This school year marks my 14th straight year teaching of AP English Literature. While I’ve learned quite a few strategies in that time, when I first started out in the profession I demonstrated all of typical first year teacher traits:
- I was usually only planned one day ahead (if that).
- I took grading home every single night.
- My weekends were consumed with prepping, planning, and grading.
- I often stayed late, sometimes not seeing the light of day except for weekends.
- My self-care was terrible.
- I was overloaded with extra-curriculars, including coaching and directing school plays.
I’m sure many first year (and even 14th year teachers) can commiserate with a few of these. But here’s what’s wrong with the teaching profession: we fully accept that burnout is part of the job, when it shouldn’t be. Veteran teachers (myself included) see our fellow educators flailing and we say, “It’s okay, we’ve all been there,” then walk away. Instead, we ought to offer a lifeline, not doing the work for them, but teaching them how to work smarter. That’s what I’m going to try to do.
This is not meant to be judgmental or preachy. These are simply some things I’ve learned over the course of my career that have taught me how to use my time wisely. I can now say with confidence in my 14th year that I stick to a 40 hour work week. (I do work more than 40 hours each week, but the extra time is on TpT work, so I don’t consider that as part of my school-paid work week). So, with all that being said, here are my tips to reclaim your time as a teacher while still remaining a good teacher:
Use your prep time to prep
I am an outgoing, extraverted person who loves a good gabfest. I’ve been guilty of blowing off an entire prep period to chat with a fellow teacher, and while it leaves me feeling fulfilled as a person, it often makes me feel stressed afterwards. One of the biggest tips I can offer is to use your prep hour(s) to prep. “Prep work” may include lesson planning, making copies, or grading. I really struggle with grading at school but I struggle even more with grading at home, so sometimes I force myself to close my door and get a stack of tests done before I can talk to a teacher friend.
Work during your assigned work hours
Another thing I see newer or burned out teachers do is come late or leave early, choosing instead to take work home to grade. When I first got hired at my current school I had a 7th hour prep. I often left during 7th hour, went home to nap (I was pregnant most of the school year), and worked on school stuff from 7-10 each night. Although I was able to keep up, I resented the work because it robbed me of my evenings with my husband. It can be tempting to work on your schedule, saying “I work better at night,” or “I need to go to the coffee shop to get this done.” However, successful teachers have learned to arrive on time, work during that time, and stay until the work day ends. By forcing yourself to get it all done at school during school, you’ll gradually remove the need to work at night and on the weekends.
Portion out big grading tasks daily
As an English teacher, I’m aware that there are times when it cannot all get done during work. This especially applies to grading papers. As the only sophomore English teacher at my school I get flooded with paper grading 3-4 times a year when research papers and giant poetry portfolios get submitted. I used to procrastinate until the weekend, then take my giant stack of grading to a coffee shop and kill a whole Saturday. Not only would this destroy my weekend (and my mood), but I usually lost focus as the day wore on, giving less attention to the later papers, resulting in uneven and unfair grading. After years of teaching, I’ve found a strategy for approaching that giant grading stack. When the flood comes in, I force myself to grade a certain number each day, rather than grading a giant stack weeks later. For example, for my 70 sophomores I make myself grade 10 papers per day. I try to get these done during one of my prep hours or after school. If I get all 10 done, I don’t have to bring them home. If I don’t, then it’s homework. I do this each school day for 7 days. Even if I don’t bring them home for the weekend, I still get the entire grade’s papers back to them by the following week, which is considered decent turnaround time among English teachers.
