Every school day, teachers everywhere arrive an hour before school starts and leave at least an hour after school ends, often hauling a bin or crate of grading or prep to complete. We spend hour upon hour researching the best methods to teach, to differentiate, to engage. We spend hours, creating, preparing, and tweaking lesson plans, activities, and assessments. At the elementary level, teachers spend hours decorating and cutting and laminating and stuffing little sandwich bags for new activities. At the secondary level, English teachers, for example— sift through, read, correct, and comment thoughtfully on 120 students’ 3 page papers (which totals 360 pages of material – for one assignment.
If you are that teacher – If you are taking home hours of prep and grading per day, every day, you could be working in excess of 60 hours per week – and many of you know you are guilty of spending in excess of 3 or 4 hours per day working overtime. It’s no wonder that teachers feel run down and drained by the end of the school day - let alone the school year.
We know why we do it. In our minds…we have to. Ultimately, it’s for the kids. But where does that leave us? Drained, exhausted, irritable, and uninspired. In very few professions do employees take their work home with them. So why do teachers take work home? We are pushing ourselves to get more work done at home, blaming it on more testing, more students, more pressure. All of these are true - we do have more testing, students, and pressure than before - all with less support. But we don’t get compensated for that extra work. Teachers don’t get extra pay for spending time working at home or during the summer – especially at back to school time or when grades are due, when we tend to work extra hours daily to get our expected work done. (Don’t get me started on teacher pay – that’s a whole other rant, for sure!) I know it’s not about the money (Lord knows I know it cannot be about the money) - I know it is about the kids - I get that. My concern here is burnout. What can we offer the kids if we are burned out and exhausted? What can we give our students if we are not there because we are out dealing with health issues?
What if I told you that you can still be effective by working 8-9 hours a day. 40-45 hours per week? What if I told you that with a little change in mindset and a few active steps, you can get everything you need to get done – and have time for yourself and your family without sacrificing your teaching or hurting your students? With a firm commitment, and a few changes in habit, we can win back time with our family, ourselves, and get back our health.
Tip # 1 Change your mindset.
As with any change in behavior, before you begin to change your habits, you must change your mindset. such as taking on a new workout plan or diet, we have to commit ourselves to the change. Just as we must set goals with a new workout or weight loss plan, we must also set some goals for cutting back and eventually eliminating the amount of work we take home. Ask yourself, what will cutting back give you? More time with your family? More time with your kids? More time for yourself? Better health? Less stress? Decide on your ultimate goal, and write it down. This will be your driving force – your ultimate motivation. Once you have this, decide specifically what you could be doing with that time. If spending time with your family is the ultimate goal, what about spending more time working with your kids on their homework, or going over their homework, or having a family game night, or sitting down to dinner – together, or watching TV with your husband before bed?
There is absolutely no reason you should feel guilty for not taking work home with you every day. There is no reason you should feel guilty for wanting time with your own family. Get rid of the mindset that you have to take things home or have to spend hour after hour after school “getting things done” to feel as if you are giving the most you can for your students. You can still give everything you have to your students without sacrificing yourself. All it takes is a change in mindset and habits - working smarter not harder.
Tip #2 - Plan Ahead.
Keep a calendar of assignments and due dates. Plan what you are going to do at least a week before you do it. Every Thursday (I recommend Thursdays rather than Fridays because on Fridays we tend to want to get the heck away from school and start our weekend) spend 20-30 minutes planning your next week’s lessons, assignments, and activities. Have your planning done before you head into the weekend, so that you GET a weekend to relax and not have to think about what you have to do the next week.
Use your planner to keep notes throughout the year. Jot down notes to yourself on what worked and what didn’t for next year. Knowing this ahead of time will free you for the next year. As you plan the next year, you will then know what you should continue to do, and the ideas you should tweak or trash and replace. With your planner, keep a file with copy of the assignment, any directions or notes, plus your notes, and - very important – keep an exemplary student sample. Not only could this help you with future grading, as they say a picture – an actual exemplary finished project to show students - is worth a thousand words, leaving you with a thousand words you won’t have to say that day!
TIP #3 Stop trying to recreate the wheel.
Are you trying to start every project, lesson, or activity from scratch, wanting the material to be 100% your own? Why? So you can say you did? So you don’t have to pay for lesson plans and ideas? This is your ego talking and you have to get over it. In an ideal world you would be compensated for those fabulous materials – and the time it took to create them. Your kids would be engaged through every activity, and confidence, skills, and test scores would zoom up the charts.
Take an honest inventory of your skills. Are you better at teaching and engaging the kids, or are you better at creating the materials with which to teach? If you are better at teaching, your time is better spent teaching – not creating materials. Instead, rather than spending hours working on creation, try finding innovative, and successful ideas that have already been classroom tested, and put them to use in your classroom. If you are an elementary teacher, there are a TON of blogs out there giving out free ideas and materials. For both elementary and secondary, TeachersPayTeachers.com literally has over 250,000 FREE items at the time of this podcast. The site also has over one MILLION items in the $1-$5 range. To not take advantage of this resource is foolish. Even if you don’t have the money, there are enough free resources and ideas on this site alone to buy you hours of family time. If you are better at creating materials, you may want to sign up to sell your materials on TPT – and make a little money while doing it! Some teachers – including myself - have now created a career out of this, and have left the classroom altogether.
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TIP #4 Make everything you - and your students - spend your time on count.
