What made teaching easier and more sustainable this school year, and how can we carry those principles over into next year?

Those are the questions I’m exploring in this article and podcast episode. What follows is a condensed transcript of my conversation with Amy Stohs, who is currently a 2nd grade teacher in Northern Virginia, and was named Teacher of the Year in 2019 while she was teaching 6th grade.

Amy’s experience is unique in that she has now taught both elementary AND middle school in a pandemic, so she’s experienced the challenges of working with both younger and older students in face-to-face and hybrid learning.

Her experience is also unique in that she’s been an active participant in my 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program for the last few years, and I’ve been really impressed by the ideas and resources she shares in that community. So at the start of this school year, I reached out to Amy and asked her to join the 40 Hour team, and help create the adaptations for the program for remote and hybrid learning.

If you’re part of 40 Hour or the grad program and you’ve loved the remote/hybrid bonuses, you’re about to hear directly from the teacher who brainstormed them with me. Amy’s going to share 7 principles that helped simplify her teaching and make her work more sustainable:

  1. Do what HAS to get done, not what you WANT to get done.
  2. Backward design your classroom management: figure out the goal, then decide what action steps will get you there.
  3. Go slow to go fast.
  4. Instead of always doing your best, ask “What do I have to give today?” 
  5. When you’ve tried it all, try one thing. 
  6. Shift focus from finding something new and different to doubling down on what we know kids need.
  7. Look for moments of joy and find the fun.

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1. Do what HAS to get done, not what you WANT to get done.

ANGELA: Let’s start by talking about some guiding principles that you’ve really honed over this past school year. These are things that worked for you pre-pandemic, they’ve worked during the pandemic, and things that you want to carry over into post pandemic teaching, whenever that is and whatever that looks like, whatever we’re going into for next year. The first one that you had identified was, do what HAS to get done, not what you WANT to get done.

AMY: One of the things that I noticed with all of the distance learning and virtual resources out there were teachers were just making the most amazing things, like all of these cool Bitmoji classrooms, and I would find and use some of them. They were just so many cool things and I wanted desperately to dive into all of that kind of fun stuff and look at all these pretty activities.

There was so much I wanted to do, but I knew that honestly, I couldn’t do that and still maintain my own frame of mind, still be healthy with my work hours, or still adjust to teaching in a new grade level this year.

I knew that I couldn’t focus on all of that, that I really needed to focus on the essentials. I needed to focus on what I HAD to do, and the frameworks that were going to really support me in the long run, and not just to be one activity that I could do that day. I really had to focus on what was going to be necessary.

2. Backward design your classroom management: figure out the goal and then decide what action steps will get you there.

We talk about backwards design with curriculum all the time: think about what’s the rubric going to look at, and what’s the final goal of the project, or what will the end of unit assessment look like, and then figure out, what do we need to teach to get there?

But I think that we also need to backwards design the classroom management, and what sort of vision we have for the classroom. If I’m thinking about a classroom routine or something, I think about, what do I want to get to? What’s my goal?

For instance, in the fall, I knew that I was going to be teaching online for many more hours than I was in the spring. I knew I was going to have to break up that day differently somehow, so I really wanted to get to virtual stations — to have kids doing different activities and breakout rooms and to be able to do independent work.

I thought that might be kind of hard with my second graders — teaching them how to do all of this work on their own. I wanted to make sure that they could get to all of those websites, ask for help the way that I wanted them to with little hand raises and using the chat appropriately.

I wanted to get all of those procedures in place so that when we transitioned into virtual stations, it was going to be smooth, and that was such a good investment of time. I mean, it took me probably six weeks to get to where I wanted it to be. Even more like a few months before things were super smooth and the kids just knew what to do and needed hardly any reminders from me.

That has paid off as we move into concurrent teaching, as well, where I have kids in person, two different days, and then kids at home, and then they flip-flop. I actually see all of my students in person, but they just flip flop two days and two days.

