For the first 5 or 6 years of my teaching career, I worked all the time. I guess I’d just come to accept that a never-ending teacher workload was part of the job. After all, we did get summers off.
I worked nights. I worked weekends. Once I pulled an all-nighter so I could get my grades in on time. There was always a big pile of paperwork and a looming deadline. Grade that pile of essays. Enter the homework into the grade book. Call that parent again. Submit my lesson plans two weeks out.
I kept telling myself, “I just have to meet this one deadline. Then, I can relax.” But deep down, I knew I was already behind on the next one.
But even before my first decade in the classroom, I was starting to burn out. I knew I couldn’t keep up this pace for an entire career.
Keep in mind, all of this was before COVID-19 and online learning. Today, teachers are being asked to do even more. Redesign the learning experience overnight. Keep teaching your current classes. All while taking care of your own children, and fielding help requests from parents and students, 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week.
Why Teacher Workload Matters
Anyone who cares about education should be concerned with teacher workload.
According to Primary Sources (a study conducted by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation), the average teacher works 53 hours a week. Another study found that 78% of teachers feel they don’t have enough planning time to properly address Common Core standards.
Almost half of teachers report stress levels high enough to interfere with their health, their sleep, and the quality of their work.
Aside from concern over teachers themselves, teacher workload presents a problem for our entire education system. Research shows that when teachers don’t have time to plan properly, or are too stressed to be their best, children suffer.
These high levels of stress also contribute to teacher turnover. Roughly one-third of educators leave the classroom after one year. This means more students learning from novice teachers. And real financial costs. Urban districts spend an average of $20,000 to onboard each new hire. Even medium-sized districts, this can add up to millions of tax dollars per year.
When Did The Teacher Workload Get So Heavy?
There is a simple reason why teacher workloads have become so overwhelming: we expect more from teachers than we used to.
And while the mandates have increased, little has changed in terms of the support and resources we provide teachers. In a traditional classroom, a teacher was expected to play two roles: present content, and determine who had learned it.
Of course, there were many great teachers who inspired and connected with their students. But it wasn’t a requirement of the job.
For today’s teachers, the bar has risen. We are expected to meet each student’s unique academic and social-emotional needs. Make learning exciting. Analyze data. Integrate technology. The list goes on.
These are certainly admirable goals. And they do improve the student experience. But we can’t just ask educators to do these things in addition to everything they were already doing.
In essence, there are only two ways to improve outcomes. One way is to increase available resources (time, staff, money, technology, etc). The other is to more efficiently use the resources that are already available.
As the expectations of teachers have risen, can anyone really claim that school systems have done either?
Is Teacher Burnout Avoidable?
Back when I started to feel burned-out, I actually considered leaving the profession. But I also considered whether my grueling schedule was the only way to be a good teacher. Was I using my time efficiently? Did I need to do so much grading? Was all this work actually helping my students learn?
Eventually, I made a conscious decision to maintain a better work-life balance. I stopped taking work home. I took off weekends. And I committed to working only one night per week.
And you know what? My students didn’t suffer. In fact, they thrived. They enjoyed my class more, and they were learning more to boot.
I truly believe that addressing my burnout made me a better teacher. Lowering my stress allowed me to be fully present for my students. I was able to think more creatively about my lessons and bring more fun into the classroom.
Too many educators are currently managing a workload that is untenable and unproductive. In some cases, this is due to unreasonable expectations from parents and administrators. In other cases, like mine, it’s a self-imposed burden.
The good news is that, with creative planning, even the most challenging teacher workload can be managed.
Five Ways to Manage The Teacher Workload
In theory, teachers can meet demanding expectations without running ourselves ragged. We can address challenging standards. We can provide engaging instruction and meet the needs of diverse learners. And we can even support our students’ social-emotional growth.
But doing so demands that we think differently about effective teaching. It means eliminating practices that don’t produce results. It means delegating responsibilities to students. And it means using technology to automate repetitive tasks.
Of course, each step toward reducing our workload is a process. And we can’t expect to get magical results without doing any work.
But here are some simple steps that will help you do more, by doing less.
1. Assign Less Work
Whatever we put into the world eventually comes back to us. Nowhere is this eternal law more true than in the classroom.
Early in my teaching career, I wanted keep my students busy. Papers, problem sets, homework, classwork, projects, quizzes, tests. I figured that the more work I gave, the less trouble they’d get into.
But I didn’t consider that I was outnumbered twenty-five to one. Eventually, I realized that everything I assigned ended up back on my desk.
Less is more. Assign work that will provide a valuable learning experience. Not because there’s an empty space on the homework schedule.
And not all work needs to be graded. We should only provide feedback when it meets two conditions: the feedback will help students improve, and grading it will help us better understand our students learning needs.
2. Automate Grading
One multiple choice question doesn’t tell us much about a student’s understanding. But many many multiple choice questions do.
When students answer enough of the right type of questions, we can create a learning profile that helps us to differentiate instruction. But this requires technology that asks the right questions and saves students’ responses.
More importantly, the technology needs to aggregate the data. Humans do a poor job of processing large amounts of information. But the right technology can organize that information in a way that makes sense to us. Particularly with graphs or other visualizations.
This is why I never grade multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions by hand. It takes too long, and it’s impossible to make use of the information. I can add it all up and figure out that one student got 80% right and another got 95%. I could find out that the class average is 88%.
