. “Or we just don’t have a yearbook this year.”
And that’s when—surprise!—I became the new yearbook sponsor. Despite my gut telling me it was a bad idea, I agreed to do it. And over the next two years I did school work 2-3 hours every night, plus another 8 to 10 hours over the weekend, just to keep up. What else was I going to do? The reality of our school was that the workload always exceeded the labor force, so if we didn’t all do more than was reasonable, then someone was going to suffer: either our colleagues or the kids. And who wanted that?
Unfortunately, this scenario is probably all too familiar to many of you. In fact, some of you might even be thinking, “He just wanted you to sponsor ONE extracurricular? You ONLY had 130 students?? You had it easy.”
Anyone who has ever taught even one year knows that teachers are always being asked to do more, to squeeze more into less time, to multitask and juggle and figure it out because that’s what teachers do. You cut back on sleep, eat more fast food, skip workouts, spend less time with family and friends, generally spend less time on all the things that the experts tell us are necessary for a good, healthy life to make room for school-related work. And even though so many educators recognize that this is an unsustainable system, the system holds steady.
Except for one problem: Every year, thousands of outstanding, talented, passionate teachers are leaving the classroom. Although the reasons may vary, many teachers I’ve known have left because they got to the point where they had to choose between quality of life and their job, and ultimately they chose quality of life, even if it meant taking on less meaningful work.
On top of these high attrition rates, the number of people entering the profession has dropped sharply over the past few decades, so that means every year, we have fewer and fewer teachers available to fill the classrooms where our students so desperately need them.
So maybe the system isn’t holding so steady after all. And if it’s not going to collapse entirely, one thing that’s got to change is this idea that teachers should be willing to pick up the slack all the time, no matter what. That if we’re not willing, even eager to do this, then clearly we don’t really care about kids or about our colleagues. And that message—which is conveyed to us in all kinds of subtle ways—is what we’re going to talk about today.
My guest is Angela Watson. This is actually the third time Angela has come on the podcast. I’ve had her on so much because she’s done more than anyone I know to try to solve the problem of teacher burnout, and she’s making a heck of a lot of progress in that area. In episode 33 we talked about five powerful ways to save time as a teacher, and in episode 71 we discussed why it’s so hard for teachers to take care of themselves. Over the last few years, her incredibly popular 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club has helped thousands of teachers take their lives back without leaving teaching. And now, in her new book, Fewer Things Better, she is encouraging teachers to stop trying to do it all, to get clear on what really matters and focus most of your energy on those things.
But doing that requires us to change the way we think about things, the way we hear certain messages. So in this episode Angela and I are going to examine how three common school norms—”We’re a family,” “Do it for the kids, no matter what,” and “Be a team player”—can all contribute to teacher burnout. Then we talk about ways we can start pushing back on these messages.
Before we get started I’d like to thank Pear Deck for sponsoring this episode. Pear Deck is the tool that helps you supercharge student engagement. With Pear Deck, you can take any Google Slides presentation, add interactive questions or embed websites, and send it to student devices so they can participate in real time while you present. And now Pear Deck has teamed up with Google on Be Internet Awesome, a free digital citizenship curriculum that helps kids learn to be safe, more confident explorers online. Pear Deck educators worked with Google to create interactive presentations that accompany the lessons from Be Internet Awesome. Each one gives teachers a simple way to introduce a concept related to digital literacy. And because they’re editable, they’re easy to tailor to your students’ grade level. The basic version of Pear Deck is free, but my listeners can now get a complimentary 60-day trial of Pear Deck Premium with no credit card required. This will give you access to features like the teacher dashboard, personalized takeaways, and more. To learn more, head to peardeck.com/cultofpedagogy.
