Work-Life Balance for Teachers

Teaching is demanding—and teaching well can be really demanding. So it’s no wonder that teachers, and especially great teachers, are often tired around this time of year… that long stretch of December before the respite of winter break.

Especially when you’re tired, “burnout” seems like an intractable problem, something that requires a wholesale redesign of the profession. To be sure, we are big supporters of creating long-term solutions that ensure effective teachers are well rewarded for their hard work both in compensation and career paths. We want to make sure effective teachers can choose to build long, dynamic careers in the classroom, and not plan for schools to rely only on superheroes, who may flame out from exhaustion after a few years.

But those longer-term goals aside, there are some simple things that schools and teachers can do right now to make sure teachers are energized at work and able to strike a healthy balance at home.

How do I know this? We recently asked our Fishman Prize winners how they’ve worked this issue out at their schools. It turns out, they aren’t just a font of great ideas about rigorous instruction and supportive policies, they have some commonsense wisdom on how to do all that and have a life, too. Here are four things teachers and school leaders can do.

Understand and Protect Teacher Time

It’s not rocket science: Teachers are incredibly busy, and they need enough time to do their jobs. We have heard concerns about interruptions and the burdens of administrative tasks in our Perspectives of Irreplaceable Teachers survey. 

Every professional faces too long to-do lists and needs to prioritize, but good managers—and strong school leaders—understand what is on teachers’ plates and make sure that their requests put students’ learning needs first. Day-to-day distractions like fire drills, assemblies, impromptu meetings and last-minute requests can get in teachers’ way. Plus, they are already busy following up with students and parents or entering grades and data.

Jennifer Corroy noted that there are small choices that schools can make to reduce the extra friction teachers feel, starting by asking teachers about what gets in the way of the important stuff, holding planning time sacred and holding back on add-on requests. Her point is pretty simple: Asking teachers to take on something new requires that they re-prioritize something else. School leaders need to think carefully before they pile on the one-off duties: Is it worth the time lost for planning or other routine tasks?

Divide and Conquer

Teachers bring lots of different talents and preferences to their schools, and smart leaders put that diversity to their advantage. As Keith Robinson said, “At RISE, I learned that heroes are not what make a great school.  A great school is made by a team with each person playing their specific role well.”

This thought is not about the abstract virtue of teamwork, but about the practical fact that different people like different parts of the job, and that a thriving work environment will build on those individual preferences. For some teachers, the equivalent of Dante’s seventh circle is detention duty, but for others, it’s sitting on a school bus with raucous middle school students. Asking teachers about their preferences and making management choices that account for those interests and strengths is a powerful way to support teacher satisfaction.

Work for (or Be!) an Inspiring Leader

Not surprisingly, all four winners agreed that leadership and school culture matter tremendously to making great teaching sustainable. Javier Velazquez spoke of his former principal in Chicago who knew great instruction well and built a positive work environment where teachers were inspired to work hard rather than being asked to work hard. His principal acknowledged hard work, but reserved praise for exceptional performance—whether that was recognizing someone who was highly effective, or highlighting outsized progress as a way to build on emerging strengths.

This is not what most teachers experience, as we found in The Irreplaceables—they either get blanket praise or none at all (both of which are demoralizing). While there’s certainly progress in this direction, it’s still true that most of the time, even exceptional teachers get little individual recognition for their daily work.

Jennifer touched on this theme as well. When she won the Fishman Prize, she received immediate public attention. Part of her couldn’t help but wonder, “Why weren't you more excited when 80 percent of my kids got college credit for their work? That was actually the amazing part.”

Teachers: Draw Your Own Boundaries

Some of this work must also rely on teachers themselves, since a big piece of this puzzle is how individuals decide what a reasonable balance means to them. For Keith, that meant actively deciding to take time for himself—and then actually following through on it. The next time he went to the movies with friends, for example, he paid attention and enjoyed the movie, rather than sitting in a movie theater while thinking about work. It’s critical to unplug from work, especially on the weekends, to return refreshed on Monday morning.

These are lessons that I’m taking to heart as I plan for my own work slowdown over the coming holiday break. Sustainability for excellent teaching—and for excellent work, in general—is not a simple problem when you look at it over the long haul. But do as the Fishman winners do: take a few small steps to cut down on interruptions and protect both personal and work time. Rest. Go to the movies. Remember why you love the work you do. And start off 2014 with a renewed sense of balance. That’s a resolution worth keeping.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP