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Thirty Time-Saving 'Hacks' for Teachers

  (This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best "hacks"—small but effective actions you take for things you have to do as a teacher—that save you time?

 

In Part One, Jennifer Orr, Dr. Alva Lefevre, Laurie Manville, Serena Pariser, Julia Thompson, and Douglas Reeves offer their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Laurie, and Serena on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. A new season of the show will begin in late September.

Today, Jenny Edwards, Tony Zani, Cindy Garcia, Frank Buck, and Aubrey Yeh finish up the series. As I mentioned in Part One, these responses were written prior to last March, so some of them might or might not be replicable online. If not, they're just ones to keep in mind when we return to "normal."  The radio show specifically talks about online "hacks."

The next "question-of-the-week" can be found at the bottom of this post.

 

Strategies for saving time

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD), Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students (ASCD), and Research on Habits of Mind (2014, Institute for Habits of Mind International):

So much to do, so little time...  Have you ever wished for more hours in the day? That would be great; however, it is not possible. By living on purpose, we can save time. What might be some strategies for saving time?

You might start by keeping a log of how you use your time before school, during your planning period, and after school when you are working in your classroom. You could track 15-minute segments. Where are you wasting time? What are you doing that your paraprofessional, parent helpers, or students could do? In what activities are you spending more time than needed to accomplish the tasks? Over what might you have control?  What might be in the control of others? What ideas might you have for tweaking the way you use your time?

If you have a large task to do and have been putting it off, it might be helpful to break it down into smaller segments. Then, you could do one part of the task each day.

Delegate everything you possibly can to students, your aide, and/or parent helpers.

You can save a lot of time by writing down the tasks in the order in which you will do them. Then, you can go through the list of tasks quickly and efficiently without having to think about what you will do next.

Put a smile on your face and get excited about the tasks you need to do. By doing so, you will be able to do them even more quickly.

If possible, put on music you enjoy while you are working in your classroom if you do not need to do detailed work. You will be able to accomplish tasks even more quickly.

By limiting the time you are willing to spend on a task, you may accomplish it more quickly. Parkinson's Law states that a task will expand to fill the time you have available for it. Set a timer and race the clock to see how quickly you can do the task.

Make it a habit to touch each email or piece of paper only one time. Know exactly what you will do with each email you open and each piece of paper you get, whether from the office or from students. Create a system for filing and/or responding to emails and paper.

Use the same filing system for paper that you use in your computer. By having the same filing system, you will know exactly where to put files and paper, thus saving valuable time.

Realize when you are putting off doing something. By the time you transfer an item from to-do list to to-do list, you could have done it. Ask yourself the reason you have put off doing it, address the reason, and get it done.

Save files in a Cloud-based system such as Dropbox, Google Drive, etc., so that you can access them wherever you are.

Do similar tasks together. For example, make all calls in one sitting, run errands around the school at one time, file student papers at one time, etc.

Be strategic about the time you spend talking with colleagues. If you need to talk a long time, that is fine. If not, put a mental limit on the time you are willing to spend talking  and excuse yourself when you need to get back to tasks in your classroom. You might place a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door during your planning time to indicate to colleagues that you need to focus.

Say "no" to tasks when possible. If your principal asks you to do a task, you might need to do it. Still, determine which tasks you can decline.

Read more quickly. Perhaps you could skim an article rather than reading it word for word. On the other hand, you might need to read it carefully.

Eliminate clutter in your classroom. Get rid of items you are not using. Rather than having 20 pens, you might only need a few. The fewer things you have, the less time you will need to spend organizing them.

Run errands when other people are not running them. For example, if a lot of people are in the school office at a certain time, you might want to go to the office at a different time when you will not need to spend time talking. On the other hand, if you enjoy socializing, then go when others are present.

In short, plan your day to do tasks intentionally so that you will save time. So . . . what might you be able to do with all the time you have saved?

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Give students more of the workload

Tony Zani is a literacy coach in the Salt Lake City school district. He has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in instructional leadership. Tony is a national-board- certified teacher with a specialization in early-childhood education:

Four hacks every teacher needs before year one:

When I was a brand-new teacher, I spent nearly every moment at school. I would even break into my school on Saturdays (turns out the librarian didn't look her windows, and the school didn't have motion detectors).  I graded every paper, marked every mistake, called every parent, agonized over every book in the classroom library, and spent innumerable hours making posters for my classroom.  After just a few years, I was burned out.  In my fifth year of teaching, I was at a new school.  I had a newborn at home, and my principal just flat told me he was worried about my "workaholic" nature.  I had never been called that and I was taken aback.  I never realized that I was killing myself.  My principal just told me to go home.  He wanted me to put as much of the work as possible on the students and let go as much as possible of everything else.  So, I learned some big time-saving hacks.

Hack #1: Don't make posters for students.  Have the students make posters.  Want an anchor chart for writing strategies?  Have the students make them.  Want a phonics poster or a math-strategies poster?  Have students work in small groups to make them.  The students learn more and are more invested.  You save time, too!

Hack #2: Don't mark every mistake.  I spent so much time marking every mistake in students' writing.  I deducted points for little errors in math work.  Now I only look for mistakes that pertain to what we've been learning.  I scan student work instead of studying it.  I learned to consider if students demonstrated what we've been learning, not look for perfection.

Hack #3: Let it go.  A lot of it.  I spent so much time keeping my classroom library organized.  I spent a ton of time keeping my classroom neat and clean.  Maybe the classroom library doesn't need to be perfect.  Maybe I don't need to straighten the desks everyday after school.  Over time, I learned to have a weekly clean-up time for students.  Ten minutes once a week for students to neaten the library, straighten desks, tidy their spaces.  No, my classroom wasn't as neat, but I did end up with more time at home with my newborn.

Hack #4: Don't grade every paper. You don't actually need to grade everything students do.  I learned to just consider a lot of work "practice."  I gave it a glance to see if students learned (or didn't) whatever concept we were working on.  I didn't mark a thing on the papers and respectfully placed them in the recycle bin.  (I did recycle them at home, though.  I didn't want students to think I was just dumping their work.)  I would also choose some good and average examples of student work for discussion.  We would discuss what made good work good and we would discuss how to improve average work.  This had far more effect on student learning than grading papers and handing them back.

Teachers are often given kudos when they work late or take a lot of work home.  We need to stop this cycle! We're just contributing to burnout and teacher turnover.  I promise you that giving students more of the workload while reducing yours is a very big weight off your shoulders.  I thought good teachers worked late in the evenings and all weekend long.  I was wrong.  I just wish someone had told me in year one or even during my undergraduate years. 

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Gaining time during the school day

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently the district instructional specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics in the Pasadena Independent school district (Texas). She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

Having an efficient and productive school day is a goal that can be a challenge to achieve if we do not have enough time. Check out the following hacks and gain time during the school day!

  • Assign Classroom Jobs

    • Trying to complete all of the "little" tasks in your classroom on your own can end up taking up a lot of your time. Students across all grade bands are capable of completing classroom tasks. Jobs can be assigned at the start of each grading cycle or month in order to allow students to master their job and do it effectively. It can then be the students' responsibility to train the next student that will take over that job. Some classroom jobs include: answering the phone, passing out materials, picking up materials, sharpening pencils, and troubleshooting technology issues.

  • Real-Time Grading

    • Grading can be very time consuming, and if there is not a plan in place, you could find yourself with 22 different projects, essays, multiple-choice quizzes, and other assignments that need to be graded at the end of the school day on a Friday! When possible, grade the assignment and provide feedback to students as they submit their assignment. Not only will this save you time later, but you will be providing immediate feedback to students that can be used to help with misconceptions. If students are working on big projects, try chunking the project into different components that have to be completed at given dates, and that way, you can grade as they work and not have to grade everything at the end. 

  • Communication Plan

    • Trying to keep in touch with parents and campus personnel can be time consuming. One suggestion is to check your email three times a day for a set amount of time in order to avoid having a full inbox at the end of the day. Check your email when you arrive at school, during your planning period, and at the end of the day. Figure out what is a respond now, respond later, need to do, or a can wait. Select a date to respond to complete tasks and make a note in your calendar. 

  • Emergency-Sub Binder

    • Prepare an emergency binder or assignment for your substitute for use when you are out without notice. Take the time to create that binder or assignment now rather than when you are running a high fever and are trying to figure out what plans to leave for a substitute. 

  • Set Up for the Next Day

    • Before you leave for the day, prepare all of the materials you will need for your next day's lessons. Think of an organizational system such as a plastic drawer set, tubs in your closet, and folders in your learning-management system or cloud. All of the materials your class will need should be organized, counted out, and in the order in which you need them. A school day can be unpredictable, and you cannot count on arriving to school early, having a planning period, or your materials still being in the same location you think you put them after a similar lesson the prior year.