When I was transitioning into that concurrent teaching model, I did the same thing. I thought about, what do I want small groups to look like? How do I want to structure my class? I laid things out like, This is the week I want to get to this … and what are the things I need to teach in order to get there? I needed to teach a lot more procedures leading up into what I envisioned. Each week, I’m working a little bit more towards that goal of, What are the steps I needed to get to that final outcome?

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3. Go slow to go fast.

This obviously takes longer than just diving in and figuring out what I need to do for tomorrow. I have a feeling this leads us into your third strategy, which is go slow to go fast. That’s what you’re describing here, right?

The educational system wants us to go fast. They want us to just jump in and teach lots of skills and make sure that testing gets done. Even now, I’m feeling that kind of pressure of like, make use of the time that we have with them in person now, implement all of these interventions, make sure that they’re meeting their goals.

That pressure can be a lot, but building blocks matter and essential skills really do matter. So, you need to go slow in order to go fast later, because kids are going to get paid back in huge dividends if they really understand essential skills, and you’re going to be able to go so much faster with things if you spend the time on procedures. If you spend the time on what you really want to get out of class, if you really do that sort of backwards design thought process, then it will go faster for you.

If you dive deep into something, you’ll get so much more out of it. I was in this one training that had us focusing on essential skills. They gave us this list of standards from a drivers ed class. It had like 12 or 15 standards. It was just a page long. Our task as teachers was to look at this and think, if we wanted someone to go onto the road tomorrow — a teenager new to driving, and they’re going out onto the road tomorrow — which standards do we want them to make sure that they have for sure?

It was so easy to look at that list and be like, they need to know how the brake system works so that they don’t get into accidents, and they need to know how certain operations of the car work. Do they need to know everything about insurance policies right now? No. They can figure that out later. There were so many things listed. It was like, of course someone needs to know this part in order to drive the car, and that other part’s not as important.

I think that when we look at our standards, we need to have the same lens of like, What is absolutely necessary for them to move into the next school year, for them to move into the world in general? And which are ones that maybe they could pick up later and it’ll be okay?

That’s the way I want my classroom to be. I want it to be a place of thinking and actually understanding. I don’t want it to just be this hectic busy-ness of running through worksheets and activities, and just sort of getting through. I want it to be a place of presence and actual thinking and comprehension.

For me, all of those thinking routines, it’s about depth, it’s about slowness. It’s about giving kids time to actually process what they’re learning. It very much revolutionized some of my practice because I started embedding reflection journals.

I’m so much less anxious as a teacher because of that, because I’m thinking about what do I need to go slow with, what matters, and investing my time into those things that matter and not just rushing ahead to rush ahead.

What would you say to a teacher who’s listening to this and thinking, “Yes, I agree 100%. That’s exactly what I want to do, but I feel all this pressure from my district to keep to the pacing guide, the curriculum map, to stay at the same place that my grade level team is. I feel rushed, and so I rush my students, and I don’t want to do that.” How do you avoid that in your classroom?

I’m super lucky because I have a great administration that embraces thinking routines. They like what I’m doing, but they do feel that same stress.

And I do keep up with pacing guides. I’m a little behind now, but that’s because I just had to move into concurrent instruction and basically start the year over again. But typically, I actually am on track with my units. I know that I can always embed something later. I can come back to a concept later in the year and cycle back into something. I plan in a way that builds in buffer days. I’m able to stay on track with my plans because of those buffer days.

If other people on my team want to do an extra activity or want to do other things, that’s fine. I’m not going to argue with someone about that they should be exactly like me. If they want to plan more, which often they do, that’s fine.

I choose to cut things. I choose to do a little bit less and to do it a little deeper. That’s the environment that I want to set in my classroom. I’m still doing the same topics. I’m just doing maybe one less thing each kind of content area.

Yes, exactly — choosing fewer activities, not packing the lesson plan so full. I want to hear you talk more about buffer days too, because that is a concept that I’m really passionate about. We come back to that over and over again in 40 Hour, about having buffer time in your lessons, in your day, and then also in your lesson plans.

So, there is a day each week — or maybe each month, or every other week — where you either don’t have anything planned or you have far less planned. It’s sort of like review or a catch-up day, because there’s always things that throw us behind.

