3 Actions to Becoming a More Efficient Teacher

Yesterday, Teacher A walked into the school office with a bundle of Spring Pictures that were due back to the office the day before.  “Can I give these to you now?” she asks the secretary.

“No,” answers the secretary.  “Those have already been boxed up and shipped out.”

<Awkward pause>  “Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time!” Teacher A replies defensively.

Later that night at a fundraising event for the school, Teacher B says to me, “Ugh.  5:00 was too early to be here.  I wasn’t ready to leave school by 5!”

photo: Drew Coffman (CC)

photo: Drew Coffman (CC)

I’m not sure if it’s a badge of honor, an excuse for being inefficient, or just their mantra, but “I don’t have time” has certainly won the title of Most Overused Phrase in education by now.  I get it.  Teaching is all about everything all up in your face at all times of the day, without much breathing room.  The number of decisions that have to be made in the course of an hour of teaching can be staggering.  The amount of paperwork never gets diminished – only increases with new mandates initiated by someone at a different pay grade.  I even formed the habit of not drinking anything between my coffee in the morning and my water during supper so that I wouldn’t have to visit the bathroom more than once.

But there comes a time when we have to realize that teaching is like that.  It’s fast.  It’s flexible.  It’s hard to plan more than two days in advance.  If you are a person who cannot move quickly, make confident decisions without worrying overly much, or realize that ‘perfection’ is just an intangible idea, then find a new job.

If, however, you love working with the kiddos and the ambiguity of humanity as your prime commodity, then you understand that time will always be at a premium, and that to complain about its lack of abundance is futile.  “Suck it up, buttercup!” is what I remind myself when I feel mired in ‘have-to’s’ and emails from parents.  As I reflect on my own routines, and watch those of my colleagues, there are three areas that can easily be fixed to reallocate more ‘time’ in your teaching day:

1.  SOCIALIZING – Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time talking to each other.  Last year, during the worst of our budget cuts, many of our teachers had their prep time at the beginning of the day – before kids even arrived.  Needless to say, planning time turned into an extended coffee klatch.  Try jotting down just how much time you actually spend talking to the teacher next door, or to your colleagues in the copy room.  I’ll bet you’ll be surprised at how much time could be taken back.

2.  EMAIL – Ah, the buggaboo of modern business – ease of access to everyone can be both a blessing and a curse.  I love being able to email questions and ideas to teachers all over the district with just a couple key taps.  My wife is an administrator in public education and consistently receives more than 100 emails requiring some sort of action each day.  Teachers typically don’t receive that many, but it’s still enough to take up a chunk of a day that we just don’t have, since we are…well…teaching students.  My solution?  A) only look at your emails at set times of the day, perhaps before school, lunch, and after school.  Any parent or colleague who gets upset that you don’t respond within minutes can just stuff it.   A twenty-four hour response time is sufficient.  B) Don’t overdo the responses.  Yes, proofread them, but make them as short as possible.  The added details we so often feel are necessary to bolster our campaign can actually detract from the intended message.  You may even want to keep a document with canned responses that can be copied/pasted into the body of an email to save typing time.  C)  Time spent on proactive communication such as weekly emails or newsletters, social media postings, etc. will reap great benefits in fewer parent emails asking the same old questions.  Letting families understand your teaching and classroom will also prevent emails questioning your methods or motives.  Trust me on this; I learned the hard way.

3.  GRADING – When I started teaching, I spent an unbelievable amount of time grading student work and entering it into the gradebook.  After all, if students took the time to complete my assignments, wasn’t it only fair that I should carefully grade them and provide individual feedback?  No. Let me see if I can change your view on this one.  First, you don’t have to grade everything they do.  Talk with your administrator on how many grades per week he/she thinks is appropriate, and then stick with the minimum.  Let’s say it’s two grades per week per period (for those of us who do junior high/high school).  You can either assign only two assignments per week, or you can collect only two per week.  Second, let the student decide what the second grade will be.  Student Choice is a big buzzword in education these days.  Here’s a great opportunity to incorporate some of that, too!  And most likely, it will be some of their best work, so it shouldn’t be so hard to analyze.  Also, see if you can use technology to do the grading for you, such as Scantrons, Lightning Grader, Google Forms, Socrative or Nearpod App, etc. The new math curriculum for the elementary schools even has e-assessments you can build in the web app, and then it grades them for you. Finally, make your constructive comments in person.  Talking goes so much faster than writing.

