10 Simple Strategies to Save Time & Sanity

A MiddleWeb Blog

When I was a student teacher my mentor offered this advice, “As a teacher you could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You have to choose not to.” With lesson planning, grading, contacting parents, lunch duty, staff meetings, PLC, professional development, and more, it is a constant battle to keep up.

Teaching truly is a never-ending job. You can’t stop time and there are only 24 hours in a day, but there are simple strategies that can help you save time and decrease stress. Apply them regularly and you might find yourself in a sweet spot. Ignore them and you could fall into a frantic, behind-the-eight-ball, survival zone.

1. Organize and Declutter.

If you haven’t used it in three years, chances are you’re not going to use it again. Pitch it! Clutter is a breeding ground for stress, and stress robs teachers of precious time and energy that could be better focused. Turn on the tunes and spend a day sorting, organizing, recycling, and even throwing away.

2. Divide your to-do list.

Teachers’ to-do lists can seem endless. To manage them, prioritize by dividing them into the categories below.

Today—things that MUST be done ASAP including meetings, phone calls to parents, following through on job-related due dates, etc.

This Week—things that are a priority but can wait if needed. For example, writing next week’s lesson plans, getting ready for events that will occur in the near future, entering grades, or writing the classroom newsletter.

This Month—things that need to get done in a timely but not an urgent manner. Such as updating the class webpage, making a new seating chart, changing a bulletin board, finalizing grades, and getting ready for parent teacher conferences.

Someday/Maybe—things that you would like to do but that don’t make or break your classroom. For example, redesigning your classroom storage or webpage, redesigning your curriculum, writing an article, etc.

3. Don’t grade everything.

A common mistake teachers make is grading every assignment they give. Not only does this take too much time, but it’s not necessary and can even be counterproductive by making school about grades rather than about learning. If you must grade, consider giving the students the answers to yesterday’s assignment or homework the day after it is due. Students can check their own work and assume responsibility for asking for help when it is needed.

4. Do code everything.

Use numbers to organize by class period and colors to categorize by activity type (green for homework, yellow for tests, white for in-class assignments, etc.) Use hanging folders to organize assignments by week and make-up assignments for absent students. Place small colored stickers on each desk for quick grouping. (“Students with a green dot will work together today.”) The initial time spent creating such systems will pay off in saved time later.

5. Delegate.

Students want to help! Allow them voice, agency, and a sense of community by allowing them to do jobs for the good of the entire classroom. Paper-passers, class custodians, and office-runners are common jobs. Think outside of the box to offer other opportunities for students to help you. Peer-mentors, anchor-chart designers, and teacher’s assistant are a few ways your students can help you get the job done.

6. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Teaching was never meant to be a do-it-yourself endeavor! The Internet is loaded with great lesson plans, ideas, and activities. Your colleagues are also great resources. Remember that teachers have always lived by the motto of “beg, borrow, and steal” when it comes to planning. Give it a try by opening a browser and searching Google for a topic you’re about to teach. For example, “Civil War lesson plans 7th grade.” You will be amazed at the results.

7. Learn to say no.

We teachers are giving by nature. But to remain at the top of our game, we have to learn to say no. Limit yourself to one or two committees at a time. Don’t commit to more than one or two school activities per quarter. Only go to the meetings you must attend. Learn to trust others to pick up the slack. Being over-committed and exhausted will not do you or your students any good.

8. Routinize parent contact.

While it might seem counter-intuitive, frequently contacting parents can save time in the long run. Positive phone calls home are like money in the communication bank. When parents are used to hearing from you for good things, they are less likely to duck your calls later when that school number flashes on their screen. If phone calls are not your thing, try texting apps such as Remind to send scheduled texts or use Facebook and other social media to keep parents up to speed.

9. Make use of technology.

The best thing that ever happened to the busy teacher? Smartphones and tablet computers. With mobile apps for connecting with parents, entering grades, viewing lesson plans, and accessing data, many tasks can now be done on the fly. If you’re not a techie, get a techie friend to set up your phone or computer to help you manage your classroom on the go. Don’t be scared of technology, It’s easier than you think it is. Once you use it, you’ll #neverlookback!

10. Don’t obsess.

Obsession is the dark side of reflection. Be reflective, not obsessive. Being a reflective teacher means constantly examining your efforts and their results with a goal toward improving future learning. There are, however, some aspects of the job that you shouldn’t spend much time thinking about. These include job requirements that you have no control over, personal interactions that are history, mistakes that you can move on from.

School reform expert Michael Fullan reminds us that teaching is a “ready-fire-aim” enterprise. It’s a complex job and you’re bound to make mistakes. Learn from them but don’t obsess over them. You don’t have the time or the energy for that.

BONUS: Recognize that great can be the enemy of good enough.

Be kind to yourself. You do not have to be perfect. In fact, modelling the way you handle mistakes is good for students. Learn to be happy with papers, projects, and assignments that are a shade or two less than perfect. You have a growth-mindset for your students. Offer yourself that same gift.

An astonishing number of teachers leave the field due to burnout. Don’t be one of them. None of the tips above are revolutionary, and none will make your job a nine-to-five. But, they might help a little. A little bit of time saved, a little bit of help gained, might be the difference between being in that sweet spot or being in the survival zone.

For more tips, I recommend Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin’s incredibly practical book, First Aid for Teacher Burnout. (See Jenny Rankin’s post based on her book here at MiddleWeb.)

Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National Board Certified Teacher and a self-proclaimed #edudork with master’s degrees in reading, library, and leadership. Her experience includes teaching learners in remote Alaskan villages, inner cities, and rural communities. She currently is a school principal, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute and writes for We Teach We Learn. Rita's first book,Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom (Routledge/MiddleWeb), was published in July 2019.

4 Responses

  1. Robert Ward says:

    All of these helpful tips resonate with me, Rita. My first mentor taught me about delegating (#5). She said, “Don’t do anything that you could train your students to do for themselves.” This teaches responsibility and allows students to take on leadership roles. It also frees me to spend more time giving quality feedback and interacting with my students on a more meaningful level. Thank you for mother great article!

  2. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    Rita, you had a very wise mentor, and these suggestions are terrific. Thanks, especially for telling teachers they don’t have to grade everything. Sometimes someone needs to give them permission not to!

    • Rita Platt says:

      We do! Teachers work so hard, but taking care of ourselves and not over-working is important.

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