Kim Lepre is a 7th grade English teacher and the founder of the Teachers Need Teachers podcast.
She’s also a Beginning Teacher Mentor and Ed Tech Specialist in her district, and a Level 2 Google Certified Educator.
How has Kim managed to make time for all of that?
She made a significant reduction in her workload during her 13th year of teaching. That’s when she joined The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club.
I’ve invited Kim on the podcast to tell you exactly what she changed in her mindset and habits to allow her to reclaim around 15 hours a week, which she now uses to support other educators, spend time with her family, take care of her physical health by regularly working out, and a number of other activities that really mean a lot to her.
I think you’ll get a lot of practical, actionable advice from Kim!
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ANGELA: I want to start by asking how many hours a week you’re working and what you were working before.
KIM: So before I joined the club, I was working about 62 hours a week. That included my duty day, obviously. Then, after the first year of the club, I trimmed it down to 50. Now, because I’ve still been working on a lot of the different tactics that I learned in the club, I would say I’m down to about 40 to 48 hours, depending on whether or not I have a really big assignment, like an essay.
What grade and subject are you teaching this year?
I’ve been teaching seventh grade English for about seven years, so lots of writing and reading.
That’s exactly what I was going to say because I think the teachers who are most skeptical about the club are English teachers, because they’re like, “I’ve got all these essays. There is no way I could work less than like 80 hours a week.”
Exactly. So, I was amazed that I was able to do that.
Were you skeptical about this concept of reducing your workload before you joined the club? Was there anything that felt like it was going to be impossible to streamline or obstacles that you felt like you weren’t going to be able to work around?
Oh, definitely. I wondered, “What could this program do for me? And was it really worth the investment?” At that point in my career, I had pretty much accepted the fact that teaching had to take up a lot of time outside of my work day. I just thought that was part of being a teacher. My family was really used to seeing me hunched over student papers or staring at my computer. I know this is weird, but I would actually feel guilty if I wasn’t working hard after school because then I thought, you know, if you’re not working these long hours after school, you’re not doing enough. It was almost as if I was wearing this badge of honor, you know, busy as a badge of honor.
And I judged other teachers who walked out after school. I hate to admit this, but I thought they weren’t doing enough, they weren’t working as hard as me, so they probably weren’t getting everything done. I guess I just couldn’t imagine not spending all those hours on planning, and grading, and answering emails, and contacting parents. To me, there was no way that I would be able to trim that. I thought that was just part of being a good teacher. So, I honestly wasn’t sure if the club was going to change anything.
What made you decide to take the leap and decide to try a different approach?
I was starting to feel really guilty about not spending more time with my family, especially my daughter. I didn’t want her prominent memories of her childhood to be of me in front of my computer. Like, “What was your childhood like?” “Oh, Mommy was always on her computer.” It was bad enough when I was getting my master’s. I did it online, and I needed total isolation every weekend so I could get my coursework done. So, I wasn’t able to spend quality time with her. But at least that seemed justified, getting my master’s degree. But then I thought, “You know, there’s got to be another way to get all this school stuff done so that I could spend quality time with my family.”
Then, what was really huge for me was that I started to realize that all of those hours spent weren’t necessarily improving my teaching or the student outcomes. That was really a big one for me. Because I wasn’t seeing the kind of growth in my students’ work that I had envisioned with all that planning and grading. I would slave away at creating these lessons and writing all this feedback on their essays, and here I was working so hard and for what? I mean, what did I have to show? So finally, between time with my family and realizing that I was working hard for … not for nothing, but it wasn’t necessarily worth it … I started to look for ways to streamline the planning process, and I stumbled upon the club.
So, what were some of the first things that you began to think about or to do differently?
So in your club, the materials that you have before you start out with the actual lessons. You had mentioned the Big Five. So for your listeners who are unfamiliar with that: eliminate unintentional breaks, figure out the main thing to do first, work ahead by batching and avoid task switching, look for innovative ways to relax the standards that create unnecessary work, and then scheduling to create boundaries around your time. I really took these to heart, and I attacked them one by one.
