My first year of teaching felt like the story of Sisyphus. He’s the guy who pushes the ball up to the top of the hill only to watch it fall down again. I was trying but never getting ahead.
You may relate to my first year. Curriculum, classroom management, a new lifestyle—these are all given challenges.
But looking back, I realize I was making it harder than it had to be.
One surprising example that comes to mind is my wardrobe. I had my closet filled with dress shirts and ties. Every night, I pondered the combinations, then ironed my clothes. It was a waste of time.
Why does this matter? My wardrobe was one of the ways I was setting myself up for something called decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue matters to teachers. Once you learn how to recognize it, you can find ways to simplify your teaching life, take back your energy, and do your job better.
Hungry Judges and Tired Teachers
How do we view judges? We assume that judges make logical, evidence-based decisions. This study examined guilty or innocent verdicts throughout the work day. The researchers wanted to find patterns in the verdicts.
The surprising results? The judges gave harsher sentences based on how long it had been since their last meal! They got tired later in the day. Their brains became lazy. That is decision fatigue.
Now check out the conclusion of the study. “Although our focus has been on expert legal decisions, we suspect the presence of other forms of decision simplification strategies for experts in other important sequential decisions or judgments.” (Emphasis is mine).
Why does this matter for teachers?
The teacher work day is a series of “important sequential decisions or judgments.” We split time between classes, prep periods, meetings, duties, lunch breaks, and so on. The bell rings, and we move to the next subject. We shift our brains from one lesson, one set of essays, or one student, to the next one.
Our tired last-period brains skip grading and read Buzzfeed. Our exhausted afternoon minds choose to race through that paperwork. This is decision fatigue.
I see decision fatigue as affecting two big parts of our job:
- The patience we show when interacting with our students
- The willpower we have to get work done during our planning or prep periods
These are situations where mental exhaustion makes us do things we regret. We lose our tempers and yell at students. We ignore students who might need the most help. Or we ease up on students instead of pushing them to do their best work.
During preps, we get distracted online or by silly conversations with colleagues. We’re out of willpower.
Now that we know the term, how can we tell we’re experiencing it?
Signs of Decision Fatigue
Tired, no progress
If the day has exhausted you but you feel you’ve made no progress, then you may be experiencing decision fatigue. A lack of systems, routines, and habits causes teachers to reinvent the wheel every day. This increases that feeling of exhaustion with nothing to show for it.
Googling lesson plan ideas
When my mind is tired, I Google ideas for lessons. Instead of setting up reusable routines, I’m searching for an easy solution from others. Have you experienced this? This is another sign of decision fatigue.
Jumping from one “focus” to another
One week your class begins every day with a grammar bell-ringer. A few weeks later, you want students to journal for the first ten minutes. Later on you start by having kids copy down the goal. If you’re always figuring out the daily routine for your class, you may be a candidate for decision fatigue.
Easing up on expectations
You’re normally patient. You know how to breathe deeply, repeat a mantra, and calmly respond to that student. But when you’ve set yourself up to make excessive decisions about your day, your patience thins. Your willpower is gone. You end up engaging the kid who calls out, ignoring use of bad language, or glancing past the student with her head down on the desk. A lack of willpower means lower expectations.
Indulging in destructive habits
Consider the moments when you’re most likely to stray from a diet. It’s when you’re most exhausted, right? When we get tired, we are less likely to make healthy decisions. You might run to the faculty room vending machine for a sugar fix during your prep. Instead of diving into work, you spend your free period swiping away on Instagram, picking up your head after who knows how long. This, again, is decision fatigue: too much reliance on willpower and choice, not enough on routine.
Please don’t take any of the above signs as absolutes or guarantees. You may say to yourself, I Google lessons, but only when I’m looking for new ideas. Or I like to rearrange class every few weeks–it’s how I run my classroom! Each teacher knows him or herself best. The signs above are ones I’ve noticed as most connected to my own feeling of decision fatigue. If you feel off and you’re doing these things, then you might like the ideas I’ll mention in the rest of this post.
The Big Wins
You can see immediate improvement in your decision fatigue by going after the low-hanging fruit. These are the first levers we can pull to stop draining our willpower and build up our ability to focus. It takes some work, but these big wins get big results.
Commit to a few skills you know your students must work on this year. Stick with them throughout the year. Base your grading on these. Do this instead of jumping from focus to focus, expectation to expectation.