I’d also like to take a minute to tell you about one of my own products, The Teacher’s Guide to Tech. This is an interactive PDF that I put out every year to help you make quick, thoughtful, well-informed decisions about using technology in the classroom. Inside, over 250 tech tools are organized into categories: assessment tools, flipped learning tools, note taking, virtual reality, even podcasting tools like the ones I use to make this podcast, so you can quickly locate the tools you need for specific purposes. Each tool page has a screenshot of the tool in action, a discussion of how it works, and a link to a video that shows you how the tool works. The guide also includes a glossary of over 100 tech terms and a “Tips” section that goes in depth on topics like tech-related laws and making tech work on a tight budget. To get a copy for yourself or your whole school, visit teachersguidetotech.com. And listeners of this podcast can get ten percent off a single user copy by entering the code LISTENER at checkout. That’s teachersguidetotech.com.
The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast is part of the Education Podcast Network. The EPN family now includes 30 different podcasts, and each one is focused on education. Check out all of the EPN podcasts at edupodcastnetwork.com.
Now here’s my conversation with Angela Watson.
GONZALEZ: Angela, welcome to the podcast.
WATSON: Thanks for having me.
GONZALEZ: So I talk to Angela just about every day, so we’re going to try to make this professional and I am really excited to have you on, because I’ve talked to you throughout the process of you writing this book, and so, you know, you’ve got some really great ideas that you want to share with teachers. So I’m going to — for the people who are listening who are not familiar with your work, I’m going to give them a little bit of an overview. A lot of the work that you’ve done has focused on teacher mindset. So my first familiarity with your work was your 2011 book “Awakened” where you showed teachers how to shift their thinking so that they experienced their work differently. And then in 2015, another book called “Unshakeable” where you offered 20 specific ways to help teachers enjoy teaching every day regardless of the circumstances. And then after that, you started on the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, which was, I shouldn’t say “was” because it is a yearlong club for teachers that not only shows them how to be more efficient and productive but more importantly, how to change their thinking and set realistic goals and create better boundaries and let things go, so that they actually have time for the stuff that really matters. So from all of that work that you’ve done with club members over the last few years, you’ve taken some of the most important lessons and put them into a new book that is just about to come out called “Fewer Things Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most.” So tell me about this book.
WATSON: I wanted to put into print some of the things that I know teachers are thinking and feeling, but either can’t quite articulate, because they’re just too busy to really put it all together, or they just can’t say it out loud. Because I think the things in this book are the things that we’re thinking and saying privately to each other, but if you work for a school system, it’s risky to get on a public platform and say these things in this way. So I feel like I’m in a unique position where I’m not employed by a district, I’m not contracted with an organization, so I can speak a little bit more freely this, and I wanted to use that privilege to open up a wider conversation. I wanted to talk about the systemic issues and the bureaucratic restraints and the things that make it hard to simplify and streamline. Because when we talk about doing fewer things better, it’s not as easy as just saying, “Well, I’m not going to bring anymore grading home. I’m just going to quit all the committees.” And I think for one reason it’s because you’re going to be judged by other educators if you do that. The pervasive view in teaching is that it is a calling, and if you care about kids, why would you want to do less? You should be giving 110 percent at all times. If you don’t want to dedicate all your time and energy to the job, then you should just be in a different field. And that logic has always baffled me, because we know what the teacher attrition rates are like already.
WATSON: We see people burning out left and right, and the goal post just keeps moving, getting moved on teachers. So you give 110 percent on something, and then you’re told, “OK, great. Now I need you to go give 110 percent on these four other things.” And a lot of those demands really aren’t worthy of being given your full time and energy, because they don’t really make that big of an impact for kids. So figuring out how to do fewer things better is not about taking the easy way out, and you know, Jenn, how much I struggled to figure out the subtitle of this book and convey that to people. And that’s why I finally settled on the courage to focus on what matters most, because it does take courage to question what you’ve been told about what it means to be a teacher, what it means to be successful, what it means to be happy. It takes courage to carve out time to get clarity and figure out what really matters, both in your instruction and your personal time. And I think what you uncover about your priorities is going to require you to question the status quo and do things differently than our mainstream approach. What’s normal is not always healthy. It’s normal to always be busy, never get enough sleep, feel pulled in a million directions and so on. But that’s not healthy, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
GONZALEZ: And I know that for you there is even a little nervousness about putting some of these ideas out there, because it really does go against a lot of what school culture is built on.
