My new book is coming out on April 10th, called Fewer Things, Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most. I’m doing the final edits on the book now and realized that I talk about a lot of different “syndromes” throughout the book.
These are mindsets that overcomplicate our teaching, make it harder to say no and draw boundaries, or that prevent us from doing the most impactful work.
I thought it would make a cool podcast episode if I pulled out each of those five syndromes from the book, and talked about how they might be holding you back.
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Shiny object syndrome
Some teachers find themselves perpetually chasing shiny objects: the next new, exciting trend that will transform their teaching. They might have FOMO: the fear of missing out, or worry about being stuck in the dark ages when everyone around them is innovating.
Here’s the cure: Remind yourself that of course, you’re missing out on some cool stuff. If you had a million years, you still wouldn’t have enough time to teach every awesome lesson idea that’s possible.
But, you don’t have to spend excessive time thinking about what you could be doing if what you’re already doing is working well for you and your students. Consider where your time and energy is best spent, and be intentional about what you prioritize.
When you find an activity that works, you can repeat those types of experiences over and over. I used the same 20ish types of practice activities in many contexts and only deviated from them when the subject matter lent itself to that (i.e. if I was teaching about moon cycles, obviously, we built models of the moon). For all the other skills/topics, I was simply picking from what I already knew was effective.
For example, gallery walks (also called chat stations) are one teaching strategy I’ve relied on a lot. Students work in small groups to walk around the classroom and respond to texts, questions, or prompts that I placed in various parts of the room. This activity is versatile and naturally differentiated. It can be used with any topic. It gets kids moving around and collaborating. They love it, and it’s minimal prep.
So, gallery walks are a go-to activity in my teaching “bag of tricks.” If I want kids to think and talk about a topic, I don’t need to spend an hour online looking for a clever new way to do it. I can simply write “gallery walk” in my lesson plans, and the next day, tell kids that’s what we’re doing and they immediately spring into action.
This means there’s no wasted time reinventing the wheel on my weekends. And, there’s no wasted class time explaining what to do, setting expectations, practicing procedures, and creating new routines.
If lesson planning takes you way too much time, this is the way you want to plan the bulk of your activities. You can start with 4-5 strategies which you know are effective for your students, and add more slowly over time.
This doesn’t mean that you can never look for something new to try. If finding fun activities is part of your “hobby-work” that you do in your free time, that’s great! I’m simply saying you don’t have to do it in order to be an effective teacher, and there are other ways to keep things fresh and interesting in your teaching.
I promise that the repetition of activities will not bother the majority of your students. Young kids like predictability and older kids don’t find things nearly as repetitive as we might assume (after all, they have 5-8 different teachers each day, so they’re getting a lot of variety in teaching styles and activities, anyway).
For kids of all ages, it can feel like a relief to come to class and know what is expected. Students like knowing how to be successful without thinking too hard about what the procedure is for whatever new thing the teacher is trying out that day.
So, don’t allow yourself to fall prey to “shiny object syndrome” in which you’re distracted by every new-to-you teaching idea. Focus on what works and let go of the pressure to do constantly do something new.
Even if your students are generally learning and engaged, parents are complimenting you, colleagues admire you, and your principal thinks you’re doing a good job, you still might not see yourself as an effective teacher.
You might feel a bit like a fraud, and experience an almost panic-inducing sense that at any moment, other people are going to figure out you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.
This is called imposter syndrome, and it can be paralyzing. You might think to yourself, I have no idea what I’m doing as a teacher. I’m not experienced or knowledgeable enough to be doing this work. I don’t know why other people say I’m such a good teacher — I really don’t deserve it and haven’t done a very good job.
The cure for imposter syndrome is to build up your sense of self-worth and learn to truly recognize your skills and accomplishments. That’s because the problem isn’t other people thinking you’re better than you actually are. They’re not wrong about your competency.
The issue is that they think you’re better than you think you are. Their view of you is higher than your view of yourself.
Imposter syndrome isn’t rooted in reality or your actual skills and expertise at all. It’s rooted in the way you see yourself. If you’ve accomplished things that are greater than your own perception of self-worth, you will experience cognitive dissonance anytime you’re praised:
- How could I be Teacher of the Year when my desk is a mess and I have 500 unread emails?
- Why would they want me to be a team leader when I yelled at my students the other day?
- How could my colleagues compliment my room organization when everything inside my cabinets is a disaster?
