I have been a classroom teacher for 30 years, and I have loved every one of them. But none of them have been easy.
I’m one of those people who always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I heard a calling early in life and never doubted it. When I was a teenager, my church looked for volunteers to take care of young children in the church basement during services. I eagerly signed up. I wanted to be there every week, helping pass out the tiny cups of apple juice and graham crackers for a snack. Guiding little hands as they reached for fat crayons to draw colorful pictures or leading children in storytime or sing-alongs. I loved every minute.
So it wasn’t a surprise when I decided to major in elementary education in college, preparing myself to launch into a long career where I knew I would find success and fulfillment. I was thrilled to set up my first classroom in the early 1990s, a first-grade on the lower east side of Manhattan. I remember the long tables and tiny chairs — the small tubs with newly sharpened pencils and workbooks waiting to be opened for the first time. The children who filled the room taught me how to be a teacher. They showed me what worked and what didn’t work. I learned from them and with them that year.
I also remember the exhaustion that would overwhelm me at the end of each day that no one in my teacher preparation classes told me about. After school, I would walk through the classroom picking up papers and pencils left behind by the kids until one day, a student’s parents (also teachers) stopped by to see me and saw what I was doing. “Oh, no!” they said as they saw the tired look on my face, my hands full of pencils and scraps of paper. “You don’t pick them up. You have the students pick them up before they leave for the day. That’s their job.” I never thought of that. No one ever told me.
There are many things no one told me as I began teaching. Decades later, I am still learning ways to be more efficient in my work. Sometimes it still feels like I am picking up endless amounts of pencils at the end of a day, looking for a better way. The exhaustion that I felt back in my first year of teaching has stayed with me for most of my career.
Teachers are hard-working, dedicated, and generous people, right? So I just assumed exhaustion went with the job. That was until I was introduced to the Truth For Teachers 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club (40HTW).
I remember when I first heard about the program. I was folding laundry on a Saturday morning while listening to a podcast by Angela Watson about time management. She mentioned the program, and I immediately thought, “40 hours? No way! There is no way I could do my job in 40 hours!” But I decided to give the program a try. Not only was I looking for ways to prevent burnout in my job, but I was also looking for teaching strategies to help me survive pandemic teaching, and this program offered both.
I signed up for the full-year course and committed to listening to a part of each monthly module once a week while I did the inevitable family chore of folding laundry. Putting time for it into my schedule helped me commit to the program and thoroughly consider each part. There are many lessons I have taken away from the podcast and the 40HTW program, but here are the ones that have been most valuable for me.
Strategies for using a list-making system, prioritizing tasks, and being efficient during the day
Practically speaking, the 40HTW list-making system helped me learn how to organize and prioritize tasks so I could focus on the most important things I had to get done during the school day. I learned how to batch similar tasks together and decide when the best time of day would be to accomplish them. It helped me look at my day more carefully and plan wisely on how I would use my available time. Therefore, I could achieve more and be less overwhelmed by my to-do list. Learning how to be more efficient with my work during the day meant I could bring less work home. I eventually accomplished the most important tasks between 8:00-4:30 during the week, with weekends free of schoolwork most of the time.
Gr K-12 Stress-Free Report Card Comment System
The report card writing system I learned from the 40 Hour program was a game-changer for me! I cannot describe how much stress it took away from report card writing time. Instead of dreading the task, I actually enjoyed writing report cards about my students because the templates in this resource gave me ideas and a structure to use that alleviated much of the time I was spending trying to create original comments for each student. As a result, I completed the task in half the time! Reflecting on my students’ progress, strengths, and challenges became a manageable task. I learned strategies to help me complete the job efficiently without giving up an entire weekend (or more) to do so.
Gaining a new perspective
The most important thing 40HTW gave me was a new perspective. I came into teaching when it was culturally acceptable for teachers to work all the time. (Some things never change!) The pandemic did not help this because the lines between home and school became so blurred that I felt like I was working all the time.
Giving up nights, weekends, and early mornings was what I did because it was assumed teachers were dedicated people who had to work long, hard hours to get the job done and be effective in their work. 40 Hour helped me challenge that idea, heal from that mentality, and rethink that perspective. It helped me remember that I work under a contract, and I am not obligated to work past my contractual hours. Every hour I give to school after those hours end is my choice. Suddenly I realized I needed to make better choices.
Protecting my time
With this new perspective, I became more careful about how I spent my time and to whom I was giving it. I realized time was like pieces of a pie — there was a limited amount. How much of the pie did I want to give to schoolwork? I slowly began doing things differently and letting go of guilt when things were left incomplete. I realized my time matters. I matter. My health and my time with my family matter.
There are times in your life when you do have to give more — the first few years of teaching, starting a new grade level, or a new school — but overall, teachers have to learn how to set boundaries around how much of their time they are willing and able to devote to schoolwork and put more value on the amount of time they give to their own personal needs. 40 Hour Teacher Workweek helped me be as efficient as possible during my work hours, learning better management systems for my classroom and personal planning time, so I could be an effective teacher while still having more pieces of that pie leftover for me!
As a result, I was able to take classes on topics in education that interested me, and I began a side hustle of writing about what works in education, all of which have made me a better, stronger teacher in the classroom and a happier person overall.
Advocating to be treated as a professional
Another thing I have learned from 40HTW and podcast guests on Truth For Teachers is how important it is to advocate for yourself as a professional — a professional who receives more planning time and less recess duty time. It is so important for teachers to come together and use their shared voices to create the working conditions they need and deserve to make the best learning environment possible for students. Being a part of 40 Hour gave me the skills, motivation, and inspiration from others to do this.
I learned how to stand up for what I believed was right for my students, connect with similar-minded colleagues, and advocate together for what we needed to do our jobs well — like getting the professional development we needed, having more planning time to prepare high-quality learning activities for students, and time during our workday to collaborate with colleagues.
For example, when remote learning wasn’t working for my students, I advocated for having a local university come in to facilitate a PLC to help us develop the outdoor learning program at our school. It ended up being the most rewarding professional development we had all year. By holding a space for educators to come together to learn and support each other, our jobs become more sustainable.
Being a new teacher (or a veteran teacher) is a hard job. Teachers need other teachers to guide them along the way to make this work sustainable in the long run. This benefits teachers, and it also benefits the students we serve every day. I’m so grateful for the support and resources 40HTW has offered me. This kind of support is something every teacher, new or veteran, needs and deserves.
Through this program, I’ve been inspired by other educators committed to creating a positive, child-centered learning environment for students and a sustainable workload for teachers. It does not need to be one or the other. In a post-pandemic world, where most of us are reimaging what education should look like- both are equally important in creating healthy, thriving schools.
By the way, the custodian at my school complimented me the other day on how picked up my room always is at the end of the day.
“There’s never any paper or pencils on the floor in your classroom!” he said in surprise.
“That’s right!” I replied. “The kids do that. I learned that trick from another teacher.”
We need each other. The Truth For Teachers community is a supportive place to learn those tips we all need to be the best educators we can be, so that teaching becomes a sustainable, fulfilling career we all can be proud of.
Alissa Alteri Shea
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