GONZALEZ: And that’s what we’re going to tackle today. Because, you know, in the book you do get into some sort of logistical types of things, but you really do focus a lot on changing the way you think about stuff. And one of the things that I really liked in the book was where you talk about the norms that go unquestioned in school culture. And so I thought for the first part of our conversation, what we can do is just focus on three of these, three of these widely accepted norms in schools and how these can ultimately lead to teacher burnout. So we’re just going to take these one at a time. The first one is, “We’re a family here.” you hear this all the time in schools. You hear it in other workplaces too. Everybody’s a family. How can this be damaging?
WATSON: Well, you know it’s not necessarily a bad thing. So when someone says, you know, “We’re a school family,” that can be used in a positive way. So you know if you just had a family member pass away or you’ve just had a baby and someone says, “Oh, we’re a school family,” that lets you know that you’re being loved and supported like a family, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not always the case. And so I encourage teachers to really question this, just like you should question everything else that you’ve been told. You know, like you mentioned changing, the book is about changing your thinking about the job, but it’s not just like positive thinking, like, oh, let me just focus on all the good stuff and pretend like the bad stuff isn’t there. It’s really changing your mindset around the things you have been conditioned to believe and believing that you’re part of a school family is part of that, and I think we have to really ask when we hear that being said to us, particularly by someone who is in a position of authority above us, we need to stop and ask, “What’s the intent? What’s the impact? Is this being said to make me feel loved and supported like a family? Or is it being used to exploit me for unpaid labor?” Because I think the school family analogy can be used to manipulate you into doing all kinds of unpaid extra duties, so it can be code for you’re expected to spend all your free time going above and beyond with no compensation, and the school family phrase makes it seem like we’re being pressured into going above for kids, when in reality we’re doing it for the institution of school. And a family dynamic increases the pressure to just go along with the institution, with the status quo. You know, family members don’t question tradition, they just pitch in, they do whatever it takes, because it’s for their family. And the thing is you’re irreplaceable to your family, but your school family can hire someone else to take your place within a week. So that’s really what I encourage teachers to do here is question this internally when you hear it. Just bring your awareness to the implications behind it. And when you’re choosing which words that you’re going to use yourself, consider finding a term that’s a little bit less loaded. So I really like the phrase “school community,” because in a community you have a responsibility to work together and be cohesive, but you don’t have all that baggage and implied guilt trip of letting your family down.
GONZALEZ: Right. Right. And I do worry a little bit about administrators listening to this and saying, “But we really are a family. We take care of each other.” The message here is not that you should not use that phrase but just be very careful about when it is being used and question whether or not it’s being used possibly even unintentionally to milk a little bit more work out of people who are already very much overworked.
WATSON: Yes. It’s just questioning the intent and questioning the impact, just examining it.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So the second one is, and you actually said this in one of your responses, is “Do it for the kids no matter what.”
WATSON: You know, that’s a phrase that I don’t know if it was necessarily coined, but it was really sort of solidified in my understanding by Seth Nichols. He’s a former teacher and he wrote this epic blog post called Why Teachers Are Walking Out, which he graciously gave me permission to excerpt in my book. He observed in the teachers in this school, and his school is like most schools in that it was close to 80 percent women. And, you know, the tacit expectations that all teachers feel are really grounded in gendered expectations, so even if you’re a male teacher, you’re still going to be subjected to these expectations because you’re in a majority woman field. So he noticed what was happening in his school, and he observed how the teachers around him would do whatever it took to prove that they are good caretakers and good nurturers, and he called it the Woman’s Honor Code: Do it for the kids no matter the cost. And yes, as educators we are there for the kids, but the problem is that teachers’ pure intentions and genuine desire to make a difference, I think have been exploited, because the powers that be, people making the budgets in government know that if the school doesn’t provide what kids need to thrive, we as educators will pick up the slack.
