Fix these teacher time traps to take back your evenings

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There’s a warm yellow glow in your living room as Sunday night descends. The last football games end, and your Facebook feed fills with photos of weekend fun. But in the middle of all this cheer, there’s a sinking pit in your stomach. Your plans for the week are empty, your inbox is full, and there’s a stack of work that is exactly where you left it on Friday.

You’ve got a lot of work to do this week, and it appears that you don’t have enough time to do it. Sure, teachers are overworked , over-stressed, and underappreciated. Instead, though,  I’d like to focus on things in our control: how we spend our time, and how we waste it.

I’d argue that no, teachers don’t take full advantage of their prep times. They get overwhelmed by planning, grading, and administrative work when it all collides.

The good news is that there are a few patterns I’ve observed in my own behavior, and in that of other teachers I’ve spoke to. These are teacher time traps. And if we begin to notice them, then we can start to fix them, and yes, take back our evenings to actually enjoy ourselves.

First, I’d like to note that these time traps are so sneaky because they can sometimes appear good. Some of these mistakes are worn as a badge of honor by teachers.

You grade everything

If I don’t grade it, then they won’t do it. Look, I’ve heard that many times, from many different teachers. And a few times, I’ve thought it to myself. But when that’s the case, the students are not the problem. We are responsible for creating an environment that compels students to work. And not check the box on each task only to improve their grades.

Yes, teachers exist in a world of GPA, class rank, and assignment grades. But this doesn’t mean that our classrooms have to contribute to that culture. Instead, instruct your students on the value of feedback. Teach them why and how to self-assess and reflect.  In other words, show them how to give themselves feedback. Take the time (and the patience) to model how to give effective peer feedback. Then, teach it over and over again until the students start to get it.

What’s the payoff for all this? You’re not trapped by your own class, piling more and grading onto your to do list after each class.

You leave when you’re done working

There’s an unspoken respect for the teacher who arrives early and stays late. Wow, she must have it all together. But really? That teacher may fail to use a good system, fail to take care of himself, and straight up waste time. As my friend Dave Stuart says, setting constraints is a step on the path to success.

How do we do this? Start by rethinking your alarm. It’s not only that sound of dread that buzzes a bit too early on Monday morning. It’s also the sound of freedom that signals the end of the day’s work. Of course, leaving in the middle of your work, everyday will not make you a better teacher. Instead, it’s sticking to a deadline, coming to a conclusion at the end of each work day that makes the payoff happen.

Here’s a look at the alarms on my iPhone. Notice that, in addition to the morning alarms for weekdays and weekends, there are two alarms for the afternoons. On Wednesdays I leave a bit earlier to take my son to swim lessons, and the other days I leave no later than 4.

Teacher alarm on iphone for when to leave school

Your lessons are perfect

I have graphic organizer envy. I’ve taught with colleagues who design handouts that deserve a spot in a major metro area art museum. But me, I often ask students to draw a line down the middle of their notebook paper to make a “T” chart. And I’m OK with that.

Let me illustrate an example of this in practice. My students often read a text, either literary or informational, and then consider some debatable question related to that text. For example, when reading the memoir When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago, students debated the question, “should immigrantas assimilate?” For this situation, the simple T-chart was the only tool students needed. They drew the line down the middle of the paper, labeled the sides “yes” and “no,” then gathered evidence to support both sides of the argument.  The simple tool faciliateted my objecitve of having students consider both sides of a debate.

The lesson should achieve its goals and nothing more.

Not only do we waste time planning the perfect hand out, but we start from scratch at each week and each unit. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel every time we sit down to plan.

The answer to this conundrum is the use of “the teacher toolkit.” This is a set of lessons, texts, and strategies to use over and over again, regardless of the content of your lesson. I describe this concept in more detail in this article from  Cult of Pedagogy.

Your prep time is, well…

Gossip time, BuzzFeed time, online shopping time. Yes, you’re not the only one who does that. At times, everyone gets exhausted and needs to take a period to recharge and reset. On a stressful day, I’m prone to grab something sugary from the vending machine and get lost on Twitter for longer than I’d like to admit. But, when this sort of break becomes a habit, then you have to take a step back and look at what’s happening. Often, the problem comes down to a few root causes:

  • The environment you’re in is not conducive to you doing your best work
  • You haven’t figured out your plan for the time in advance

Let’s break these down.

The environment is not conducive to maximizing prep time. This can be for a variety of reasons. You need a copier to reproduce rubrics needed to grade essays. The machine is on the other side of the school, though. Some of your close work friends have prep time when you do (great!), but you use the time to chat. It could be that it’s too much of a public area, like the library. Here, people feel welcome to interrupt your work to start a conversation with you. Whatever the reason, your environment plays a huge role in whether you will use time well or waste it.

If you apply this principle, at home, you can end up shaving lots of time off of your out-of-school work hours. I have the same routine everyday for morning school work and writing: I walk downstairs, pour my coffee, pull my laptop out from under the couch, and sit in the far corner seat. Then, I get right to work. Because there are no distractions, and I follow the same routine everyday, my brain gets right into deep focus mode and I waste no time.

Tip: Use headphones, with or without music, to create a monastery of productivity. People are less inclined to approach you if you have headphones in. You can also pretend that you can’t hear them 🙂  I like this Logitech USB headset. It has a mic too, which is useful in case I need to record a video lesson or audio feedback.

Recommendation for teacher headphones

You haven’t figured out your plan for the time in advance.  This is simple, but important. Write out how you will spend each of your prep periods.

You might think you’ll do tasks as they come up, but planning your time in advance is the secret to doing more in less time.  For me, the process is a simple one: I leave a pad of sticky notes and a pen on my desk. When I arrive at school in the morning, I sit down and list three important tasks that I have to do that day. The more specific, the better. For example, the list might say:

  • Grade 5 argumentative essays from period 1
  • Create assignment sheet for end-of-unit assessment
  • Add next month’s meetings to calendar

Perhaps this list doesn’t seem like a full day’s work to you, and you’re probably right about that. But the idea is that having a specific direction for your work for the day will help you get more done than aimlessly moving from task to task.

Awareness then action

As with many problems in our life, we can only begin to address them after they’ve noticed them. Here’s a quick checklist that you can review to reflect on the way you spend your time when you’re on the clock. I bet you can carve out a few more hours of free time if you’re willing to be honest with yourself.

  • Do I have a grading policy? Do I have a reason for assigning and assessing this work? Do I know exactly what and how I am assessing?
  • Do I have set working hours? Do I use my calendar to plan out work sessions? Do I set an alarm to signal the end of my work day?
  • Do I have a “teacher toolkit”? Am I starting from scratch at the beginning of each week, each unit? Do I use formal unit plans and set firm start and finish dates?
  • Do I have a set place to work during preps? Does it help my best, uninterrupted work? Does it have all the equipment and materials I need? Do I have a backup location?

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Gerard Dawson is a full-time high school English and Journalism teacher. He is the author of Hacking Literacy and publishes articles on literacy, technology, and life as an educator at his site GerardDawson.org. Gerard lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons.

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By Gerard Dawson

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