Time for Teachers: Importance of Distinguishing Systemic from Individual Barriers and Solutions

alarm clock in front of calender with circled deadline
Educators often cite a lack of time as one of their most significant stressors. How can we help teachers find the balance necessary to feel satisfied in their jobs and meet their social and emotional needs? This first post in the Time for Teachers blog series will distinguish systemic from individual barriers, which is essential to ensure that finding time for themselves is not an undue burden on individual teachers. Some challenges require state-, district-, and school-wide solutions.

In a recent Michigan Virtual Learning and Research Institute study, 80% of teachers cited the lack of time as the top roadblock in meeting their social and emotional needs. A Michigan Virtual blog post on the teacher retention crisis in Michigan notes an equally alarming set of statistics: 68% of Michigan educators cite excessive workloads negatively impacting their job satisfaction; 48% found abundant paperwork to be a major roadblock to enjoying their work.

Given all that teachers have on their plates, what can be done to maximize the time available to teachers? This Time for Teachers blog series explores issues related to the persistent lack of time and excessive workloads reported by teachers. It also explores possible solutions. This first post centers on the importance of understanding the difference between systemic and individual barriers and corresponding solutions.

Systemic vs. Individual Barriers and Solutions

Problems, like lack of time, impact individuals, organizations, and systems differently. Targeted solutions can best be pursued with an understanding of where they originate and how they affect individuals, organizations, and systems differently. Therefore, when formulating possible solutions, one must keep the distinction between systemic and individual in mind. 

Some problems are endemic to a larger system like a school district or a state’s education structure. Certain policies or required procedures, while unintended, may pose significant challenges for all teachers or specific groups of teachers. For example, some teachers may have difficulty reaching test score thresholds because students may have more urgent learning needs that aren’t covered in standardized tests. Systemic problems require organization- or system-wide approaches that impact a broader group and address biases and/or system limitations. Systemic solutions often need significant coordination among many people after carefully considering modifying policies and procedures.

Individual solutions involve people taking personal responsibility for locating resources to address the problems they face in their immediate environment. For example, a high school English teacher might have a lot of papers to review, but she discovers that students enjoy and are good at giving peer feedback if given some guidance and training. Rather than taking all the responsibility to mark up papers, the teacher can incorporate peer reviews as part of the evaluation process. Adjusting the feedback process can allow the teacher to do other things with her time. Individual solutions like this require considerable energy to find resources to solve problems within a particular context.

Knowing the difference between systemic and individual is important because individual teachers cannot solve systemic problems by themselves. For example, a teacher might have to comply with a mandate to complete the state’s or a school district’s paperwork regardless of whether it is time-consuming. However, the state or a school district could find ways to simplify paperwork or reporting processes. If asked, individual teachers may offer ways to streamline the steps involved, but it is unlikely they alone can change a process required across an extensive educational system. A teacher may develop a potential improvement in the system, but such a solution needs a shared commitment at a broader level if it is to become systemically beneficial.

A tremendous burden is placed on individuals when they are stuck spending precious time on system-wide barriers. When individual teachers are constantly seeking solutions for systemic barriers, individuals may feel frustrated, disillusioned, or resigned, which leads to decreased job satisfaction and possibly burnout. Such prolonged dissatisfaction and burnout will only worsen the teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

Finding time for teachers, thus, requires a careful and continuous look at the whole system. It also requires creative thinking about identifying and sharing potential system-wide solutions that empower and enable individual teachers to take actions with others who share a mutual investment in the educational system they are a part of.

It is also essential to ask teachers how they would ideally like to manage their time. What parts of their job most excite them? Where do they find the most joy? By better understanding what teachers enjoy, solutions can align with what might increase teachers’ satisfaction and well-being.

Identifying Systemic vs. Individual Problems  

If teachers in a school or district cite a lack of time as a major impediment, a careful assessment of what is causing time-related problems is needed. Teachers can be encouraged to track what they spend time on and share that information with trustworthy administrators. Such an exercise uncovers what tasks consume their time, what creates challenges for managing their time, what resources they need, and where they prefer to focus their time and energy. Some questions to consider are the following:

  • Can policies and procedures that take an excessive amount of time be streamlined or eliminated?
  • What time-intensive tasks should be brought to the attention of school boards, state representatives, and state-level education officials?
  • Do some teachers have higher workloads than others? Are staffing levels adequate and equitable? 
  • Are curricular goals too ambitious? Are there better ways to meet them?
  • Are there ways to streamline giving feedback to students and families?
  • Are new teachers in need of help and advice on how to manage their workloads? 
  • Are adequate technologies available to help teachers do their jobs?
  • What resources could help teachers balance more effectively all they have to do?

Once various time-related problems are identified, it is essential to pinpoint the organizational level at which those problems would best be addressed (e.g., state, district, school, grade, and department). This way, problem-solving energies can be directed to where solutions are most likely to succeed.

It is also essential to place a high priority on minimizing the time involved in any process. One idea is to incorporate a survey or open discussion into regularly scheduled faculty and staff meetings, perhaps using one or more of the questions noted above. Conducting any survey requires administrators to create an environment where teachers feel comfortable and safe to openly and honestly share their experiences, concerns, and suggestions.

It is also essential to ask teachers how they would ideally like to manage their time. What parts of their job most excite them? Where do they find the most joy? By better understanding what teachers enjoy, solutions can align with what might increase teachers’ satisfaction and well-being. 

Final Thoughts

To restore time for teachers to do what they love, we must first understand what problems teachers face and where they want to spend their time. While it takes effort to survey teachers about their time concerns, the information allows districts, schools, and departments to better analyze the problems identified by teachers, keeping in mind the distinction between the system and the individual, and then adapt their approaches to implementing sustainable solutions.

The next article in the Time for Teachers blog series will provide examples of systemic problems and solutions. Other future articles will include examples of individual problems and solutions and advice on working with teachers to optimize their time.

Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!


The authors would like to thank Christa Green, Christopher Harrington, and Kristen DeBruler from the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute for their contributions and advice in writing this blog post.

About the Authors

Tracy Gieseking

Tracy Gieseking’s role as a senior research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute provides a unique opportunity to collaborate with Michigan’s education community. As online and blended learning reach an increasing number of K-12 students in Michigan, there is greater opportunity to learn from practitioners, research what’s fueling success and share best practices. Tracy enjoys collaborating with others to provide solutions and build capacity. She holds a bachelor’s in business leadership and much of her professional life has been with education-focused organizations.

Ed Timke

Dr. Ed Timke is a research specialist for Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Although he specializes in qualitative research — such as interviews, focus groups, ethnographies, and textual and visual analyses — he was trained in mixed methods research while in his doctoral program in communication and media at the University of Michigan. Ed has taught online and face-to-face courses on writing, research methods, global media and communication, the role of advertising in society, and intercultural communication at American University, Duke University, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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