If you’re reading this you’re probably the kind of teacher who really cares about kids. Or maybe teacher discounts. But probably kids.

One of the first things you realize as a teacher is that there is literally no end to the good work you could do. Better lesson plans benefit actual learners. More feedback, yes more grading, means more growth. Improving the learning environment means a better classroom experience. More clubs, and committees, and coaching means additional opportunities throughout the school community. Then add individual students you feel called to come alongside and invest in, making a difference in real lives. Every one of us has to find a way through this dilemma of the infinite good. The way we respond to these needs, spoken and unspoken, is critical to our quality of life as teachers.

One possible response is to not respond at all. You work with a few people like this. They seem oblivious to the importance of teachers and treat their jobs more like a hobby. They scoff at trying anything new or doing anything extra. In and out of the building at the contractual time. Recycled, reused and reduced lessons (the new 3 R’s!). Their refrain is, “I put my time in,” which is code for “25 years ago, before I had tenure, a long-forgotten principal made me advise the color guard for one season.” Thankfully, this isn’t a very large group.

Another response is to dive in and try to do too much. This group is made up mostly of younger teachers. They volunteer for everything. They arrive at school in the dark. They leave school in the dark. In a typical day, they implement a lesson using the district’s latest model, pilot a new technology, advise a club, coach a sport, attend a committee meeting, do some PD, and if they’re having a particularly great day, a student in crisis will darken their door. Then they go home and grade papers in front of Colbert, pass out, and do it all again the next day.

Most of us find the first response unacceptable and know it will leave us rested but restless. The second response is untenable and will leave us exhausted, with pride and regret in equal measure. More importantly, it will make a life outside of school next to impossible.

Thankfully, most of us aren’t in the first group (yet!) and we’re not in the second group (anymore!). We’re in the third group made up of well-intentioned, rule-following folks who take our jobs seriously. We want to please our bosses, do right by our students, and impress our colleagues. We go above and beyond, enough to feel burned out, but not enough to make any perceptible difference. In short, we try to please everyone. This approach, however, can be perilous because teachers are pulled in so many different directions.

So, let me offer one piece of advice…I know, I know, blogging requires at least “three ways to,” but we’re going with one! Here it is:

Remember who you work for. Answer this question right, and measure each “above and beyond” decision against it, and you will find the sweet spot on the Venn Diagram between manageable and meaningful work.

So, who do you work for? Well, there is a board of education that hired you, and a central administration that keeps you around and cuts your paycheck, and building principals and supervisors to whom you report. But that’s not who you work for. And as intelligent educators, not only are you miffed that I ended the last sentence with a preposition and started this one with a conjunction, you know that answer! We work for our kids. Seems simplistic, but it’s true. And any administrator worth working for would agree.

Respect yourself and your time enough to invest in endeavors that matter. You bring a unique set of traits, talents and interests to the table, so I can’t crank out a handy list of “things that matter.” The list is unique to you. You will find your answer at the intersection where your gifts meet the needs of your students.  Invest in your students out of your strengths and your passions, and you will make a difference. You may be thinking, “that would be great, but there are so many other expectations. Something’s gotta give.” Well, you’re right, so…

Do no more than passable work on things that don’t actually benefit your students. Now I don’t want to insult well-meaning folks who make educational policy from a conference room instead of a classroom, or belittle well-paid consultants at educational evaluation firms.  So, I’m not going to mention by name things that don’t matter. You and I both know what they are. What I am suggesting is that, for those things that don’t directly impact and benefit students, give yourself permission to do average work. Does anyone want to hear one more stellar veteran teacher headed into retirement saying, “I still love the kids, but I can’t jump through one more meaningless hoop?” I don’t. I don’t want to say it. I don’t want you to say it.

Next year, resolve to prioritize your students and appease everyone else. For things that matter, aim for the moon…even if you miss. (I can’t believe I just quoted that.) As for the red tape, the bureaucratic nonsense, the report no one looks at: do those things well enough so that you and the supervisor who has to make you do those things don’t get fired. Work from your strengths. Narrow your focus. Become the teacher with inspired students, even if it means uninspired paperwork. Be the teacher who gets the work done, so you can be free to love your calling.


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