Increasing Teachers’ Effectiveness—Without Causing Burnout

An elementary school principal explains how he prioritized professional development for teachers by embedding it in the master schedule.

As responsibilities continue to mount on the already full plates of teachers, the amount of time needed to complete those duties has also increased. Unfortunately, the result is often that teachers use personal time—which should be used for enjoying family and friends, pursuing a hobby, or decompressing after a stressful day—to tend to work-related tasks, leading to burnout and high teacher turnover rates within schools and districts across the country.

As the principal at Whitsitt Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee, I made it a priority to develop a comprehensive schedule that allows students to receive enriching activities. At the same time, teachers collaborate and prepare high-quality units. This schedule offers professional development within the workday, which ultimately improves our school’s instructional capacity, student learning, and culture and climate.

In essence, my team and I have been intentional about prioritizing “teacher time” while remaining focused on improving student achievement and building community partnerships.

A Master Schedule That Values Collaboration and Preparation

In 2014, Whitsitt was named a priority school, meaning the assessment data was within the bottom 5 percent in the state. When I was hired, my team and I completed a needs assessment of the school and determined that improving instructional capacity was a major area of focus; however, we understood that teachers were under a lot of pressure to improve student achievement and were discouraged that the work they had been doing did not seem to be effective.

My team decided that adding professional development might be detrimental because there was already a lot of stress during the school day and cutting into teachers’ time to add another layer of responsibilities could cause some of them to leave the school or quit the profession altogether.

I decided that with a modification in the school’s master schedule, I could add the much-needed PD during the school day, while also giving teachers an opportunity to collaborate and improve the lesson planning structures and processes. Also, on days that teachers were not getting PD, they would be able to prepare for lessons, grade student work, and create materials, removing those tasks from their afterschool routines.

To accomplish this, I reconfigured my staff to create additional positions in Whitsitt’s Related Arts department to offer a more comprehensive STEAM curriculum than we had previously, while also giving core teachers an additional period to collaborate and prep with their grade-level colleagues and instructional coaches. Related Arts had two physical education teachers, an art teacher, and a music teacher, and we added a technology teacher, an engineering teacher, and a science and community garden teacher, and moved the librarian into the rotation.

That lineup allowed us to schedule a back-to-back Related Arts block, in which students had more opportunities throughout the week to participate in hands-on STEAM lessons, and teachers had a team to collaborate with and bounce ideas off when creating engaging units and lessons.

We did lose 15 minutes of our daily reading block in order to implement this schedule. However, I expected that although students were losing that, the new schedule would produce lessons that were more engaging, with high-quality questions, materials, tech integration, activities, and assessments—so I thought the benefits would outweigh the lost time in reading instruction.

Grade-Level Quarterly Planning Days

Due to the major changes in unit and lesson planning that we were implementing, teachers needed additional time to plan and prepare for future lessons. They needed to understand how to present instruction led up to instruction that would happen in the next quarter and to gain a better understanding of the scope and sequence and how standards would spiral throughout the year. They also needed immediate feedback on their instructional plans.

To make all that possible, I scheduled quarterly unit planning days for teachers where they could work with their grade-level teams as well as the literacy and numeracy coaches and an administrator. With this additional planning time, teachers were able to determine the overarching questions, determine standards of teaching, identify texts and websites, plan high-quality questions with scaffolds, create assessments, and generate strong unit plans.

Providing Enrichment Activities for Students

Being in a metropolitan city like Nashville, Whitsitt is fortunate to have access to a wide variety of businesses, organizations, and churches as potential community partners. I wanted to make the most out of that opportunity, so we focused on building strong relationships with partners in a manner that would be mutually beneficial for students, faculty, and volunteers. That was the work of what we called Whitsitt’s Power Monday.

Power Monday is a two-hour block, scheduled monthly during the school day, that provides enrichment activities for students while the faculty is receiving PD focused on building instructional capacity, SEL strategies, STEAM implementation, etc. Students move in two rotations with their homeroom classes to receive two 1-hour enrichment lessons that include interacting with animals brought from the zoo, working on financial literacy or writing poetry with members of local churches, hearing the symphony play music the students have written, reading with therapy dogs, playing golf with First Tee, and many more. At the same time, classroom teachers receive PD without losing valuable personal time.

We see the results. The scope of work for teachers has increased, while time and compensation to complete the additional tasks are holding steady.

Administrators need to understand that they can create a school day that supports the efforts of teachers while also respecting their time and need to balance the stressors of the classroom and everyday life. By doing so, we can have a positive impact on instructional practices, the school’s culture and climate, and overall student achievement.