Wednesday / July 24

To Teach Well, You Must BE Well

My favorite question for many years has been: “What is the problem for which _________ is the solution?” So what is the problem for which my new planner, Teaching Better Day by Day: A Planner to Support Your Instruction, Well-Being, and Professional Learning, is the solution? It is, in short, how to keep learning and loving your work as a teacher from today until the day you retire, while also enjoying your life outside of school at least as much.

Balancing the Personal and the Professional

As teachers, we have never had more to keep track of, prepare for, schedule, assess, evaluate, and simply do than we have had in recent years. And that is the professional side of our lives. While we each have unique interests and obligations, the personal side of our lives can often be at least as difficult in its demands.

In other words, to teach well, we must be well. So, too, must we be well if we are to live, love, and learn well outside of school. To this end, I created the Teaching Better Day by Day planner so I could keep a better eye on my own health and my capacity to teach–and help you do the same for yourself.

Addressing the Energy Crisis in the Teaching Profession

Let’s face it, no one is ever going to come around and ask you to do less. In fact, the RAND “2021 State of the US Teacher Survey” found that teachers experience greater stress than health care workers, police officers, and fire fighters, making teaching the most stressful profession in the country at this time. In an article titled “Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be,” Education Week reporter Madeline Will found that teachers are reaching their limits in ways they have not in the past:

“I’ve never burned out on the kids. I’ve never burned out on my subject,” said Anne Sylvester, a former high school English teacher who left the profession this summer after more than 25 years in order to protect her mental health. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, but the rest of it is exhausting and chronic.”

[Will goes on to say that] when asked what effects job-related stress has on them and their work, teachers commonly said they have a harder time sleeping, they’re less able to enjoy their free time with family or friends, and their physical health suffers.

Yet, stress seems inevitable: Teachers tell [Education Week] that over the past decade, they’ve had more and more responsibilities piled on their plates. There’s more of a focus on accountability and data points. Students’ non-academic needs seem greater. And over the past year, there’s been a growing amount of public scrutiny over what teachers are teaching and how they run their classrooms, leaving them feeling micromanaged and disrespected.

My response to these surging demands on teachers’ time and energy in recent years might surprise you: slow down. I no longer try to “make time”; instead, I claim the time I need to reflect on and address the needs of my teaching and my own wellbeing. My commitment to the time needed for my own growth through reflection, which is evident throughout the Teaching Better by the Day planner, is akin to the old rule among the self-employed that one should always “pay yourself first” to ensure that you are not left empty-handed at month’s end despite all your hard work.

What You Can Do to Protect and Improve Your Energy

So what can you do each week to ensure that you are flourishing–or at least enjoying some semblance of balance? In the Teaching Better Day by Day planner, I designed three different check-ins that rotate through every three weeks to allow you to monitor and manage yourself in different ways and with different emphases. And though the need for time and the opportunity to reflect is very important, we are always working within the constraints of time as they apply to our personal and professional lives.

Because of these constraints, I designed these weekly check-ins to be comprehensive but quick, allowing you the option of doing some further reflection in writing if you are so inclined; otherwise, the weekly check-ins will help you monitor your well-being efficiently so you can use that additional time to go for a walk, get in some exercise, cook and enjoy a nice meal with those you love, or have that extra time you need to tend to the demands of school for the next day.

Focus on the Week Ahead

In this blog post, I’m focusing on the weekly section of the planner because I find that weeks are like the paragraphs in the larger and longer story of our school year (the days being more like sentences, the months becoming the chapters in the story of the class we are creating as we go).

“I no longer try to “make time”; instead, I claim the time I need to reflect on and address the needs of my teaching and my own wellbeing.”

The four check-in tools that follow are designed to be easy, quick, and intuitive to use. Each check-in appears every three weeks on the weekly pages. I encourage you to use them now to reflect on the week just ending or the one to come, taking a few minutes to reflect on your responses and what they say you are doing well–or could improve going forward. The Teaching Better Day by Day planner works just as well as a way of bringing you into conversation with others; thus you can also have a colleague or members of your team respond to these check-ins and then discuss their responses. I used them in this way regularly with the members of our team; the discussions that followed were among the most satisfying and healthy I can recall having with colleagues.


The premise of this planner is hidden in plain sight within its title: it exists to improve our teaching day by day. The basic idea, summed up by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, is to improve by 1 percent each day. As Clear says, “Improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable–sometimes it isn’t even noticeable–but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding” (15).” As he says elsewhere in the book: “You get what you repeat” (18).

We are in this work together and I am grateful to be here to work with and learn alongside you as we go through this year together.

Written by

Jim Burke is the author of more than 20 books and senior consultant for the Holt McDougal Literature program. Jim has received several awards, including the 2000 NCTE Exemplary English Leadership Award. In 2009, he created the English Companion Ning—the largest online community of English teachers in the world. More recently, Jim has served on the AP English Course and Exam Review Commission and the PARCC Consortium.

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