If we don’t build that time in, then you’re going to feel like you’re just falling further and further behind, but there’s always questions about, okay, what does that actually look like? I mean, you can’t just have a lesson plans where there’s a whole day with nothing written in the plans. Tell us what that looks like for you.

I often will label something as a reflection day of prompts in my lesson plans and then I’ll know that’s what I need to do, or do game day or review day or something, where I know that I need to come back to that concept. That’s sort of what a buffer day is for me, but I don’t literally write buffer day!

I already know kind of what are some of the games that I could just list off for myself or what are some little reflection thinking routines that I can just literally list. It’s like, this is what I could do if I have the time.

The idea really is that you’re just creating some margin for yourself. If there is a fire drill, an assembly, a student gets sick, or anything else that causes you to fall behind in your lesson plans, the buffer time makes it so that you don’t have to quite cut as much.

At least that’s my approach — and tell me if that’s how it is for you — but I felt like I really tried to focus as a teacher on just including the most essential activities, the things that would make the biggest impact for kids, not cramming the lesson plan with everything we could do.

But as you were saying, it’s not just what you want to get done, but what has to get done — what are the most important things? Then hopefully, when I get to that buffer day, there won’t be so many things that I feel like I have to catch up on. Or if I had those extra 15 minutes built into my lesson, we could then go deeper on a reflection question or kids could share out some of their thinking, or we could do some sort of wrap up in a way that — if I had over-planned the lesson — that deeper thinking and reflection time wouldn’t have been possible.

Yeah. Also, what I would do is set aside a day just for student-teacher conferences or something, or before a new reading unit, I set aside a day that’s just book talks and looking at and choosing new books for book clubs. That’s all we’re doing that day. It’s a different kind of day.

To me, that also is like a buffer day. I’m not trying to cram that in or do a whole bunch of book talks and have them just select it by this date. I’m giving them the whole class period to decide. They can watch the book trailers I’ve pulled. That gives me some space.

I don’t have to do this formal pre-reading activity that other people are doing. I can just let them have time to look through books. Then for writing, as we’re nearing the end of the unit, I can spend an entire day doing a check-in of the class and do a bunch of quick conferences. My goal can be to get to every single kid during that block of time and just check in on like, where is everyone? So that no one is turning in an incomplete project.

To me, those are like planned buffer days of trying to ensure success before we’re wrapping up a unit. It’s almost like a formative assessment with like a conference day or something. I’m just spending the whole day doing that. I think that’s very justifiable, if I needed to explain my plans. It’s not my normal day, but it’s very justifiable.

4. Instead of always doing your best, ask, “What do I have to give today?”

I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I can be pretty high achieving and intense. I personally feel like when someone tells me, “Do your best,” that’s stressful for me. I’m like, “But that’s a lot. If I were to do my best, that would be a lot of work.”

It feels like that’s just too much. It’s kind of misleading, because other people are trying to say that if you do your best, you’ll be fine. It’s like, “But I won’t be fine, my best is a lot of work.”

So something I also used to ask myself is, “Can I do this badly? Can I just do it? Does it have to be done to my best or can I just do this badly? Can I think about a limit that I’m placing on what my best means?” It’s that question of like, “What do I have to give today? What does my day look like? How do I feel? How can I think about not just how many hours I’m going to give to work today, but what is the energy that I can give to work today? What sort of tasks can I do effectively?”

Because different tasks require very different energy. Making a whole bunch of copies is  different than planning a unit, and grading measly small assignments is very different from grading a project.

What can I really give today? I think that’s a phrase I’ve heard from a couple different people like Glennon Doyle, I think has written about that. I listen to the podcast, Everything Happens with Kate Bowler, which I love, and she talks a lot about that. Like, what do I have to give today? What can I offer the world today?

I love that approach. I think that’s one of the cool things about being a teacher. Not everyone has this amount of flexibility, but for me, I had the ability to look at my plans for the day and say, you know what? I just don’t have the energy for that today. It is a huge, noisy, loud, messy group project and I’m just not feeling it. For whatever reason, my mood just doesn’t match that. I’m going to shift that. I’m going to shift it to the afternoon. I’m going to flip flop today’s lessons and tomorrow’s. I’m going to sort of move things around to think about, what do I have to give today?

