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Virginia Journal of Education


Finding Balance

Two Falls Church teachers offer some advice for slowing down the teaching treadmill.

by Mary Jo West and Bridget Dean-Pratt

It was at a department luncheon at a colleague’s house on a professional day that my husband actually understood, for the first time, the plight of time management for public school teachers. He watched, stunned, as all of us teachers inhaled our food in record time.  “Now I understand why I can’t keep up with you at meals!” he exclaimed. Little did he understand that my colleagues and I routinely vacuumed our lunch while reading e-mails at our desks: Our lunch times were about 20 minutes long and revolved around cramming in as many tasks as possible. The more we accomplished then, the less we took home at night. We were multitasking masters! Our time management skills were definitely at work!  Wait—were they?

Teachers’ days are full of stress, with items such as impending SOL tests, AP/IB exams, ever-visible online grade books, email responses and AYP benchmarks hanging over our heads. We’re used to cramming more into our work day than reasonable humans do, believing that we’re accomplishing more, and subscribing to the madness that more is always better.  After some reflection, we’ve begun to consider that perhaps it’s possible that our frenetic need to squeeze out multiple details in every minute/hour/day/week may actually prove counter to our goals as educators. Is it possible that “vacuuming” food only shows us that we’ve been internalizing the pressurized school climate as a coping strategy, which seems to nourish but ultimately victimizes? We began to wonder if this hyper-speed approach is really working for us or against us. Clearly, if our mental health and well-being are at stake, it’s time to reevaluate—not only for ourselves, but for our students. 
What price are we paying as teachers for a stress-laden, chaotic, unmanageable work load? Can we afford to continue burdening ourselves intellectually and emotionally and affecting our students in unhealthy ways? Is it possible to change the teacher mindset? Are we cheating our students by not balancing teaching-related tasks with personal and creative time? Is this internal sense of responsibility over-developed or misguided?

If we make it a point to observe what we do every day, we can see we have already prioritized. But are these the priorities that keep us—and our love of teaching—alive? Wouldn’t we better suit our students’ needs by providing good examples of healthy adults who are calm and focused critical thinkers and problem-solvers rather than frantic victims on some kind of hyper-drive?

As experienced teachers, we know that our years of practice have provided a wealth of plans and strategies that should offer significant time savings, yet we still fall back on the habit of chaotic multi-tasking. We are also accomplished planners; we make to-do lists, lesson plans, organizational and seating charts, portfolios, handouts, flashcards, enrichment activities and more, but still feel time management pressure. Is there a more sane approach?

Our big question:  What’s really zapping our time? 

Our research: By mapping out our schedules in daily increments of 30 minutes for two weeks, we were able to pull together and analyze data in the following categories:  classroom teaching time, prep time (all teaching-related tasks), personal time (family time, errands, sleep) and creative play.

The results (drum roll please):  12 hours of weekday waking-hours were dedicated to teaching-related tasks and teaching, 2 hours to personal time, 1 hour to commuting and the remaining one hour (or less) to creative play such as exercise, choice reading, recreation and fun. 
The results were evidence of an imbalance that demanded remedy. To fix it, our next step was to understand what we affectionately label “Time Zappers” and dissolve them.   

Once we set priorities, we must know ourselves in order to accomplish them. When are our high and low levels of energy during the day? How can we maximize the high energy levels?  We begin by frontloading the most demanding workload at that time.
It sometime seems that the harder we work, the longer it takes. As Parkinson wrote in The Economist so adeptly in 1955, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” And with that came the understanding that the amount of time you have to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete it. To stop this time zapper, we set boundaries to improve efficiency and accuracy. For example, if we have 35 papers to grade, we block off one-hour increments to grade 15 or 20 papers. By sticking to the deadline, we continually remained focused on the goal. The focus shifted from multi-tasking to a more single-minded, “one thing at a time” mindset. 

Buddhism speaks of the concept of “monkey mind”: One random thought leads to another and another and another. It’s been estimated that when you’re disrupted at your creative best, it takes about 20 minutes to recover your creative thought process. We found that disruptions account for as much as two hours a day of wasted time! Our solution is to eliminate distractions, which include unexpected visits from colleagues and students, phone calls and the need to surf school e-mail for the third time about that faculty meeting agenda. 

Resolution: Block out a solid hour of prep time or high energy before or after school, and literally relocate to the most conducive location for productivity. Make your focus accomplishment with intention and accuracy. We touch each paper once and we keep focus on set goals. Efficiency increases since focus is no longer splintered among myriad tasks. Where we had been multi-tasking, overwhelmed and stressed previously, we found it made a difference to focus on one particular project at a time, one thought at a time, one paper at a time. As a result, we become more rational, goal-driven and methodical. Instead of making long lists of tasks, we organize them into projects.  Rather than thinking microscopically about tasks, we begin to look at our blocked-off work time macroscopically, as projects.   Previously long to-do lists are shortened into project blocks. When we accomplish a solid block of focused work, we can reward ourselves with a walk to the office, a chat with a colleague or a cup of coffee. The best part of this new way of prioritizing is that we can usually leave our classrooms at 5:30 p.m. and reclaim some time for highly necessary renewal in the evenings. 

