This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: I’m going to talk about 4 mistakes teachers make in the classroom (which I made too!) that drain them of a precious resource — energy — and the solutions that worked for me as a teacher.
I am always looking for ways to save energy. I shared in my book Unshakeable that energy is one of our most precious resources because unlike time, energy does not naturally replenish itself. We have to be intentional about how we use our energy. If we don’t pay attention to the things that drain it and do less of those things and pay attention to things that are energy-giving and do more of those things, we’ll find ourselves feeling depleted all the time.
Today I’m going to share with you four habits and practices that drained my energy as a teacher for years, and I’ll share the solutions I uncovered that completely transformed the way I approached my work.
1) I. Talked. Nonstop.
I ran my mouth so much as a rookie teacher that I lost my voice every fall for the first five years I was in the classroom. I’d explain, re-explain, explain again in different words, and then recap with yet another explanation. The only time I’d stop talking was to give the evil eye and deadly silence to students who dared to steal my thunder by saying something themselves.
In retrospect, I think I felt like my talking was the glue that held the classroom together and without my constant narration of everything happening, the momentum of student learning would somehow wane. I couldn’t just give a direction and let students follow it; I had to praise the students who were on task, redirect the ones who were off, and fill every moment of a transition with my voice so that students wouldn’t fill it with their own talking.
If we had a class discussion, I’d feel the need to repeat and affirm everything the kids said to make sure everyone else heard it and was learning from it, instead of just letting students’ words stand on their own. It was as if I thought kids couldn’t learn from one another unless I was there to repeat it back more loudly and word things with a larger vocabulary and greater precision.
It was all just too much: too much talking, too much information for kids, and too much effort on my part that left the kids with no role to play other than quiet passivity. With all the energy I expended prattling on and on, I would have probably collapsed in a heap by 3 pm every day if I hadn’t been 22 years old and had a 22-year old’s energy level. I’m amazed that my kids internalized anything I taught, considering how much filtering out they had to do while listening, and how few opportunities they had to ever discuss or process their learning.
Solution: Sit with the discomfort of the silence and give kids the opportunity to talk more.
I’m not sure if I would have ever changed in this area if I hadn’t ended every day utterly exhausted and with a sore throat. I wasn’t sure what to do differently at first, but I started experimenting.
I spent less time standing at the front of the classroom, for example. It’s easy to get in an instructional rut when you stand at the same place near the board all day long. So I’d occasionally sit on the side of the classroom or in an absent student’s desk and say, “I need someone to go up and demonstrate ___ for us.” It was so nice to SIT and SAY NOTHING that I then tried staying there, sitting among the class once the student was done demonstrating and ask follow-up questions from other students instead of commenting on the students’ demo myself (“What do you all think? Is that an effective method — how do you know? Does anyone use a different strategy?”).
I also forced myself to get comfortable with think time and pushed against the feeling that I would lose students’ attention if I didn’t jump in with follow-up questions because I knew providing wait time can actually increase the length and quality of their responses.
Additionally, I looked for ways to turn my summaries and narrations into questions that would prompt students to think. Instead of saying to a group, “Nice work over here, I like the strategy you used for ___”, I’d ask the kids to reflect on their own work: “Tell me how your group has chosen to solve ___.” Instead of telling a kid, “Take a look at #3, that answer is incorrect,” I’d say, “Would you tell me how you got the answer for #3?”
Slowly over time, I began guiding more instead of directing, and facilitating instead of instructing.
When I started discovering active learning techniques, it felt like the heavens had opened up and the angels were singing. Finally, I had a different approach to teaching that would keep students engaged and make sure they were learning without doing all the work myself. And they were actually learning more than when I was in charge! I could walk quietly around the classroom as students talked to one another, listening in on conversations instead of lecturing.
If I hadn’t changed the way I taught and shifted my perception of the teacher’s role in the classroom so that it was no longer necessary for me to talk constantly, I would have almost certainly burned myself out.
2) I didn’t make time to really enjoy my students.
As an introvert and serious person by nature, my definition of “having fun” just isn’t the same as many other people’s. I had a very hard time being fully present with kids and enjoying them because I was simultaneously focused on trying to manage the classroom, keep the noise level down, and make sure the whole show was running smoothly.
During center time, a child would be telling me about something incredible she’d learned, her face all lit up with delight as she’s looking at up at me, and I wasn’t really focused on her. I’d smile and nod, while looking out of the corner of my eye to make sure that all the kids in the rest of the centers were on-task.
