The Biggest Mistake I Made When I Started Teaching

Sleep is for the week

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

When I was a new teacher I found myself overwhelmed with work: lesson planning, writing-up lesson evaluations and observations, gathering evidence, reading, writing essays, sending emails, setting homework, marking… And most of this was done after 3pm when the classroom teaching had been done. Like a lot of teachers, I found myself working late into the evening and often into the early mornings. All of this while waking up early to be at school by 8am. Gradually I began cutting down on sleep. At first this seemed to be of benefit. I was getting so much done! Why hadn’t I thought of this before? But very soon the consequences of sleep deprivation set in and my lack of sleep was a hinderance more than a help. The problems I had were several:

Confusion and brain fog

My difficulty concentrating compounded over time. Tasks were taking longer so I was working more and getting even less sleep than before. It was a vicious spiral. Also, it was harder to learn which stunted by progress.

Unhealthy food cravings

Research shows that not getting enough sleep increases sweet and salty cravings by 30-40%.[1] Personally, I found myself eating entire packs of biscuits after school, huge bars of chocolate on the bus, or even a bag of crisps for breakfast.

Lack of creativity and problem-solving

I struggled to find solutions to the problems I was having causing me to spiral into ever-worsening circumstances.


Sleep improves your memory, halting forgetfulness by 30-50%.[2] My declining memory was frightening and several times I struggled to remember the names of colleagues and students who I had worked with for months.

Reliance on caffeine

Drinking coffee while also trying to teach children meant I was jittery and prone to overreaction when lessons didn’t go well. I couldn’t manage my mood well enough which led to me reacting to difficult situations emotionally.

Poor appearance

I looked as tired as I felt. Colleagues (and on occasion students) would comment on the bad impression I gave.

Here’s how I now get more sleep:

Spread your workload

There was once a time when I’d foolishly try to mark 30 pieces of work in one sitting. No more. 30 bits of work over a 5-day work week is 6 pieces a day. Assuming you’re spending 5-10 minutes per piece, that’s a manageable 30-60 minutes every day.

Sharpen the saw

I thought that working more was the answer, but this was short-sighted. I now sacrifice time I could spend working (sawing) trying to learn better ways of working (sharpening the saw) to make myself more effective. An example might be reading a book on behaviour management that could reduce the number of detentions I need to set. The time spent reading the book is time invested which pays of in saving even more time in the future which helps me get to bed sooner.

Get into the habit of going to bed

I got into the bad habit of staying up late to work which proved disastrous over time. Here are some ways I started this good habit:  

1. Use your bedroom for sleep only

If this is not possible, reserve your bed as a zone for sleeping only and not as a comfortable place to work, watch television or any other mentally stimulating activity.

2. Keep it simple

The habit of going to bed earlier can be daunting. What if I’m not tired? What if I won’t be able to fall asleep? Initially your task is not to go to bed and fall asleep straight away. All you need to do is get in bed at your chosen time. Once you have done this you have succeeded. Whether you sleep or not should not worry you to begin with. But first, go to bed.

3. Stack the new habit

Plan to go to bed immediately after a daily habit you already have. For instance, perhaps you wash the dishes after dinner. Write down on a post-it: ‘I will go and lie down in bed at 10 o’clock’. Writing this down with a specific time and place makes you more likely to do it.

4. Make it attractive

You’re more likely to go to bed if it feels good. This will depend on personal preference. Some examples might include: putting a book you want to read on the pillow. Putting a cup of caffeine-free tea next to your bed. Getting a comfortable pillow. Personally, when it’s cold I like to put on an electric blanket as this makes bed the warmest place to be, and therefore the place I want to be the most.

5. Get support from those around you

We’re more likely to follow the behaviour of those around us so if possible encourage your family or spouse to also retire to bed at the same time.

6. Create a streak

Put a calendar next to your bed and put a cross each time you go to bed at the time you intend to. Once you do this several times in a row you’ll have started a streak you’ll not want to break.

[1] Walker, Matthew, ‘Why We Sleep’, Penguin; 01 edition (28 Sept. 2017)

[2] Walker, Matthew, ‘Why We Sleep’, Penguin; 01 edition (28 Sept. 2017)

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