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The Queen Bee Role: An Answer to Teacher Burnout?

teacher burnout

The landscape in education is pretty bleak right now. Burnout is VERY real and VERY widespread. Teaching has always been exhausting, but we are reaching epic proportions and, honestly, could be heading for a bit of an educational apocalypse if something doesn't change.

I came across a concept called the Queen Bee Role that I think is timely and could be revolutionary - possibly the answer to teacher burnout and a lot of other issues plaguing schools right now. Let's explore it together.

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something has to change

A lot of us have been seeing teacher burnout that could lead to a potential mass exodus of teachers and the far-reaching consequences that could create. Why am I saying this? It’s not exactly encouraging. I'm saying it because seeing a problem clearly is the first step to fixing it.

I came across a concept in a business book called Clockwork by Mike Michalowicz that is really powerful. And I think it actually has a lot to do with the situation we're facing right now. But- full disclosure-  I do not have all the answers, not even close. This is going to be a unique episode because I have not worked this concept all the way out. I just feel that I can't wait until this is all perfectly figured out in my mind to share it with you. I want to share it with you with the hopes of sparking some conversation and creative thinking. 

First, I'm going to explain the concept and give an example from outside the educational sphere. Stick with me through this because we will relate it to education after that. If you’re an administrator, we are going to talk about some of the ways administrators can apply this concept. Finally, we will talk about the ways teachers can apply this concept even if your admin never hears this podcast and has no idea what we're talking about.

the queen bee role (qbr) concept

A queen bee role (also called “QBR”) is a recognition that there is a function within every organization that is its most important function. If you can recognize that function and then prioritize it, that will make or break your success. Mike Michalowicz came up with this concept by observing how bee colonies work because they are incredibly efficient. 

Here is an excerpt from Michalowicz's Clockwork book:

"Number one, a hive has a queen bee and her role is to lay eggs. The task of laying eggs is the queen bee role. If the queen bee role is humming along, eggs are laid and the colony is positioned to grow fast and easily. If the queen bee is not fulfilling her role of laying eggs, the entire hive is in jeopardy. 

Number two, every bee knows the most critical function for the colony to thrive is the production of eggs. So the queen bee, who is designed to fulfill that role, is protected and served. She is fed. She is sheltered. She is not distracted by anything other than doing her job.

Number three, don't confuse the queen bee as being the most important part of the colony. It is the role she serves that is most important. Eggs need to be made quickly and continually. One specific queen or another is not critical, the queen bee role is what is critical. So if the queen bee dies or is failing to produce eggs, the colony will immediately get to work spawning another queen bee so the queen bee role can get going again.

Number four, whenever the bees are satisfied that the queen bee role is being served, then they go off to do their primary drop, which could be collecting pollen and nectar, food, caring for the eggs and larvae, maintaining the hive temperature, or defending the hive from being exploited… After learning bee hive skills so efficiently, I had the aha moment of a lifetime. I realized that declaring and serving the queen bee role would radically improve any business and quality of life."

the emergency room example

How does this apply to organizations? He gives an example from an emergency room that started applying this concept. They asked themselves, "Okay, what is the most important thing that is being done?" And they realized it was doctors treating patients.

They said, "Okay, that is the critical function of our ER. What if we rearranged our workflow so that that was prioritized and protected?" So the doctors were only doing what only they can do- the nurse can't be the doctor, the receptionist can't be the doctor. Only the doctors can do that. But the doctors had been taking up so much time with paperwork and dictation, and other things that they didn’t need to be the ones to do. 

They rearranged their ER, so that the role of doctors seeing patients was prioritized, and everyone in the ER worked to clear space for the doctors to do what only they could do. The doctors prioritized doing the piece only they could do and let other people take the other part. And before they knew it, the ER was humming so efficiently. You came in, you got seen, you got out. It was incredible. So that's the idea of how this works. 

USING THE queen bee role to prevent teacher burnout

So what is the QBR of teaching? I’m still working on this exactly, but it seems like “helping students learn” is the best way I can frame it for the moment. This would involve tasks like facilitating student activities, teaching, and prepping lessons so you’re prepared. Imagine if, in a school, helping students learn was prioritized and protected at all costs, like a bee colony ensures eggs are being laid at all costs.

How empowering would this be for teachers? How much more learning would take place? How would schools be different? Let's go back over the bees. In the bee colony, the bees know that queen bee cannot be distracted from the role of laying eggs. What would it look like if the teacher's role of helping students learn was viewed as the most important role and everyone in the organization made their best effort to keep teachers from being distracted from this most important role?

This is not saying teachers are more important than other staff members; it's about the role. In the school for the most part, only the teachers are actually doing the role of helping students learn. If the whole school rallied around that role, worked to take things away that were distracting, and worked to do things that would support the QBR, things would be really different. 

Here is another idea to consider: When the worker bees know that the QBR is happening, then they go off to collect food, care for eggs, et cetera. In a school, what would it look like if everyone made sure that students were learning first and foremost? In other words, if learning is stopped, everyone fixes it before going back to their primary job. What would that look like?

