Sharpen The Saw

Sharpen The Saw: How To Maintain And Improve Teacher Effectiveness

Teachers need to ‘sharpen the saw’ in order to stay consistently successful in the classroom..

Stephen Covey uses this metaphor to explain the process that successful people use to consciously renew their capacity to perform at the highest levels in their chosen field. The main point behind the metaphor is that in the hurly burly of busy professional lives eventually we all lose our edge and if we just carry on with the ‘saw’ becoming blunter all the time, we stop being effective until we reach the point where the saw can’t ‘cut it’ any more, and we stop being effective.

Teaching is a tough job and it is very easy to feel overwhelmed and jaded by the relentlessnesss of classroom interaction. Even when we know we’re doing a good job, sometimes against all the odds, we all reach the point when we know we’re capable of better.

Fortunately there are several things teachers can do to ‘sharpen the saw’, that will not only help them to refresh and remotivate themselves but actually to grow professionally and perform even better than before. Failure to take action when the professional edge becomes blunt often leads to teacher burnout and sometimes results in teacher stress and the need for stress management techniques to get back on track, and to find ways of balancing life and work.

Four ways to ‘sharpen the saw’

  • Get physical

One simple way to help sharpen the saw is to ‘look after yourself’ physically. This means eating the kinds of food that nourish and provide energy, that help keep the body healthy. It also means making sure you get enough proper rest and relaxation. All experienced teachers know how easy it is to fall into the trap of over-extending yourself with a particular project and finding you miss out on sleep and proper relaxation: you can keep this up for a while but eventually you grind to a halt. When you reach that point it becomes harder to recover your energy levels.

It’s well known that taking regular physical exercise helps increase energy levels, so taking some form of regular aerobic exercise is a good investment in yourself if you want to last the course as a sucessful teacher. It doesn’t have to be expensive and it can also be a lot of fun. Physical exercise is a key factor in helping the stressed teacher recover, and can be a factor in preventing stress problems arising.

*Mental fitness

Teachers use their brains all day long, so there’s no need for any additional mental workouts, right?


Staying mentally fit means exercising all parts of the brain, not just treading the familiar pathways we follow every day in the classroom. Let’s be clear: teaching demands a highly developed mental capacity that’s used extensively every day. However, it’s easy to become mentally stale because we can get stuck in our mental patterns. In the same way that you need to exercise your body to keep it in shape, you need to exercise your mind to stay mentally fit.

Undertaking some challenging mental activity that is not directly related to what we do in the classroom stimulates the brain, which responds by opening up new horizons. For many teachers, undertaking some form of continuing professional development is an excellent way to sharpen the saw by staying mentally fit and has the bonus of leading to direct results in improved classroom performance.

But there are many ways to stay mentally fit. You might do it by solving crossword puzzles, or reading good books, learning to play a musical insrument, taking up chess, writing your own songs or poetry, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

What about writing a book?

Or why not create your own website?

*Stengthen social/emotional connections

Teachers need to make time for other people in their lives. It’s ironic that teachers work with so many other human beings every day yet often find it difficult to spend meaningful time with the people closest to them, their family and friends.

It’s important to block out some time very week, every day, not just for yourself, but to interact with other people. In even the busiest of weeks it’s possible to make the effort to take your kids swimming on a Sunday morning, or take a walk in the park with your spouse or partner, or open a bottle of wine and enjoy chatting and laughing in the company of someone you really respect and care about.

This is not only good ‘downtime’ when you can take a break from the thought patterns that are an inevitable part of a teacher’s job, but it also provides the opportunity to strengthen emotional bonds that are so important for us, because we all need to feel good about ourselves by feeling good about other people. As with the other dimensions of ‘sharpening the saw’, there are many ways to refresh yourself through social and emotional contact.

* The spiritual ‘you’

For some teachers, a strong religious faith provides a spiritual core that supports them in their work, but some may find the concept of spirituality too ‘airy fairy’ when applied to their professional lives. However, the spiritual dimension of staying sharp does not necessarily depend on any religious faith.

Spirituality in the context of self development means reminding yourself of what’s really important to you as a human being and the kind of human being you choose to be. It’s about ‘getting back to it all’ rather than ‘getting away from it all’. It’s about your soul, however you define that to be, and of course teachers will find their own ways to sharpen the saw by seeking spiritual renewal.

A good way to renew your self spiritually as a teacher is to remind yourself of why you wanted to become a teacher in the first place: it probably had something to do with wanting to make people’s lives better, to help others succeed, and this was probably rooted in your innate desire to be of service to others, to feel that your purpose as a human being was to make a contribution to the ‘human experience’. Taking time to reflect on these core values that you hold not only lets you see the rewards your efforts bring, but also renews your resolve to strive harder to achieve what you instictively know are commendable and worthwhile aims.

Many teachers might argue that they need relaxation but don’t have time to include all that it takes to really ‘sharpen the saw’. The evidence from Stephen Covey and others is that successful people know they can’t afford NOT to ‘sharpen the saw’, if they want to remain effective. Of course it’s not easy, but it is possible, and is so important that it’s worth exploring effective strategies for time management so it becomes a professional habit you practise regularly.

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