So from my experience, it’s really, really hard to change your habits. And at the time I joined the club, I had already been teaching 13 years. So, that’s 13 years of working harder and not smarter. So, I knew I had to be really purposeful in terms of trying to attack these Big Five. I realized that I wasn’t using my time efficiently during my workday, which left me no choice but to take my work home. I was so focused on the teaching and the in-class part of my day that I pretty much neglected all the other components of being an effective teacher. So with the big five in mind, I basically revamped the way that I did things. I eliminated time wasters and just looked at teaching in a different way.
How did you know that you were doing things inefficiently? What was sort of the moment when you realized, “Oh, there could be something else that I need to change here”? Because I feel like that’s really hard to identify, right? It’s the way we’ve always done things.
Well, you know, with the Big Five, I went through each one and then I thought about, “Okay, what am I doing? What am I currently doing? Am I guilty of having unintended breaks? Am I guilty of trying to do 10 different things during my 55-minute prep period?” So, you have to be really, really honest with yourself. You can’t sit there and make excuses. That’s a big thing if you’re sitting there and justifying everything and making excuses for all of the inefficient things that you’re doing — you’re not going to improve. I mean, nobody else is going to know that I’m wasting time. It’s just me and this conversation with myself. So, I was really honest about it. Then, I started to think of one small thing for each of the Big Five that I could change. Then, once I got down to where it became a habit, I started to tweak it even more.
Can you give some examples of things that you eliminated from your workload, so things that you either stopped doing altogether and replaced with something more meaningful, or something that maybe you used to pressure yourself to accomplish that you don’t anymore?
Definitely. So, the first thing that I tackled was the unintentional breaks, especially during my prep. I mean, I would go and find someone who was on the same prep and just chat with them because I was avoiding all the things that I needed to do, or I would check social media, or read the news. Then, I’d save all my work for when I got home, and I justified it by thinking, “You know, at least I’m in the presence of my family. So, I’m still spending time with them while I’m working on my school stuff.” I really regret that because during that time my daughter was so young, and you can’t take that time back.
So, I decided that during my prep period, I was just going to be really, really intentional about what I do. So, now I lock my door, and I put my phone away, and I get down to business, and I definitely batch things. So, I decided that I would be much more efficient if I wasn’t to do different things because it takes a while to even start a task. I actually go as far as to plan my planning period. So, I only have prep every other day. I’ll plan things like, “Okay, I need to take a trip to the office when I’m there. I’m going to check my mail. Then, I’m going to make copies.” I don’t just kind of randomly go and do that. I actually plan it, or I have a set day when I need to get back to parents and make phone calls. So, that’s one of the biggest things that has changed how much time I spend at home — by being really purposeful with the time that I have at school.
Okay, that’s really good. I want to stop there and delve into that a little bit more deeply. Because when I talk to teachers about this, what I hear from them is, “It’s important to socialize with colleagues. I need to have good relationships. These are my friends. I can’t just work nonstop. I deserve a break. Checking social media is fun for me.” What would you say to that? Because I’m sure those are all the same things that you used to tell yourself.
You don’t need to socialize with your colleagues during your prep time. That’s the only time that you’re given to get all of these tasks done. You can socialize with them during nutrition break, during recess duty, during lunch. There are so many other times when you can socialize with them. But when it’s time to work, you need to get down to work. I know that we feel like we need a mental break. And the problem is, would you rather take the mental break at school or would you rather just go home and have a complete break? When you say yes to one thing, you’re saying no to something else. So, you have to decide and prioritize where you want to spend your social time, when you’re getting paid at work or when you can really relax and maybe go get a drink with those colleagues after school?
Right. So, you’re just being intentional about it. If that’s what you choose to do, if you want to spend your plan time just kind of hanging out, that’s what you need that day, that’s fine. But being aware of the fact that when you look back on your day and think, “Oh, you know, I work till 5:00 today.” But you could have just worked till 4:30 if you’d utilized your prep time, and just being aware of those trade-offs.
Right. You’d be honest about it, too. You can’t make excuses. You have to say, “Yes, I made the choice to take that time off during my prep because I needed it, but that also means that I’m making the additional choice to work longer after school.”
