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Teacher Burnout Strategies: How to Save Time Grading and Planning and on Everything Else To Do Tonight

I would argue that teacher burnout is the second pandemic of the 21st century. There are more demands than ever on our time, energy and creativity. When that happens, it’s easy to get sucked into inefficient systems or anxiety-driven to-do lists, which makes us work later, which drains more energy, which makes us more inefficient, and on it goes.

Despite what demands are placed on teachers during the pandemic, there are still 24 hours in a day (and there are still going to be administrators who have no idea that your day didn’t magically expand).

Within those 24 hours, you still have to eat and sleep and rest in order to work. When we don’t acknowledge that and plan accordingly, we lose our passion. We burn out. Many of us are feeling the effects of having been in survival mode since COVID started, but it’s time to find ways to liberate ourselves.

Today, let’s focus on a simple strategy for when you’re facing something (or several things) on your to-do list that you just don’t have time for.

It’s just 4 simple questions, but it has completely revolutionized my time and my students learning.

4 Questions to Ask Yourself When You’re Overwhelmed to Curb Burnout

  1. Is this task necessary? 
  2. What is necessary about it?
  3. What are 10 other ways I could achieve that same thing?
  4. Which option would be both the simplest and effective?

Let me tell you a story about how this strategy was born.

It was a happier, freer time, but the quarter leading up to spring break my second year teaching, I had a growing mountain of papers to grade. You might recognize my reasons for why I was procrastinating grading this stack:

  • It overwhelmed me
  • Each passing day made me feel even guiltier for not grading them (and made the stack grow taller)
  • I kept telling myself I could always just grade them over spring break

So that stack stayed in my tote like the teacher version of ankle weights.

Fast forward to 1 week before spring break when my bag was absolutely exploding, my grading-over-break backup plan hit a snag: I found out my boyfriend was surprising me with a trip (bless his heart). We were to leave right after work Friday and come back that last day of break, literally the entire span of my guilt-driven grading marathon.

This was a curveball. Definitely a curveball.

Do I tell him I can’t go? That I had to conquer this monster in my bag instead?

No. I wasn’t going to do that. This time, I had to figure out a way to (gasp) keep work at work.

That was the moment I sat down and asked myself these questions for the first time. 

  1. Is this grading necessary? 

Well, sort of.

  1. What part is necessary?

The guilt wasn’t necessary.

Providing students feedback and informing parents about progress, yes…but only on what we’re working on right now. If I really thought about it, we’ve moved on from a lot of this stack of work to the point that my feedback would be meaningless. 

So the only truly necessary part, or part that would be the most powerful, would be making sure students understood how they were doing on their work that we’re working on right now.

  1. What are 10 other ways to accomplish this (other than my original plan of grading over spring break)?
  1. Have students show me their work during class in a quick conference, check it in with a clipboard
  2. Ask my teacher friend to grade for me
  3. Skim papers quickly this week, sort into stacks, and small group conference with them
  4. Throw all the papers away and say I was robbed but everyone did great
  5. Skim papers quickly, give whole-class instruction with overall feedback
  6. Have students self- and peer-grade
  7. Stay up and grade all night every day this week
  8. Grade during the trip
  9. Use a coded system to streamline the grading process
  10. Ask students to pick a part of their work for me to grade
  1. Finally, which option would be the simplest and still effective?

I decided on a combination. 

On papers that weren’t worth my time to provide feedback because they were so outdated, I just wrote an authoritative star on each of them and handed them back. I didn’t even enter them into the gradebook, and nobody noticed. It took 10 minutes rather than the hours I was planning.

For the work that was still relevant, I had students pull it out during class and peer- and self-grade. I taught students how to look for the requirements for the paper in their own and peers’ papers, which actually ended up being more helpful for students, anyway.

And for the papers they were currently working on, I took a couple days and carried my clipboard around and checked in with each student individually while students worked during class. It only took about 1-3 minutes per student, I was able to have a conversation and provide feedback in the moment. I was ready to enter it all into the gradebook without a minute spent after school. It actually even turned out better than just grading on my and handing them back because I was able to check for understanding of my feedback in the moment.

In the end, I didn’t just save time grading, but students received way better feedback, I had a fantastic and refreshing trip (spoiler alert, that boyfriend proposed on this trip and is now my husband), and everybody won.

NONE of those benefits–maybe with the exception of my husband proposing, but only maybe–would have happened if I hadn’t asked myself those 4 questions. I would have spent untold more hours grading rather than recharging, and my students would have missed out on an improved feedback process.

After that experience, I was hooked. What other tasks were there magically more effective and less time intensive options that I was failing to see because I hadn’t questioned them?

From then on, anytime anything I was dreading or seemed like it was going to take forever, I asked myself these 4 questions. Almost ALWAYS, there was a better, faster way of doing it. Almost ALWAYS I came out of it feeling completely relieved. And almost ALWAYS, I ended up doing a better job anyway. It’s not just about preventing teacher burnout, it’s about creating innovating learning solutions.

Let’s turn to your overwhelming stack of work now. 

What feels completely overwhelming?

What are you dreading?

What do you feel locked into doing?

Once you have something in mind, ask yourself these 4 questions. 

  1. Is it necessary?
  2. What part of it is necessary?
  3. What are 10 other ways you could accomplish that necessary part?
  4. Which option(s) is both the simplest and effective?

If you’re having trouble thinking about other options, you can use these questions to dig deeper and search wider:

  1. Who is locking you into this? 

Sometimes we find it’s just ourselves or a bad promise we made to someone. Sometimes it’s an authority figure that asked us to do it, but they might actually agree to a simpler method.

  1. What is the minimum required work to get this done? (Thanks, Aubrey Patterson for teaching me this one)

Many times, there might be a mandatory quota or policy, but how you split that number up (perhaps providing multiple grades for one assignment?) or how you comply (perhaps a student-led portfolio review? A student-created, weekly newsletter?) has more than one option. 

  1. Is there a way you could put this task on students? 

I’m telling you, you’d be shocked at the number of times the answer to this question can be yes, and how much learning improves if you follow through with it. This is my number one strategy for freeing me up and enhancing student learning.

  1. What would be a wild way to get this done? 

Brainstorming wacky, unrealistic ideas (like calling and asking your teacher idol to plan the rest of your class so you can vacation) is a great way to unlock an anxious brain that’s struggling to see a different path. It can serve to get your juices flowing about out-of-the-box ideas that might actually work, like creating lesson plans together with your students.

I’m eager to hear how you saved time and what you did with that time instead, AND what new processes you come up with that might serve both you and your students better in the end anyway.

Let me know in the comments below. 

Until then, happy simplifying!

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