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Time-saving hacks for teachers

Frank Buck is a veteran school administrator, public speaker, productivity coach, and author of Get Organized!: Time Management for School Leaders. He has spoken to audiences throughout the United States and internationally to help busy professionals achieve total control over their time and the peace of mind that nothing is falling through the cracks:

Time is the treasured friend of the effective teacher. It's the vehicle through which the teacher crafts magical lessons, builds relationships, and "sharpens the saw." 

Too often, we see time as the enemy. We blame "lack of time" for the reason we come up short in both our personal and professional lives. Three small "nuts & bolts" ideas can make time the teacher's friend.

Put Repeating Tasks on Autopilot

Every job has tasks which recur. They come around every week, month, or year. Education may well be the most cyclic business on the planet. We start school, end school, and have projects that come around the same time every year. Each project carries its list of "things to do." What if we didn't have to rethink those tasks every year? 

Completing those repeating tasks isn't hard. Remembering to do them is the challenge. Let even one fall through the cracks, and the fallout can be a huge time suck. 

Master the art of recognizing repeating tasks when they land on your plate. Have a place to trap them so they appear on the right days. In a moment, you'll read about two ways to make it happen. Your future self will thank you.

Delegate

People in the business world complain about their inability to delegate. After all, when you're at the bottom of the corporate ladder, there's nobody to delegate to. Education boasts more potential delegates than any profession. Hundreds of students come through our doors every morning. Most of them are eager to take on a role and make it their own.

But what can you delegate? Look at the repeating tasks you captured. Sure, you'll invest a little time identifying the tasks and teaching students what you want done. After that, watch your time savings grow daily and your level of stress go down. 

Have an early-arriving student boot the computer and digital whiteboard each morning. Something as simple as that makes a difference for the busy teacher. Think through the "start of day" and "end of day" tasks. Delegate them to students. It promotes responsibility and is one small thing that helps build community.

Make Tasks Get in Line

We know that 20 students can't all grab a lunch tray at the same time. Nor can they all get through the door of the school bus simultaneously. So, we have them get in line and wait their turn. Do the same with your tasks.

An old business tool called the "Tickler File" makes piles of paper disappear. Each snowflake in that avalanche returns on the exact day you want to see it. Grab 31 hanging file folders and number them 1 through 31. Each folder represents a day of the month. Behind that, label 12 more folders with the months of the year. 

Next, ask one question of each piece of paper laying on or around your desk: "When do I want to see this item again?" Put it in the file for the appropriate date. That one trick is the secret to a clean desk.

Remember those repeating tasks? If you like to organize via pencil and paper, keep index cards handy. Each time a new repeating task lands on your plate, jot it on an index card. Underneath, jot when the task needs to be done again. File the card in the Tickler File. When the card appears, do the task and refile the card for the next time it needs to be done.

It you organize digitally, use a digital task manager. I use Remember the Milk (RememberTheMilk.com). Even the free version has enough power for most people. Give every task a date that answers the question, "When do I want to see this task again?". It becomes the digital equivalent of the Tickler File! As for repeating tasks, any good digital list allows you to set a repeating pattern for any task. Do the task, check it off, and it disappears. The next time it needs to happen, it's front and center on the list. 

Life just got easier. It happens that way when you make time a friend.

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Sub plan templates

Aubrey Yeh is a director of fine & performing arts in Boulder, Colo. Outside of work, she enjoys creative endeavors, working with relocated refugee families, and enjoying the beautiful outdoors:

One of the best "hacks" I used while teaching was to create a sub plan template at the beginning of the year. This template listed my daily schedule with times and places (especially important if you change rooms or buildings during the day), contact information, and driving directions between each of my schools. Below this, each class had a section, where I left emergency sub plans and the names of a couple of helpful students who subs could ask if they had questions. Additionally, I would make a copy of my rosters with students' nicknames or preferred names written in to avoid the awkward moments of a sub calling a student by a name they didn't like to use.

Usually, when I was writing sub plans, it's because I was leaving on a field trip, going to a professional event, or just not feeling well. No matter what the occasion, my stress level was usually heightened, and it was so nice to just make a copy of the template and fill in the specific plans for that day. While it took a bit of time to create at the beginning of the year, it was definitely worth it!

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Next question!

What specific changes are you making in your teaching this year as a result of what you have learned from the killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests?

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Thanks to Jenny, Tony, Cindy, Frank, and Aubrey for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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