While there are many more techniques teachers can use to increase efficiency, try these for now and let me know what works for you.  Any by all means, please don’t let me hear you say “I don’t have time!’ ever again.  It’s counterproductive, and, quite frankly, annoying.

Let’s Just Have a Go!

It’s my new favorite saying.

All at once it’s British, it’s inviting, it’s positive.  I think I’ll make it my new motto.

Photo: youngcreativeministry.com

Photo: youngcreativeministry.com

To often, I find myself stuck in the Land of Should.  Should I try it?  Should I just forget about it?  But I find that if I just ‘have a go’ with a new idea, great things can happen.  For example, last year, I had an idea about implementing a Worksheet-less week at my school.  No one else had ever tried, and teachers were sure to balk at having to give up their precious busywork teaching resources.  One brave day, I made up a flyer, wrote a blog post, and #BOOM! it’s now an Event around the world:  No Worksheet Week 

What about the Toilet Tech I write several times a year?  People downright laughed when I put up my first issue, but now they ask when the next one will be posted.  I’m under the impression that I receive more ROI on that one sheet than I do for all the weekly Tech Tip/Trick emails I send out to all the staff. Certainly the website I maintain sees about an average of 1 visitor/day.

Personalized Professional Development is now a catch phrase.  I seem to remember writing about that (to a huge spike in readership!) and presenting at a conference three years ago.  You can’t be afraid to put yourself and your ideas out there.  Someone is sure to agree.

What I would really love to do is attend the StartUp St. Louis Education Weekend next week.  However, family responsibilities call, so I’ll add it to my bucket list.  I have several ideas I’d like to put out there in the innovation-sphere, including one that’s still a merely an idea-seed, but could be something really different in education.  Stay tuned – I’m sure this will be one of the first places I’ll publicize it!

The message here?  Don’t be afraid to step out and try.  I could add one of the million famous quotes about how great it is to be the innovator, but I’ll spare you, and instead just say, “Let’s just have a go!”

Writing a New Story

Do authors intentionally add all the metaphors, symbolism, and big-idea meaning that we attach to their work as readers?  Do poets actually strive to layer meaning upon meaning?  I would say no.  I would follow with a qualifying, ‘most of the time’.  I would argue that writers write what comes up through their consciousness, percolating through their awareness.  Their ideas become shaped by their experiences, and polished by language to emerge as an articulated thought, complete with a meaning unique to the author.  The reader, then, does the opposite.  He/she ingests the language, chews it around a bit, forming a new meaning based on his/her experiences and consciousness and eventually produces a NEW story.  The overall meaning remains the same, but its effect is unique to the individual reader, thus a ‘new’ story.

Take the western novel Shane, for example.  I used to have my 7th graders read it as a novel study.  Let me clarify:  a teacher who grew up in rural, 1970s Montana required his 21st century midwestern suburban 12- and 13-year olds to read a novel written in 1949, but which takes place in 1889.  Clearly, my version of the story is different than my students’.  And my version is, I have no doubt, different than that of Jack Schaefer, the author.  I understand that the novel is really about change, generational differences, problem-solving, etc., but did Mr. Schaefer really intend for that fool stump to be the huge symbol and metaphor it’s made out to be?

Carmen Medina

Dr. Carmen Medina

The last two days have been spent in a Workshop at the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL) designed to introduce the concept of the ‘InnoLab‘.  Carmen Medina, a visiting professor from Indiana University, led us through an exercise exploring big ideas (in this case, immigration) through children’s literature.  Her statement resonated with me so much that it became my main takeaway from the event:  “Story interpretation is always the creation of a new story.”  Her lesson’s text, Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh, outlined the story of the Mendez family and the landmark Supreme Court decision.  The experience (story), of Dr. Medina, a native Spanish-speaker, has to be completely different than my takeaway, even though we both experienced the story at the same time in the same conditions.

So, if every time we read text, each reader creates a slightly NEW version, how can we teach author’s purpose?  We can discuss the author, guess at the effect of a unique set of life experiences, and surmise their language’s contribution to come up with a pretty good idea of their purpose, but I believe we have to understand the caveat:  no one really knows for sure.  I suppose one could argue that the closer we read, the closer we come to understanding author intent.  But if the author writes in a flurry of creativity, putting to paper what sounds good in the moment, perhaps reading too closely broadens the intent, reshaping it into something more than originally intended.

I’ll save you (for now) from a rant on close reading.  But let me say just this:  Language allows us to make visible the invisible, but beware of assuming my vision as your vision.


Bridging the Classroom-Library Divide


The purpose of this presentation is to explain our rationale and to kick start ideas for you to use in your school.  This is definitely not the only way to do things, and in constant tweaking here in our District.  This multi-year project is the result of collaboration among classroom teachers, the media specialist, and the technology department.  As will most everything else in life, relationships are key to successful outcomes.  Links to resources to start your own program is available here.

In short, I collaborated with the Library Media Specialist (Alayna Davies-Smith), the National Junior Honors Society, the Student Council, and the two eighth grade Advanced ELA teachers at our junior highs.  We identified a need for additional resources to cover Common Core standards, including digital literacy.  We created audio books for the elementary classrooms, and added augmented reality (using Aurasma) reviews onto books in the junior high libraries.  Students then created websites using Google Sites that highlighted a book’s author, theme, plot, characters, etc., and we put QR codes to those sites on the appropriate book.  Students with mobile devices can then access a video review by their peers as well as an in-depth analysis of the text, also by their peers.

This is the presentation for the upcoming Midwest Educational Technology Conference.  It was created with Haiku Deck, and to find the nitty-gritty, you need to read the notes.


2014 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.  Looks like #NoWorksheetWeek was the most popular post.  Stay tuned and join us for NWW 2015!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 35 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

You Bet I’m Creative!


“Sunrise in Quetico” Pastel on Board, 2008

As part of the EdCamp St. Louis Planning Team, we have taken on a blogging challenge. A new topic will come up every week, and we’ll do some cross-posting, commenting, and discussing in preparation for the big day. The idea is that we will have fodder for meaningful discussions, conversation starters when we meet face-to-face (sometimes for the first time), and for many of us (me included!) it will push us back into blogging. I know. I’m guilty. But I have been creating other things.


How much time do you have? I don’t think there’s a limit to blog lengths.

When I entered college, I wanted to register for an art class. I’d always been making things, and my Mom had always been supportive. Until now. “Art is dessert. You are on salad,” is what she said to me when I showed her my proposed schedule. Her voice had that finality in it that defied retort. I turned around, walked away, and ended up majoring in biology.

My Entryway floor December, 2014

My Entryway floor December, 2014

When I look back, I regret that. Actually, no, I don’t regret having studied biology, after all, plants are my other obsession. I regret not sticking to my guns and pursuing art. I should be in design or a studio artist. Nothing makes my adrenaline flow like the satisfaction of making something from scratch. However, biology it was, even into graduate school. I work in a mostly non-creative field by day, and fuel my creative side on weekends. Because I have never really had any formal training, and because it’s strictly an avocation, I probably have a fairly unique outlook on creativity as an idea.

I always have to have some sort of project. I’ve taught myself calligraphy, oil painting, watercolors, pastels, pen/ink, photography, knitting, crocheting, sewing, woodworking, silversmithing, glass beadmaking, and stained glass. I love to design landscapes and interiors, and to cook. I am a huge DIY-er around the house. If it’s something that can be made from a design or pattern in my head, I’m all about it.  In fact, my first blog was an Artist’s Blog.

