A Day-by-Day Look at My Craziest Year of AP Lit

Several new and incoming AP Lit teachers have wondered what really happens day-by-day in AP Lit. Therefore, I set out to write everything down to give a detailed overview of what we cover in my own class, both for curious teachers and for those have have purchased my AP Lit Full Course on TpT. As I post this now, it’s become a diary of my most complicated year of teaching AP Lit, or a diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year, if you will.

Not only was it the year I had to pivot my materials to meet a revised (and constantly changing) AP Lit exam and CED, but it was interrupted by COVID-19 and the last 9 weeks were completed online. However, I was still able to record each day’s general focus, as well as record my thoughts and feelings as I had to cut and change my curriculum in the spring. (I have also included links to materials that are downloadable on TpT)

Disclaimers

Disclaimer 1: This is meant to be descriptive in nature, not prescriptive. Due to variations in school schedule, curriculum requirements, teacher style, and a myriad of others, no one teacher’s schedule will ever look like someone else’s. This was posted to a) give an overview of how my AP Lit Full Course Bundle works day by day; and b) to provide an overview of how an AP Lit class operates for anyone looking to compare.

Disclaimer 2: I’ve omitted days that veered away from our normal schedule, such as standardized testing, school spirit activities, and final exam periods. These make up for 10-15 of my school calendar days in total.

Disclaimer 3: I’m on a modified block schedule, so each block period is an hour and a half long. I’ve indicated them by labeling them as “block” and they could be counted as two class periods.

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year - the year of PIVOT

Day 1: “Why Read Literature” Article & One Pager Activity, went over course & changes to the course. I reminded students of reflections for summer reading and gave due dates.

Day 2: Summer reading reflections due, discussed changes in expectations for AP Lit writing (specifically the rubric), went over new rubrics and sample essay (1999 prose prompt, “The Crossing”).

Day 3: (seniors gone on retreat) Taught and learned AP Lit vocabulary words using Quizlet review game.

Day 4: Timed Writing on summer novel (individual Q3 prompts based on chosen title).

Day 5 (block): Rolled out independent reading project, complete book tasting (see pictures below). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 6: Timed writing rehash: focused on making bold claims and avoiding plot summary, reviewed and revised timed writing from earlier in the week.

Short Fiction: Unit 1*

*For future years I will use my short story boot camp unit to fulfill the requirements of Short Fiction Unit 1. I do hope to continue using How to Read Literature Like a Professor in my first few weeks of class, as it works great as an introduction to the course.

Day 7: Introduced How to Read Literature Like a Professor, assigned chapters 1-4 for homework

Day 8 (block): Vocab Quiz 1, AP Lit multiple choice practice (Frankenstein excerpt) and discussion. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 9: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 1-4, assigned chaps 5-7 + Interlude.

Day 10: Presented notes on HTRLLAP chaps 5-7 + Interlude, assigned chaps 8-10. For the Interlude we did a brief discussion before moving on.

Day 11: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 8-10, assigned chaps 11-13.

Day 12 (block): Vocab Quiz 2, Poem study (“It Was Not Death” by Emily Dickinson). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 13: Presented notes on HTRLLAP chaps 11-13, assigned chaps 14-15.

Did you know? Although How to Read Literature Like a Professor has become a fixture in many English classes, not everyone is a fan. Alan Jacobs, author and professor, criticizes the book for its message that “reading is best done by highly trained, professionally accredited experts.

Day 14: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 14-15, assigned chaps 18-20*.
*I do not assign chapters 16-17 to my students because they’re literally titled “they’re all about sex” and some of the parents in my very conservative school would not be too keen on that. However, I do teach the content in the next day’s notes, so they still get the principles in these chapters.

Day 15: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 16-20, assigned Interlude + chaps 21-23. Writing assignment: Handed out prompt for 2008 prose question on Anita Desai’s “Fasting, Feasting.” Assigned students to write a thesis and “baby outline.” A baby outline is what I call a simple bullet-pointed overview of the main points they intend to make. No textual support is needed in a baby outline.

Did you know? Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting was the first announced runner up for the Booker Prize in 1999, after the judges’ discussion grew contentious.