WATSON: We will figure out a way to get kids what they need, we will work dozens of unpaid hours every week, we will make our materials from scratch, we will spend money from our own paychecks if it’s going to benefit kids.
WATSON: And we’ve been conditioned to believe this is just part of the job.
WATSON: And we’ll find ourselves neglecting our health, our relationships, our home, even our own kids because the school family needs us, and we need to do whatever it takes for students. And I think for many of us there’s no clear alternative, because no teacher wants to feel like they’re short-changing kids.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
WATSON: That’s an accusation which just cuts to the bone for us. We’re not going to dare try to simplify or ask for what we need or insist that our needs be met, because that might give other people the impression that I’m here for something other than the kids. So the message that I’m really passionate about normalizing in education is that, is this idea that you can be there for the kids and the paycheck. It’s not a volunteer position when you’re supposed to be there for purely altruistic reasons and nothing else.
WATSON: You can enjoy making a difference and also enjoy paying your mortgage. Those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.
WATSON: Because here’s what’s really true about it for me. I believe that teachers should have the opportunity to be fully actualized human beings who have career aspirations and hobbies and hopes and dreams, apart from just sowing into the lives of other people’s children. So we can’t agree to just do whatever it takes at any cost, because the cost is our physical and mental and emotional and spiritual health, and the cost is our marriages and relationships and children and our parents. And ultimately for many of us, the students suffer, because we’re so overwhelmed and overworked that we can’t show up as the best version of ourselves, and many of us ultimately decide the sacrifice is not sustainable.
GONZALEZ: Well, and that’s, yeah. That’s how it ends up, that’s how it ends up is even somebody who is die hard about this “do it for the kids no matter what,” that person may end up teaching five to 10 years less, ultimately, because they just can’t do it anymore, because they were never able to say no and finally they just gave up entirely. And it breaks people’s hearts when they make that decision. But they say it’s this or dying or it’s this or my marriage or it’s this or — you know? And so even for somebody who might be rubbed the wrong way about this idea of maybe pushing back on this a little bit, think about the number of really gifted that have ultimately had to leave, because they just couldn’t, they couldn’t do it anymore. So maybe rethinking that value, you know, is a way of actually serving more kids for longer.
WATSON: Exactly. Because then you can stay in the field. What if we replace this idea of “do it for the kids no matter the cost” with “find a sustainable way to be a great teacher.”
WATSON: So that we’re not sacrificing all our time and energy for the job, and we’re able to stay and make an impact for longer.
GONZALEZ: Right. Right. So the third one, and this kind of is similar to “we’re a family,” it’s “Be a team player.” And I mean I hear this in all different kinds of workplaces. What’s wrong with, holding up being a team player as such a high value?
WATSON: Well the thing is when people say, you know, you need to do this to be a team player, it’s usually used in a context of asking for unpaid labor. So, you know, lesson planning and grading papers, that’s your job, what you’re paid to do. So no one ever says be a team player, grade your papers, right? It’s when you’re being asked to do things that aren’t part of the core of your job.
WATSON: That’s when this comes in, because you’re pressured into doing all this extra stuff to be a team player. And the truth is that all this extra work that’s outside your standard teaching duties should be handled by someone who is trained and paid to do it. So for example, your school deserves aides to handle supervision duties during non-instructional time. So you shouldn’t be pressured to do lunch and recess and cafeteria and bus and hallway duty. Because when are those things happening? It’s during your planning or your prep time. That’s when you’re supposed to be focused on your real job, which is planning and preparing lessons and assessing the work that your students have done. It’s supposed to be focused on your instruction and your kids. But instead you’re mopping the cafeteria floor, because there’s no one else to do it.
