068: Confronting Teacher Exhaustion with Angela Watson



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Have you ever sent your administrator an e-mail very late at night? Very, very late?

It's probably not a good idea. But I did it. 

It was a crazy week. A week in which I kept missing appointments at school because of other things I was supposed to be doing - at school. No matter what I did, I lost. People were annoyed at me even when I rushed and squeezed and lost whatever free minutes I was supposed to have. Coaching conflicted with teaching. Meetings conflicted with other meetings. Meals conflicted with all the work I needed to do. I was starting to lose my cool. 

Then came the day. Kind of like Alexander's No Good Very Bad Day.  After a full morning of classes, I dashed to a lunch meeting with two advisees, then arrived late to a special (required) lunch meeting for my honors portfolio students, then rushed to prep and teach my afternoon classes. I coached a long tennis practice, attended a work dinner, and finally headed for evening dorm duty at my boarding school. There were about twenty-five unscheduled minutes in my day between eight a.m. and eleven at night. 

Guess what I did at 11:30? When I still hadn't planned my next day of lessons or graded anything or, you know, attended to any of my own needs?  

You guessed it. I unleashed the wrath. In an e-mail. To my assistant head of school. 

I think we can all agree this kind of schedule is not the healthiest for anyone. It doesn't lead to the best work, the most balanced life, the most patient teacher. But it can be really hard to break out of the cycle of busy. 

I liken it to my sleep-deprived days as a new mom. I couldn't figure out how to get my tiny boy to sleep at any regular times. So I hung out with him all night. I crunched salty Cheez-its and watched Glee while I cuddled him at two in the morning. I rocked his yellow cradle next to the oven fan at four in the morning because it lulled him to sleep, then woke up sprawled on the tiles of my kitchen floor. I took him on three hour walks so he could take long naps after breakfast, black circles under my eyes beneath my oversized sunglasses. I had no idea what I was doing, and I was too busy and sleep-deprived to figure out a better way. 

But newborns get older. Teaching never becomes less demanding. 

That's why I'm grateful for the work of Angela Watson. For many years, she's called for a different approach to this fast-paced career of teaching. She's been a pioneer in the field of teacher self-development, offering strategies for improving productivity and making more intentional choices to thrive as a balanced teacher. 



I've followed along with Angela's work for a long time, and this is the second time I've invited her on as a guest on the podcast. Because exhaustion seems to be the biggest problem in the teaching profession, and fighting back against it is not something I ever really learned as a teacher. These days, Angela's the one I turn to for ideas about this. When I'm drinking a mojito with a stressed-out teacher friend, I'm likely to bring up Angela's work, and my husband might be tiring of my tirades about how every school should provide their teachers with access to Angela's 40 Hour Workweek Club as an automatic PD option. 

If you've ever wondered how you to sustain your work as a creative teacher and still have something left at the end of the day for yourself, getting to know Angela and all she has to offer just might be a turning point for you. 

Today on the podcast, we're talking about Angela's new book, Fewer Things, Better, as well as her online course, The 40 Hour Workweek club. 

By the way, wondering about that email I sent? Well, it led to a rather intense meeting and a somewhat helpful change in my schedule. For one spring. Then it was back to the same old rush and crush. My last night as a classroom teacher ended when I helped my journalism students wrap up the December edition of our school paper just before midnight. Two hours later I went into labor.

So let's talk about teacher busy, teacher guilt, and teacher exhaustion. Now I know it didn't have to be that way for me, and it doesn't have to be that way for you. 

You can listen below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher. Or, read on for the written highlights. 



Let’s dive into some of the big ideas in the book. It’s so easy to be stuck in a cycle where your life is far busier and more stressful than you planned, but there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. And there’s seemingly never any TIME to think through the alternatives or come up with a plan to change your priorities. This book, it seems to me, shows how to get unstuck from that cycle. Let’s talk about why self-development matters as much or more than professional development for teachers. 

It's really easy to buy into the narrative that it's all about the kids. But who you are as a person influences your teaching so much. If you're sick or sleep-deprived, it really affects your teaching. If you take time to do things you enjoy on the weekend, you will teach differently than if you graded papers all weekend. 

Start to notice how your habits affect the way you show up in your classroom. What are the thoughts and internal monologues and actions that make teaching go better? What are the thoughts and choices that make it harder? If you stay up until two in the morning searching for interventions to help with your students, do you end up teaching more effectively the next day than if you had gone to bed? 