Interestingly, I thought this was the right thing to do. I’d learned in college about with-it-ness, the ability of a teacher to be aware of everything that’s going on in the classroom and I thought that was somehow more important than actually connecting with the kids.
When a student was experiencing a lightbulb moment, I couldn’t fully take in the joy of having all that hard work pay off because I was annoyed that on the other side of the room, one of the kids was flicking pencil shavings at another child. I felt like I couldn’t fully enjoy my students unless everyone was on task and the classroom was running smoothly. And so I was constantly slipping in and out of this state of presence, and one child misbehaving had the power to throw me off.
Solution: Be present and actively look for small moments to enjoy the kids more.
My thinking changed on the last day of school during my fourth year of teaching. The kids were playing Four Corners and begged me to play with them. Normally I felt like I couldn’t possibly join in, as I needed to make sure no one was cheating or running and everyone was following the rules appropriately. But since it was the last day of school, I figured, what the heck, and I joined in.
I had so much fun that I remember that game to this day and it changed the way I taught forever. Giving up control was a long, slow process for me, but I never forgot how it felt to learn and play WITH my students and the memory of that fueled my motivation to improve and became my goal moving forward. I’d always known this was a weakness of mine, but it wasn’t until that day that I really saw the power of being fully present and enjoying my students.
Another incident that made a big impression on me was several years later when I was attending the winter concert for our school at night. I sat next to one of my students and his family. It happened to be a kid who was super sweet, but incredibly unfocused in class — the type of child I devoted a lot of time and energy to nagging. I would tell him all day long, “Focus, get to work, pay attention.”
That night at the concert, he couldn’t see the stage well and climbed up on his uncle’s lap to watch. I was stunned to see him sitting on a family member’s lap, giggling and pointing and looking every single bit like the eight-year-old he was. The learning standards and classroom expectations might have been incredibly demanding and grown up, but he was still a child….sweet, happy, fun-loving, and young. Once I saw him in that light, it changed my interactions with him and softened my attitude toward my students.
I realized that even though I had a LOT on my plate as a teacher, I didn’t need to weigh my students down with that burden of responsibility all the time. I had to practice being in the present moment and actively looking for those opportunities to enjoy and appreciate my kids for who they were as individuals. This became easier and easier over time until it actually became my second nature. It was an intentional shift that I made with practice.
3) I gave too much homework and was a tyrant about collecting it.
Like many of the other issues here, this was a product of my controlling nature coupled with my school culture and norms of the time. In the early 2000’s, my third-grade team (on a nightly basis) gave students a half hour of reading, plus math practice, spelling practice, and usually an assignment from another subject, along with any incomplete classwork. I have no doubt that many of my eight-year-old students spent 90 minutes or more a night completing these assignments.
To make matters worse, I yelled at and guilt-tripped my students when they didn’t turn their work in. I acted like it was the end of the world if they didn’t write those spelling words five times each, as if that assignment had any bearing on how well they spelled words in their actual writing later on. I spent way too much time and energy tracking who was going to miss recess because of their missing assignments and I’m pretty sure at some point, I also displayed that information on the board for the entire class to see.
Homework was a painful process, a huge headache, and a massive source of stress for me and my students, and their parents, I’m sure.
Solution: Give less homework, collect it weekly, and stop acting like it’s the end of the world when students don’t turn it in.
I transferred to another school district where this sort of homework load wasn’t the norm and kids were spending about 30 minutes a night on homework. This opened my eyes to the fact that just because my experience was something that had “always been done” in a certain way did not mean that was the universal approach.
Interestingly, I found that the reduced homework load didn’t make a huge difference in my stress level nor did it increase the completion level for kids. There were still multiple kids who didn’t finish the work each night and it raised my blood pressure every time I dealt with it. But, the seed had now been planted for me to think about this problem differently.
I began looking for homework research to justify reducing the requirements and discovered Cathy Vatterott and her excellent book, Re-Thinking Homework. I realized that the connection between homework and student achievement is tenuous at best, particularly at the elementary level.
I not only eased up on a number of assignments (giving the absolute minimum required by the district) but I started collecting everything once a week so students had a longer opportunity to get it done. This was the biggest game changer for me in terms of ensuring homework was no longer a daily battle and energy drain: it became something I only had to think about on Fridays when the old homework was collected and new assignments were given, and homework completion rates soared once kids and families had a full seven days to find time in their schedule for it.
