Celebrate life: tips to teaching smarter not harder

Hi, all! Have you been celebrating life this week? Or have the first weeks back to school left you feeling run down already, teach? The first few weeks back can be rough. My school is on the quarter system, so second semester I get an entirely new batch of students; which means Curriculum Night Round 2 for the year… I know what you’re thinking and yes I don’t know how we got to be so lucky! But as the second semester takes off at lightning speed, I’d like to share with you all some of the ways I’ve figured out how to teach smarter instead of harder so that I can get back to celebrating life. As a primary or secondary teacher, it’s almost impossible to leave school at the end of the day without taking some work with you, but there are ways that we can share the love and the load to become better teachers and still enjoy life outside the classroom. If you’re a teacher and entrepreneur, then this post is even more important for you to find time to do both.

Now, before we begin, let’s address the elephant in the room. Teachers are all too good at judging one another based upon the amount of work we do at home. You mean, you didn’t stay up until 2 am grading those essays last night and then show up at 7:00 am to do it all over again? Shame on you… Admit it. We’ve all had those feelings at least once about ourselves or a colleague. I’m here today to tell you that that’s just bologna. The teacher version of you that stays up until 2 grading and prepping or spending night after night with a glass of wine and papers to grade instead of playing outside with your kids or working out isn’t helping anyone. That teacher isn’t doing the best job for their students and they sure aren’t doing what’s best for them and their family. They’re tired, burnt out and headed down the path of early retirement from teaching or slipping into depression. These aren’t the inspiring teachers making a difference each day that our students love to show up and work for. Those teachers spent time with their kids last night and got a good night’s rest so that they could effectively teach 35 needy, growing teenagers for hours a day. That’s the teacher we’re talking about today. The teacher you’re going to be in 2017!

Good teachers need good systems of support for themselves and each other to conquer each day. Good teachers are also good sharers… don’t reinvent the wheel people. I’ll be sharing some of the ways I’ve found teacher-life balance with you today and I hope you’ll share yours too! Can you make any of these ideas work for you this year so that you can get out of the classroom and back to life in 2017?

-Take advantage of your prep time! It’s easy to get in the habit of taking a break on your prep each day. You may walk down to the office and hang out for 10 minutes, check your personal email, stop into a friend’s classroom for some adult interaction, hop on over to facebook and before you know it your prep has vanished. You have got to be efficient with your time at school to be able to leave on time each day. Give yourself a five-minute break and then GET TO WORK! Grade papers, answer school emails, post classroom blogs for the week, prep curriculum… whatever you need to do.

-Collaborate with other teachers to create curriculum. Divide and conquer as we call it on my team. You will get so much more done and create half the work load for yourself if you all agree on curriculum together and then split up the curriculum design. Let go of the idea that EVERYTHING will be exactly how you would do it and be grateful that it’s done. Avoid the desire to recreate it again, because that’s pointless, but make small adjustments if need be.

-Create everything on Google Docs. Organize your Google Drive so that it works for you. By using Google Docs you can easily share all of the collaborated materials you just created. You can make quick updates and edits so that each document is ready to go for the next go-around. You can push out assignments electronically when possible, saving yourself the time in the duplicating room. It’s much more difficult to lose papers this way and if you organize your materials as you create them, they won’t get out of hand and unorganized over time.

-Don’t assign meaningless work that you have to grade. Before you assign homework tonight, take a good minute to think about its purpose. Is this facilitating learning and necessary practice in your classroom or is it just because you feel like you’re supposed to assign it? Chances are it’s unnecessary or it could be paired down. Your students will thank you and you’ll be amazed at the work load you’ve minimized for yourself. This one’s been huge for me!

-If you decided to assign it, streamline your grading and create work packets. By and large, students produce consistent quality of work. Rather than scrutinizing each piece of work, create a quality of product rubric for a handful of assignments and grade them all at once. This is something I’ve learned from my current team and it has made grading more purposeful but I also don’t waste my time grading every little thing. Stamp work for completion when it’s due so that students maintain accountability, but collect it at a later date in an organized packet you can fly through. Another teaching win, you get back precious teaching minutes by not collecting each and every assignment.

-Create a classroom blog. Seriously. If you didn’t read my last posts on creating a blog, stop what you’re doing now and go create one! If you’re like me, you can easily forget from year to year how you executed that unit and daily lesson plans… enter your classroom blog. Your blog will become the most accurate record of what happens on a day by day basis, has links to all of your assignments that have already been updated, and allows you to copy-paste from year to year exponentially minimizing your work load over time.

-Plan ahead to give your TAs or parent volunteers tasks that are a waste of your time. All those little things you leave for the last minute; counting out copies, returning work, recording grades, cutting any number of paper slips, delivering notices on campus, grading small assignments, you name it. Make the most of your TAs to free up time for the things that you need to do. If I don’t plan ahead, in the moment I’m faster and they’ll end up taking me more time instead of less. I often make grading rubrics for assignments my TAs can grade with a little guidance. Create the rubrics in a folder on google drive so the next time you can print and have them grade.

-Set mini grading goals and challenges. As an English teacher, I set mini-essay grading goals. For example, grade 10 essays a day. Usually, the daunting feat of grading hundreds of essays prevents you from starting and once you do the daunting pile instigates grading procrastination. Instead, set a goal to grade 10 essays a day. It’s a task that doesn’t seem overwhelming and you’ll have the brain capacity to blow through 10 essays before burn out, making the most of your time. Similarly, make grading challenges for yourself. For example, how many essays can I grade before class starts after my prep in 15 minutes… read, go! You’ll be amazed.

-Make a promise to yourself to leave work at a certain time every day. No exceptions. There’s only so much you can do in a day. Our job is never done but it’s done enough. Set a realistic time to leave work each day. If you have littles at home, perhaps give yourself some time to whatever you need to get done before picking them up, rather than trying to multitask at home. If that doesn’t work, try to reserve that time after they’ve gone to bed so you can enjoy your time with them while they’re awake.

-Don’t bring work home. Gasp! Blasphemous! I’ve tried a new strategy this year and it’s been awesome. I almost always take work home and then it stares at me… it just keeps staring. It ruins my night, haunting me. I’m tired, so I take forever to do it. Or I never do it and I feel guilty. So just don’t do it. Here’s the secret… if you don’t bring work home, you have to do it at school. Which means you have to be insanely productive at school. Granted, I have to break this rule and bring work home to grade large projects, essays, etc but not nearly like I used to.

-If possible, get to school early. I’ve found that I’m fresh and much more productive in the morning to tackle a bit of grading before the day has begun. Also, there are fewer people on campus in the morning to distract you and talk to you. So get there early and power stuff out.

My last and final tip… do whatever works for you. If this sounds like a bunch of hogwash to you… well then it’ll never work for you. But I do encourage you to take some time and figure out what does. If you have some awesome strategies to teaching smarter rather than harder please share them in the comments below. I’m always looking for new tools to fill up my arsenal! Go get ’em teach and start celebrating life!

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