The year is in full swing. You’ve established basic routines, learned your students’ names, and started putting some of your best new ideas into action.
While everything is still fresh, it’s important to step back for a moment and tweak what needs tweaking before you get too far into the year. Are your routines working? What about your system for handling paperwork and projects? Your mode of communicating with parents? Refining patterns and systems now will mean less stress and fewer headaches later.
“Teachers’ days are so structured, and in between the bells they get pulled in a million different directions. That’s taxing on the brain,” says Helene Segura, who taught English for 11 years and is now a professional organizer in San Antonio working with schools and other businesses. “It comes down to how you manage your time and having the right mind-set.” Rather than feeling overwhelmed, Segura encourages teachers to stay positive, make decisions as quickly as possible, and accept that the school year is like sprinting through a marathon. “Once you accept that’s how the school year is, it’s easier to deal with,” she says.
The Goal: Look Back to Move Forward
How to achieve it: Think first about how last year went. “Take an inventory,” says Paula Eder, a time management coach in Francestown, New Hampshire. “What worked well? What were the gains, the challenges? Where do you need to switch things around?”
For years, Donna Vishnefski has kept a journal in her own special shorthand for each of the subjects she teaches. “I write down hints, problems I need to fix the next time I teach the topic, and tips I need to remember,” says the Shreveport, Louisiana, teacher. “This tool alone has saved me a lot of time and frustration in repeating the same mistakes.” It’s an ongoing way to assess yourself and make continual improvements in your teaching.
While it’s tempting to overhaul everything at once, it’s better to focus on one element at a time and build on your success, says Cathi Cox-Boniol, a high school teacher and Achieve coordinator for Lincoln Parish Schools in Ruston, Louisiana. “I’m a firm believer in baby steps. It’s more realistic,” she says. Guard against perfectionism and reflect at the end of each day, giving yourself credit for what you did well.
The Goal: Ground Routines and Get Buy-In
How to achieve it: Make sure your techniques for getting kids to settle down (counting, clapping, turning out lights) or hand in homework (clearly labeling boxes, setting up special folders) are working — and modify them if they’re not. “It’s important that the routines you set are clear and framed as positively as possible,” says Eder. (For ideas on routines and classroom management tools, check out Harry and Rosemary Wong’s columns on Teachers.net or the NEA’s page on classroom management.)
Continue to build on students’ sense of ownership in the classroom so that they want to take responsibility, suggests Loraine Stewart, an associate professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University and a former fourth-grade teacher. Make sure, for example, that class jobs are not just busywork and that kids know how to do them properly. Delegating means giving up some control, but it can save time and students will enjoy the authority.
“I’m learning to put more responsibility on the students and less on me,” says Melissa Cooke of her third-grade students at Lake Panasoffkee Elementary School in central Florida. “I’ve realized I don’t have to do everything for them. I need to let go, or they’ll never learn to be organized themselves.”
Each week, Cooke chooses a student to be class secretary. She or he receives a clipboard to handle administrative tasks, such as checking off homework and preparing the attendance folder. This year, Cooke plans to expand the job and intermittently turn over her desk to the secretary, providing binders to manage more of the paperwork.
The Goal: Set Up a Calendar (Try Going Digital!)
How to achieve it: Start by entering important school dates on a calendar, including personal commitments, suggests Colby Kervick, a senior lecturer at the University of Vermont’s College of Education and Social Services. Then, work backward and establish interim deadlines. For instance, before formative assessments are due, select a date to organize notes in student folders.
Nicholas Provenzano, an English teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School in suburban Detroit, has all of his lesson plans in a Web-based program so he can access the information from his computer, tablet, or mobile phone. “I’m no longer confined to a lesson plan notebook that gets recycled every year,” he says. “Going digital with lesson plans saves me so much time.”
His students are basically paperless as well, submitting work online. While younger students may not be able to submit work online, a classroom website or app such as Class Messenger can streamline correspondence with parents related to important school dates.
The Goal: Win the Paper Battle
How to achieve it: Segura encourages teachers to begin by taking a second look at their filing systems. You probably have specific trays for daily paperwork — be sure they’re clearly marked or color-coded. (You might get a red tray to prompt kids to put papers from their red homework folders there.) Also, post critical to-do items on a bulletin board next to your desk — and update the board on a regular basis.
Some tips for starting off on the right foot? When you pick up mail from the main office, immediately recycle anything you don’t need. Then, as you walk back to your classroom, sort through the remaining papers so that you are ready to place the action items in a prominent spot and file the rest. Design a filing system that meets your needs, and don’t make too many folders so that it’s easier to manage, Segura advises.
Cooke avoids last-minute scrambling for papers during classtime by putting all the materials for that day’s work — typed-up schedules, markers, worksheets — in five separate plastic tubs purchased at a dollar store.
Author Debbie Silver, a retired teacher in Melissa, Texas, who now conducts workshops for educators, suggests a folder for each day of the month. It can be a reliable way to “get stuff off your brain” that you can reference later. (If this is too much, you might create weekly folders or consider texting yourself quick notes, which you can organize later.)
A teacher can be brilliant on her feet, but if she’s not organized, it doesn’t matter, says Cox-Boniol. “Kids are not dumb. They know if you are prepared,” she says. “If everything is ready, they will adopt that mind-set as well. It’s all about modeling for kids what I expect of them.”
The Goal: Establish Boundaries and Communication Systems
How to achieve it: Open communication with parents is key. But while you want to be responsive, you don’t have to be available 24-7, says Terri Hebert, an assistant professor of education at Indiana University–South Bend. Establish limits. “With technology, it’s almost impossible to shut things off,” says Hebert. If you haven’t done so already, tell parents the best times to contact you and how long they can expect to wait before getting a response, she adds.
Denise Landers, a time management trainer in Phoenix, suggests grouping tasks rather than bouncing from lesson planning to phone calls to checking e-mail. “If you know you have only this amount of time, you prioritize and go faster.” Make phone calls short by starting out with, “I have only a minute, but I wanted to give you a quick call.”
Also, try to limit interruptions. “If a colleague comes into your classroom while you are busy, just say, ‘Hey, I really have to get this done now. Can we talk at 5?’” suggests Landers. Chances are, they’ll understand and be happy to chat later.
Finding a structure that works for you and setting boundaries can make the year go smoothly and guard against burnout. “It’s important for teachers to strive for a work-life balance,” says Stewart, the professor at Virginia Commonwealth. “No one expects teachers to focus just on teaching. They need to find time to do things that make them happy outside of the classroom.”