Day 16 (block): Vocab Quiz 3, “Fasting, Feasting” gallery walk. Then, we looked at thesis statements and then discussed each claim. We asked questions like, are there bold claims? Are the claims arguable? Would they earn the thesis point? Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 17: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 21-23, assigned chaps 24-26.

Day 18: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 24-26. Prepared for prose timed writing.

Day 19: Prose timed writing, 2018 “Blithedale Romance” prose prompt.

Poetry: Unit 1

I did not have my Short Story Boot Camp materials done at this time, but this is when I would teach it if I had. I intend to use it here for future years.

Day 20 (block): Vocab Quiz 4, poem study (“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 21: Timed writing rehash (Zenobia prompt). For this rehash we really tackled the line of reasoning element, cutting our essays apart and reconstructing them to show shifts. We highlighted summary versus analysis and considered how much more detail was needed to bring the point home. See pictures from this day below.

Day 22: Began Intro to Poetry notes: Figurative Language.

Day 23: Concluded figurative language notes. Assigned explication* on “Women” by Alice Walker.
*I must note that for future years I am moving away from the explication, which has always been difficult to explain the parameters and expectations, and will instead focus on the “AP Lit paragraph.” I will change all future assignments in this log to the AP paragraph assignment to avoid confusion.

Day 24 (block): Vocab Quiz 5. Completed Personal Progress Check 1 (short fiction) on AP Classroom. Self-scored and recorded notes and goals in our bin. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year - AP Classroom Tracking Sheets
Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year – After each PPC my students log their strongest and weakest skills on one of these tracking sheets. We store them in my classroom for reflection at the end of the year.

New to AP Classroom? Check out my blog post that explains how to set up AP Classroom and use Personal Progress Checks throughout the year.

Day 25: Poem study: “Women” by Alice Walker.

Day 26: Began poetry notes on Sound and Structure. We connected our discussion to evidence from “Women” where applicable.

Day 27: Concluded sound and structure notes. Assigned AP Lit paragraph analysis on “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman.

Day 28: Vocab quiz 6, poem study: “To an Athlete Dying Young.” Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 29: Began poetry notes on Imagery, Tone, and other elements. We connected our discussion to “To an Athlete Dying Young” where applicable.

Day 30: Concluded Imagery, Tone & Misc. notes, assigned AP Lit paragraph analysis on “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden. Prepared for skills test with task cards and gallery walk (see below).

Day 31: Poem study on “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Began notes on Rhyme Scheme and Meter.

Did you know? The AP Lit exam will no longer ask questions specific to rhyme scheme and meter. I still teach this material to reinforce how structure can affect meaning, but it is skippable.

Day 32: This was new this year. I noticed that my students were having a hard time engaging in some of the poems I was using, so I suggested they bring in a song with particularly poetic lyrics. We spent the class period listening to each other’s songs and annotating lyrics as we would poems. Overall, it was a nice break from the rigor of this unit and the assessments that were coming up later in the week. For my own song, I shared “So Will I” by Hillsong United, which relies on hyperbole to send its powerful message.

Day 33: Completed PPC 2 (Poetry Unit 1). Self-scored and recorded weaknesses and goals, filed away in the classroom bin.

Day 34 (block): Vocab Quiz 7, completed 3 poetry skill tests. I made copies of each poem skill test but knew that not all would be used. After our quiz, I put the titles of each skill test in a bowl and students drew three. I gave them the poem and questions for each of the titles they drew and they took about 45 minutes to complete this. I liked this method over every student getting the same skill tests because they had to prepare for all of the skills and hearing them discuss the different poems they got was a good discussion. Finally, we read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year - Poetry essential skill tests
Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year – The poetry essential skill tests were laid out like this.

Day 35: Poetry timed writing (2011 Li-Young Lee’s “A Story”)

Long Fiction or Drama Unit 1 – Kafka’s The Metamorphosis*

*This unit was done when my juniors were gone on a week-long trip, so I completed it with seniors only. We also study The Importance of Being Earnest as our Unit 1, which is why this unit is so short. It does not meet all of the requirements of that unit on its own, but in combination with Earnest it definitely does.

Day 36: Introduction to existentialism lesson with 4 components (Crash course video, comic strip, short story, microfiction). Discussion on existentialism. Assigned Part 1 of Metamorphosis for homework.