One of the important concepts you present at the beginning of this book, in your own words, is “You must be willing to believe that change is possible for you, and that you are worthy of having a more fulfilling, balanced life. “ Let’s talk about this seemingly simple, actually very difficult concept.

Often, people don't believe it's possible to do a good job for the kids in a reasonable amount of hours. 

Teachers get a tough message when they start out, that they'll never have good working conditions, never have enough time to do the job well, never have the resources they need. This is just what you're signing up for when you choose teaching. 

Sadly, teachers are basically told they should get corporate jobs if you want to be taken care of, but they should stay in teaching and deal with all the difficulties if they care about kids. Angela really wants to counter that and tell teachers that they deserve better conditions. 

I think my favorite piece of advice in the book is, “Withdraw from the contest for most dedicated teacher in the most difficult teaching job ever.” It struck me because I’ve seen it so much, even between teachers who know and value each other. What are some steps teachers can start with to begin separating their identities from this idea that they have a responsibility to live as martyrs for the sake of their students?

Start looking for thought patterns that you have. Take notice of whether you have a deficit mindset - are you looking for what kids don't have? How their parents aren't parenting how you think they should? Do you feel like you have to SAVE kids? 

You may feel like you have to singlehandedly teach them how to be successful adults in just the few hours a week that you actually see them, which is just way too much for anyone. You're not there to save them, you're there to support them. This really takes the pressure off, when you help them to be the heroes of their own stories.  

I like the way you debunk the myth that more hours automatically means you are more effective. What are some ways secondary teachers can cut the hours that aren’t really making a difference? 

Many different workplaces suffer from the illusion that "putting in the hours" means people are doing a better job. But it really has to do with what you're spending those hours focusing on. 

The two most important things for secondary teachers to consider are:
  • stop reinventing the wheel with lesson plans
  • stop grading so much 
For lesson planning, try to develop a toolkit of successful strategies rather than always going for novelty. There's nothing wrong with finding new ideas and keeping things fresh, but if you're consistently spending hours a night coming up with brand new approaches to teaching, you could try to keep things fresh in the classroom in other ways, so you have time to develop some other passions and spend your time on yourself sometimes outside of school.

You also do not need to be grading something each day or grading every single thing. There are a lot of different ways to get investment from students without doing so much grading. There are effective ways to teach that are very time-consuming, and there are effective ways of teaching that aren't. Keep experimenting! See how it goes. When you can open yourself up to trying different things, then you can discover new possibilities. 

Throughout the book, one of the big themes is choice - how important it is for teachers to realize how many choices they have, and to identify where they are making choices that aren’t working for them. Let’s talk about how identifying your own choices can change your life as a teacher. 

Choice is a big thing. When you feel like you don't have any options, you feel disempowered. It can cause you to lose your passion for the work. Often if you can identify what your administrators want you to accomplish, you can figure out a different, more efficient way to achieve the goal you've been given. You can do action research and be innovative, if you can present that in a constructive way to your administration. You can also ask for changes to what you've been told to do, either on your own or as part of a team. 

So I’d highly recommend that all teachers pick up your book, but they can also take it a step further. You’ve given me permission to partner with you in sharing the 40 Hour Workweek Club this year as an affiliate, and I’m really excited about that. Because I have repeatedly seen that overwork and exhaustion are the #1 things getting in the way of a joyful life as a creative teacher. And the 40 Hour Workweek Club can change that. Please tell us about the club. 

The club has been used in over 23,000 schools at this point. It helps teachers be more intentional with their time - their instructional time, their planning time, and their personal time. 

It helps teachers shave hours off their workweek, and helps them become more effective at their jobs. The average teacher cuts 11 hours off their workweek, and the vast majority of them say they feel like a better teacher after they do that, which is so amazing.


It's a year-long program, to offer different types of support at different times of the year. There's a month on grading and assessment, a month on lesson planning, a big focus on setting up a smoothly running classroom at the beginning of the year, and more. 

Teachers can access the club materials through the course site, through the weekly email, or via audio training. There are separate Facebook groups for primary and secondary teachers to support one another and get help as they go through the club. 

Click here to learn more about The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. The July Cohort begins soon. 









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