Take a step back and look at what you are giving your students to do. Why are you assigning that project? That paper? That homework? Everything you give your students to do will eventually end up back on your desk to grade, right? Take an assessment of what and how much work you are giving your students. Busy work is worthless. Kids hate it. You hate grading it. It doesn’t do anyone any good. Get rid of the busy work, and instead, be cognizant of what you hand out or assign your students.
What is this homework assignment/project/activity expected to do for the student? Is it introducing a new skill? Is it reinforcing a new skill with practice? Is it assessing a skill? Or, is it just making more work for you to have to look at?
What do you need to get out of this assignment/project/activity? Is the assignment just to send something home for homework’s sake? Is it going to show you once again that the same kids do their homework and the same kids don’t? Is it going to make you spend time putting a check in a box, just so that you have something to base a participation grade from? Or is the assignment really going to tell you how well the students have grasped your lesson?
If it is expected to introduce a new skill, consider that this is risky. Simply assigning an assignment or homework introducing something new may not give you the return you are looking for. Expect to feel disappointment from wrong answers, incomplete work, and work not turned in. Instead, commit yourself to ONLY introducing new skills and information in class, during class time. This will save you TIME, as you will not have to spend time sifting through these papers, only to realize that you have to go through the information because the vast majority of kids didn’t pick up on the skill or information.
If the work you are assigning is expected to reinforce and practice a new skill, this may be more effective – if the assignment is good. When giving students work to do, whether for classwork or homework, decide whether the work you are giving them TRULY practices what you have taught. (Remember, no new information should be presented if you are going to grade this work.) If it does address the skills/information you have taught, is an adequate amount of practice given? I have seen worksheets that have two menial questions on them. Not only does this kill trees, but what is the point? It won’t show you anything about who actually learned the material. It won’t give students practice. Instead, evaluate the assignment to see if an adequate amount of practice is given at VARIED levels of difficulty. For example, if you are teaching how to answer text-dependent questions using evidence from an article, the practice/assignment should range from very easy (pre-lecture knowledge) to very difficult (above grade-level knowledge). This is much more effective than giving students 100 questions, all at the same level, over and over. If they got 10 right, chances are they will get 100 right, so why would you spend the time grading all 100? Do you want to grade all 100 for each student when you could grade 10 for each?
If the work you are assigning is expected to evaluate how well you taught or how well the students grasped a lesson, choose your assessment wisely. The assessment should not be more practice. If you want to assess whether your students read the chapter you assigned, ONE well-crafted question could show you who read and who didn’t.* I’m not talking about asking a question such as “What color were Joe’s shoes?” as this is not going to give you a true evaluation of the reading. A student could read the chapter, but not pay attention to unimportant details. Instead, create one question that is something students could not easily Google or use Cliffs Notes for. Asking students to “evaluate a decision” a character made based upon the events or to “explain the importance” of an event in that chapter could split readers and non-readers right down the middle – and rather than having 10 answers per student to grade, you have one per student, significantly cutting down on the amount of work you have to do. This could also be the case for in-class quizzes or tests. We are stuck in the mindset that quizzes and tests need to be a long, drawn-out compendium of questions, when asking ¼ - even one eighth of these questions in a particular, well-crafted manner means not taking an entire period to assess students, and cutting grading time down to a quarter of the time.
*Be sure to have separate questions for each class, or a selection of 5 or 6 questions that students can randomly receive – word can spread quickly what your quiz is on from class to class.
By taking a little more time to find excellent materials or tweak others, you can buy yourself hours of time. More focused, deliberate effort in the beginning will save you time and frustration later.
TIP #5 Cut your grading load in half.
There are two ways to do this - either grade only half of what you get turned in to you, or grade only half of what you get turned in to you. Huh? What I mean is that you can cut your grading in half by splitting your stack in half. For example, rather than grading 120 essays, let your students know ahead of time that you will be looking at and grading a random selection of papers, maybe half. The students will not know whose will be picked, so they must put forth their best effort in case theirs is chosen for a grade. Very important!! Keep any and all of the papers that were not graded in that round. Let students know that if it comes down to the difference between getting a B+ or an A- or passing or failing, that you will refer to these essays as the decision maker. It is also important that you let students know that just because their paper was chosen before, does not mean that they are exempt from being picked randomly again. Of course, you will want to “randomly” choose wisely to be sure you eventually see every student’s work.
Another way to cut your grading in half is to only grade half of the assignment. Focus on only certain aspects to grade. With the essay example, remind students that you may look specifically at mechanics the next time so they should always turn in their best work, but that this time, (unless it was distracting) you chose to ignore grammar, punctuation, and spelling things for the purposes of this essay assignment. The next essay, you can focus on two or three different aspects of the essay. Don’t tell your students ahead of time, so they turn in their best work, but for your sake, don’t try to do it all. There is nothing worse than watching hours with your family being tossed into the trash can when the student couldn’t care less about the comments you made on his or her paper. Another option is to try grading only the odd or the even questions. I don’t recommend only grading the first half of an assignment, because the more difficult questions tend to be towards the end. If you really want to do it that way, start in the middle and move to the end from there. This will help you get a better idea of the students skill level or grasp of a concept.
Finally, lighten your load with more peer-editing. Students can effectively grade simple assignments, quizzes, worksheets, and even essays, with the right directions and tools. Done right, grading and peer editing can become an effective learning tool - making it a “win-win.”
Ultimately, changing your mindset and working smarter - not harder - will help you reach your goal of leaving your work at work, allowing you more time for what is most important to you. Take baby steps towards your goal, and almost immediately, you will be able to feel the difference!
I hope this helped. Please leave a review – I am interested in your thoughts, and truly appreciate hearing from those who may have benefitted from this post!
Links Referenced in this Podcast:
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