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.

How Do I Accomplish the Impossible?

Well, I can’t.  Not really.  However, scheduling school-wide activities and taking them from an idea to a reality can seem impossible.  But with a little ‘preventative communication’, accomplishing the impossible just may be possible.

Today’s story takes place at the beginning of December, 2011, when Ms. W. (my principal and ‘Upper Management’) was at a conference for a couple of days, leaving me in charge (I know, I have the picture of the Mom in The Cat and the Hat leaving for the day in my head, too) .

As those of you in middle management know, few decisions can actually be made by you.  Everything has to be run by the Upper Management before you can give an answer to the Staff. But when you are put in charge for a couple of days, and you have talked and talked and talked with all your school’s stakeholders until you’re tongue-tied, look out!

On that day, my revolving door never seemed to find the ‘closed’ position, so I never really spent any time in my office.  In and among the two sets of parents who came in to conference before school started, the ad hoc Girls’ Group called in response to reports of fuss on a morning bus and mediated in order to avoid Further Drama by teaching some needed skills in conflict resolution, the parents called both in response to situations and other parents called as ‘insurance’ on potential incidences, the students conferenced in the hallways, classrooms, and front office, I decided to schedule a Holiday Assembly and a Spring Talent Showcase.  The Holiday Assembly would feature all sports teams, band, chorus, drama club, cheerleaders, dance team, all of it.  Oh, and it would happen in 6 school days.

Crazy, right?

“Impossible!” you say.

Not my usual M.O., certainly, but quite easy, really, considering all the prep work I had already accomplished.  While I hadn’t done any prep work on these two school-wide activities per se, the relationships I had worked very hard to cultivate within my building gave me the groundwork necessary to pull it all off.  And all these relationships had been built by talking – by talking, listening, talking some more, and then listening a whole lot more.

Normally, I would have had a lengthy planning conversation with Upper Management, hashing out details and negotiating over content.  Calendars would have been consulted, and just about every ‘what-if’ examined.  But, meeting averted!  I visited with the Athletic Director in between classes and received his support and an offer to plan the Assembly.  Next stop was the band director and the chorus teacher.  I received the band director’s support during arpeggios, and during the next passing period, the chorus teacher pledged her chorus’s performance.  Check, check, and check.  The teachers’ lounge was next, where I was able to talk to the entire 7th grade team at once.  The sixth grade teachers could be made aware by talking to one key member whose kids were writing busily by themselves.  Team eighth grade is another monster altogether.  They have to be approached carefully.  So I texted one, emailed another, and spoke to a third, all within the next ten minutes.  Everyone on board.  Big check.

Scheduling the Talent Showcase was in response to repeated student requests from a determined lot.  But I had already spoken to many of the key players in a ‘potential’ talent night, so it wasn’t a surprise.  The surprise was on the faces of the students when I called the two leaders into the office during their lunch period.  What started off as expressions of fright at having been called in by the Asst. Principal turned into excitement when I officially OK’d their request for a Talent Showcase.  Like I had knighted them or something.  Of course, I already had the details outlined in my mind, but we brainstormed and chatted, and they came up an outline remarkably similar to mine, and a rather lengthy list of tasks they needed to accomplish by our next meeting (funny how our two lists matched!).  Complete ownership and buy-in by the students.  Next stop was the computer to email the staff a quick FYI email letting them know what was happening.  Great responses continued to fill my inbox for the next couple of days.

All in all, it was a great day of buy-in from many people.  Our Holiday Assembly went off without a hitch, was appreciated by staff, parents, and students, and will likely be a tradition.  The Spring Showcase still needs to happen, but I know the students well enough, and had laid sufficient groundwork with the staff before I’d even OK’d it, that I can already tell you it will be a success.

Nothing like a little preventative communication.

Matt

P.S. The look on Upper Management’s face when I told her the news is worthy of a later post.