Reclaiming Your Time – How I Stick to a 40 Hour Workweek

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!

Why I’m Obsessed with Guided Reading Notes

A few years ago, back in the first few years teaching at my current school, I was teaching on what was called an “overload” schedule. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s the schedule they give you when all the money is gone. For three years I taught six out of seven periods, five preps a semester, seven preps total a year. For those of you currently on a schedule like this, I offer you my deepest sympathy and bow to your fortitude. After three years on this schedule, money was found to hire an extra English teacher (praise the Lord!) and I was asked to “hand over” two of my electives. Initially, I targeted my Shakespearean Lit course as one I was willing to lose. However, I realized I couldn’t really hand over any materials to an incoming teacher. Sure I had handouts and tests, but there were no notes.

Why? Because the notes were all in my head.

After that moment I realized that the knowledge of my literary content, the knowledge that I spent a lifetime learning, analyzing, creating, and teaching, really ought to be written down. Therefore in the following school year, basking in all the extra time I gained with an easier schedule (joking, there’s never extra time), I created notes to pair with my instruction for every literature unit in my Shakespeare course. The following year I did it with my sophomore classes. Then I started making them for AP Lit. I call them Guided Reading Notes, and they have saved my sanity.

Here is an example of one of my slideshows of guided reading notes from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

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Here are several reasons that Guided Reading Notes are lifesavers: 

  1. Absences. Face it, kids are gonna miss school. Even the darling try-hards have to miss once in a while, and sometimes even more when you factor in college visits, field trips, and testing days. It seems like the older they get, the more school they miss. I got tired of having students ask me what they missed when they were gone. It put me in the position of having to sit down and re-teach the material one-on-one, or simply saying, “We read and discussed chapter 4. Good luck, it’s important.” With guided reading notes, I teach the material in class, but post the notes afterwards on an online learning platform. My school uses Schoology. Before this I used Moodle. Many teachers love Google Classroom. Any of these will support guided reading notes. Simply use them to teach in class, then upload them afterwards. Once you start doing this consistently, students who were absent will know to read over the notes from when they were gone. If they still have questions afterwards, I am happy to give them one-on-one time. But at least this takes the bulk of the extra work off of my plate.
  2. Review. One thing that I find so eccentric and endearing is how quickly the teenage brain can forget something. It helps that I, too, am extremely forgetful. And unfortunately, if a book is long, students tend to forget the events in chapter 1 by the time the test rolls around (which stinks, because as everyone knows chapter 1 sets up all the good stuff for later). Guided reading notes help students review for tests by outlining important details and pointing out big-picture themes, symbols, and plot events. Sometimes students don’t even notice something big until they go through the review. These notes prove even more helpful before our AP Lit exam. I mean, seriously, who remembers what we read back in September? But with 10 minutes of easy review, students can brush up on those important literary units and turn short term knowledge into long term knowledge.
  3. Teacher Sanity. As I said before, my memory is quite bad. Sometimes I think of something brilliant, teach it, and next year I can’t make any sense of what I meant when I put a certain question on the test. By making guided reading notes, I maintain my own sanity from year to year. My students don’t know this, but I use my own notes as a review before I give literature lessons. It has also proven useful when I am absent and need to make sub notes. Instead of writing notes for a full chapter or reading assignment, I can simply assign students to read the guided reading notes, then use class time to complete the next assigned reading. My job: upload and post. I cannot even begin to describe the sanity they have saved my three maternity subs, who found themselves in the intimidating task of subbing for AP Lit. By using my notes, they felt confident that the challenge level was appropriate. Plus, they used my notes to learn the material beforehand!
  4. Multiple Learning Opportunities. My notes don’t simply review everything that happens in a chapter. In fact, I avoid this as often as possible. Guided reading notes are not Sparknotes summaries that replace reading. They are teacher-designed notes that help guide students through the material, pointing out things they might have overlooked and helping them make connections in the literature. I have used guided reading notes to do point out literary elements, pose discussion questions, give a pop quiz, lead a small group activity, organize jigsaw learning, give hints to tough study guide questions, break down important quotes, and more. My students learn very early on that if they want to do well on my tests, they need to study from the notes.

If you are brand new to teaching, guided reading notes are a wonderful tool to use, but keep in mind they take a while to prepare. If you are in your second and third year and you know your content fairly well, creating guided reading notes is a wonderful strategy to reduce prep time for yourself in the future and create study resources for your students to access in the future.

If time is tight and you are interested in purchasing any of my Guided Reading Notes, just visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store and click on the Guided Reading Notes category on the left-hand side. I currently have resources for the following novels and plays:

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Hamlet
  • Frankenstein (AP Lit)
  • Othello
  • King Lear (AP & general student audience)
  • Macbeth
  • All the King’s Men (AP Lit)
  • Things Fall Apart (AP Lit)
  • Julius Caesar
  • Of Mice and Men (includes vocabulary unit)
  • Twelfth Night (AP Lit)