Productivity Strategies, Podcast Articles | Sep 20, 2015
Can a teacher work a 40-hour week and still do a good job?
By Angela Watson
Founder and Writer
Whenever I mention a 40-hour workweek for teachers, people tend to have one of two objections. Either they think it’s not possible, or they think it’s not aspirational—that you can’t do a good job in 40 hours a week, so you shouldn’t even try to attempt that as a teacher.
I believe that a 40-hour work week IS possible for many teachers, and that you can trim 10+ hours off an extreme work and still do an excellent job as an educator.
I believe that, because I lived it during my 11 years in the classroom. Even as a new teacher, I worked a 40-hour week about 80-90% of the time. And I maintained that schedule no matter what or where I taught: in seven different schools, three different grade levels, in two different states, in three different districts. And I managed to keep my work hours to a reasonable level that fit my life in all of those teaching contexts.
My friends and colleagues and anyone who was paying attention can attest that I left the building within an hour of when the kids did every afternoon, and took very little work home. But I never really talked about it until I left the classroom and became an instructional coach, because telling people about how few hours you work is not a really smart idea. So many people equate hours worked with results, as if staying at school until dinner time every night means my students are going to learn more.
This is a pervasive myth that I’m going to debunk below. Hours worked does not equate with results.
I want you to think about the teachers in your building and colleagues. The vast majority of them are going to fall into one of 4 categories when it comes to hours worked and results:
1) Ineffective and average teachers who work reasonable hours
These are the teachers who are not really invested in the job. Some of them just want a paycheck, and that’s certainly the stereotype. But most of them really do care deep down, and are simply burned out and disillusioned from all the crap they face in their jobs. Many of them are also going through intense personal issues that make it impossible to give 100% to their work: they’re caring for an elderly parent, have a sick spouse, have multiple young children at home, and so on.
These teachers put in the least amount of hours at work as possible, and while I am empathetic, they are the ones who inadvertently perpetuate the myth that teachers need to work 70 hour weeks to be effective. We look at these teachers and think, I don’t want to be seen as one of them. I care about my job. I’m working hard every day. I have to PROVE that by being the last one out of the parking lot and dragging home a rolling tote full of paperwork.
But let’s dig deeper.
2) Ineffective and average teachers who work long hours
We all know this type of teacher, too. They work long hours because they want to do a good job, but they don’t manage their time well. They work incessantly, but not on the right things, and not on things that produce results in the classroom. They care about their students and want them to do well, but have gotten bogged down by everything from mandated paperwork to Pinterest pressure and wanting to make their classrooms look perfect.
They’re putting in tremendous effort but aren’t seeing tremendous learning gains in their classrooms. In fact, their students really aren’t learning much more than the teachers who leave right at 3 p.m. each day. These teachers’ hearts are in the right place, but they’re wasting time and don’t even realize how.
So we have ineffective and average teachers who work short hours, and those who work long hours. As you can see, the difference in their workload does not equate to results. None of them are really excelling or doing great things for kids. They’re treading water. They’re keeping up with what’s expected, but just barely. This is not a life we want to aspire to.
So now let’s look at the outstanding teachers–the ones we all want to be like–and examine their workloads.
3) Outstanding teachers who work long hours
Every school has at least a few of these superstars. They’re the type where you wish your own kid could be in their class, but you’d never actually want to BE that teacher. They do all the committee work and pick up the slack for everyone else. These teachers are great at what they do, but they’re exhausted, missing their families, and not taking care of themselves because work comes first.
Despite the fact that this amount of dedication to work is generally not sustainable, these are the teachers that we compare ourselves to, and make ourselves feel guilty for not being like them. You have to be really honest with yourself about how they live, though–not just become enamored with how well they teach, but examine their quality of life overall. I’m not willing to sacrifice my health for my job. I want to have a life apart from school.
Some of these teachers truly enjoy being 100% dedicated to their work–often they’re young and single, or older empty nesters who enjoy being busy with their greatest passion, teaching. Most of us have had a season like that in our lives…but it’s not something that most of us can (or should want to) maintain for decades. We can’t compare ourselves to other teachers who are in that season, and feel like we need to work more hours to be like them.
4) Outstanding teachers who work reasonable hours
It’s this 4th and last type of teacher that I believe is worth emulating. They’ve perfected their systems, amassed tons of great lessons and resources already, and don’t waste time with things that don’t matter. They hear about a new mandate or curriculum or set of standards and shrug–they know they’ll find a way to make it work and it’s not going to undo them. They don’t waste time thinking and complaining about things they can’t control. They love their students and the families they serve, and they go above and beyond for them, but they have clear, healthy boundaries around their time and energy.
This is the type of teacher that I always strived to be, and that you can become, too. There are not a lot of these teachers out there, because work/life balance is a tough thing to maintain. But they do exist–you might even know a teacher like that in your school. I personally have had conversations with at least 40 or 50 teachers that manage to be truly outstanding without letting teaching consume their entire lives. This is not an isolated phenomenon: the ones I know teach in all different parts of the country, all different grade levels K-12, in public and private schools, in rural areas and inner cities and everything in between.
So I can say with confidence that it IS possible to be a great teacher AND have a great personal life, because I’ve done it and I know other teachers who are doing it, right now as we speak.
And I’m sharing this not to make you feel bad because you work too many hours, but to give you HOPE. It is possible to do a great job teaching in fewer hours.
Can you get EVERYTHING done in 40 hours?
When I talk about a 40 hour workweek, I don’t mean that I never even thought about teaching outside of those 40 hours. Not at all. Teaching is my passion. I enjoy being a connected educator and chatting with other teachers online and finding and sharing ideas. I enjoy creating elaborate curriculum materials and decorating/organizing the classroom.
So, I don’t count those activities as part of the 40-hour week. These are things that I genuinely enjoy and aren’t required to the extent that I do them. I complete those tasks voluntarily when I feel it, and they don’t feel like work. They’re the creative side of teaching that I do it as a hobby which I’m passionate about. I have no resentment about reading teacher blogs and get lesson ideas on my iPad in the evening when I’m watching TV with my husband.
I’m talking about limiting the “work-work” (mandatory) tasks to 40 hours a week. This includes the face-to-face time with kids, which is fantastic, but let’s be honest. It’s definitely work! I’m also talking about limiting the tasks I don’t want to do on my own time: the paperwork, making photocopies, attending meetings, grading, lesson plan documentation, data and collection, returning parent emails…these are all tasks that I don’t get much pleasure from. These are the tasks that I resented having to do in my evenings and weekends.
So if you factor in 5-6 hours of face time with kids every day, that’s about 25-30 hours a week. To meet my goal of working a 40 hour week, that meant that all the work-work tasks needed to be done in an additional 10-15 hours a week, on average. And most of the time, that was a possibility for me, and it could be for you. Probably not at the beginning of the school year, not when report cards are due, and not when you have special projects and deadlines. But on average, most weeks, you can aim for a 40 hour workweek, or another target number that is realistic for you and gives you more time for your family.
How to cut 10+ hours from your work week
If you’re currently working 60 or more hours a week–and that’s not uncommon–I recommend going slowly with this. Cutting 20 hours from your workweek is going to be too hard to do overnight. You’re going to want to shave off just 30 minutes or so at a time through new routines. Get comfortable with one routine, and then integrate another new practice that allows you to save 20 minutes off a different task. Do that for a week, and then add another strategy that trims off another 15 minutes, and so on. Over time, I believe most teachers can shave 10 or more hours off an extreme workweek.
So what are those streamlining strategies? How do you cut down tasks? I think the best approach is to think about the top 3 tasks that consume your evenings and weekends, the things that you absolutely hate doing. Think about the 3 tasks you bring home in your teaching bag and half the time just drag right back to school untouched because you couldn’t bear to even look at them over the weekend.
Then pick one of those three things–the one that bugs you the most and consumes the most of your time–and start experimenting with different strategies for doing that task more efficiently.
Start by experimenting with ways to streamline your most dreaded task
Let’s take grading for example, since that’s a task most teachers hate having to do on their own time.