WATSON: And you want to be seen as a team player. So all the stuff that would really move the needle for your students either doesn’t get done or it gets done on your own time for free in the evening.
WATSON: And I think this norm has evolved into a survival mechanism for schools, because they’re so underfunded, they’re so under-resourced and understaffed and the only way to function with what they’re given is if everyone buys into this mentality that they’re part of the school family and they need to do whatever it takes and be a team player. So I think we have to be careful in our examination of our own role in this racket. So it’s not to say that you should never pitch out, you should never help out, you should never do something that’s not in your job description. Everyone has to do things that aren’t in their job description, and we’re going to talk in a little bit about healthier ways to create change. But I think awareness is really the most important step, because when we can clearly see what’s happening, then we can be cognizant of the way that we’re reinforcing these beliefs to one another.
GONZALEZ: Well and that’s, you know what? A little while ago I was saying that I wanted to make sure that school leaders heard this message, but you’re right, and we pressure each other. Teachers can be quite competitive with each other and reinforce these same values together and so the one teacher who is mopping the cafeteria floors obviously looking better and that puts pressure on everybody else to do the same thing.
WATSON: That’s right. And if you say no, then who’s going to have to pick up the slack? Me. So I’m afraid. If you create boundaries for yourself, what kind of impact is that going to have on me? I could choose to see that as inspirational and choose to see that as a model of how I can stand up for myself too, but instead, a lot of times I’m just going to be worried that I have to pick up all the slack because again, it’s a team effort.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. And that, I want to underscore the point that you made a few minutes ago that teachers are hired for the education that they have in terms of understanding child development and pedagogy. There are other people that can do some of these other jobs. I’ve had teachers push back with me saying, “But I like my supervision duty, because it gives me an opportunity to bond with my students,” and so on. The thing is teachers can still do those things voluntarily, but in America anyway we have so little time devoted to honing our craft, and we need to be spending time on that, on giving students feedback. And I think that’s another harmful message that’s given to teachers, like. “Oh you need to do this supervision duty. It’s a chance to build relationships with students.” Well you can do that in a lot of other ways. That’s a little gaslighty, I think, you know?
WATSON: Yeah, again, questioning the intent and questioning the impact. Why did the person say that?
WATSON: You know? Why did the person say that and then what effect does that have when teachers in the school receive that message that they need to do this, and if they’re not, then they clearly don’t care about kids, they’re not building relationships with kids, they’re not interested in their students?
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
WATSON: Just questioning.
GONZALEZ: It’s funny, I think this stuff is kind of generational too. I think the people that are perpetuating it may not even realize that they’re doing that, and that’s what I’m really hoping people get out of this episode is to just stop and think about these messages that we’re sending to each other all the time. Yeah.
WATSON: Exactly. Because it’s not just, “Oh, my principal needs to hear this.” No, we all need to hear this.
WATSON: Because we all prop up this system. We are complicit in this system, and I include myself in that, because I’ve done it myself for 11 years in the classroom.
GONZALEZ: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
WATSON: I was 100 percent complicit, and I talk about that in the book. I give a lot of examples how I just bought right into this and never questioned this stuff, and that’s what I want to help other teachers create change around.
GONZALEZ: So we’re going to now talk about pushing back and actually trying to change some of the things that end up happening as a result of these cultural norms. And in the book you offer some ways to push back that I felt were pretty creative. So we’ve got three different things. The first one is to speak up with solutions.
WATSON: Yeah, I think a lot of teachers are afraid to speak up, because they don’t want to be seen as the angry teacher, or they don’t want to be the one who’s always complaining. And that’s for good reason, because we’ve seen colleagues get blackballed for being negative.
GONZALEZ: Oh yeah. I can literally picture the “angry teacher” in the first school I taught in, and she was always with her hand up at the end of the faculty meeting, and it was just like oh gosh, here she goes again. But she was now, I think, looking back, she was the only one that was actually standing up for our rights.