Day 37: Notes on Part 1. Assigned Part 2 for homework.

Day 38 (block): (No vocab quiz this week, my juniors were gone) Poem study (“Digging” by Seamus Heaney). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 39: Notes on Part 2. Assigned Part 3 for homework.

Day 40: Metamorphosis Socratic Seminar.

Short Fiction Unit 2 – Prose Unit

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year - Prose Analysis
Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year – Here’s a layout of my prose unit, which uses movie clips to build engagement for prose analysis.

Day 41: Rolled out prose unit, discussed annotation. Completed lesson on diction.

Day 42 (block): Vocab Quiz 8, poem study (“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” by John Crowe Ransom. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 43: Discussed homework from diction lesson. Completed lesson on syntax.

Day 44: Discussed homework from syntax lesson. Completed lesson on point of view.

Day 45: Discussed homework from point of view lesson. Completed lesson on tone.

Day 46 (block): Vocab quiz 9, poem study (“Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 47: Discussed homework from tone lesson. Completed PPC 4 (short fiction unit 2) on AP Classroom. Self-checked and logged weaknesses and goals in classroom bin.

Day 48: Timed writing on prose (2009 Anne Petry’s The Street prompt).

Long Fiction or Drama Unit 1 – The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Day 49: Introduction to Oscar Wilde, the Victorian audience, and Earnest. Began reading in class.

Day 50: Read in class, finish Act I. Took notes on Earnest handouts to tracked themes and literary elements.

Day 51: Began Act II of Earnest as a class.

Day 52 (block): Vocab Quiz 10, poem study (“Toads” by Phillip Larkin). After that we read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 53: Finish reading Act II as a class. Took notes on Earnest handouts and tracked themes and literary elements.

Day 54: Watched portions of The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) movie.

Day 55: Assigned Earnest projects. Read Act III as a class. Took notes on Earnest handouts and tracked themes and literary elements.

Day 56 (block): Vocab Quiz 11. Complete PPC 3 (Long Fiction Unit 1) on AP Classroom. Self-scored and logged weaknesses and goals in classroom bin. Lastly, we read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 57: Earnest projects due, finished Earnest movie.

Long Fiction or Drama Unit 2 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Day 58: Began short fiction lesson on Romanticism. This was to provide context for our upcoming unit on Frankenstein.

Day 59: Concluded lesson on Romanticism, assigned written analysis.

Day 60: Introduced Frankenstein notes (Mary Shelley, themes, frame narrative, gothic novel elements, etc.). Assigned Letters 1-4 for homework.

Day 61: Discussed and completed notes for Letters 1-4. Assigned chapters 1-3 for homework.

Day 62 (block): Voice Lesson 1 for practice. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 63: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 1-3. Assigned chapters 4-6 for homework.

Day 64: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 4-6. Assigned chapters 7-10 for homework.

Day 65: Frankenstein quiz 1. Discussed and completed notes for chaps 7-10. Assigned chapters 11-13 for homework.

Day 66 (block): Voice Lesson 2, poem study “Warning” by Jenny Joseph. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Did you know? “Warning” by Jenny Joseph essentially started the Red Hat Society, which boasts over 50,000 members.

Day 67: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 11-13. Assigned chaps 14-16 for homework.

Day 68 (block): Voice lesson 3, Frankenstein Jenga activity (found in the files of the AP Lit Facebook group). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 69: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 14-16. Assigned chaps 17-19 for homework.

Day 70: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 17-19. Assigned chaps 20-21 for homework.

Day 71 (block): Voice lesson 4, poem study (“The Forge” by Seamus Heaney). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 72: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 20-21. Assigned chaps 22-23 for homework.

Day 73: Frankenstein quiz 2. Caught up on misc. notes or concepts.

Did you know? Sometimes I teach Frankenstein and sometimes I do gothic novel literature circles. To learn more about this unit, click here.

Day 74: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 22-23. Assigned chap 24 for homework.

Day 75 (block): Voice lesson 5, completed PPC 6 (long fiction or drama unit 2). Self-scored and recorded weaknesses and goals. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 76: Discussed and completed notes for chap 24. Reviewed for test.

