Lessons Learned as an Overworked Language Teacher

We all know that hard work is the key to success. Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Maybe genius is aiming high but most language-teaching professionals would agree that we must aspire to be good at our jobs at the very least. So, one would surmise that the harder we work, the better we teach.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is true…unless too much of the hard work is in the classroom. If this is the case we hit a breaking point where good practice and hard work become inversely correlated. Obviously, the more we are required to teach the less work we can put into preparation and finding inspiration. When my optimal number of lesson hours is exceeded, the quality of my lessons diminishes and students notice.

There have been several periods in my career when I have had to extend myself beyond my optimal lesson load – even today I routinely teach as many as 40 lesson hours per week and I have gone as high as 62. Why would I do this to myself and to my students? Well, when I worked at language schools, it was often a result of understaffing; as a freelancer, new students sometimes approach me and I’m not able to turn them away; and in other cases it is because of my own financial needs. However, I know that I am not able to perform to my potential as a language teacher when my lesson load reaches a certain point.

I often think of something Professor Paul Tom, my IT professor in the early 80s, once said. He was extolling the potential of computer technologies to transform work as we knew it. He predicted that when we reached his age, which I have, we would be working shorter workweeks thanks to technological advances. But, with the benefit of hindsight and as someone who has embraced technological teaching tools and who is heavily involved in developing a new platform, I now see a possible flaw in his prediction. The one thing that Professor Tom may have overlooked is that the more work we can do, the more we try to do or are expected to do.

Looking back on my 25-year career, I know that there were times in which I was undoubtedly overworked. Surprisingly, in spite of the fact that I am older and I reluctantly have to admit that I tire a little more easily, it seems that my optimal lesson threshold has risen over the years. It is difficult to say with certainty why this is and in what measure. It is true that I am more experienced so my lesson preparations take a little less time. In addition, I am absolutely certain that my technological teaching tools make it much easier to cope. As I said before, I can do more work, so I do more work,

In a way, though, Professor Tom was absolutely right – he just assumed that we would continue at the same levels of output. If I were more financially secure, I would do less work and the tools would enable me to do even less.

So, in conclusion, if we are overworked, or if we would like to reduce our workloads, I can make a few observations based on my own experience.

Observation 1: We should be open to technological changes that can reduce our workloads.

Observation 2: We must organize our teaching so that we have running records of material taught, homework given and student attendance.

Observation 3: We must find efficient ways to communicate with team teachers so we don’t have to chase them around to find out what was covered in the last lesson.

Observation 4: We must seek out, create and hoard activity and lesson ideas so that we are never stuck for inspiration.

Observation 5: We must find an effective way to file and retrieve lesson plans and activity ideas so we can quickly and easily copy them into future lessons or transfer them to different groups.

Observation 6: We must find an easy way to record, organize and quickly access vocabulary taught for each of our groups – it impresses students and gives us filler material if we fall short in our planning.

Observation 7: We must communicate with learners and be accountable to them.

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