If I need the kids to be working on something a little quieter, they can do that for a while. If I need morning work to extend for an extra 10 minutes because I have this email that I really didn’t want to have to respond to, but it’s very urgent and I need to get back to this person right away, I can have the kids work on that.

This means thinking about your own energy levels and incorporating that into your lesson plans, instead of trying to always see a lesson plan as this fixed entity, like, “I planned it, and therefore, we have to do it exactly in this order, in this way.”

Because if you’re not in that head space, you’re not going to do a great job with it. I found that it’s much better to give myself a low key activity and kind of ease into things or shift to a different headspace. Maybe I just didn’t sleep well the night before and I’m really tired. If I wait and do a more high energy activity the following day, it’s going to go so much better for my kids, because I’m going to be so much more patient and enthusiastic.

I think taking that kind of flexibility based on what I have to give today is a really cool aspect of teaching that not everyone can say about their jobs.

Yeah, I love that flexibility. That’s actually been one of the hardest parts of the past month with concurrent teaching. I feel like that flexibility has been a bit drained out of me. Every minute feels a little too scheduled for me.

But I can look for flexibility where it does exist. I have a little 15 minute break built in. I can’t plan in my room right now because specials are in my room and it’s only 30 minutes. By the time I leave and go somewhere and find a spot that’s semi-quiet, I can’t really get anything done. So what can I do with that time that is still useful to me?

Maybe it’s not grading or planning, but what can I do with that planning time that exists? If it’s just checking email, it has to happen at some time. It’s okay for me to use my planning time to sit and breathe and maybe I can rearrange my day in different ways. There’s always some flexibility. I have less than I feel like I used to, but it still exists, and so I have to look for the little pockets of flexibility that I do have.

Exactly. Because every teacher has flexibility someplace. It may not be as much as you want, but really focusing on the areas that you do have some control, is so much more empowering.

I want to also comment on what you said about as a perfectionist, this idea of telling yourself “just do your best” is not helpful. I think that’s so important to illuminate, because as a fellow type A person, yes, my best is way more than I think what the average person’s best is. I like the idea of asking like, “Can I just do this badly?”

Sometimes I tell myself, “Angela, just do a crappy job. Just get in there and just get it done, just get it done.” I find that, because I am a perfectionist, my idea of a crappy job is actually a lot of people’s idea of a really good job.

My standards are so high that either one of two things will happen. Either I’ll get in there and I’ll be like, “Actually, this is pretty good, Angela. This is going to be right on par with what people would expect to see here.”

Or I’ll get in there and realize, “This task was just not important. I was completely stressing out about having to do it this certain way, but once I get into it, I realize all of that does not actually need to be done. I can just do this one little thing right here, and that’s absolutely fine, no one’s gonna be able to tell the difference, it doesn’t even matter.”

I had built it up in my head as this big, all-encompassing thing like, “Oh, I have to do this, but this also needs to be in place, and I need to do this. “Then when I get into it — which I can only do because I’ve given myself permission to do it badly — I realize actually none of that was necessary. It’s a much simpler task than what I had built up in my head.

That may not apply if you’re a non-perfectionist, but for the people who are very hard on themselves and have very high expectations for themselves, I think this is so important to talk about.

Yes, absolutely.

5. When you’ve tried it all, try one thing.

I got this advice from my principal. She didn’t say it in exactly that way, but I had a really rough year — my class just had a lot going on. If you can think of literally any kind of problem, any sort of academic need, whatever you could come up with, it was in that class. The kids were great. They taught me so much. I loved them to pieces. That’s the way you feel about kids that you just pour your heart into.

So I was just kind of falling apart with these different behavior plans I had kids on, and it felt like nothing was working.They were frustrated with me and they had come to rely on me a lot and were calling out like, “Ms. Stohs, I called your name like four times and you didn’t come to me yet. “ And I’m literally working with another student. They just were being mean to each other at different times, and I’m just crying in my principal’s office. I’m spent. They’re constantly pulling at me.