Right. Are there some other things that you eliminated from your workload or that you changed?
Yes, definitely. So, I’m very protective of my time now. There was a point where parents could reach me at all hours via email. It could be 10:00 at night and they emailed me, and I would email them right back because I just thought that this was being a good teacher — being able to communicate with the parents efficiently when they have a concern. So, this would be happening, of course, when I’m at home with my family.
I really felt like there needed to be boundaries. So, I set those boundaries where, as I mentioned before, certain days during my prep I would get back to parents either via email, or calling them, or I would not allow myself to answer my other emails from my colleagues when I was at home. When I went home, that was going to be it. I was going to protect my time with my family because my school time is sacred. That’s the time when I’m all in and I’m being as professional and as a good as a teacher as possible, and at home, I’m going to be the best mom and the best wife as possible. I feel like that purposeful protection of my time really gave me that balance that everyone is seeking when it comes to being a teacher.
Did you tell the parents that you were only going to be returning phone calls and emails during certain time periods? I’m wondering how they responded to this change.
No. I think what happened was that the next year, what I ended up doing was not responding. I think when you establish the expectation that they can reach you at any time, then they kind of abuse it. Not intentionally, but they figure, “Well, Ms. Lepre has always gotten back to me within an hour.” So then when you don’t, then they get upset. But if you take the liberty of 24 hours (that’s usually the standard expectation is that I’ll reply to you within 24 hours) then that’s the expectation and you’re not disappointing anyone because you already set up that expectation that it’s going to take that long. So, you have to kind of put your foot down. You don’t have to verbally state it. You just non-verbally let them know how long it’s going to take.
Just because they email you at 10:00 at night doesn’t necessarily mean they expect a response back at 10:00 night. I think that’s a pressure that we put on ourselves. We see the message come through, and so we’re like, “Oh my gosh. I have to get right back.” But you know, I think 99% of parents would not expect you to be emailing at 10:00 at night outside of an emergency. So, it’s just sort of a pressure that we put on ourselves.
And if you think about it, think about the rest of the world, like businesses. If I call a business at 10:00 PM, I’m not going to expect them to check their voicemail and call me back at 10:30. Or if I email my doctor at 9:00 at night, I don’t expect him to get back to me until the next day. So, why do we put that unreasonable expectation on ourselves that we have to reply to parents or our colleagues immediately?
That’s right. They’re just doing it when it’s convenient for them. They have a moment. They’re thinking about it. It makes sense to sort of dash off that message then or to leave that voicemail then. But, that doesn’t mean that you have to get right back then at the same time. Come back when it’s convenient for you. Any more examples that you want to give?
Yes. Because you had asked about pressure that I put on myself to accomplish. I’m now a big believer in simplifying things and relaxing some of my standards. Because you had asked a really good question in the club. You said, “What do I need to get done today so that I feel a sense of accomplishment?” So if I created a worksheet today, that’s awesome. But does it have to have a pretty font? Does it have to have really fun clip art all over? That’s going to add an extra half hour to the process. And is it going to actually make the worksheet better? If anything, I found that adding clip art to my worksheets distracts the students because they want to color everything in.
I would even do things like when there was a passage, I would define words in the margin and try to create everything myself. The kids aren’t necessarily learning better just because I was making my worksheets prettier. And why was I putting definitions for words when students have Google, you know? And why create everything if someone else had made something just as good? So, I really started to lean on the internet, lean on TPT. And even as someone who’s been teaching 17 years, I don’t try to create everything myself because I’m protective of my time. I don’t have to come up with the best ideas. No one’s going to know. My students certainly don’t know. Other teachers don’t care if it came from my brain or another teacher’s brain. So as much as we want to as teachers, we don’t have to be good at everything, and we don’t have to put in 100% of our effort into everything. I mean, with all the things we have to accomplish, why are we making it so difficult for ourselves?
Right. Because we’re the only ones who know the vision that we have in our heads, like , “Okay, this is the standard I’m going to teach tomorrow. I could do this great, big amazing thing. We could do this, and we could do this.” But no one else knows that. It’s not like your students walk in the next day thinking, “Wow, I really thought she would have done something more interesting to build background knowledge in the anticipatory set,” you know? They have no idea what we had planned. As long as we’re showing up and we are engaged, and present, and excited about the work, and we’re prepared for what we’re going to do, it’s fine.
