The War Against Time: Teaching Well Without Bringing Work Home

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When I started my teaching career, I worked like an absolute fiend. I would get to school an hour early, stay an hour past the last bell, go home, eat, and keep working from 6:30pm to 10:00pm. I would also reserve eight hours every Saturday for grading. While I loved teaching, a desperate panic would often set in as I looked, utterly overwhelmed, at the pile of work to be done that just never seemed to go away. I didn’t see how it was possible to sustain this level of dedication for a whole career. I remember other teachers at my first job telling me, “Don’t take work home–you need time for yourself, too.” I remember thinking “How? I have to design three brand new lessons every night, create materials, find resources, read and give feedback on my students’ multi-page essays… There’s NO WAY I can do my job without taking work home.” I remember asking my district mentor to level with me. “Honestly,” I asked her, “is it even possible for an English teacher to do her job well without taking work home? Will I ever get there?” She smiled knowingly and admitted that she, as a very experienced educator, still spent weekend time grading, but she did dangle a purportedly real-world example of what would become the (seemingly unachievable) goal that I would strive for over the next five years–a colleague of hers who taught English full time, and never did a single moment of work outside of school. “He never stops moving,” she said, “He’s never without his stack of grading or his laptop… But when he leaves for the day, he’s done.” I knew that I needed to get there if I was going to be happy as a teacher. I needed to never stop moving.

Fast forward to this, my fifth year teaching. This year has been the first in which I have actually succeeded–I simply do not do work outside of work. It is my hope that sharing some of my time management strategies can help others who want to make more time for their waking lives to harmonize with–rather than be crushed beneath–their teaching careers. As a result, it is my strong belief that we become better teachers.

A Quick Disclaimer: I have a beautiful career situation that sets me up for success.  I can devote more time to actually doing my job because my commute is all of five minutes. (For two years of my teaching career, I had an hour commute; nobody appreciates a short commute more than I.) Also, my school gives its teachers both a period for prep as well as a period reserved for department collaboration every day–this saves time for all of us to be on the same page and work on projects together as a team while at school. The biggest deal? My class sizes never get much higher than 25. As someone who started her career with classes of 35+, this also plays a huge role in my ability to manage time. (I also do not have children at home, which I’m sure contributes to a nice reserve of mental energy that those who do have kids cannot always count on!) Without all of these perks, I would never be able to handle a schedule of four different courses in five sections without bringing work home.

How Is This Accomplished?

Use the internet to do your lesson planning. My life has gotten so much easier since I took my lesson planning online. For the past two years, I’ve been posting each of my lessons daily on my class websites. Each post includes learning targets, a narrative of the class agenda, and links to all materials (videos, documents, links) that students need to complete the lesson. This helps me blend several tasks into one. What used to be writing out notes to myself, making copies, designing instructional materials, and writing out directions on the board is now one simple step. It also keeps everything organized by date and time, and negates the need to hunt down work for students who were absent. And revising posts from year to year becomes unbelievably simple. No more looking through clunky binders… CTRL + F, and you’ve got exactly what you need in a matter of seconds. Also, I can work on my lesson posts from anywhere, anytime. Thanks, Internet!

Build on previous material. One of the biggest reasons that I was not able to get away from doing work at home early in my career was that I wrote all my own curricular material rather than working from a textbook. Every single school night, I was designing or compiling several somethings for my classes–maybe writing a skit that transformed two chapters of Pride and Prejudice into modern language, creating a “How to write an annotated bibliography” guide, and inventing a grammar review game. ALL IN ONE NIGHT! EVERY NIGHT! FYI: This is insane, and should probably not be attempted, but it is how I operated for the first three years. And it has worked to my benefit over time. I have thousands of pages of curricular material that I’ve written, which creates a library that I can draw from to modify and reuse. I also keep my entire collection of material online using Dropbox and/or Google Docs, so it is instantaneously accessible, searchable, and linkable. If you made it, use it. Revise and recycle successful activities.

Be smart with assessment. Not every assignment needs to have a unique point value. All of my daily assignments are worth 5 points, and I grade them on a formative scale. I try to remember that little daily practice writings are practices. Kids need to know what level of understanding they are reaching. They do not need me to make it worth twelve points and write down three sentences that explain each point that I’ve taken off. This helps grading go by quickly. Is the skill demonstrated perfectly, fairly, not quite, barely, or not at all? This is a question that I can discern and mark extremely quickly. I also do a lot of what I call “live grading,” where I literally record the grade for the assignment as a student is presenting it or as I am walking around the room during student work time. I don’t need to collect things in a pile if I just walked up to a kid’s desk, read it, and gave him verbal feedback that he immediately applied–so I collect as little actual work as possible. I save lengthy written feedback for major assignments, and these I collect in shared Google Docs folders that are organized by my students’ last names. This way, I can type my feedback (SO much faster than handwriting), and I don’t have to sort anything as I transcribe scores into my online gradebook. Students also receive their feedback the instant that I write it.