I don’t think creativity can be taught.  It can be nurtured, but I believe that some people are full of ideas, and others are not. What we can teach, however, is to not be scared.  The only thing that’s between the idea that’s in your head and it’s realization?  The courage to try and do.  Allow creative people to be expressive, and don’t judge those who are not.

Do you think creativity can be taught?  Comment below!

See Robert Dillon’s Creative self.

See Danielle Zuroweste’s post on personal creativity.

The Shifting Target of Creativity by Amy Peach

(Wûrk’ shēt)

Wassup With the Worksheets?!

It is time for the 2nd annual No Worksheet Week! This movement started as a blog post, and quickly went global, thanks to the help of Rae Fearing in California.  To read more about the development of the No Worksheet Week Teacher Challenge you can read here, here or here. Rae and I are collaborating on this post so we can help teachers interested in taking the challenge learn how to to go worksheet free and discover the benefits for their students as well as providing support and new ideas for past participants.


What is a Worksheet?


Going worksheet free is about much more than not using paper.  A worksheet-free week is not necessarily paper-free.  Remember that both technology and paper are tools for learning.  What we are working toward is real learning, and worksheets do not promote real learning. Think about the last time you learned something.  Did you have to answer a bunch of true/false questions, or did you have to DO it – demonstrate mastery – in order to prove your learning? In order to move away from the dreaded worksheet, we first need a common definition:

  • Worksheets are mass-printed, either by the teacher at the copier, or by a publisher in a workbook.
  • Worksheets are given to every student in the classroom.
  • Worksheets contain questions with black & white, right or wrong answers.  For example, they may be fill-in-the-blank, true/false, multiple choice, or math computational problems.


Why Do We Need No Worksheet Week?


Worksheets do not support deep thinking or reflection.  If the answer to a problem is only found in the textbook and must be copied or paraphrased on a worksheet, it only demonstrates the student’s ability to copy down information.  A completed worksheet, or getting an answer right on a worksheet, does not demonstrate understanding of the material. When I was in the classroom I used to ask my students three open ended questions about a topic; if they could answer those questions verbally and discuss the topic with me then I knew they were ready for assessment.  Try asking a student to explain and discuss material after completing a worksheet, and you will be surprised by the lack of understanding they have obtained.  According to Best Practice (Zemelman, Daniels & Hyde, 2012) meaningful and useful assessment “involves students in developing meaningful responses, and calls on them to keep track of and judge their own work.” To achieve this, we need to change the way classrooms work and we also need to involve students in activities and collaborative projects that foster discussion and deeper thinking.


There are many ways to guide students to deeper learning as you ditch those worksheets.  Take a look at Matt’s Autopsy of a Worksheet post or Rae’s Thinglink image that takes on a 4th grade worksheet about sentence rules. You can see more examples of #NoWorksheetWeek ideas or share your own on our collaborative Padlet wall.

The Two Big Ideas of #NoWorksheetWeek


  1. Increase the 4C’s – Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration and Communication in the classroom.
  2. Bring relevance to learning through real world applications of learning and authentic assessment.

What Does a Worksheet-Free Classroom Look Like?


Do more of this Do less of this
communicate thinking busy work (work that’s required but which doesn’t advance learning)
sharing ideas learning about other people’s ideas
discover answers trying to put down the ‘right’ answer instead of the best one.
communicating understanding showing the teacher you can provide the answer they like/are expecting
creating authentic learning products using technology as a substitute for a worksheet
engaging students in meaningful, academic conversations asking students for the ‘right’ answer

Please participate in the No Worksheet Week Teacher Challenge and share your experiences using the hashtag #NoWorksheetWeek.  We will be sharing some of your best ideas on our blogs, so get creative!


You can also join our Google+ Community