Day 77: Frankenstein test.

Day 78: Completed timed writing on Frankenstein (I choose a released Q3 prompt that can work for Frankenstein. There are many to choose from and I vary my choice from year to year).

Poetry Unit 2

Day 79: Analyzed and discussed “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Completed a line of reasoning brainstorming sheet for this poem.

Day 80 (block): Voice Lesson 7. Began short fiction mini-lesson on Realism. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 81: Analyzed and discussed “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché. Completed a line of reasoning brainstorming sheet for this poem.

Diary of an AP Lit Plague Year - "The Colonel" by Carolyn Forche
Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year – I cannot express how much I love Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.” I love teaching it and I love reading it myself.

Day 82: Analyzed and discussed “Out, Out–” by Robert Frost. Completed a line of reasoning brainstorming sheet for this poem.

Day 83: Analyzed and discussed “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. Completed a line of reasoning brainstorming sheet for this poem.

Day 84 (block): Voice lesson 8. Complete PPC 5 (Poetry unit 2). Self-scored and recorded weaknesses and goals. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 85: Poetry timed writing ( 2014 prompt “For That He Looked Not Upon Her” by George Gascoigne)

Long Fiction or Drama Unit 3: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe*

*I have since created a unit on Toni Morrison’s Beloved and hope to teach it next year. I’m trying to get approved by my head of school but in the case of parents objecting, I intend to teach it simultaneously with Things Fall Apart.

Day 86: Introduction to Things Fall Apart (about the author, style of storytelling, overview of themes, etc.). Assigned chapters 1-3 for homework.

Day 87: Discussed and took notes on chapters 1-3. Assigned chapters 4-6 for homework.

Day 88 (block): Voice Lesson 9. Conclude dshort fiction lesson on Realism, including written analysis assignment. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 89: Discussed and took notes on chapters 4-6. Assigned chapters 7-10 for homework.

And this is when everything happened. My school went on spring break…and never came back.

COVID-19 forced my school, like most other American schools, into online-only mode. I will record what we worked on for the rest of the year, but please understand the following: a) because we could only meet online twice per week, we did not cover what we should have, b) because the AP Exam was moved to a prose-only question, I had to abandon or cut materials that were no longer relevant to the 2020 test. I will explain what I would have taught at the end of this post.

Day 90: Things Fall Apart Quiz 1 (chaps 1-10), discussed Chapters 7-10. Assigned chapters 11-13 for homework.

Day 91: Voice Lesson 10. Began short fiction lesson on Modernism.

Day 92: Discussed and took notes on chapters 11-13. Assigned chapters 14-16 for homework.

At this point my students and I had a discussion about the barriers in our way as we approached the AP exam. We decided to focus on short fiction and poetry and to stop reading Things Fall Apart as a class, a decision that was very difficult for me. Several students continued to read it on their own, but ultimately it became too hard to guide them through the book how I wanted to in our online forum.

Day 93: Finished short fiction lesson on Modernism, completed written analysis assignment.

Poetry Unit III – Poetry Then and Now

Day 94: Voice Lesson 11. Began poetry then and now unit. Watched “Complainers” by Rudy Francisco and compared it with “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Discussed contrasts in each and considered which has more “literary merit.”

Day 95: Watched “Say My Name” by Idris Goodwin and compared it with “The Naming of Cats” by T. S. Eliot. Discussed words and phrases in each and consider which has more “literary merit.”

Once again, plans got changed. In the middle of April it was announced that the AP Exam would be a prose essay only. Since we were stuck with only two class periods per week (of only 30-40 minutes), we moved away from poetry and focused on prose. I finished work on my Short Story Boot Camp, now my Short Fiction Unit 1 unit, and we covered that material in preparation.

Day 96: Voice Lesson 12. Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 1: Characterization. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Day 97: Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 2: Setting. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Day 98: Voice Lesson 13. Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 3: Plot order of events. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” by Nadine Gordimer and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Day 99: Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 4: Plot sequence of events. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Day 100: Voice Lesson 14. Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 5: Narrator. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “EPICAC” by Kurt Vonnegut and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Did you know? “Shooting an Elephant” captures Orwell’s self-disgust and growing distrust of colonialism as he worked as a police officer in British-occupied India.