When I use a google form, it shows me what percentage of students got each question right. This level of detail is much more effective for formative assessment.
Adaptive platforms like IXL or NoRedInk are even more efficient. The software can organize information by student, by class, or by standard. Without assigning any questions or looking at individual questions, I can quickly review the dashboard and make better instructional decisions. I can tell if my class needs more practice with nouns, or if three students need a small group lesson on adding fractions.
3. Stop Lesson Planning, and Start Unit Planning
When I started teaching, I was told to “always plan two weeks out.” It was a real headache at first. But I came to appreciate the value of looking ahead.
One year, my department chair came to me a week before school. He wanted to see and overview of my plans for the entire year. “Nothing detailed, just the broad strokes.”
“Is he crazy!?” I thought. “I finally got used to two weeks out. How am I supposed to know what I’ll be teaching in May?”
As stressful as it was, I learned as much in that one week as any other in my career.
My weekly lesson planning that year was a breeze. Before I created yearly plans, I was focused on getting through each week. “What am I going to do in my 4th period class on Wednesday.” But once I started making yearly and unit plans, I could focus on where my students needed to “get to,” instead of what I needed to “get through.”
The key is to think broadly about your goals for the year. Then, break the larger goals into units, and decide how many days you have for each. I divide my year into roughly ten units, with fifteen to twenty-five days in each.
If you know your content well, you can create a yearly overview in about an hour. And unless you’re making big changes, each unit overview will take a similar amount of time.
Spending a few hours on long-range planning can save you countless hours over the course of the school year. If you’re not comfortable making yearly plans on your own, working with a coach or attending a curriculum design workshop can help you get started.
Someone once told me I should never do anything for my students that they can do for themselves.
Until I heard this, I never realized how often my students were reverse-delegating their responsibilities to me. Handing out papers, sharpening pencils, typing up notes and study guides. If your students ever email you to ask what the homework is, you know what I’m talking about.
This is ‘death by a thousand cuts’ when it comes to time management.
Every time I caught myself doing something that my students could do, I stopped. I began assigning class jobs. One student was responsible for stocking the “student center” with paper, sharpened pencils, and so on. Someone else posted homework assignments in google classroom. Another managed the laptop cart or helped rearrange our desks based on where I needed them for that day’s lesson.
Eventually, my students began making their own vocabulary lists, study guides, and even teaching some lessons. All of which saved me countless hours over the years. It’s also helped with classroom management and student engagement.
Before completing a task, ask yourself, “Am I the only one who can do this?” If the answer is no, hand it off.
When teachers take on too much responsibility, everyone suffers. We have less time for the things that only we can do. And students start to feel like passive participants in our classroom, instead of active agents in their classroom.
As a result, they are less motivated. And they won’t develop the responsibility they will need to be successful in school and in life.
5. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
“I make all my own materials,”
— me, circa 2012.
Recently, I worked with a teacher who wanted an engaging way to teach fraction operations. I handed him a complete lesson plan on number sentence proofs. It even had handouts, keys, and rubrics. All he needed to do was show up and teach.
“I like it,” he said. “But I don’t give my students anything that I didn’t make myself.”
I understood how he felt. When I was a young teacher, making all my own materials was a badge of honor. But it was a disaster in terms of time management.
It’s important to strike a balance. We all know teachers who teach every lesson straight from the textbook. Or pass out worksheets they haven’t even looked at.
But that doesn’t mean we need to make every material from scratch. Even the most creative, caring teachers use materials they didn’t make. Imagine if every baker had to grow their own ingredients, and every carpenter had to make their own tools.
Across the country, thousands of teachers are teaching the same lesson that you’ll be teaching tomorrow. There may even be teachers in your school teaching the same subject and grade level.
Take the time to connect with other educators. Those you trust and who have a similar philosophy. By carefully curating someone else’s lesson plans and materials, you can free up your prep time to do the things that only you can do for your students.
How School Leaders Can Help with Teacher Workload
When it comes to managing workloads, teachers can’t do it alone. School leaders need to consider systemic changes that will allow teachers to give their best to their students.
Many school leaders have told me their teachers need to “work on time management.” But these same school leaders require their teachers to submit lesson plans, maintain data binders, assign homework, and grade ‘exit tickets.’
Teachers can only manage their time insofar as they have the freedom to set priorities. It’s easy for teachers to spend all of their prep time completing meaningless paperwork and fulfilling mandates that don’t actually help students.
Schools should carefully review all of their teaching mandates. Unless a policy has a measurable impact on student learning, let teachers decide how their time can best be spent to support their students.
Lighten Your Teacher Workload
The first step to meaningful growth is reflection. By thinking carefully about our teaching practices, we begin taking ownership of our own professional growth.
Start by completing our free Guide to Reflective Teaching. It includes self-assessments, planning guides, and other helpful resources. Completing the guide will help ensure that you can manage your teaching workload and still give you best to your students.
Next, register for an upcoming online workshop. Our session on Classroom Management and Motivation will help you save time by getting your students to take ownership. If you are an instructional coach (or would like to be one), our Transformative Coaching Workshop will help you support other teachers reach their goals.
Or, if you’d prefer to connect one-on-one with an expert educator who can help you manage your workload, schedule your free consultation today.
Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff