The job of a teacher is not designed to be completed within 40 hours a week.
It’s assumed that teachers will provide additional labor by coming in early, staying late, and bringing work home on a regular basis … all without compensation.
So, how can we change this norm?
One way is to amplify the work of teachers who have resisted the pressure to be the last person out of the building each evening, and who are willing to talk openly about how they have streamlined and reduced extraneous expectations.
To be clear: you may not be able to work exactly your contractual hours (depending on your personal teaching context and workload. This does NOT mean you’re doing something wrong: it means systemic change is needed. A realistic goal for you might be to reduce the amount of time you spend working on nights and weekends as a starting point.
The article that follows is written by a classroom teacher named Samantha Smith to share some hope + inspiration that it IS possible to do a great job for kids without working endlessly for free.
“How has the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program helped me? In every way!”
That was my first thought when the 40 Hour members were asked to reflect on how the principles we have learned in the club have helped us to adapt to changes and experiment with more efficient ways to approach teaching.
I knew then that I had to write in so that others could be encouraged to engage in this work, too. If 40 Hour helped me to actually enjoy my students, a lot of my work, and even the work of raising very little children, then it needs to be shared!
By absolutely no means do I have it all together at home or at school, but the 40HTW principles, strategies, lessons, and community have allowed me to find a rhythm in life that helps me be a good teacher, mom, and more.
It would be helpful if you knew a bit more about me and my teaching context. I’m Samantha Smith, a 34-year-old first-grade teacher in a very large suburban school district in Illinois. Though I started teaching 5th and 6th grade, I have taught first grade for the past 7 years.
I am the only General Education teacher in my grade, and the majority of my planning is completed by myself. My students mostly come from families considered to have lower incomes. I am married and have three children ages 4, 2, and 6 months. I love the musical Hamilton, being involved at church, and the Backstreet Boys!
My experience in the 40HTW has led to the following outcomes this school year:
I work 40 hours (or less) in a typical week.
I began tracking my time and setting goals for my working hours when I joined 40 Hour in 2015. I hit my goal of 45 hours within the first year of joining. I now typically work 40 hours or less per week.
I never take school work home.
Ever. I believe this would be a bit different if I were teaching intermediate since I have taught 5th and 6th in elementary school. If that were the case, I would still strive to grade as efficiently as possible and set strict boundaries around my time for grading. I also used to bring work home around report card time. Following Angela’s system for writing report card comments reduced that time by hours and hours, so I also do not ever bring that work home anymore.
I don’t feel I have to live up to anyone’s perceived expectations of me.
One of the most life-changing aspects of 40 Hour is the mindset transformation that occurs. I have learned to decipher what are the real expectations of my job, and what time-wasting expectations I was making up in my mind.
From room setup, lesson planning, parent communication, materials preparation, grading, and extracurricular activities, I have let go of the excess, and it has allowed me to enhance the things that are really important in each of those areas. This huge shift has allowed me the mental space to prepare effective, engaging, and creative lessons for my students. My students benefit from a teacher that is focused, rested (even with 3 kids), and prepared, and I benefit from the energy that they give back because of those things.
This is the first school year that I walk out every single day with the next day’s lessons and materials set out and ready to go. Most weeks, not all, I am also planned for the next whole week by the previous Thursday.
Of course, I always adjust pacing and lessons based on student needs, but batching all of the elements of my planning and following my to-do list allows me to stay very focused and finish most of my weekly planning during my weekly planning period.
I have become known in my community for “having my act together”, being reliable, and being thought of as a “good teacher”.
40 Hour has helped me organize and set up effective systems which allow me to be reliable, effective, intentional, purposeful, and prepared. Following 40 Hour helped me to systematically think through and implement systems for paper processing, planning, documentation, communication, physical space design, and organization, and helping students to become more autonomous and take more ownership of their learning. Because of this, things don’t fall through the cracks.
Family communication is effective, students get the support and services they need, I don’t miss out on opportunities for myself or students, students learn to help themselves and each other, school communication gets to families, student and family engagement increases, and my stress is reduced.
Even though I had a maternity leave this year and have three young children, I feel my life is more balanced than it ever has been while working.
All of these mindset shifts and systems allow me to be fully present while at work and fully present when at home. Sometimes my work at school requires a bit more time, and sometimes my family and personal life require a bit more. The pendulum swings back and forth, but being able to be mentally present wherever I physically am is how I feel balanced.
“Small changes can lead to big results.” Angela reminds us of this often through the various club materials and discussions. A ton of small changes is what ultimately lead to my ongoing growth and success at finding “balance” in my life.
Sometimes I almost (keyword… almost) feel guilty for how short I work compared to my peers, but it’s just that so many of the 40HTW systems and concepts that I have put into place over the past 5 years just all click into extreme efficiency. It has truly been life-changing.
Angela’s book title, Fewer Things, Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most is really the summation of what I have gotten out of being a member of the 40HTW. I do less at work and less at home, but what I choose to do is done with purpose. This focused intentionality allows me to experience better results with my students, my children, and my personal wellness.
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Sponsored by Invited MBA and 40 Hour
Listen to Samantha’s interview on the Truth for Teachers podcast about this article. She shares more details about her workflow, including:
- How she tracked her work hours, and what she learned from doing it
- If, as Samantha mentioned here, she never takes work home — when does the work get done? Samantha shares how she structures her time in her contractual work hours.
- Samantha’s lesson planning and material prep process —how she walks out every single day with the next day’s lessons and materials set out and ready to go.
- Why people are always curious about the logistics of streamlining but the mindset behind the actions is the most powerful, and how Samantha used 40 Hour to see every task through a new lens that’s focused on prioritization and what matters most.
- How Samantha overcame a big mindset obstacle for a lot of teachers: worrying about being perceived as someone who doesn’t really care or isn’t truly dedicated to kids. There’s a lot of pressure on teachers to work endlessly for their students and it’s seen as the mark of a good teacher. Samantha shares how others’ perceptions of her changed when she began working only contractual hours and how she grappled with that.
Want to hear from more teachers who work only their contractual hours?
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