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How to be a GREAT teacher – and only work 40 hours a week

I’m not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way society trained us all to think that to be a great teacher you had to work 60+ hours a week. I’ve been there. I’ve believed that this is what it would take for me to be the great teacher I always wanted to be – the teacher that students loved, parents respected, and coworkers/admin awarded the coveted “Teacher of the Year” status.

But long before I won Teacher of the Year myself, I realized that I would never last in this profession if I kept going at the rate I was going. I wasn’t winning any awards by being the last car in the school parking lot. I wasn’t gaining anything, other than a wonderful relationship with our janitorial staff, from being holed up in my classroom after dark prepping labs. And I DEFINITELY was not benefitting in my personal life from bringing stacks of papers home to grade rather than spending time with the people I love.

I really didn’t believe though that I could actually do my job and only work 40 hours a week. I couldn’t fathom what would have to give in order to make this kind of work/life balance possible. But before I figured out the “how” I knew I needed to clarify the “why”. Here are a few “whys” I came up with:

  • I want to work to live, not live to work. My life is about so much more than my job.
  • I want to change students’ lives. If I keep up this current pace, I won’t be able to impact very many students because I won’t last.
  • I want to practice what I preach. I tell my students all the time how they need to rest, unplug, and not be running 100 mph 24/7. I need to model this for them.
  • I don’t want my family to get my leftovers. I want to have the energy to give them the best of me.
  • If I do recharge while I am home and not working, then I will truly be rested and re-energized to pour into my students more when I am at work.

These desires for my life became my whys that motivated me to figure out the HOW. What are some of your whys? I urge you to take a minute and consider them.

Now, how was I going to actually do this? How COULD I be the great teacher I desired to be and only work 40 hours a week? After much reflection, trial, and error, I found that it came down to doing three things: defining my finish line, creating a roadmap, and establishing guardrails.

1. Define the finish line.

I was running so fast that I often had no idea where the finish line was. Are you like me? Are you wheels constantly spinning that you oftentimes lose sight of what you really care about most?

Consider what your goals are. What type of teacher do you want to be? What do you want to be remembered for when you are no longer here, both inside the classroom AND out? What types of things are most important to you?

Who do you want your students to be when they leave your classroom? What skills or life lessons do you hope to teach them? What do you most hope to imprint onto them during the time that they are in your class?

Maybe there are more quantifiable goals you are running towards, like a certain EOC pass rate, or getting to the place where you are given the AP class you’ve always wanted to teach. It doesn’t matter what your goals are, as long as you figure out what matters most to you. Then, just write them down. Define the finish line so you know where you are heading.

Then go through and prioritize each target on your list. Try to have only 5 so that the list doesn’t feel overwhelming. Then, put your targets in the order that you want to put the majority of your energy towards. This will be especially helpful for the next two steps.

2. Create your roadmap.

Now that the finish line is defined and we know where we are heading in order to be who we want to be, it is time to create roadmaps that will guide you towards your finish line. Your roadmap will be systems that you put into place to progress towards the finish line.

Start with your #1 goal, as this should be the most important to you. Make a list of systems you will need to establish in order to reach the finish line. Make sure they match. If your #1 goal is to spend more time with your family, then you NEED systems that make THAT happen. Your roadmap must lead you to your finish line. I wanted to work 40 hours a week above all else. I knew that if I did that, it would give me the work/life balance I desperately needed. So I set up systems for that to happen – systems to decrease my time lesson planning, prepping labs, grading, and communicating with parents, to name a few.

If your #1 goal is to have a 90% pass rate on the EOC, then you need systems specifically for achieving that. A system is simply an organized framework for accomplishing something. By establishing a system, you can set a path for accomplishing everything you hope to accomplish.

Best of all, once a system is established, it saves you time the more you use it. The more systems you have, the more time you can save, making it possible to reach that 40-hour workweek goal. I truly don’t believe you can ever have too many systems. I believe this so much, that I wrote an entire course on the practical systems and strategies I used in my own classroom to simplify my workload and decrease the hours I was working overtime. If interested in learning more, check out Secondary Science Simplified™️ here.)

This will require some give and take. You will have to sacrifice in some areas to gain in others. For example, if one of my top priorities was not bringing work home to grade, I personally had to commit to never checking my phone during work hours or socializing during lunch or planning. This freed up the time I needed to keep up with my grading. I also had to be more strategic about what I collected to grade since I purposefully chose to grade way less so that I would spend less time grading. This is why ranking your goals is so important so that when tough decisions arise, you know where to give based on your own finish line you are running towards.

Lastly, we need to make sure to account for any possible distractions. You do that by setting up guardrails.

3. Establish your guardrails.

Guardrails are put on highways to form a safety barrier for people who steer off the pathway. Just like for cars on the highway, you and I NEED guardrails to protect us when we steer off our own paths towards our finish lines. What does establishing guardrails look like practically? Here are some of my guardrails:

  • I only check email 2x a day.
  • I don’t have email on my phone.
  • I don’t bring my work computer home.
  • I plan for at least one day a quarter to catch up, when needed.

Now again, these are specific to ME and MY finish line. These may not be best for you. But I want to give you some ideas to consider. Set some boundaries that will serve as your guardrails. This will serve to protect you and ultimately, your students! Remember, you can’t be the best version of yourself if you are completely overworked and exhausted. Actually having work/life balance WILL result in you being a better teacher.

How do I know this so confidently? Because I have lived it out. The year I won Teacher of the Year, and honor I am still incredibly humbled by, I had 5 preps (one of which was AP bio for the first time) and was still only working 40 hours a week. It is possible to achieve your goals in this profession and still have a life outside of it. I am living proof.

I sincerely hope these words encourage you and empower you. That is my goal – to show you that there IS another way to do this job, and still do it well. You are a great teacher – and you can STILL be a great teacher and reclaim your weekends. Do you have a teacher friend who needs to hear this? Share this post with them! I am rooting for you all, always!

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