WATSON: Yes. And isn’t it interesting how we just automatically assume that person was the problem, when now in hindsight it’s like, oh my gosh, I think she was advocating for better teaching and working conditions.
WATSON: Why was I so bad at her for that?
WATSON: That’s exactly what we’re talking about here. You know, and you don’t have to be the person who is just like, “This is not right. I’m not going to stand for that. I’m going to the union.” I used that approach maybe a total of three times in my whole teaching career. It’s very risky, and it can have profound implications on your career trajectory. So it’s not a go-to strategy where you’re just going to stand up and say no every time you’re asked to do something unreasonable, because you’re going to be asked to do something unreasonable every single day. And I think a lot of teachers just default to either defiance or passive aggressive remarks and being complainy because they don’t have a lot of other tools in their toolbox.
But there’s a lot of other approaches. And speaking up with solutions is one. If you go to your administrator in a professional, solution-oriented way, your “complaint” can actually turn you into one of the most valuable members of the faculty, because most people are just going to be talking about the problem to each other. But if you can approach the principal directly with actual solutions, not just saying, “This is unacceptable, you need to fix it,” but say, “Hey, we both know the situation isn’t ideal. So I’ve been trying to brainstorm some alternative approaches here, and I would love to be able to share some of them with you. If you can do that, you’re either going to lead the discussion, getting something closer to what you want or you’re going to have a better understanding of all the limitations and extenuating circumstances. And either way, you’re going to have more information about how to create change. You’re opening that door for new possibilities instead of just assuming that you can’t do anything about it and things will always be terrible. So rather than just getting together with colleagues and rehashing the problem, really think about what you want to propose as a solution. What is something really small that you could do that would ease the burden just a little bit? And then when you speak up you’re coming with solutions instead of just complaints.
GONZALEZ: Right. And it’s much more likely that that change can actually happen.
WATSON: Right. And you’re also telling them what you want instead of letting, you know if you let your administrators or whoever’s in charge, whatever higher up you’re thinking of, you let them come up with a solution, you still may not like it. And now you’ve got a situation where they’ve tried to, you know, they feel like they’re bending over backwards to help you out, and you’re still not satisfied. So just like in a personal relationship or in a marriage, speak up for what you need. Don’t let the other person, don’t assume they’re a mind reader. Tell the other person exactly what you need, and give them a chance, you know, to understand your needs and try to meet them rather than just hoping they come up with something that suits you better.
GONZALEZ: Right. So the second suggestion you give actually doesn’t even necessarily involve speaking up at all, but it is to support others who speak up. And you give some really specific ways that people can do that.
WATSON: I think in every school there are a handful of teachers who feel like they’re the ones doing all the heavy lifting.
WATSON: They’re the ones that all the other teachers go to when they’re upset, and when they want something changed, they go to this handful of people who are not afraid to be outspoken.
WATSON: And they depend on this handful of people to speak up for them. And really, we see the same thing happening on social media, right? It’s the same people talking about all the tough and controversial topics in education.
WATSON: And other people will DM them privately and say, “Thanks for speaking up.”
WATSON: And what I hear from those teachers who are doing the heavy lifting is that they are tired of being the only ones with their necks on the chopping block all the time. And what they really want is for other teachers to stand with them.
WATSON: So maybe you don’t want to lead the change on a particular issue. But if another teacher is speaking up on it, show them support. If the discussion’s happening online, retweet it, share it, comment on it. If it’s happening in the staff meeting, nod, affirm, raise your hand, add an additional point to let your colleagues know you are with that person rather than just thanking them afterward.
WATSON: And I really encourage every teacher to take a stand personally on at least one particular issue. Imagine if every teacher in your school did that. Imagine if every person took one injustice or inequity or exploitation very seriously enough to say, “I’m going to find solutions for this, and I’m going to help our school do better.” Imagine if only half of your faculty did that. Even that’s powerful, right?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, absolutely.