Again, this is just the beginning of the conversation. These are important questions to contemplate because schools are not operating like this right now. 

advice for administrators

I want to start by talking to administrators, but please, keep reading if you’re a teacher. Even if your administrator doesn’t follow this concept, there are ideas for you further down.

First, administrators, what would it look like if teachers did not have extra duties, like lunch duty, after-school care, or study hall monitoring? Younger and newer teachers especially need prep time. We're taking our experts and distracting them from the most important role by having them babysit kids after school. How could we cover these duties in other ways, so teachers have more time to prepare their lessons? This is a mindset shift because when tasks come up in a lot of schools, the thought is, “Just have the teachers do it.” 

Next, what if you looked for things that are getting in the way of the QBR of helping students learn and considered ways to reduce or eliminate them? There are no easy answers to this. Think about student discipline and consider, “What systems can we develop so teachers spend less time dealing with discipline issues and more time actually helping students learn?"

What about paperwork? Do teachers need to do it all? Can they dictate notes and have someone else fill it out? What are the things that are bogging teachers down that aren't helping them be better teachers? Can we eliminate these tasks or have someone else do them? 

Finally, guard teacher prep periods. It starts with a mindset shift. How often are teachers' prep periods taken away for one reason or another, and sometimes at the last minute? Are they asked to sub for other teachers? Are they asked to cover study halls? Things are going to happen, but this shouldn’t be the norm. It should be a big, big deal and only be done when you've exhausted every other choice, It's really disastrous to a teacher's ability to plan lessons when their prep period is pulled out from under them. 

As a general rule, the teacher's role of helping students learn is not prioritized as much as it should be. There are about a million things that are piled on teachers that do not help them be better at the most important role of helping students learn and these definitely contribute to teacher burnout. 

tips for teachers

So those were some thoughts for admins. Teachers, you cannot control the culture of your school. You cannot control how well your administrator understands and supports your queen bee role. You can send them this podcast to get them thinking and I do recommend doing that. 

The bottom line is you have to focus on what you can control. As a teacher, recognizing the QBR  in your own classroom can help your efficiency in your classroom, even if the organization as a whole isn't recognizing it. If we're going to do this, we must be brutally picky about what we choose to spend our time on and how much time we spend on different things. 

So one of the first things you can do is identify which tasks make a big contribution to the queen bee role of helping students learn and which ones don't. Jot down your tasks and think about which ones matter to the QBR. Prioritize those tasks. Now look at the others. Which of these tasks can you stop doing? Can you do the “bare minimum” for those tasks that are required but don’t contribute to the QBR? 

Now, big caveat- it's important to recognize where you are, because there are other important things.

Remember in the bee colony, there are other important roles, right? They need to collect food, they need to protect the hive, and they need to take care of the larva. Other things need to happen. And there are other things in your job as a teacher that are also important, right?

The queen bee role is the most important role. In the colony, if the queen bee role is happening, then all the other jobs happen. If that's not happening, everything else stops, it gets fixed and then the bees return to other tasks. That's the concept of how it works. So be honest with yourself and think, “Is my queen bee role clicking along just fine, or is it suffering?”

If it’s going great and you have your lesson plans down, you have time and energy to invest in other priorities, like leading clubs or coaching. But if your QBR of helping your students learn is suffering and desperately needs more of your time and attention, that's when you have to cut time spent on other things to make space for what matters most.

One other thing to consider as a teacher is that even amongst things that serve the queen bee role of helping students learn, things like lesson planning, you still need to be efficient and time-aware.

Imagine the queen bee in the colony. She cannot afford to lay one egg a day. That would not be sustainable, right? She has to do it quickly and efficiently. So this concept is not in isolation, it pairs with other time management concepts. Don’t think, "I'm working on my lessons and this is my queen bee role, so I can take as long as I want." No, we still have to be efficient and effective in what we're doing. 

there is hope

I hope to come back to this in the future. But once again, the main goal of this episode is to get you thinking and to get you to ask this core question: What would it look like if we recognized helping students learn as the queen bee role in our school and we started supporting it however we can and protecting it at all costs?

If we can start taking small, but consistent, steps in this direction, we can hopefully avoid the possible educational apocalypse of teachers leaving the education field in mass that is potentially lurking around the corner and move education in a better direction. 

If you need more help with work/life balance, time management, and mindset shifts, please join us in the Teach 4 the Heart+ program. We have an amazing community where we can discuss these important issues! 

resources mentioned:

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Today, we're sharing about the Queen Bee Role and how it can help prevent teacher burnout. Using this prioritization strategy will free up teachers to fulfill their most important role: helping students learn. Read to learn how your school can support teachers with the Queen Bee concept.

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What to Read Next
  • Love these ideas. Many of them we implement and COVID actually helped focus more on using Aides to stay in cohorts. To give teachers more prep, we hire enrichment teachers: art, PE, Spanish, STEM, Music, ASL are some we have used. Then, the teachers get a 35 minute prep while the aide takes the students to the Enrichment class. This article encouraged me to keep this practice and continue to look for other ways to protect the QBR. Thanks so much!!

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