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The Secret Skills of Master Teachers: Predictable Time Off

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Every week, I take Sundays off from school work. More and more frequently, I'm taking Saturdays off, too.  It hasn't always been this way, and once in a while it stops being that way (like during the weeks leading up to the manuscript submission deadline for These 6 Things, or during the final weeks before AP exams when my ninth grade World History students are writing extra essays, and I'm working to give them next-day feedback).

The secret here isn't that my job has gotten less intense. I still teach 120 kids, ranging from those at risk of not transitioning to high school successfully to those who will end up the valedictorians of their classes. Rather, the secret lies in the power of something that Harvard researcher Leslie Perlow calls “predictable time off” (PTO) — time when you're both not at work and (this part's easy to miss) not available to work-related communications.

PTO, it turns out, enhances performance, efficiency, and job satisfaction.

The data behind this started some years ago when researchers Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter had a hypothesis: predictable time off could actually enhance performance in elite professional settings. To test this, they worked with a team at one of the world's most elite and demanding professional consulting firms — we're talking about a company where clients were used to 24/7 access to their consultants (sound like any parents or students you've worked with?) and where 80-hour weeks were the norm for teammates (know any teachers putting in about that much?) — and they simply requested that everyone on the team go through the PTO process, which is actually really simple.

From Perlow's Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work:

PTO… benefits both the work process and individuals' work-lives. It is based on a set of small and doable steps that can be executed by a single team:

  1. Every team member strives to achieve the same goal — an agreed upon unit of predictable time off each week.
  2. The team meets weekly to discuss how each member is achieving the goal and to discuss the team's work process more generally.

That's it.

The team component is important here. If you're the only teacher on your team that doesn't respond to school email on Sundays or after a certain time each night, you can start to feel pressure to change. If the whole team agrees on PTO limits — say, no email-reading after 5:00 pm and no work-related activity (e.g., communications, grading, planning) for one full 24-hour period each weekend — and then meets to discuss them, you'll get better at PTO faster (and without nearly as much teacher guilt) than if you were to go it alone.

Sometimes, people ask me how I manage teaching and writing and marriage and parenting. Well, there are a lot of answers to that, but one of them is Perlow's PTO. I can't tell you how rejuvenating Sundays are for me — a day for family, rest, connection, and even leisure. The stuff, in short, that a full life requires.

If this sounds like something you couldn't possibly do, then you're probably the first person who needs to try it out. After all, constraints make us better.

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