Teachers are in crisis. As a profession, teachers are underpaid, are not respected, are blamed for all kinds of ills in society, and are expected to tolerate and embrace being exploited. In addition, the rise of school shootings and lockdown drills, means that teachers are expected to deal with the possibility of extreme violence, and help manage their trauma and that of everyone around them. We are told to practice self-care, but burdens and expectations continue to pile up
All this points to one word: UNSUSTAINABLE
So the question remains, can you be a teacher and make your work sustainable? I would answer that the answer must be YES. The alternative is to find another line of work (or at least get out of the classroom). I know many former teachers who are happier now, even if they work more hours or make less money (both of which are unlikely). People who have never been full time teachers simply don’t understand how stressful it can be, even on good days. So don’t take advice from anyone who hasn’t been in a classroom for a whole year or more. In this page, I want to focus on specific practices that will help you to conserve your energy throughout the workday and work week. There is nothing wrong with prioritizing sustainability for yourself. It wil make you a more effective teacher, and help you avoid burnout.
Make Sustainability a central part of your planning.
When you decide to implement an activity, assignment, or assessment, think to yourself, how much time will it require for you to create, modify, implement, and then assess student work. Can some/most of this work be done during class in a productive way? If not, you might seriously want to modify or scrap it. If this sounds harsh, it is because I am really serious about this. This is YOUR TIME we are talking about. Anything you can’t complete during class or during your prep period will have to be done during YOUR OWN UNPAID TIME, time you could be spending with friends and family, time you could be spending doing something besides work (or nothing!) that is restorative, pleasurable and fulfilling for you. A few principles to include in your planning process:
Making sure you are not “on” for the entirety of your class period.
The downside of being a CI-based teacher (or language teacher), is a tendency to be delivering spoken input for large portions of class periods, whether it be co-creating a story, or leading a discussion. This is problematic from a sustainability perspective. I believe it was Mike Peto who first presented it this way, but the idea is to set limits on the amount of time each class that you are actively leading the class in an activity (e.g. at the front of the class providing spoken input, or guiding the whole class through an assignment or story). If your lesson depends on you being the sole engine, providing constant energy for most of your classes, you will be completely burned out by the end of the day. Also, what happens when you are not feeling 100%, or have to be absent? Having non-teacher centered activities in place will mean less planning for you when (not if) you have to miss a day or more.
Instead, think about your periods in terms of segments. Maybe you have students begin class with a written activity. Then, set a timer to limit the amount of time you present new information (student attention spans are limited anyways), before students are working on their own or with classmates on something. I want to repeat, you are not required to be exhausting yourself in order to be an effective teacher, even of language.
Best practices means less busywork
Let’s take the example of homework. Alfie Kohn and others have established that traditional homework is of minimal benefit, and at worst, perpetuates the inequities that plague our schools and society. Reducing or eliminating homework is therefore not a controversial move, and is easy to justify to colleagues, administrators and parents (many of whom will be relieved). Another example of unnecessary busywork is extensive written feedback, namely the extensive corrections and comments that English teachers are known for writing, and which students never look at. A more productive alternative, would be to spend class time going through details of writing that many students are likely to struggle with. By using Google Docs, you can provide feedback in ways that students can immediately apply to revision, even during class time.
Take away, or replace. Don’t add
A lot of us think that in order to improve as teachers, we need to keep adding: adding professional development opportunities, adding new teaching skills and practices (the so-called “tools” in our “toolboxes”, adding committee memberships, adding technology tools for the classroom, adding time with students outside of class, revamping our curriculum (on our own unpaid time). I agree that we should always be on the lookout for ways to improve ourselves professionally, but it might be more helpful to think about replacing or removing rather than adding. For example, if I want to join a committee, I need to let go of something else in order to free up that time. If I decide to learn about a new teaching method or technology, I want to make sure that I can use that to replace something (or things). Remember to include EFFICIENCY in your definition of what makes for a useful teaching method or resource. The hypothetical “perfect lesson” must limit and/or reduce prep and grading time. Otherwise, if it takes too much prep time, or too many steps, we are unlikely to actually use that “perfect” lesson.
It’s important to know what your limits are, and to set up some realistic boundaries between your professional and personal life. “Realistic” is a relative term, and it will change with your circumstances, and also based on the changes you make in your planning. A boundary like: “stop working at 5:30 pm,” or “3 hours max on weekends” may not be realistic during your first year at a new teaching job; but two years later, you might be able to set this boundary and stick to it. Another example of a boundary is “close your door / leave the classroom during lunch” and if students or colleagues approach you during this time, tell them you can reschedule, or to send you an email. Personally, having a bit of quiet time during lunch, is necessary for me to be able to get through the 3 periods that I teach after lunch.
Embrace technology with caution
Most tech-based teaching tools come and go. Many online teaching tools have a steep learning curve, or cost money, which must be paid either by a school or a teacher. Also, who owns the content that a teacher has created on an online platform? What happens when the school or district decides to switch platforms? I can count on one hand the technology I use in my classroom: Google Suites (including google classroom), YouTube, My school’s grading system, Smart Seat (a simple app for making seating charts on my ipad). That’s about it. There are fancier ways of doing things on newer apps, but by sticking with a few, mostly school-supported apps, I can be fairly confident that: a) whatever I create or put into place, I will be able to use for a few years, b) students who lack the latest devices will not be excluded from using this technology, c) students can access all materials and apps on school-owned equipment, d) student activities and assignments are more likely to integrate with my school’s grading system, possibly saving steps in entering grades, e) my school’s technology staff will provide tech support when I need it. All of these will save me time and energy during the school year.
Support colleagues by organizing, not covering
Often, teachers are expected to take up the slack, for example, when a colleague is sick and there is no sub available, or when there is a staffing shortage, we could spend our prep period watching or even teaching another class. But the result might be that we postpone or create more work for ourselves that evening. If the school does not have a policy that protects teacher paid prep time in these circumstances, a better use of one’s time might be to organize, and make a formal request that teachers not be required to cover during their prep period, or that they must be paid for that time. Maybe spending an hour or two per week working toward a union goal would be a better use of one’s time, because it would contribute for a more sustainable situation for all teachers on campus.
I want to acknowledge that many teachers have many circumstances that prevent them from taking these measures, be it micromanaging admins, or “right to work” laws against anything resembling union organizing, or the lack of job security that would allow them to set healthy boundaries at work, etc. Whatever your challenges, I want to suggest that by making even one of the changes I have suggested above, you might be able to reduce the pressure exerted by this work we do, and that may make the difference when it comes getting through a difficult week, or just getting through the day. It’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t have to be firing on all cylinders 100% of the time in order to be a highly effective teacher. We need to find sustainable solutions so that we can show up every day and have a lasting impact on our students and colleagues over the course of a sustainable and satisfying career.