Not every single lesson is going to be a hit-it-out-of-the-park, Pinterest-worthy type of experience because you’re planning six hours worth of instruction a day 180 days a year. So, some of those are going to be better than others, just like everything else in your life. If you exercise, you’re going to have some workouts that are going to be better than others. When you cook, some of your meals are going to taste better than others.
Not everything is going to be an A++every time. I think as teachers we want everything to be an A++. We like perfection. We like excellence. We want things to always be our best. But, there are just too many things to give your best to everything.
Right. And who’s to say that what you envision as your best is actually effective. So, I used to over plan. There were a couple of years there where I had all of these activities and we were covering everything, but we weren’t going in depth. So when it came time to applying those skills when it really mattered, when they had to do it individually, they weren’t very successful at it because I had just covered it. We sort of did this tour of figurative language, but we didn’t actually dive deep so that they actually understood not only how to identify it but the purpose of it.
So, I think that sometimes we tend to overthink things and then we judge ourselves harshly. But, how are we judging ourselves? Based on what metric? I think if the students are successful, if they are engaged and they’re producing the outcomes that you envision, that should be enough. It doesn’t need to be perfect worksheets and all of these different activities. Sometimes we’re doing too much and it’s not actually effective.
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What change in mindset or habit do you think made the biggest impact for you?
That’s kind of hard because all of the Big Five really helped me feel better about myself and my teaching and tap into the true joy of teaching. But, I would have to say that definitely letting go of the pressure and all of the shoulds that we place upon ourselves was pivotal for me. I’m a perfectionist. Like you had mentioned, we’re all perfectionists. And for me, it’s almost to a fault. I thought that the more that I did, the better teacher I would be, and the more my colleagues would recognize my hard work and accomplishments. But you know, after reflecting on my teaching habits through the lens of the Big Five, I realized that I could actually do less and have more impact overall. I had definitely removed that weight from my own shoulders, and I’m just a happier, funnier, and more effective teacher now.
You know what I’m hearing from you, I feel like the overarching theme here is really self-reflection and honesty and making really intentional decisions. Am I right about that?
Absolutely. You know, especially with new teachers, we’re not taught this. We’re not taught how everything fits into the puzzle. We’re taught how to do everything, but maybe not so much the why, and taught about philosophy and mindset. There’s so much that we have to learn on our own. I mean, look at me. I was teaching for 13 years. I never learned it. So, it wasn’t until I stumbled upon the club that I really focused on, “Okay, Kim, what are you doing and why are you doing it, and what are the results of what you’re doing?”
If you can be really honest with yourself … and remember, you don’t have to tell anybody what you’re doing or why you’re doing it because it’s a conversation with yourself … and if you can be really truly honest and reflective, it just opens everything up. I mean, I truly am such a happier teacher because I took all that pressure off of myself.
You know, that makes me really happy to hear. To me, it’s just really gratifying because I thought a lot about how to convey the information in the club. It would’ve been a lot, maybe easier for people if I just put it all in a book and just like, “Here’s the book. Here are all the strategies. Just go here and download all the printables.”
But, I really felt like this is a mindset that you’re talking about, and it’s about changing your habits. And as you mentioned, changing habits is not easy. It’s really a process, and I think it’s easy to slip back into old habits.
For me, what I wanted to give teachers through the club is this ongoing support. So, you’re just getting a little bit of stuff to think about at a time. You’re not getting overwhelmed and you’re just … You’re getting that reinforcement over the course of a full year. So you know, each time that you find yourself sort of sliding back into old habits and not really being intentional with your time, there’s more support around you.
Exactly. And you know, it’s funny you mention that because I remember when I started out in July, I was so frustrated because I did just want everything in a book. I just wanted it all so I could jump around and pick and choose what I needed help on. The thing is you need help with everything. And if you just have a book … I mean, think about it …when you buy a book on teaching, how much of that do you actually implement? Or sometimes you don’t even get through the book, especially if it’s not just a book on teaching philosophy but it’s this step-by-step that you have.
