Cutting back on things that wear teachers down can make a real difference in their well-being and professional outlook.
As I hurriedly take a bite of my sandwich at my desk, the bell rings, and students pour into the classroom. They are buzzing with questions about last night’s homework. As the students settle into their desks, my email dings; it’s a request from the admin to download yet another new app. Then, another ding, a meeting request for training on the new app. If this chaotic scene sounds familiar to you, ask yourself, “What can I subtract?”
Professor and author Leidy Klotz poses the concept of subtraction in his 2021 book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. Klotz’s research finds that people tend to add rather than subtract. We see this often in schools in the form of added curriculum, initiatives, and policies. Klotz admits that the idea of subtraction might be misinterpreted as easy, laid-back, or doing nothing. However, subtraction is an action—an action that teachers can use strategically.
Consider the following ways that we, as teachers, can subtract from our hectic workloads.
3 Ways to Cut Back Strategically
1. To subtract, add space. As a middle school math teacher, I often explain to my students that subtracting is “adding the negative.” For example, 12 – 6 is equivalent to 12 + –6. This mathematical concept applies to our work schedules as well.
If you use an online calendar like Outlook or Google, add some space to your day. Book a time slot for lunch, taking a walk, or reflecting—and stick to it if you find that your time is often interrupted; schedule time for the tasks that must be done, such as grading and planning. If you can carve out space in your day to grade papers, then that task is subtracted from work you might push to evenings or weekends.
Adding the negative applies to physical space as well. Edutopia’s 2019 video “5 Tips for Decorating Your Classroom” notes that too much decor and clutter can distract students and hinder learning. Consider what can be subtracted from your classroom walls and shelves. Do you really need 30 dictionaries? Following the advice of professional organizer Marie Kondo, “By avoiding the urge to fill every countertop and corner, you’ll give yourself [and your students] the space to think and listen.”
2. Think quality over quantity. As educators, we know that sometimes short essays can be impeccably written, and some long essays are quite lacking. Consider how quality over quantity might work in our classroom. Do students need to do 20 problems for homework, or will five quality problems suffice? Students can also exercise subtraction by having the option to omit unwanted questions from their tests and quizzes. On our school’s comprehensive algebra final exam, students are directed to cross out any three problems they do not wish to have graded. For students, this subtraction is a time-saver and anxiety reducer.
Our communication can also benefit from subtraction. This does not mean communicating less, but rather more effectively. Write parents/guardians succinct emails that ask for a brief but effective phone call. “Hello, Dr. Rivas, can we schedule a brief phone call this afternoon to discuss Olivia’s progress with adding integers?” followed by a five-to-10-minute call will take far less time and energy than a long and impersonal email chain.
Meetings are another task that many of us want to cut, but that can feel impossible. If you are in a position at your school to plan faculty meetings, omit unnecessary ones. We all know there are unnecessary meetings because of the popular meme, “Yet another meeting that could have been an email.”
If you are not a meeting organizer but rather an invitee, consider the advice of career coach Caroline Castrillon in “How to Reduce Unnecessary Meetings at Work.” She suggests that you “[g]et comfortable declining unnecessary meetings. Just because you are invited to a meeting doesn’t mean you are required to attend. First, look at the topics being discussed. If you are only needed for the first 15 minutes, let the organizer know you will drop off after your part is finished. Or, if the agenda isn’t relevant to your area of expertise, politely decline.” For example, if you are invited to a meeting discussing students you do not teach or a project you’re not involved in and have no information to share or glean, then this is probably a meeting you can subtract.
3. Delegate. We teachers often take on the lion’s share of the thinking and tasks in a classroom. As a form of strategic subtraction, teachers can delegate the thinking and learning, where it truly belongs, to the students.
Educator and podcaster Nick Moskaluk share a clever way to grade less on the Learner-Centered Spaces podcast that increases student self-reflection. He glances at his students’ completed quizzes but doesn’t mark them. Instead, he posts the answers around the room. Students compare their own quizzes with the posted answers while making corrections (in a different color pen). By subtracting the task of marking quizzes, Moskaluk adds depth to the student’s learning.
Beyond grading, other daily tasks can be easily delegated to students. As with math teacher Steve Reinhart’s popular 2000 article “Never Say Anything a Kid Can Say,” consider “Never do what a kid can do” as an approach to classroom jobs. Cleaning the boards, handing out papers, posting the agenda—a kid can do it and would most likely love to do it.
The next time you are faced with too much—too many assignments, too much grading, too many tasks, too many meetings, or too little time to think or reflect—consider what you can subtract from your to-do list. As a reminder, subtract some clutter from your desk and replace it with a single sticky note with this quote attributed to Lao Tzu, “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”