I’m at the National Conference on Differentiated Instruction, and I just attended a session by Dave Stuart Jr. that just might change my life. The session was on developing a growth mindset, both for students and for ourselves, but a lot of the tips that moved me most had to do with managing our own time as teachers. One of his main points was that, after we’ve created a work schedule for ourselves, we need to learn to quit at the quitting time we’ve designed for ourselves.
This immediately made me feel very guilty. Mr. Stuart didn’t call us out for doing this, but I want to admit it to you: I have looked down on my colleagues who leave school at 3:30. I have even participated in gossip sessions where one of my colleagues is criticized for not being sufficiently dedicated based on the evidence that he/she leaves immediately after school each day. I would always say something like, “Well, the union guy in me admires their ability to work the contract hours, but the teacher in me doesn’t know how they do it.” Then I would raise my eyebrows meaningfully, roll my eyes, and strain the tendons in my neck in an expression of worry for the teacher’s quality.
I was wrong. I was wrong to do that, and I was wrong to not call out that kind of gossip when it was happening. Because leaving school when school ends is not, in itself, evidence of a lack dedication to the profession. It may just be a sign that the teacher is efficient and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. By accepting the myth of the martyr teacher, I am not only doing a disservice to my colleague, but I’m preventing myself from learning how she/he maintains that work-life balance so I can learn to emulate their skill. Furthermore, every time I didn’t call out that attitude, I was contributing negatively to our school culture by incentivizing spending (and often wasting) time while disincentivizing learning about efficiency and better practice.
I was wrong, and I apologize.
During the Q&A at the end of the session, I asked Mr. Stuart about how I could participate in creating a culture that values efficiency and work-life balance rather than martyrdom. He acknowledged that there are teachers out there who should be planning tomorrow’s lesson instead of leaving early and others who are staying all evening and still not producing more impressive results than some teachers who leave at the end of the day. One of the teachers in the audience said: “Praise the results, not the process, and then people will emulate the process.” We all agreed that was the best, most succinct advice.
Mr. Stuart then used the analogy of a wartime medic. He recognized that, in many cases, the stakes for our students are almost as high. I agree. They may not be in life or death situations, but for so many of my kids, they are on a knife’s edge between having a life where they can flourish and give back to our community, and a life filled with shrinking opportunities haunted by the ghosts of the traumas they’ve already faced. We often are like the medics who are rushing out to treat the wounded. But, Mr. Stuart pointed out, we are professionals, not martyrs. The goal of a medic in a war situation is not to sacrifice herself/himself on the battlefield, it’s to save a life and stay alive to save another. I think I can contribute to that healthier attitude by changing my own mindset. I’ve always admired some of my colleagues who put in incredible numbers of hours. Heck, our Danielson evaluation framework even has language which moves a teacher from “Professional” to “Distinguished” based on outside-of-school investments of time. That’s wrong. I should be looking at what those colleagues of mine do in their classrooms for their students, not trying to compete with them to spend the most hours in my room after the students have left, and our evaluation system should honor distinguished teachers who manage to do the best work for their students during the day more highly than people who are less efficient.
So, this next school year, while I work to manage my time more efficiently, to learn to practice some “intentional neglect” of the elements of my work life that don’t benefit my students, to “satisfice” the parts that were taking up far more of my time than they warranted, and to prioritize a healthy work-life balance, I pledge not to look down my nose at anyone who is leaving the building at 3:30. Instead, I’m going to try to learn how they are doing that. Furthermore, I pledge not to let anyone criticise one of my colleagues for leaving on time without pushing back and encouraging us all to learn from that teacher who may have figured something out. I firmly believe my students will not suffer if I learn to serve them more efficiently, and maybe I’ll last long enough to teach a few thousand more of them as a consequence.