Can you grade papers a different time of day? Maybe you usually try to grade during your planning time and you get interrupted every 5 minutes so it takes you three times a long, and your prep period is so short you can’t really get into a flow. You might be better off coming in early to school two days a week and grading papers when no one else is in the building to interrupt you.
Or maybe the timesaver for you is to change some of your expectations around grading, and retrain yourself to believe that every single assignment you give students does not have to be graded. You might be recording way more than the required number of grades per subject each week and it’s time to get real with yourself about how you’re creating extra unnecessary work. I know elementary teachers who take 15 or more grades in a single subject every single week, even though only 5 are required –that’s like 70 grades per week per child. It’s insanity, but they’ve convinced themselves they have to do it because they believe they need as many grades as possible and have to put a score on every piece of paper a child touches.
If you’re spending too much time grading, you might also want to experiment with having students assess their own work as a review activity in class. You might want to try incorporating fewer paper and pencil actives and have students do more hands-on work, or solve problems on individual dry erase boards where you assess their learning informally rather than having them complete a worksheet you have to grade. You might want to try some simpler approaches to teaching writing and grading writing.
Teaching does NOT have to consume your entire life–don’t settle for stress!
These are just a few examples. There are a lot of different ways to approach teaching and assessment, and if what you’re doing is not working well for you from a time management perceptive, don’t assume that this is just the way things have to be and there’s no alternative. Start actively looking for and experimenting with ways to teach and assess more effectively.
There are other teachers who spend very little time grading—why shouldn’t you be one of them? Why should you lug a stack of essays home every single night? Why should you spend every weekend grading and feeling guilty for ignoring your family?
That does NOT have to be your reality, but if something’s going to change, it has to be intentionally. That workload is not going to disappear magically overnight. It’s going to require you to acknowledge that this is a real problem that is affecting your health, your personal life, your family life. And it’s going to require you to make a decision to figure out how to change.
Pursue work-life balance with intention, even if you never get to a 40-hour week
A 40 hour workweek might not be possible with your teaching context, personality, or work speed and habits. But you CAN shave multiple hours of your work week. I believe that is possible for every teacher.
We are ALL wasting time without realizing it, and completing certain routine tasks in really ineffective, inefficient ways. We ALL have processes we can streamline. And if you can identify even a few areas and improve them, you’re looking at saving a couple hours a week. That’s 3 or 5 or 10 extra hours to enjoy your family and take care of yourself and pursue things you enjoy.
It’s worth making the effort and really taking the time to focus on this because it will change the way you teach forever. You will be a better teacher because you’re not resentful of the way it’s consumed your life, and you’ll be better rested and more balanced.
Get support from other teachers who want to achieve better work/life balance
I’m in the process of creating some resources to help you with this. Sign up to get my free 40 Hour Workweek Getting Started Guide, and I’ll show you how to pick a target number of hours to work each week and make a plan for sticking to it.
I’m also going to send you information about a support network for teachers. It’s called the 40-Hour Workweek Club, and it’s designed to share specific, actionable steps for shaving 10 or more hours off your workweek. The club includes a private Facebook group where you can share timesaving strategies with other teachers and figure out how to personalize a system that works for YOU.
Remember, effective teaching is measured in results, not hours worked. Seek efficiency & create boundaries around your time!
You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it. – Charles Buxton Click To Tweet
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
See blog posts/transcripts for all episodes
Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes
The Truth for Teachers Podcast
Our weekly audio podcast is one of the top K-12 broadcasts in the world, featuring our writers collective and tons of practical, energizing ideas. Support our work by subscribing in your favorite podcast app–everything is free!Explore all podcast episodes
Founder and Writer
More resources on this topicExplore all podcasts
If you are a teacher who is interested in contributing to the Truth for Teachers website, please click here for more information.
Thank you thank you thank you!!! I was seriously just crying on the way to the grocery store thinking about all of the things I have to do for school tonight on my own unpaid time when I’d rather be relaxing with my fiancé. After 11 years I’m tired of being the 3rd kind of teacher, I want to be the 4th kind and get my life back! You are an inspiration and you seriously keep me from losing it on a weekly basis! GO GIRL
Hi, Mary! You are so not alone in that stress. I hope you’ve signed up for the tips and that they’re helpful for you.
The problem that I see is this one… “I enjoy creating curriculum materials, planning engaging lessons, and decorating/organizing the classroom. So, I don’t count those activities as part of the 40-hour week. These are things that I genuinely enjoy. I do them voluntarily when I feel like doing them, and they don’t feel like work. ”
However, lesson planning is a part of my job. So is decorating and finding materials. I am still required to do it. There should be parts of your job that you enjoy… but they still count as work hours if you are required to do it.
I “work” an 8 hour day, but I often spend a few hours at home each night, and several hours each weekend, lesson planning and creating materials. Yes, I could not do those, and I could do the bare minimum at school, but I am definitely a more effective teacher because I do these things at home. These are things teachers should be given time in a school day to do.
I agree that teachers should be given time in the school day for those tasks. If you want to count them in your total workweek hours, you could do so. I believe the strategies I’m sharing would help you save time each week regardless. The goal is to get as close as possible to a 40 hour week (or whatever your target number is.)
Thank you so much for this podcast. I was thinking about submitting this as a question until I saw this week’s topic.
I’m in my second year of teaching and I give much of my time to work that I’m exhausted by Friday, it’s effecting my home life and me that I’m feeling burnt out. I’m striving to be more like the 4th teacher in order to have the work/life balance in place for myself, my husband and before children enter the picture. I’m looking forward to the strategies and the group. Thank you again! Love all of your resources, especially the podcasts.
Hi, Carla! I’m glad this was timely for you. It’s so easy to read an article, try to do better for awhile, and then slip back into old habits. I think we all do that! I’m glad you’ll be part of the club–I really think it’s going to be the support teachers need in order to maintain work/life balance not just for a few days, but throughout the year.
I feel like to are speaking directly to me. It’s as if you were put here to be my own personal life coach! Because of my desire for perfection (or at least excellence) combined with my ADD and all that entails, I have struggled with time management throughout my 13 year teaching career. I have an extremely difficult time prioritizing because everything that is required is mandatory and overwhelming. I am starting to see the light. Your practical and doable tips are clicking! Thank you so much for tackling this. You have no idea how relieved I already am. I feel like I finally have hope of having a “normal” life at some point. You’re my new best friend!
Shannah, I’m so happy to hear that. Thank you for taking the time to share. You will LOVE next week’s podcast which is about prioritizing tasks.
Your point about perfection or excellence is a good one. Perfection is a tough thing to understand, because it’s wrapped up in our own nebulous ideas about what is “enough.” I mean, we rarely say, “This has to be perfect!” We usually know it’s not going to be perfect. We just need it to be “enough” to meet our standards…and our standards are super high for everything.
It can be very freeing to recognize that it’s just not possible to give 100% to every single task we take on in life. That gives us permission to stop wearing ourselves out doing every single thing with excellence, and be intentional about how our time and energy is best used.
I wish you actually has a firm suggestion here or there. Just “be more efficient” doesn’t cut it. I’ve tried cutting grading times and done so with moderate success… But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t come at some cost to students, my classroom and the like. I’m still unsure it’s a fair tradeoff…
Hi, Dan. Did you check out the links to the two posts I shared in the section about grading? Those might provide the firm suggestions you’re looking for in ways that actually have a positive rather than negative impact on students.
However, some of the ways you work more efficiently WILL come at some cost to students, as you said. Teaching is no different from parenting in that way. There is always something more you could be doing. You will make some choices on a daily basis that aren’t absolutely ideal for kids but are necessary in order to keep the rest of classroom/household moving along smoothly. Kids are our #1 priority and we always look out for their best interests, but if we don’t take care of ourselves, there will be no one to care for them. There is a limit to how much we can humanly do, and continually pushing ourselves beyond that limit is what creates burnout. At some point, we have to make peace with this fact and stop feeling guilty about it.