I also removed punishments for not doing homework. This was not my choice, to be honest, and simply because new physical activity regulations in my state changed and we were no longer allowed to take away recess. Many of my colleagues implemented other consequences for missing homework, but I decided to take a risk and do an experiment. To my surprise, the majority of the class continued to turn in homework on a regular basis and the only kids who didn’t were the ones who didn’t turn it in even when there WAS a consequence. It wasn’t the threat of missing recess that motivated the other kids to get it done and those who didn’t do the work needed more support and structure because no amount of punishment made a difference.
It took two full school years of experimentation for me to find a system I was comfortable with, but I didn’t give up until I figured out a way to remove the stress for me, my students, and their families.
4) I spent hours looking for lesson ideas and tried to cram too many things into our day.
A lot of my lesson planning process was focused on activities: what would the kids DO today? And I felt like the best way to plan those activities was to look at every possible option and then decide which one I wanted to use.
The problem with this from an energy standpoint is that exploring all the possible options became more and more time-consuming every year. In the beginning of my teaching career, I had only a few teacher resource books to choose from, but after a brief eBay addiction in which I would buy used teacher resource books, photocopy what I needed, and then resell on eBay to get money for more teacher resource books….let’s just say, I had a LOT of papers to go through.
And of course, every year, there were more and more activities and printables available online, too. It would take hours to feel like I’d even scratched the surface. I’d finally close my laptop and look at the pile of random printouts and sticky notes I’d scrawled on so hastily, and think, well now what? How did I just spend three hours on lesson planning and still have no idea what we’re doing for this unit?
Because I was exhausted at this point, I’d pick a handful of things that looked the easiest and add them to my lesson plans. (Not exactly the mark of a solid lesson, right?) Plus, the temptation to choose too many activities was strong. I’d uncovered so many possibilities that it absolutely crushed me to leave things out.
I felt that I HAD to include one activity because the kids would really like it and include another because the principal would really like it. A third activity would make it into the unit because all my coworkers did it, and another because I’d done it every year and was feeling sentimental. Some activities I felt compelled to include because I’d paid for the resource and didn’t want my money to be wasted, while others I included because I’d spent the entire weekend designing it from scratch and didn’t want my time to be wasted.
I was weighed down by this constant burden to do more, fit more in, cram every last second of the day with a meaningful learning opportunity, and then pushed that burden onto students so that everyone felt rushed all day long.
Solution: Focus on outcomes, not activities, and do fewer things better.
When I first heard about UbD (Understanding by Design), I knew immediately that “backwards planning” was the solution for me. I spent one summer studying the UbD book and practicing with the templates for a single subject area. I picked the one that I liked the least and had the hardest time planning for, which was science.
Because I was never formally trained in UbD, I’m certain that I wasn’t following the process with fidelity, but I’d learned enough to completely shift my mindset around planning. I was amazed at how beginning with the end in mind — deciding what kids needed to do and be able to do at the end of a unit and which standards they needed to meet — simplified everything else.
It immediately became clear when I was planning that if kids need to do XYZ by the end of the month, I’d have just one week for each skill leading up to that outcome. I’d then think about what aspect of that skill to teach each day during the week, which was relatively simple to do because the lessons were cumulative.
Once I knew the target outcome for each day, I no longer felt any need to look through tons of activities. I realized I had 45 minutes to get kids where they needed to be and there was no reason to look for fun worksheets or cute projects. I’d ask myself, “What’s the most impactful way I can help kids get to this target?” and all the distractions would fade away.
This streamlined approach made me realize that a lot of the most effective ways for me to teach and for kids to practice were just too good to be used once a year. When I’d think about the most impactful teaching strategy, I’d remember the previous unit when the kids had been really successful through a specific activity and want to use it again.
Over time, I developed a repertoire of go-to teaching activities that were versatile, open-ended, and could be plugged into just about any unit I taught. I no longer had to spend hours hunting online for just the right activity to teach a topic because I already had a few dozen learning strategies that the kids knew and loved. I could just look at my list of activities, pick one that would work, and pencil it into my lesson plans.
Eventually, I took the time to make my “teacher bag of tricks” understandable and accessible to other teachers, by writing out each step of the different activities and organizing them according to the level of prep needed, difficulty, and so on.
I hope that learning about the teaching mistakes that drained my energy will help you avoid making the same mistakes. Remember, your daily habits either give you energy or drain it from you. Choose wisely.
This post is based on an episode from 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 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.
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