Listen to my interview with Angela Watson (transcript):
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The first time my principal asked me to take on the role of yearbook sponsor, I said no. In 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 here.
To explore this issue, I’m getting help from Angela Watson. Angela has done more than anyone I know to try to solve the problem of teacher burnout, and she’s made a ton of progress in that area. 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. Let’s look at 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, and how we can start pushing back on these messages.
“We’re a family.”
This message is usually meant to make teachers feel like their school is a warm, supportive environment, and in many cases, that may be as far as it goes. But sometimes it may also end up manipulating them into doing an unreasonable amount of work.
“When we hear that being said to us,” Angela says, “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? 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.’
“You’re irreplaceable to your family,” she continues, “but your school can hire someone else to take your place within a week. So I encourage teachers to question this internally when you hear it. And when you’re choosing which words to use yourself, consider finding a term that’s a little bit less loaded. I like the phrase ‘school community.’ 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.”
“Do it for the kids, no matter what.”
Angela’s thinking about this phrase shifted about a year ago when she read Seth Nichols’ piece, Why Teachers Are Walking Out. Nichols pointed out that in education, where so much of the leadership is male and the vast majority of the employees are female, teachers may go along with unreasonable expectations because if they don’t, they risk being seen as uncaring.
“(Nichols) observed how the teachers around him would do whatever it took to prove that they are good caretakers and good nurturers,” Angela explains. “He called it the Woman’s Honor Code: Do it for the kids no matter the cost.”
Obviously all teachers care about kids, she says, “but the problem is that teachers’ pure intentions and genuine desire to make a difference have been exploited, because the powers that be know that if the school doesn’t provide what kids need to thrive, we as educators will pick up the slack. We will work dozens of unpaid hours every week, we will make our materials from scratch, we will spend money from our own paychecks. We’ll neglect our health, our relationships, our home, even our own kids because we need to do whatever it takes for students. And for many of us there’s no clear alternative, because no teacher wants to feel like they’re short-changing kids.”
A healthier message? It’s perfectly reasonable to 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. You can enjoy making a difference and also enjoy paying your mortgage. Those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.”
In the end, Angela says, making ourselves a priority along with the kids will keep more good teachers in the classroom.
“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. We can’t agree to just do whatever it takes at any cost, because the cost is our physical and mental health, our marriages and relationships and children and parents. (Often) 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.”
“Be a team player.”
This call to action, Angela says, is most often used when people are being asked to give unpaid labor. “Lesson planning and grading papers,” she says, “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.
“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 student work. But instead you’re mopping the cafeteria floor, because there’s no one else to do it. 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.”
Does this mean a teacher should never pick up a piece of trash in the hallway? Of course not. “Everyone has to do things that aren’t in their job description,” Angela says. “But I think awareness is really the most important step.”
So…We’re All Being Brainwashed?
Talking to Angela about this situation, I never got the impression that she felt administrators were trying to deliberately fool teachers or that their promotion of a student-centered, family-like school culture was somehow disingenuous. These norms have been passed down for generations, and for many schools, she says, they have become survival mechanisms. “They’re so underfunded, 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.”
And it’s not just school leadership that perpetuates these norms. Teachers reinforce them with each other every day. “We all prop up this system,” she says. “We are complicit in this system, and I include myself in that, because I’ve done it myself for 11 years in the classroom.” Being the teacher who is willing to go the extra mile makes us look good, and that creates a competitive environment where everyone is expected to go well beyond their job description.
On top of that, there’s the risk of hurting your colleagues if you’re not pulling more than your weight; this fear keeps us from supporting each other. “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?”
Ways to Push Back
1. Speak Up with Solutions
“I think a lot of teachers are afraid to speak up,” Angela says, “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.”
But if we speak up and provide a viable solution, things tend to go much better.
“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.”
2. Support Others Who Speak Up
If you’re not quite ready to advocate for change personally, you can be more vocal and visible about supporting those who do.
“I think in every school there are a handful of teachers who feel like they’re the ones doing all the heavy lifting,” Angela says. “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.
“And what I hear from those teachers is that they are tired of being the only ones with their necks on the chopping block all the time. What they really want is for other teachers to stand with them.
“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.”
3. Quiet Subversion
If you think a problem just can’t be solved, you’re in a situation where communication between staff and leadership has broken down, or you just don’t have the energy to put up a fight, another solution is to simply subvert the system.
“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,” Angela says. “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.
“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 is this disempowering mode 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. You can find something that is a better fit for you. 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 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.”
It’s well intended, a phrase like “We’re a family.” And we should all feel like we work in places where everyone cares about the kids and pitches in as a team. But if teachers want to be treated as professionals and given the time and space to do this work well and live healthy lives, it might be time to look at these messages with a more critical eye.
We’ve only scratched the surface of all Angela does to help teachers bring balance to their lives. You can learn more in her book, Fewer Things, Better, or by joining the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club.