I don’t think I would have gone through as much and made as much progress if I had been given everything at once. The way that you pace it where you’re working at one thing at a time per month, I think that’s really, really valuable. I think that it makes it so that we have to sit and think about that one thing, whether it be grading or systems, and we have to really delve deep into what we’re doing and we have time to practice it before we move on to something else.
Right. That’s so true with books. I have so many books that I’ve only gotten through like the first two chapters on. They’re just sitting on my Kindle. They’re really good. I really want to get back to them.
But you know, with the club, you’ve made a bigger financial investment than a book, too, and I think that is also a motivator. Because I know that when I spend money on something, I am going to get my money’s worth. I am going to take advantage of it. If it’s something that I got for free off the internet, I may or may not use it, and there’s really nothing lost.
But if I had made that commitment where I’m going to invest money in this, then I’m really committed to this and I’m going to follow through, and I’m going to get something out of it. I think that is motivation, too, for teachers to sort of jump back in and to keep working on it because no one wants to feel like they wasted money.
Right. You got some skin in the game.
Yes. It’s about having that skin in the game and really making that commitment. Because anybody can buy a book, but when you make a commitment to join a program, then you really are saying, “Okay, I want to get serious about changing these habits. I don’t want to just think about this stuff. I want to actually live this out on a daily basis.” And that’s what you’ve done. So, I’m really happy to share your story with other teachers. I think it’s really inspirational for them.
And the community part is also really motivating. Because again, think about it. If you buy a book and you get really excited about something that you learned in the book and you talk to a colleague, if they haven’t read it, they’re not as excited about it as you are. You’re like, “Oh, I learned this really cool thing,” and they’re like, “Oh, okay. That’s cool. That sounds great,” and then they move on. But in the club, you’re able to bounce ideas off of other teachers in the community. And if you get stuck on something, everyone is there jumping in on that exact tactic for the month. So, it’s so much more than you can get from just a textbook. It’s just like this ongoing mini-university of how to be a better teacher. I love it.
And in the community, you’re with like-minded people. So you know in a school, it’s a crapshoot what other people are going to think about trying to work more efficiently. But in the club, in that community, everyone is there trying to accomplish the same goal and demand that they have their time back. But also, I really feel like compared to other Facebook groups that I’m in for teachers, you can be really vulnerable in that community because everyone’s going through the same struggles, and people are supportive and not jumping on each other and judging each other. I think that’s really different because I’ve seen in other Facebook groups where teachers can kind of attack each other. So, it’s definitely a sacred space where you can go and just open up about, “I’m really struggling with this grading part,” or, “I’m really struggling with the parent communication part,” and people are totally there for each other.
I’m really glad you feel that way because that was definitely a big part of my vision and something I’ve tried to work really hard to cultivate with the club’s coaches and moderators, to really develop that kind of tone, because there are enough judgemental spaces on the internet.
You really need a place where you can be like, “I am struggling,” and you have other people, “I totally feel you. I am struggling, too. I’ve been here. Here’s some encouragement. It’s not just you.”
What’s something that you wish every teacher understood about reducing their workload?
A lot of it is the fact that we get in our own way. We don’t need to keep everything. You don’t need to do everything. It’s not even good for us to do everything. When you do less within a more efficient system, you’re guaranteed to take back more of your personal time.
So, I would definitely encourage your listeners to go through the club. The tips, the resources, and the community are all absolutely invaluable. They’re going to help you hone in on some small but significant changes that they can make. Then, it’s really important, from my own experience, that you have to keep working on them year after year. You can’t just say, “Okay, one and done.” Because remember, habits are hard to break. Some of your old habits might start to slip in, so you have to just keep working on it. I promise, there’s going to be a moment when it’s all going to click and just teaching, and everything within teaching, is just going to seem harmonious.
You’re so right about that moment. That’s been one of the coolest things about the club because I didn’t know that when I created it, that things were going to click in a moment. But, I feel like it happens for just about everyone. Sometimes it happens right away within the first couple weeks. Sometimes it takes six months or so.