Day 101: Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 6: Point of view. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and completed a line of reasoning for that text. Prepared for timed writing on a prose text. The students voted on which text they’d like to read and they picked “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell.

Day 102: Completed timed writing on “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell (custom prose prompt).

Day 103: Test prep day. Normally I’d go through writing and multiple choice strategies for a week or two before the exam, but there wasn’t much of a need anymore. Instead we focused on the online testing element and completed the AP demo.

Day 104: Voice Lesson 15. Timed writing rehash for “Shooting an Elephant.”

Day 105: AP Lang Exam prep (my school doesn’t offer AP Lang as a test, but most of my Lit students take the exam. Since seniors were graduating before the actual exam, I had to give an overview of the rhetorical analysis essay before the AP Lit exam. Not ideal, but what can you do).

Day 106: Juniors only (seniors graduated). Assigned AP Lit film analysis for homework and last assignment.

Day 107: Last day of class with my juniors. Gave final goodbyes and exit survey.

Recap:
CED Units we covered completely:

  • Short Fiction Unit 1
  • Poetry Unit 1
  • Long Fiction Unit 1
  • Short Fiction Unit 2
  • Poetry Unit 2
  • Long Fiction Unit 2

CED Units we started but didn’t complete:

  • Short Fiction Unit 3 (literary movements). We covered Romanticism, Modernism, and Realism.
  • Poetry Unit 3 (Poetry then and now). We ended it when it was announced that the test would be a prose question.
  • Long Fiction or Drama Unit 3 (Things Fall Apart). We cut it for time and because the online forum was too difficult to conduct literary analysis at the time.

What we would have covered if COVID-19 hadn’t hit:

Reflection

The 2020-2021 school year was my 14th year of teaching AP Lit and it was by far my most difficult. Even if the pandemic hadn’t struck I think I still would have called it the hardest. Being in a position of mentorship for so many new and incoming AP Lit teachers is a huge blessing, once that I don’t take for granted.

I worked hard all summer studying the new CED and AP Lit rubrics, then discovered in the fall that I wasn’t focusing enough on the individual standards. I spent the entire school year poring over the document, changing everything I had just changed already. At times it felt like I was standing in quicksand, as the rubric I learned inside and out was revised in September, after some of us had been using it for over a month. AP Classroom was also difficult to navigate and my ire for the question bank is still going strong.

That being said, the struggles in the fall helped me cope better with the arrival of the pandemic. It forced me to pause everything and take a step back. What did my students really need to do today? What skills are important, and what is expendable? The streamlined test helped my students and I focus on just a fraction of what we had hoped to cover, but also took away any anxiety associated with poetry or long fiction. As I write this I literally just signed my contract for the 20-21 year. I have no idea what next year will bring, but I now feel like I can face anything after surviving this school year.

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year

Diary of an AP Plague Year - Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys, 1633-1703.

One of my favorite texts to teach in my British Literature class is The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Pepys was kind of a nobody, but he lived through some serious events. He attended the first showing of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe, got drunk at famous taverns, survived the Great Fire of London, and detailed his experience with surviving the bubonic plague. In October of 1663 he confirmed what every Londoner feared, “to my great trouble, [I] hear that the plague is come into the City.”

In his diary Pepys details walking through the streets and seeing doors marked with signs of the plague. He describes the sounds of constant church bells and the smells of fires and tobacco being constant. However, at the end of his experience Pepys turns an indifferent eye towards the families who suffered from the plague, even remarking about a pile of dead bodies, “I am come almost to think nothing of it.”

While I am incredibly blessed that my family and I have not contracted COVID-19, I refuse to become desensitized to it. Nor am I under the impression that it is over (as I write this in May 2020). I am aware that life will never be the same again and I will never forget this. I suppose in writing this I simply wanted to get a brief chance to do what Pepys did, to write down what I did day by day as I went about my life. Like in Pepys’ diary, my entries are brief and unemotional most of the time, but I hope they do encapsulate what it was like to teach AP Lit during the time of the Coronavirus crisis. Or if nothing else, that you give you an idea of what happens in a not-so-normal year of teaching AP Lit.

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!

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