WATSON: And it’s unrealistic to expect that of others when we’re not even speaking up ourselves the way that we know that we need to. So if we could each just focus on our part, if we could each pick one thing, just starting with me today, what’s one thing in which I will take the lead, I think school would be different. And then we can support one another in creating change. So this issue’s my thing, that issue’s your thing, but we sign each other’s petitions, we back each other up in team meetings. We affirm one another school-wide emails. That’s creating a culture of teacher agency and empowerment. That is shifting the norms in your school where teachers don’t just sit back and let all the decisions be made for them. They’re taking an active role in a very balanced and healthy way so they can create better working and learning conditions.
GONZALEZ: So if somebody listening is kind of like I was where they would sit in a faculty meeting, and they would hear the person who’s outspoken talking and you would maybe go to them later and say, “Thank you for saying something,” you know? Maybe just the one change you can make is instead of going to them after the meeting, you can put your hand up, you can nod, even just say, “I know, I don’t have a comment, I just want everybody to know that I back Julia. I support what she’s saying.” could be that awkward and that simple. But it just, and I guarantee two or three other people will start nodding after you do that.
WATSON: That’s right.
GONZALEZ: Because nobody wants to be the one who’s the rabble rouser, but you can back that rabble rouser.
WATSON: That’s right. And if you’re coming with solutions, you’re not even rabble rousing at that point.
WATSON: This is the person who’s thought through the problem very carefully and is proposing ideas. So you’re not even, you’re not causing trouble, you’re not being a hater. You are supporting someone and suggesting solutions.
GONZALEZ: Yes. And speaking of trouble. Your third suggestion for pushing back on things that are damaging and harmful is quiet subversion, which is one of my favorite phrases that I learned from you.
WATSON: Yeah. I read about that at first in “Unshakeable” back in 2015, but I went into a lot more depth with it in “Fewer Things Better” because I think it’s more important now than ever. Because teachers are being expected to do an increasing number of things that really aren’t good for kids and that are completely burning them out. And as I shared, you can’t face every problem head on, because there’s just too many of them. You do have to pick your battles. But you don’t have to just suck it up when it comes to all the other issues. I think that a lot of teachers are rule-followers. We want to do things right. We want to be seen as caring and committed and dedicated. And so not doing what we’ve been told is just not even a consideration. It’s not even on the table. There’s a lot of fear placed in the heart of teachers that they’re going to be pink-slipped or blackballed if they don’t do what they’re told. But all the best teachers that I know are quietly subverting the system. They will smile and nod, and then they will close the door and they will do what’s best for kids. They will document stuff on paper like they’re supposed to, and then that teachable moment comes up, and they run with it whenever they can. And I just want that to be said here publicly, because obviously someone who’s employed by a school district is going to be really reluctant to announce that they’re doing that.
WATSON: And that’s why people think it’s not happening. That’s why when you look at those teachers that you admire and you wonder, “How are they doing all that awesome stuff? How are they making everything work?” They’ve either found the school that is a good fit for their values, and they have a little bit more freedom, which I think is often true for some of the more visible educators online, or in the majority of cases they’re being quietly subversive. And both of those options, by the way, are available to every person listening to this. A myth that I really try hard to debunk, both in the book and in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Is this disempowering mode that we tend to fall into where it’s like, I don’t have a choice. You do have a choice. You are a trained professional who brings a tremendous amount of wisdom and insight and life experience to the profession. So you can choose to make some sacrifices and find a school where you can thrive. Every single school is very different. You can find something that is a better fit for you. You deserve to exercise your agency. It’s your career, it’s your life. And if you choose to stay where you’re at, you don’t just have to do everything that you’re told if what you’re being told is not best for teachers or kids. The most effective teachers I know are not blindly following orders. They are quietly subverting the system.
