Do less and... help your students even more?

There’s a chance you’re trying to do such a good job for your students that you may actually be hurting them. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

First, this: Overwhelm was #1. During the first session of the program I led this year in Boston, teachers identified which of the five pitfalls they were struggling with most. The answer was pretty clear: overwhelm.

You can see a fairly representative poster from one of the table groups in the course here:

As you and I know, the teachers I was working with in Boston are by no means the only folks feeling overwhelmed. This is a nearly universal sentiment among educators.

Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton, has done extensive research into the experience people have in the workplace. In particular, he’s studied the way people help (or fail to help) others. Grant categorizes people into three buckets: generous “givers,” selfish “takers,” and quid-pro-quo “matchers.” He writes about one aspect of this research that is particularly relevant to educators in this fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review.

In that article, Grant shares his finding that people who give to others with abandon are often the most valuable people in their organizations. But they’re also the most susceptible to burnout. He points to research he conducted with 400 early-career teachers from across the United States. These teachers taught everything from pre-K to high school. Around the beginning of the school year, Grant asked the teachers to consider 11 scenarios similar to the example below:

Imagine that you’re teaching a geometry class, and you’ve volunteered to stay after school one day a week to help one of your students, Alex, improve his understanding of geometry. He asks if you’ll also help his friend Juan, who isn’t in your class. What would you do?

  • (A) Schedule a separate after-school session to help Juan, so you can better understand his individual needs.

  • (B) Invite Juan to sit in on your geometry sessions with Alex.

  • (C) Tell Alex that it’s nice that he wants to help Juan, but he really needs to focus on his own work in order to catch up.

  • (D) Tell Alex that Juan should ask his own teacher for help.

In some of the scenarios, it was students who needed extra help. In others, colleagues were in need of assistance.

Of course, you won’t be surprised to learn that lots of people selected answers like option (A) above. But you might be surprised to hear the conclusion of Grant’s research: “The more times teachers chose answers like (A), the worse their students performed.”

Here’s how Grant interprets the results: “Option (A) is what we call a selfless response — helping without boundaries. Compared with their self-protective peers, selfless teachers saw significantly lower student achievement scores on standardized assessments at the end of the year… Selfless educators exhausted themselves trying to help everyone with every request. They were willing to work nights and weekends to assist students with problems, colleagues with lesson plans, and principals with administrative duties. Despite their best intentions, these teachers were inadvertently hurting the very students they wanted to help.”

These issues are so tricky. And we need to be cautious in how we interpret the findings. But what's clear is that educators need to be mindful of the ways they spend their time and the commitments that they make.

But that begs the question: how? With so much to do, what does it look like to be mindful of the way we’re spending our time? How can we be the teachers we aspire to become and also avoid burning out? What are promising strategies we can rely on to put this research into practice?

In my next post, I’ll share a strategy that was inspired by someone who managed to accomplish a whole lot: laying the groundwork for the invention of the internet, serving as the Supreme Commander of NATO, and, oh yeah, being president of the United States. We’ll talk about a strategy he helped inspire that we can use ourselves to make sure we both do right by our students and avoid the perils of being overwhelmed.

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