She was like, “Well, first of all, they’re treating you like you’re their mom. That’s what kids say: Mom, you didn’t come when I wanted you to, and you didn’t do this thing that I asked you to. They’re reaching out in that way.”

Instead of looking for that better thing or that magic bullet that I was so expecting myself to get to, that whole savior complex where I was just going to fix them all, she was reminding me, you’re doing so much: “Instead of doing all of this, focus on one thing. Do the one thing that you think is going to make a difference, that you’ve already seen a little bit of progress with.”

So instead of changing my behavior plan five different times, I just stuck with one thing and I just kept the same thing for weeks. I didn’t change it.

I’m not going to say that, suddenly at the end of the year, like everything was totally fine. But at the end of that year, I was able to be like, “Okay, you can do one thing well, and that’s okay.”

That’s the way I feel about this year too. It’s like, instead of trying to do all of the things that I could be doing,  focus on what I can do well. This year, I’ve really tried to embrace just doing a few things well, like getting kids books and supplies. And really focusing on small groups, and how can I have different kids doing different activities at the same time with stations really letting morning meeting be the full time that I can devote to it.

And also just letting my teammate make copies and not caring. I don’t need to check her work. I don’t need to look it over. I can just accept things without needing to check it. She can completely handle ordering the books that we got through our grant. I don’t need to check over or research more books. I can just let her list be THE list, and it’s going to be great. I can just let it go.

So, just focus on doing SOME things well. That was something that clicked for me. When my principal was sort of like, “just pick something”, that I came up with this phrase in my head of like, When I’ve tried to do all of these things, just do one thing. Do one thing.

6. Shift focus from finding something new and different to doubling down on what we know kids need.

I mean, we all know what our students need. We know that they need reflection time and quiet time. They need mindfulness. They need to be read aloud to. They need reassurance. They need a connection. They need to talk to other people. They need repetition. They need breaks. They need meaningful work to do. They need to feel like they belong.

We know what they need — it’s not some sort of mystery. Anyone who’s been in the classroom working with kids knows the things that are good and knows what’s working.

The reason we get frustrated as educators is because we feel like other people are telling us things that don’t work. But we know what they need.

It’s about embracing that and yeah, doubling down on what we know kids do need. I mentioned Kate Bowler’s podcasts before, and she said that phrase, like, “Show me who to love”, and I have embraced that a lot this year with my students too: “Who do I need to talk today? Who do I need to let talk? Who do I need to listen to? Whose parents should I just reach out to? Who do I need to see in a conference?”

It’s this funny story while I was literally being evaluated, a bunch of kids in my class wanted to show me these virtual gingerbread houses that we’d made during morning meeting the previous day. They’re all, “Oh, can I show you my gingerbread house? Ms. Stohs, can I show you my gingerbread house?”

I was really tempted to just be like, “No, we have to do the math, because I’m being evaluated right now.” Like, how do you not know this? But I knew they really wanted to show me, so I let them.

This is how I’ve been doing it all year. I respond to them if they want to talk to me. I mean, I have to set limits around that obviously, or we’d never get to any math, but I let them show me. I let them show me a couple of their gingerbread houses, and then I said, “We need to get to the rest of them tomorrow.”

My favorite strategy is jotting down their names on a Post-it note and either holding it up to the camera or in person and being like, “See, I’ve got your names. It’s okay. I won’t forget about your turn tomorrow. We’ll get there.”

So show me who to love, show me how to listen. That’s sort of a prayer of sorts, of thinking about what can I do with intentionality? Who do I need to go to?

I feel like I’m an intuitive person and an intuitive teacher, and I’ve never quite been that person who just goes straight down the list alphabetically for reading or writing conferences. I just sort of sporadically go around, and I keep track, so I know that I haven’t missed someone, but that kind of responsiveness is part of what I think makes me a good teacher.