TIME ZAPPER TWO: The Perfectionism Trap
We have a hard time knowing, as Kenny Rogers would say, “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.” Teachers seem prone to perfectionism. We expect the very best from our students and demand the very best from ourselves. There’s no doubt that we want our assignments and our teaching to be exceptional. When we finally get that “perfect” lesson plan and all its materials lined up, we can hit that adrenaline high when our students are excited and actively involved in learning. It’s what makes our days worthwhile. But how much time does this require and when is it counterproductive?
There was a time, as younger teachers, when we felt compelled to complete tasks that students can actually do themselves to learn organization and other skills. A wise mentor once said, “Never do anything for a student that he can do for himself.” Simply put, why enable helplessness? Do you really need to write each child’s name on each of the folders? No, they can and should do it themselves.

Resolution: One tactic is to go through your daily course work and ask, “What can the students do to take ownership of their own learning process?” Assign student helpers and rotate responsibilities. Allow students to become active; they can self-grade, peer-edit or peer-grade when appropriate. This not only saves time, but also has the benefit of teaching students to actively learn to “fish” instead of doing all the fishing yourself, then offering them your “catch,” unwittingly making them passive receivers. Try not to underestimate your students; empower them. Now, the results may not be perfect, or the way you would have done it, but in the process of collecting their own homework or passing out their own materials or making bulletin boards, they have learned a great deal about management and organization.

More sage words of advice that have come our way: “Choose wisely. Decide to which of your tasks you are going to give 100 percent.” It’s our nature to expect 100 percent from ourselves on everything we do, but can we realize when we are actually outsmarting ourselves? Nearly half of all teachers quit during their first five years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The teacher dropout rate is higher than the student dropout rate. There are probably a myriad of reasons for this, but some of us simply over commit. We are overcommitted not only to activities, but to making sure that in everything we do we give 100 percent. That’s an unrealistic expectation that can cause us to lose control over the sensible balance needed to be a productive and motivated teacher. Sometimes good is good enough. The truth is we can’t accomplish every single thing we want, so knowing when to “fold’em” is a skill that comes with experience.

 As Kenny Rogers also sang, “Know when to walk away and know when to run.” We often pride ourselves on our dedication to being involved, so to feel desired and accepted we continually say, “Yes, I can do that.” Then, as we stay up late at night or we realize we aren’t as prepared for that class as we should be, we realize that saying “yes” isn’t the best choice. Of course, we can’t take on every responsibility we are asked to do. It’s difficult to learn to say “no” and cut out nonessential tasks. Some wording to remember:  “I’d love to help, but I’m already overextended,” or “I’m already committed and couldn’t give this my best.” People will respect you more if you stand up for priorities. Guard your time wisely.

From Imbalance to Balance: Our Realignment
How will we transform ourselves from teachers who are stressed, working long hours and continuously feeling overwhelmed, to teachers who are clear-thinking, calm and focused, not to mention, (dare we say) happy? Students will benefit most from a teacher who is a role model for his/her love of teaching with a clear responsibility for obtaining personal balance. 

1. Block a schedule and zap distractions, keeping a general workday to a maximum of 10 hours.  There are exceptions every week, but by being methodical, goal-driven and single-minded, we eliminate hours of wasted time.  Do we still eat our lunch at our computers?  Yes, but we have increased productivity by prioritizing time with single-minded focus on project driven-tasks. Recreation, time for new ideas and creative play is now more possible!

2. Pitching perfectionism in every single area can free up some time. Empowering students significantly contributes to class collaboration as well as reduction in workload, and we find that we begin to learn how to walk away from saying, “yes” to new initiatives that do not foster set goals. 

3. Schedule renewal time for 30–60 minutes a day. This is crucial to reviving teaching spirits.  Relax, regenerate and invigorate is our new motto! We gain guilt-free time to read favorite books and get together with friends, not to mention healing gym time to take care of our emotional and physical selves.
Conclusion: Changing the Teacher Mindset
We become teachers because we have a natural sense of curiosity and we love exploring ideas and issues that have local and global significance. We want to make a difference one child at a time. All of us understand the importance of intellectual, physical and emotional balance to achieve personal well-being, but often we sacrifice qualities that build that balance. Whether we believe the teaching profession demands this of us or it’s what our school cultures tell us, we have to change the teacher mindset. True time management for educators involves cultivating and nurturing a love of learning and setting any necessary boundaries to ensure we do not fall victim to counterproductive habits.  

Take some time to reflect. Assess your strengths and limitations, and how your time can be better used to support your teaching and personal development. Students need educators who exhibit hopefulness and a love of lifelong learning, not educators who are frustrated and burned-out. Bring your life back into focus. Take time to stimulate your own creative play, even if at times it may compromise your perceived responsibilities. It is good teaching practice if students get their papers back thoughtfully graded a day late from a refreshed teacher who radiates understanding and compassion, rather than a compromised grade from an overwrought teacher. We must begin to work to maintain equilibrium and balance as a positive climate for stimulating our own and our students’ imaginations. Taking time for reflection and creative play will change our mindset. 

After all, it’s not just about you. Make it a win-win solution, for your students and for you. 

West and Dean-Pratt are both members of the Fairfax Education Association and National Board Certified Teachers.



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