Myth Buster: "Teachers must work tirelessly to be effective."

In his blog post on The Qualities of an Effective Teacher: No. 4—An EffectiveTeacher is Tireless, Jake Hollingsworth argues that “good” teachers must understand that they will work long hours and must have no care for the fact that students neither realize or appreciate the number of those hours. 

I respectfully disagree. 

First, there is a distinction to be made between “good” and “effective.” Good implies a quality that is desirable by another whereas effective implies a quality of successful implementation. One of the worst adjectives that can be attributed to a teacher is good because it perpetuates this strange morality of martyrdom in teacher identity: that he/she can only be good if he/she works tirelessly, the unappreciated, selfless educator.

The image conveyed by Mr. Hollingsworth is that of a teacher sitting at a desk (at home and/or at work), with a computer and stacks of papers. It is a tiring image, and one becomes weary in just looking at it.  Why set this image up in front of new teachers? They will think that this is the way it should be, and that unless they are doing so, then they are not “good.” 

It’s simply not true. 

Effective teachers spend their planning time wisely and purposefully, and they DO care what their students think about the presentation of lessons and assessments. We can spin our wheels for days on a particular unit, and it will fall flat in presentation. It just won’t “jive.” On the other hand, an afterthought of a lesson, which took moments to plan, will garner an enthusiastic response. 

The difference really lies in how the teacher spends his or her planning time in reaction to what has occurred in the class.  Ascribing to the definition above, the “good” teacher will simply pick up and do the same thing again, using the same approach on the next unit, spending the same amount of ineffectual time.  However, effective teachers will not spend the next number of hours planning in the same way. He or she will reflect, first, so that the same problem/issue won’t happen again in another unit. 

The effective teacher also asks students what they think, and by doing so, will find the first of many time-savers. For example, as opposed to agonizing for hours over a rubric for a project, effective teachers will work alongside students in determining a rubric of expectations. Generally, what they’ll find is that a student-created rubric is far more rigorous than what they would have created. Further, students who have created it will strive more diligently to meet those expectations. 

Thus, a good deal of an effective teacher's time is in thought, not in doing something tirelessly.

I will concede that the motivation for preparation should NOT be to gain appreciation from students. (I write about teaching as a thankless job at length in a previous blog post.) However, effective teachers will “see” appreciation of students in the form of engaged interest, interactive discussion, and the dawning of understanding. If we do not see any of those, then we cannot say we are effective. 

Truly effective teachers might spend a large chunk of time planning a large unit, the first time. However, following their reflection on the reception of the lesson and garnering student feedback, the next time will be much more fluid and purposeful, lessening the time but increasing the impact. Additionally, effective teachers do not always start from scratch; they collaborate with others to save time  and share with others to improve practice.

Truly effective teachers are not hinged to any desk for a ridiculous number of hours every day. If you’re doing that, stop. If you find yourself grading papers endlessly, STOP. Talk to your mentor or talk to someone who just seems to “have it all together.” That person will have valuable information as to how to work not only effectively, but realistically.

Effective teachers do not seek to reach an idealized "tirelessness." Rather, they seek and find efficiency. Effectiveness does not lie in a number of hours spent, but in the quality of the time spent.

Mindy and some of her former students recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!  


  1. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I thought your emphasis on effective teaching rather than good teaching to be interesting. But I found the key moment in the piece - the moment I found myself saying "exactly!" - when you mentioned working realistically. That is something many (particularly new) teachers struggle with.

    I don't know if you are a fan of archetypal thinking but I couldn't help but have Carol Pearson's book "The Hero Within" come to mind during this reading. In it she discusses the "martyr" archetype in its highest, most effective form and its shadow, least effective form. Teachers not only operate from the shadow but are encouraged to do so.

    keep writing!

  3. Thanks, James! One of my former students wrote in response to the blog, too:

    "MK- I really enjoyed this particular blog. I feel the same logic can be applied to the ideology of a "good parent" or "good spouse". Why is living so selflessly looked upon as the only way to succeed? We need our teachers to have happy full lives so our students can be surrounded by (using your vocabulary) effective energy and in turn become effective leaders! Thanks for sharing!"

    Her question: Why is living so selflessly looked upon as the ONLY way to succeed? is what I was trying to hone in on. (Of course, she did it in one sentence...)

    I don't know about archetypal thinking, but it looks like something I should know! I'll definitely check it out!