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Constraints Make Us Better

By Dave Stuart Jr.

The best teachers are the ones who put in the most time, right? Those teachers who leave early — they are the problem-teachers, aren't they?


  • Brazilian soccer players are often better than non-Brazilian soccer players because of their “childhood immersion” in a game called futsal — essentially a condensed version of soccer that uses less players, a smaller field, a heavier ball, and a quickened pace [1]. This constrained version of soccer ultimately tends to produce better soccer players.
  • Dr. Seuss' publisher famously bet the author that he couldn't write a book using only 50 words. The result was Green Eggs and Ham. Could it be that the constraints placed on Seuss' writing of the book helped make it the timeless classic it has become?
  • Down the hallway from me, my colleague Doug Stark (author of the Mechanics Instruction that Sticks books) has for years made a point to leave school by 3:30pm (at the latest) each day in order to pick his children up from school. Because he teaches about 100 students in his open-enrollment AP Lang courses, Doug does take papers home periodically, but this isn’t his norm. Despite — or perhaps because of? — these limitations, Doug’s student writing gains are some of the best I’ve ever seen. This isn’t because there is some magic in leaving at 3:30pm, but rather it’s because Doug Stark is relentlessly focused on making better student writers while also placing strict limits on the time he makes available for achieving those results.

The point: Giving yourself a “blank check” for your working hours is a sure recipe to both estrange your loved ones, develop a one-dimensional life, slow down your trip along the teacher's learning curve, and increase the odds that you'll leave the profession before your large time investments really start to pay off.

The truth is, counterintuitively, when we constrain the amount of time we'll give to teaching (or to tasks within teaching), we'll improve faster and persist longer, creating a drastic increase in the impact of our life's work.

In the new year, how do your working hours need to change? What limits do you need to put in place?

Note: An earlier version of this post put Doug Stark's drop-dead leave time at 3pm. It has been corrected to 3:30pm. See this post for more on Doug's process.


  1. A fascinating article on futsal.

5 Responses to Constraints Make Us Better

  1. Joe December 27, 2016 at 10:54 am #

    Dave how do we reconcile this (below) from a master teacher who could positively impact the instruction of so many? Is this indicative of his school, his system, or all?

    4. I don’t volunteer for committees. In fact, you would have to threaten me with extreme physical violence to get me to do any type of school improvement work. I figure the best way for me to help my school improve is for me to worry about my classroom (not the classrooms of my colleagues).

    6. Basically, I say NO quite a bit (not to students, but to colleagues). My family comes first, my classroom second, building / district level issues and committee meetings come a distant 4357th (behind anything else that I can possibly find to do with my time).

    I am an administrator and am asking not to pass judgment on Doug as I think we would all want him in any school in which we worked, but to get his/your perspective of school improvement. Thanks

    • davestuartjr December 27, 2016 at 12:07 pm #

      Hi Joe,

      I think Doug is living proof of the fact that we can’t do it all. The best way to leverage what Doug is doing toward school improvement would be to schedule regular visits to his classroom with other teachers, both inside and outside of his ELA department. I think that would the the #1 way to use Doug to impact his broader school / district context. He is single-mindedly focused on excellence in the classroom. I would love to keep the conversation going here if you want to — you ask a very good question and I feel the same desire as you to explore how best to improve our schools while also making the (time-intensive) growth of master teachers possible. Thank you!

      • Joe December 27, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

        I have worked with several master teachers who feel the same way as Doug, especially the bodily harm comment, but it is this one “I figure the best way for me to help my school improve is for me to worry about my classroom (not the classrooms of my colleagues).” that clangs against what I think is needed with real school improvement. To me the best way for the best teachers to impact overall improvement is to play and active role and while having teachers come see him teach would be a part of that it would also require pre and post discussions and then a tie into professional development as well as the school’s plan. I am not looking to persuade anyone it just doesn’t sit well with me that such a great teacher does not see it doable to work in teaching others to provide better instruction and to provide top level instruction to who he has int he room, isn’t that closed door approach what we all have worked to get away from? And as I reply I see how you and he are impacting others through your publications using blogs, books, and social media so in some sense the door is never closed. Thanks again for pushing those who follow your blog to question what they are doing as a means to always improve.

  2. Carrie December 31, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

    I’m a returned-to-the-profession teacher in my second year as both a mom and a teacher. I definitely feel the pressure of not having enough time in my school day to accomplish all that I want/need to in order to be the best teacher that I can be. I would think that one answer to utilizing the expertise of a master teacher like Doug would be to offer a reduced teaching load. Finding the financial resources to make that happen may be an issue for a school or district, but it’s a far better solution than pressuring teachers to sacrifice more and more of their personal lives for the cause that they already sacrifice quite a bit for.

    • davestuartjr January 7, 2017 at 4:50 pm #

      Carrie, I do think the reduced teaching load idea makes sense — and, indeed, in the highest performing countries, as teachers work their way up the career ladder (those exist for classroom teachers in high performing countries in a way that they tend not to in the US), teachers are given less instructional hours and more hours teaching other teachers.

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