It’s not a weakness to just go to who needs it or to take the pause and change plans. To me, that’s not a weakness kind of going off script, or not following the list. That’s a strength.

Yes, that’s being responsive to the kids. I know what you mean about intuiting who needs what. I think when you train your mind on this idea of “show me who to love”, you’re training your focus on noticing that aspect of which students really need me right now. You start to read the energy in the room. You start to notice more things, where if you’re just totally focused on the lesson plan, you’re not going to notice them. I think that’s really powerful.

7. Look for moments of joy and find the fun.

I am a huge fan of responsive classroom and morning meetings and doing lots of games. I was a summer camp counselor for many years, and I love little games and activities. I’ve sought out fun projects and little silly activities and just anything to add some lightness. It makes me happy, it makes kids happy, doing just any kind of active game.

I really racked my brain to think about what games can we play while social distancing? What are things we can do outside? What are virtual activities we can do that work?

I write a little blog for fun, and that’s mostly what I’ve written about this year. It’s not anything heavy. It’s just a whole lot of games. What can we do that’s going to be fun? We have to look for the moments of joy and create moments that are going to bring laughter. We can’t let that go.

How Amy used these principles to support other teachers in 40 Hour

You’ve been part of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek for quite a while now, and you have not only seen the changes and evolution over the years, but you’ve also been part of it. You have been instrumental in helping me adapt the program for all of the remote and hybrid learning.

Anyone reading this who was part of 40 Hour: All those remote and hybrid bonuses from like October, November-ish on have been, in large part, due to the work of Amy.

Amy, you have been my eyes and ears on the ground. You have been the person testing this stuff out and adapting all of these principles and systems for the new changes for virtual and hybrid learning. I feel like you know these systems so well.

You’ve applied them at an elementary setting in middle school. I’m so grateful for all of your support and help and making sure that the program was useful for teachers during all of the COVID changes.

I would love to hear just a little bit about your experience working on that, and what has been the most helpful part for you at 40 Hour?

I love the club and I’ve appreciated taking the time to reflect on how it would apply to remote and hybrid teaching. It’s been good for me to really like think through how 40 Hour can help in multiple situations.

After a year in the club and then a year in the 40 Hour Graduate Program, you asked teachers in the club to reflect on what they got out of it — I think it was through that hashtag #40HourGaveMe. The things that I wrote about then I think are still really true, like more confidence in my teaching.

I just felt like what I was doing was the best use of my time, and that I was doing kind of what mattered. I had a more acceptance of myself and what I could do.

Something that’s not related to teaching, just spilled over from that mindset, is I’ve been working a couple of years now on this mural at my church. I painted this underwater scene and the hallway going down to it, and then like across the wall and everything. I had this very grand illustrious, fantastic vision of what this was going to be. And it wasn’t.

It turned out really well. People were shocked and like, “Oh, that’s really fantastic.” But it was hard for me at first to change my vision a little bit, because that whole like lowering your standards to where no one else will notice, but you. Nobody else knew really what I was thinking.

When I proposed the idea to the church that I was gonna paint this, and it had to go through this super long ridiculous process to get approved. They bought my paint and supplies. When I was thinking through that, I really had this vision, but nobody else knew what I was planning.

This was something that really I did get out of the club in terms of that mindset of, yeah, this is good. This is acceptable. I can look for my strengths. I can let go of things that aren’t working. I can move on from maybe something else I had in mind and it’s still really good. That acceptance, that confidence really did come from all of those mindset shifts just over and over again, kind of slowly seeping in.

I mean, the club just has like a million little hacks and little like life hacks and tips. I felt like my parent teacher communication improved and that I was more able to be responsive to families. There’s a lot of systems in the club like those report card comments and conferencing tips. I started using one of those apps for communication, because the club just sort of propelled me towards that. I was like, “Yep, this is great,” and I felt like parents really appreciated it. I was able to solicit some feedback from them just on homework and adjusting my expectations related to what they said.

Student-led conferences, too. I had already been doing a little bit of that beforehand, but the club just gives you more resources and more guidelines.