For example, I adopted the PVLEGs acronym in my class this year. Additionally, I’ve started using the single-point rubric. Now, regardless of whether we’re doing presentations or discussions, I know what the speaking rubric will look like.
Now the class and I can focus on the readings or other content that students will speak about. We can focus on mini-lessons instructing students on specific aspects of speaking. We don’t have to review another new rubric, tailored to one specific assignment.
Do I need to write this student up for a discipline referral? That student is sending a quick text, should I say anything? You’ve had these quick conversations with yourself. If our classroom management plan is unclear, then we will be negotiating and arguing. It’s unclear which behaviors we should address and which we should ignore.
I remember a moment from my first year that illustrates this well. A student talked all class. She stood up to socialize with friends instead of reading or writing. She used her cell phone for texting friends. I finally said, “Debby-Ann sit down, stop talking and do your work!”
I’ll never forget her reply:
“No, Mr. Dawson…because you’re not going to do anything about it.”
And she was right. My classroom management was a set of words on a September handout. The students and I didn’t live by it. This meant constant decisions about cell phones, calling home, or discipline referrals.
Like most teachers, my classroom management is not perfect. A blog post from August 2016 set me on the right path, though. It exposed me to the world of Michael Linsin’s Smart Classroom Management program. I bought his book, The Smart Classroom Management Plan for High School Teachers, and implemented it. It took planning, preparation, and commitment. But it was satisfying to have a clear plan. There was no decision-making necessary.
In the past, I taught a new lesson, and then went on the hunt for the next activity. I should have focused on getting kids to do lots of meaningful reading and writing. Instead, I was obsessed with experimenting, with making lessons wacky and “engaging.”
Now nothing is wrong with trying new strategies. One of the reasons you read this site, or any education blog, is to find new ideas for your teaching. But there’s a difference between looking for new strategies and distracting yourself.
My suggestion: Write out your teacher toolbox. List the learning processes that happen in your class and list the best ideas you have for doing those. My teacher toolbox looks like this:
Beginning of Class: independent reading, sentence combining, quick writes
Reading: Ariel Sacks’ Whole Novels approach, Fischer/Frey reading questions, Jim Burke’s Types of Questions
Writing: editing for brevity, revising for show vs. tell, practice acknowledging and responding to counterarguments
Now, instead of combing the Internet for new strategies or telling students we’re just going to “read this article today,” I go to my toolbox. I match up my instructional goals with the list I have above, and select the best option for the day.
The Quick List: Other, Simpler ideas
Eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day. Try it for a week. Have variety at dinner and on the weekends, but let your mind rest when it comes to prepping food for the work week.
Most days I wake up, drink water, make coffee, meditate, and then write. I don’t decide—it’s what I do. When I get to school, I’m relaxed. I’m not saying do what I do. Figure out what works for you.
If teachers have a morning routine, it can provide us with energy that we can devote to our students. Try mixing two to three of these items into a morning routine and stick with it for a week:
- 5 minutes of yoga or deep breathing
- Writing in a notebook
- Bodyweight exercises
- Planning the day
- Healthy breakfast
The idea is to repeat it every day, so your brain goes on autopilot, but you get the benefits.
Remember my opening story about too many clothes? Today, I wear blue. My wife and students poke fun at me, but that’s all I’ve got these days. It may be quirky, but it works. A monochromatic wardrobe is unnecessary, of course. Consider simplifying so that more of your clothes pair well together. The capsule wardrobe is an interesting take on this.
Decide on the tech tools that are your favorite. This is another area where I’ve exhausted myself with decisions in the past. Which formative assessment tool is best? Which digital rubric tool is best? Which video tool is best? Like with the teaching toolbox, a teaching with tech toolbox is useful. Decide on the few things that help your students the most and abandon the rest. You can always add things in again later.
Not Boredom, but Focus
Some teachers might read this and think that I’m advocating for monotony. Students hate doing the same things over and over, you might think. Variety is the spice of life!
I’m not advocating for a boring, repetitive classroom. In fact, this is the opposite. The best parts of our jobs are being creative and interacting with the kids. Anything we do to focus on those two things is worth a try.
When we build in the systems, habits, and routines that value our mental energy, we free ourselves up to do our best work. We throw our full selves into planning great lessons, teaching with passion, and even reviewing student work with care. We become our best teacher selves.
The suggestions above are not long-term commitments; they’re experiments. Try something for three days and reflect. Is your routine smoother? Is it making a difference?
How can you experiment with simplifying? ♦