Write everything down the first time
I learned this lesson when preparing for my first maternity leave and it has probably been the biggest time-saver for me. I was facing only 6 weeks of leave but it still took me months to prepare notes for my sub since I had to write everything down. When I found myself doing it again for my second kid, I vowed to write these things down as I taught them, eliminating the need to explain every single detail to a sub (be it short-term or long-term). The biggest time saver has been in creating guided reading notes. When I teach a book or unit for the first time, I create very detailed PowerPoint notes to help guide my lessons. These do not need to be used as a lecture, but they create a baseline for what needs to be taught each day. I then post these notes on our online learning platform (we use Schoology) for any students who need to access them later. When I need to teach the book the following year, all of my lessons and notes are right there waiting for me. I just adjust them to meet my needs and I’m off! The amount of time this saves is incalculable. Instead of spending an hour reading the chapter, taking notes, then preparing a lesson, I simply review my notes from before and I’m ready to teach, all in under 5 minutes. Bottom line: Find a way to write down what you work on as you work on it, then save it. This is one of the best ways to work smarter, not harder, as a teacher.
To learn more about how guided reading notes can save you time and exactly what they look like, check out my previous post about them here.
Reflect on teaching materials before you put them away
Another way to work smarter not harder is to take a few minutes to reflect on a lesson before you put it away for the year. For example, for years I found myself facing the same problem when I taught Hamlet. Even though I was following a structured unit plan, I always ended up needing at least one extra week to fit it all in, throwing off my schedule for the following weeks. As I put the materials away one year, I quickly grabbed a post-it and placed it on top of my Hamlet folder, saying, “Need more time for soliloquies, adjust unit plan for one extra week!” Lo and behold, next-year-me took out Hamlet, saw the post-it, and finally adjusted the unit plan to teach it right. My memory is terrible, so I guarantee I would have gone on to make that same mistake year after year had I not took a moment to reflect on my shortcomings.
Use the experts
I only learned this lesson recently, but you don’t need to feel like you have to create everything. I got hired with almost no teaching materials to go off of, and when I switched to my new school I got even less. It has always been the norm for me to create things from scratch, and luckily I’m fairly good at it. However, there are times when I just don’t have the ability, energy, or time to create something from scratch. This is exactly why Teachers Pay Teachers exists. Being a TpT author, I felt like a hypocrite buying materials from the site when I created them myself, so even though I sold on the site I never bought from there for my first two years. It wasn’t until I saw very established TpT sellers posting the materials they had bought from other sellers on Instagram that I realized it is okay to get help. I started buying materials for my Brit Lit class and my sophomores and was so grateful for the time it saved me. Sure I still needed to customize most things, but the effort it saved me in coming up with ideas was incalculable. Overall, here is my point: Feel free to create and start from scratch, but do not feel like you have to. Even better, with TpT School Access you can now buy these amazing resources with school funds, saving you from spending your own money (because, honestly, that’s how it ought to be).
Learn to say no or let go
This last one is the hardest for most of us, myself included, and I’m sure you have heard it before. However, it remains true that you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you’re burning out, you cannot continue and expect to feel better. A change is required. According to Psychology Today, these are the common signs of burnout in the workplace:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion, including insomnia, increased illness, decreased appetite, anxiety, and physical symptoms such as chest pain or headaches.
- Feelings of cynicism and detachment, including pessimism, isolation, and overall lack of enjoyment.
- Ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment, including feelings of apathy, irritability, and a lack of productivity.
I struggled terribly last year, coping mostly with feelings of cynicism and detachment due to a difficult work environment. I did take a step back and consider leaving my school, and even my profession. I interviewed at my alma mater, revised my resume, and seriously considered working on TpT full time. In the end, I decided that I loved my school, my students, and my co-workers enough to make some necessary changes. I made changes to my social life and my outlook. However, I also had to say no to a few things that I loved. One the hardest decisions was closing down our school’s writing center, which I had worked for a year and a half to bring up to a thriving status. Unfortunately, budget constraints made it impossible to make this a paid position. I told my principal that without compensation I would close the program down, which I ultimately had to do. I’m sad that such a strong program had to end, but I still feel it was the right decision for my mental health and overall self-care.
I hope that these tips help you reclaim some of your own time whether you’re a first year teacher or in your 40th year. Following these strategies has allowed me to spend more time with my family and even create a side business that now doubles my teaching salary. If you have any more tips for self-care or saving time in the teaching profession I’d love to hear them!