For a lot of teachers, it’s after their first year. They finish their first year of the club, they’re going to back through the strategies again the second year, and all the sudden it’s like, “Oh my gosh. It’s all paying off. All of this effort is paying off.” You look back and you realize everything that you did is fitting together now.
You see the payoff, and you see that it’s sustainable. It’s actually this new way of approaching your life and your teaching. It’s not just something, “Oh, I cut out this thing here, cut out this thing over there. Done.” It’s this whole new lens through which you’re viewing your work.
And over time, I feel like the benefits kind of pay off exponentially over time. The more that you do it, the better you get at it, the more natural it is to think in this way. Yeah, it clicks. I’m wondering when that moment, that click moment, came for you.
It came the second year. Because after that first summer, I had a summer start. I was planning for the next year, and I looked back at the Big Five. I reflected on the past year and I thought, “You know, I’ve really come so far.”
I didn’t have to plan as much over the summer, which was amazing. Normally, I spend at least two to three weeks planning over the summer. And I thought, “Wait. I already did it all last year.” I made my systems better. This year’s going to be even better. I’m going to freshen up my syllabus and that was about it. But, it was so relaxing for me over the summer to not have to worry about that. I just couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to stress about the following school year.
That second year, when I started to look at the Big Five again, it just became even better, and I was even happier. This time, though, I was talking to my colleagues about it. Not necessarily about the club, but just sort of talking about this whole philosophy of, “You know, how are you using your prep time? I’m just curious. Well, hey, why don’t you come with me to the copy room so we can get our copies done all at once and then we can do this?” I would sort of try to spread the idea of being more efficient to other teachers who I could see were really stressed out. So, it just sort of becomes this philosophy of the way that we do things. It’s very different from how normal teachers do it.
That’s kind of what I was hoping to get across in my book. I’m sure you’ve heard about my book, which at the time of this airing, it’ll be out, Fewer Things Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most. It’s really the mindset behind the club.
My hope is that people who have joined the club can tell their colleagues about the book. The book is less of an investment. It’s less of a commitment, as we talked about. It’s just a way to sort of start thinking about the mindset. But I think when you’ve decided, “Okay, I’m going to create change,” I think the club is really the best support for that.
So you have now reclaimed on average around 15 hours a week. I would love for you to tell us, in closing here, about what you now do with that time. Because I know one of the things that you do is you’re able to offer support now to new teachers.
Right. So, I have a podcast, the Teachers Need Teachers Podcast, which is mainly for beginning teachers. I also am a mentor for beginning teachers. So, I’m able to use that time to give back, because I want new teachers to stay in the profession. I go to the gym. I spend time with my daughter and my husband.
I don’t spend weekends doing a bunch of stuff. I mean, the most that I do is on Sunday I plan out my planning periods so that I can be purposeful. I take a look at the week and what I’m going to do. And that takes at most an hour. So you know, the time that I am spending is maybe catching up on grading a couple more papers that I didn’t finish during my planning period and I just want to be done with that particular class. But, I don’t stress or spend a bunch of time outside of school.
Now, I know that’s not going to be the case for everyone. They still may spend time grading outside of school. And that’s fine. But I mean, I’m spending 15 hours less on stuff, and I only have a two-hour prep period every other day, and I’m able to cram that 15 hours into that time.
That’s pretty remarkable. That, I think, is a testament to your willingness to self-reflect, and be honest, and be brutally honest about what is really the best use of your time, and what’s really going to help your kids.
Yeah. Thank you.
Awesome. So if teachers want to learn more about you, one thing they can do is subscribe to your podcast, Teachers Need Teachers, which, as you mentioned, it’s geared toward beginning teachers. But, I find the episodes super useful. I think they’re great for all teachers. So, that’s worth checking out for sure. Any place else you want teachers to connect with you?
Sure. They can also find me on the website for the podcast, teachersneedteachers.com, or connect with me on Twitter. And if they want to email me directly to ask me questions about more questions about the club and how I did in the club, they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you so much, Kim, for sharing your story. I think this is really super helpful.
Oh, you’re very welcome. I love talking about the club, so I appreciate the opportunity to do that.
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