Because you don’t measure up to some internal ideal, you don’t feel like a “real adult” or maybe you just don’t feel like a “real teacher.”
So when others compliment your achievements and skills, it feels uncomfortable because it doesn’t align with your identity. You don’t see yourself as a person who could be a team leader or teacher of the year or even “just” a competent classroom educator. You focus on all your flaws, mistakes, and limitations. Your self-image is not aligned with who you really are and what you’ve been able to accomplish.
It’s extremely difficult to create boundaries for yourself, stand up for your needs, and be firm in what you believe if part of you feels like an imposter.
If you want to have the confidence to do fewer things better, you have to be yourself unapologetically, without letting others’ expectations define you. Getting there means understanding your strengths and knowing what you bring to the table.
Project manager syndrome
It’s a well-known fact that teachers wear many hats. You play the role of secretary, nurse, social worker, counselor, actor, events coordinator, coach, detective, referee, and so on.
But there’s another role that needs to be filled, and you might not even be aware of it. It’s being a project manager. Your school or district leaders set the goals, but you’re in charge of figuring out systems and daily procedures for getting kids from point A to B in their development.
In other words, someone in charge tells you what needs to be done, perhaps in excruciating, micromanaging detail. But you must figure out how to ensure that everything which is required actually happens. Not only are you figuring out systems, routines, and procedures, you are also responsible for completing the vast majority of the work, all by yourself.
You’re given the learning standards and are responsible for orchestrating how to get every single child to meet the standards. That’s not a single task you can put on a to-do list and check off. It is an absolutely massive, ongoing project.
That’s why lesson planning is so challenging and time-intensive: you have to design, research, manage, oversee, implement, and evaluate the project pretty much single-handedly.
And lesson planning is just ONE type of project you’re in charge of. You also manage projects around behavioral issues, classroom design, organization, committee goals, action research, and more.
You’re not only expected to execute all of them well, but you’re also expected to plan, manage, and oversee all of them … ON TOP OF MANAGING THE WORK OF ALL OF YOUR STUDENTS.
And then you go home and repeat the process for all your personal and household tasks, planning and executing far too many things there, too. The obligation to make sure everything’s running smoothly and everyone’s happy and nothing is forgotten never ends.
I refer to this kind of emotional labor and mental load as “Project Manager Syndrome.” It’s where you feel responsible for planning and orchestrating every detail of your life and the lives of those in your care.
I believe it’s one of the most insidious forms of burnout because we have trouble recognizing it in ourselves or explaining the stress to others. Many of the responsibilities don’t seem very big on their own, so we feel like we shouldn’t complain.
But it’s the cumulative weight that’s exhausting: the sheer number of items to keep track of. There might be 30 or more things to oversee just in the minor details of your students’ day:
Remember to send Sarah to the Speech Therapist at 10:15; get Jacob to the nurse for his asthma medication at 11:30; give the homework assignment to LaShay right before lunch since she’s leaving early; make sure Mario has the extra copy of the study guide his mom requested; print out the recommendation letter for Justine; have Chloe check the lost and found for the hat she can’t find …
No wonder your brain feels like it’s on overload!
The cure for project management syndrome involves turning over the responsibility for doing many of these tasks to others so you’re not carrying the mental load of trying to remember and oversee everything. But there’s another syndrome that plays into this one which might be holding you back. Let’s talk about superhero syndrome, too, and then we’ll address the cure for both.
This is a phenomenon in which people are unwilling to ask for help because they believe no one else could be capable of doing things how they need to be done.
This has been a big struggle for me in all areas of my life and work, and chances are good that you struggle in very similar ways with carrying too much of the workload. Maybe your superhero syndrome sounds like this:
- “I can’t ask my partner to do the dishes because I don’t like the way he loads the dishwasher.”
- “I can’t ask my students to organize our class library because it won’t look right if they do it.”
- “I can’t co-plan with my teammates because they don’t do things the way I want them.”
And on, and on, and on.
You don’t exist as an island, and yet you’ve isolated yourself when it comes to getting things done. You’ve taken on the responsibility for tasks which the people around you are fully capable of doing.
You don’t want to “owe” your coworkers so you never ask them for anything.
You don’t trust your family members to be responsible so you bear the full weight of keeping the household on track.
You don’t want to take time to train your students to clean, organize, and manage their learning environment so you stay on top of everything for them.