It also, for me, it affirmed so much of what I was doing and clarified so much. The ideas weren’t wasn’t anything so crazy different, but it was like this little window I needed to see into how somebody else was doing it. This was what I needed to help clarify what I was already doing, and it’s so helpful to get an affirmation of knowing I’m on the right track.

Or, “Oh, it’s nice to have this document I can just print out.” Before it was just like I sketched out on my little Post-it notes. But, “Oh, look at this paper. This is organized in a way I want it to be.”

It gave me a sense better of boundaries, and clarified for me the wisdom of when I can say yes to something and be joyful about that yes and not resentful. It gave me that power of control, or permission to focus on my passions and what I really loved.

It was that idea of a separation between the necessary and the real work from hobby and fun work, so that I wasn’t just letting everything bleed over together, but really knowing what’s necessary to do.

If I work longer on other things that are not necessary, that’s my choice. I can say yes, I can say no, but that’s my decision. This isn’t something that I have to do. Really being able to separate, this is what I have to do this, this is what I don’t have to do.

I’d done classroom jobs before, but the club really made it better.

That’s another thing is the club just made better — because it’s not just your ideas either, Angela, which are fantastic, but it’s also like the whole community of other teachers and seeing how other people have applied the same concepts.

It just lifted the level of my teaching so much because it just made it all just a little bit better, a little bit cleaner, and then I was happier. It’s a big deal to be a happier, better teacher.

Yeah. That makes a bigger impact than I think a lot of folks give credit for. Happy teachers, happy kids.

Is the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek worth it?

What would you say to a teacher who hasn’t taken 40 Hour, but isn’t sure if it’s something they’d really utilize? That’s something that I hear a lot when people are on the fence, like, “I don’t know if it’s really going to be stuff that I couldn’t just figure out on my own. Could I just Google it? Would I actually make time to use the program? Would I actually get my money’s worth? Would I get a benefit? Because I’m already so busy, hence I need the program. Is this actually going to be something I’d make good use of?”

I originally joined the club because I love productivity stuff and I thought, “Oh, this sounds so fun. It sounds so interesting.”

I also knew that I wasn’t at my breaking point by any means in terms of working too many hours, but I was working probably 60 hour weeks more often. 50 hours was my low.

I was working definitely more, and I knew that I couldn’t sustain that forever. I was still pretty early in my career when I joined, and I knew it wasn’t going to be something that I could just keep up for all of eternity.

But I love teaching and I didn’t want overwork and burnout to be the reason that I had to leave. I wanted to make sure that I was arming myself with the ability to limit my hours and the ability to not be a bitter, burned out teacher.

The first couple months — I really dove in over the summer and planned things, and I looked at all of the resources. At the beginning, I was pretty intensely looking at it, but it was over summer break, and I was just getting ready for the school year and doing it. It didn’t feel like I was doing it that much because I was still on vacation for most of the time.

Then there were any weeks and months though where all I did was listened to the audio, that’s it.

I had a routine where on Saturday mornings, I always do yoga in the morning and listen to podcasts. Instead of that, on Saturdays, I just listened to the club audio and I did my yoga and my exercises and stretches while I listened to it.

Sometimes I would jot down an idea or something, but there were entire months where I really didn’t look at many of the PDFs, or I didn’t do a whole lot with it. I just made a little to-do list for myself of what I was going to look at later, and if there was something in the audio where I was like, “Oh, I want to check out the resource,” then I would do it.

I would download the resources so that I would just have them to flip through, but there were these quarterly reflections built in, and I printed out that quarterly reflection at the end of each season. I might’ve done one late or something, but I think I pretty much did that at the end of each season. I looked through at the suggestions and the summaries of the ideas, and I just highlighted what I was doing and put little like stars next to things that maybe I still wanted to try either later this year or next year or something.

Just that little bit of a reflection was powerful, because I was shocked by actually how many shifts I’d made over the course of the year.

And, tracking my hours did shock me where I was like, “Oh my gosh, I worked like 43 hours this week and I got everything done.” It’s like that slow but steady kind of approach.

I will say, if you’re going to join the club and think that by adding more of these strategies that you’re going to somehow lessen your workload, I wouldn’t go into it with quite that mindset.

I would go into it with the mindset of, I need to replace some of what I’m doing. What do I want to let go of that’s not working? Because you’re going to have to let go of things in order for yourself to like move on to new structures and new mindsets. If you are just going to try to like add on more stuff, then I think you won’t be able to embrace the club, but if you’re willing to look at what you’re doing and slowly let go of the things that aren’t working and slowly add in new things that are going to work better, then that transition can absolutely happen for you.

I do think that like the club has resources for everyone, no matter the context. There’s going to be certain things that work a little bit better for different people and certain things that speak to someone maybe a little bit more or a little bit less. But if you’re willing to try new things and really listen and absorb that material, then I think you’ll really get a lot out of it.

I think you’re so right, that 40 Hour is not about doing more or adding things. A lot of times, it’s not about doing hardly anything at all. The fact that you were listening on a consistent basis, I think is what helped you internalize these mindsets so much, because clearly — I mean, you have internalized basically everything that I’ve taught in the program, and then totally made it your own and applied it to this wide range of circumstances, which is like, as a teacher, that’s the best thing you could ever want from a student, right? Someone who gets it all and then makes it their own? It’s amazing and so rewarding for me to hear.

I feel like it’s not about going in and planning on doing a whole lot of stuff. I planned it as a year-long program because you need ongoing support. You need someone to keep telling you these things over and over again in different ways, and applying them to lesson planning, applying them to grading, and so on, so that it can sink in and change the way that you think.

That really is my goal for 40 Hour, to help teachers think. You may not even realize that your thinking has changed, but to think about your work in a new way, where you have this clarity about what matters or what makes a difference, what’s worth investing your time into, and then having the confidence to move through that. That’s what I really hear from your story. I hear clarity and I hear confidence. Great stuff.

The most important thing to remember about staying focused on what works

I am so grateful that you shared all of this. I am so grateful for all of your help with 40 Hour, and I would love to close out the show with a takeaway truth. What is something that you wish that every teacher who’s listening to this understood about maximizing their time and staying focused on what works?

One thing that you say that I like to tell myself a lot is how rest is not the opposite of productivity, but it’s the catalyst for it.

I’ll add to that: joy is another catalyst. Finding joy, finding energy from happy moments … that’s not something that you deserve after you finish your work. It’s not something that you earn. It’s not something that you only get to do on your breaks or only over the summer. It’s not something that you can only save for a class party or a celebration. It’s not something you get to have just when you’re less worried and less anxious, then you can be happy.

Joy is not something that’s only available to you when things are going well. It’s something that can be mixed in with all of the other feelings you have. Joy can be embedded into the everyday. Focus on the joy, focus on what you can control. Laughter’s the best medicine, and don’t take that away from yourself just because reality is not the way you wish it would be. Don’t take joy away from yourself. It’s really going to be the thing that helps you keep going.

About our guest

Amy Stohs is currently a 2nd grade teacher in Northern Virginia. She was named Teacher of the Year in 2019 by her coworkers while previously teaching 6th grade. She loves supporting other teachers and has led professional development on reading and writing workshop, thinking routines, and more within her school and district. Her passions include the workshop model, project based learning, Responsive Classroom and morning meetings, great books for all ages, active, hands-on learning, Project Zero thinking routines and mindfulness, classroom management based in equity, and creativity and the arts. To further share these passions, she writes a blog reflecting on teaching practices where she shares free resources from her own classroom called charmedbychallenge.com.

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go! A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Discussion

1 Comment

  1. Katherine

    This episode reminded me to go back and revisit the 40-hr course, which I dove into during the summer of 2019, but which I set aside when the pandemic hit. Rehearing some of the key components of the program in today’s episode brought back such truths as batching tasks, which helps me manage the ADHD of modern teaching.

    My biggest take away from today were to take time for reflection (my own and my students’), rest is a catalyst for productivity, and joy is not earned, it’s required.

    Thank you for restoring teachers weekly!!!

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