GONZALEZ: Right. Can you give us the example from the book? This was about bus duty, I think, that you and a colleague worked out at your school?
WATSON: Yes. So we had to, each one of us, we had to do like a rotation, like a half hour, and this was in South Florida at like 2:30 in the afternoon, so it was like 30,000 degrees. I’d be drenched with sweat standing out there just waiting for all the kids to be picked up, basically, around the buses and the cars and everything. I just couldn’t take it any longer. And I brought it up in a team meeting, and I was like, “I can’t do this. This is just not working for me.” And my team was really clear. You know, people have complained about this before, and the principal just doesn’t have a choice. There’s literally no one else to do this. Basically my choices were, you know, try to fight for more funding to get aides in the afternoon or figure out a way to quietly subvert the system. So I asked my teammates, you know, is there anyone here who would be willing to do my bus duty for me if I do something that you don’t want to do? And I was shocked because I thought for sure no one would ever take me up on that. But one of my colleagues immediately was like, “Are you kidding? Bus duty is no problem. You just stand around talking to the kids and parents. It’s fine. I’ll do it if you run all my copies for me.” And I was like, uh, yeah, that’s so much easier. I could do that in the air condition. I’m already down there anyway. Good. So that was the way that we worked together. And we didn’t ask permission.
WATSON: We didn’t even tell the principal.
WATSON: I don’t think we ever even told the principal. The principal had no idea. She didn’t care.
WATSON: She wasn’t, it wasn’t like a punishment she set up for us. She just needed to make sure all the kids were safe. And as long as there were the right number of people out there and everyone was happy and no one had a problem that they were coming to her complaining about, she was good.
WATSON: So we worked together to figure out something that would work better for us, and it was just so much better. I never had to do bus duty again.
GONZALEZ: I think that’s just a, it’s a good story, because I think quiet subversion can look a lot more, you know, dangerous where you’re really going against the system, or it can just look creative like what you did in that situation. The expectations are still being met, it’s just you’re not doing it exactly the way they said to do it.
WATSON: There’s almost always an alternative way. You know, there’s so few things in teaching where there’s only one right way or only one way to get that outcome that you need. So if you can find a more creative way to meet that same outcome, figure out what really needs to be accomplished.
WATSON: And find a different solution. There’s always something if you can get together and brainstorm with other teachers.
GONZALEZ: Right. So before I let you go, I want to remind people that this piece that we’re talking about here is just one small part of the larger book. It’s called “Fewer Things Better,” and by the time they listen to this, they will be able to buy it. I will have a link on my site. If they just go to CultOfPedagogy.com, click on Podcasts, this is Episode 119 and there will be links to that there. But also if people listening are really liking your whole approach, then they may also want to look into the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. So just give us a quick overview of what a person might get from the club.
WATSON: So if this is the first time that you’ve heard of me, you may actually want to start by going to my Truth For Teachers podcast. So search for Angela Watson’s Truth For Teachers in your podcast player app. So there’s a new 20-ish, you know, minute, new episode released every single Sunday. That’s a good place to start. If you want to delve more into the specific topics that Jenn and I discussed today, then yes, the book is a great option, and there’s a free mini course that goes with the book, so you can figure out how to implement the principles. And then if you really want to do this deep dive into streamlining every aspect of your work, from grading to lesson planning to parent communication, that’s where the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club comes in. So it’s professional development on productivity, and it’s been used in more than 22,000 schools at this point to really help teachers focus on what matters most and let go of the rest. So that’s really like the most in-depth program. And the next opportunity to join will be this summer.
GONZALEZ: Got it. And I’ll be doing lots and lots of promotion of that for you too. OK, Angela. Thank you so much.
WATSON: Thanks for having me.
For links to all the resources mentioned in this podcast, including a link to Angela’s new book, Fewer Things Better, and a link to the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click podcast, and choose episode 119. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.