It’s superhero syndrome that makes you feel like you are the only one who can do things the way they need to be done. Superhero syndrome convinces you that it’s easier to do everything yourself than to train someone else or allow them to do things in their own way.
But guess what: As long as you’re the only one who can do things “right,” you’re the only one who will ever be doing them.
If you want to expand your capacity to achieve more or even just shorten your to-do list, you have to adapt the same mindset that I needed to adapt and begin sharing the workload. That’s the only cure.
No, your family members, students, etc. will not be able to do things exactly like you do them. But 80% done by them is better than 100% done by you.
You may have to explain the task, train them, and get them started (the first 10%), and you might have to do the final 10% yourself to clean up any errors or put the final touch on things. But if the middle 80% can be delegated, that’s 80% less work for you.
Even 40% done by someone else is better than 100% done by you. Don’t allow your own standards for how things “should” be done keep you stuck in a place where you can never delegate or get assistance.
In the Fewer Things, Better book, I share a lot more specifics about this delegation process and how to let go to empower others to take more responsibility. For now, let’s move on to the fifth and final syndrome that overcomplicates your teaching.
The competition for martyrdom is ingrained in us from the first days of our teacher training programs. We are told repeatedly — by everyone around us — that we will never make a lot of money in this profession, while also being told that teaching is the most important profession in the world.
We are groomed from the start to accept that we will always be undervalued and underpaid, and the tacit implication is that we must be okay with that sacrifice if we really care about kids.
These are the subconscious beliefs that comprise our collective teaching identity:
- The more I pile onto my plate, the more dedicated of a teacher I am.
- The harder the teaching job, the more it proves I care about kids.
- The worse the working conditions I endure, the tougher I am and the more worthy of respect I am.
These are the beliefs which make the “savior complex” such a common problem amongst teachers. We pressure ourselves to do whatever it takes to “rescue” kids. We are conditioned to see ourselves as the hero of kids’ stories instead of seeing kids as the heroes of their own stories.
Not only will a savior complex harm your students, but it will also wear you out. It’s impossible to create better balance when you feel responsible for saving children and need to constantly prove how much you’re doing to help them.
A savior or hero’s entire identity is wrapped up in saving the victims, and nothing else matters — it must get done at any physical, emotional, or financial cost.
A supporter takes responsibility only for the factors within their control. A supporter derives a sense of self-worth from their inherent value which is not measured by how hard they work. Therefore, a supporter has nothing to prove to themselves or others.
But here’s the cure: you can change your identity from savior to supporter, and withdraw from the contest for Most Dedicated Teacher in the Most Difficult Teaching Job Ever.
In fact, that’s the critical piece of this transformation. If you think that taking the toughest teaching job and working endless hours is necessary to prove you care, any improvement in your workload will always be impossible.
Cutting back on anything will make you feel less dedicated to kids, and you will constantly compare yourself to other teachers who sacrifice more.
You won’t be able to follow through on steps to simplify until that no longer conflicts with your identity as someone who must do anything for the kids and be hard at work every minute to prove your worth.
Being overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated — yet continuing to give 110% every day — is part of our collective identity as educators. And we are all hardwired to reject changes that don’t fit with our identities.
Maybe it’s time for you to ask some of the questions I had to grapple with, too:
- Do I want people to agree that I have a terribly hard job with completely unreasonable demands, or do I want to enjoy my work?
- Do I want the satisfaction that comes from seeing myself as a martyr, or do I want to figure out what my needs are and make sure they’re met?
- Do I want to win the Hardest Job in the World award, or do I want to live a fulfilling, well-balanced life?
You have to get real about what you want and decide if you’re actually motivated to change.
Because sometimes we don’t want things to improve. We just want to wallow. We want to talk about how awful and difficult things are, and have others commiserate and admire us for all the hardship we manage to endure.
I’ve been there. And it’s okay for you to be there, too. Just don’t stay stuck there. At any point in time, you can decide to stop repeating to yourself how exhausting everything is and let go of excuses for why your life could never be any different.
You can stop measuring your worth by what other people think of you and how much you do for others.
You can disassociate the number of hours you work with your perception of effectiveness and dedication.
When you shift those beliefs, you create space to be intentional about how you use your unpaid time. You can begin to focus more on what matters instead of trying to keep up with what everyone else appears to be doing.
It is a myth that every teacher has to work endless unpaid hours to do a great job for kids.
The truth is that working more hours does not equate with more effectiveness. It’s what you do with the hours that makes a difference.