My formative assessment scale, used for all small assignments. (Point values are 5, 4, 3, 2 out of 5, respectively)
My formative assessment scale, used for all small assignments. (Point values are 5, 4, 3, 2 out of 5, respectively)

Never stop moving. Every minute of time is precious. I know you want to spend the first five minutes of your prep staring at the wall being overwhelmed. I have been there, my friend. But seriously, bring your laptop or notebook or whatever you are using to plan lessons or assess student work wherever you go. Those ten minutes waiting for a staff meeting to begin are useable minutes. The five minutes you’ve given students to silently read an article at the start of class are usable minutes. The twenty minutes that your students are taking to work with a guidance counselor to enroll for classes are usable minutes. I try to keep my focus and drive razor sharp throughout the school day (with the exception of lunch, which should be a mental break). The incentive of not doing work at home helps me keep checking things off of my list rapidly.

Don’t leave the building until you’re done. Since I’ve vowed to do no work at home, I sometimes stay in the building late. But I tell myself that I can’t leave until I’m completely prepared for everything the next day. And I stick to it. If I have to stay until 4:30pm or even 5pm once in a week, it is still absolutely worth the mental freedom of knowing that the moment I get into my car to go home, the rest of the night is always my own time.

Sometimes, you might still take work home. But schedule and adhere to it like a mandatory work commitment. There is one exception to this rule for me, and it’s grading formal essays for my AP Literature and Composition classes. This takes quite a bit of time, because the writing is longer, more complex, and the feedback that I need to give has to move students into a college level of insight and argumentation. Every three weeks or so, I need to schedule extra time to grade these–I usually need about seven hours to accomplish this for my 31 AP students. So I schedule my “work day” on a Saturday. If possible, I do it outside my home, which is supposed to be a relaxing, work-free space. But I go hard and do it all in a row. Because the sooner I have fulfilled my responsibilities to my students, the sooner I can get back to spending time with people I love and freeing my mind up so that I can get to school fresh, excited, and positive on Monday. 🙂

Essentially, I just want others out there to know that it can be done. But it doesn’t happen overnight. My second year of teaching, I actually felt irresponsible for making 9:30pm my “cut-off” point for work, but I had to do it for my own sanity. My third year, I made the cut-off 7:30pm. My fourth year, I added on a “no work on weekends” rule in addition to a 6pm cut-off on weeknights. And now I’m here. I’m living proof that it can be done, without sacrificing doing an excellent job for your students. Challenge yourself to work better, not longer!

4 comments

  1. Rhonda S

    You have written a truly inspirational post. I am coming to the end of my third year of teaching, and I am getting better about working at home, but I’m not quite where you are. I only teach Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the classroom, but I do some schoolwork every day. This year I’ve been better about keeping it to Tuesdays and Thursdays with only a little on the weekends by working until about 6:00 on MWF. I teach several different subjects as I’m sure a lot of other teachers do. My biggest time eater is grading the student essays and research or analysis papers. I do teach an AP Lit class, which of course means a heavy grading load. I would love some essay grading tips from you. Please share your grading strategy. Thanks!

  2. Ms. H

    Hi, Rhonda! Thanks for stopping by the blog, and I’m glad that my post was helpful for you. I understand your predicament with essay grading–in fact, I am also an AP Literature and Composition teacher! I have to be honest–that’s the one class for which I break my “no work at home” rule. I have 31 AP students, and it does take a full 8 hours for me to give them adequate feedback on their formalized essays. Luckily, I only assign one of those every 3-4 weeks or so! I typically have students submit essays electronically, though, and I use the comment feature on MS Word or Google Docs, since I can type SO much faster than I handwrite. Another thing I like to do for high level kids is focus only on what needs correction or development rather than describe in detail everything that they are doing right. They’re smart kids already, so I simply highlight and write “Yes!” or “Good” for the positive aspects and keep my feedback to constructive criticism. Research papers or essays from other classes I usually grade during a prep or study hall. One more tip–if I’m really crunched for time on a more minor essay, I circle category scores on a rubric only, skip the written comments altogether, but make an offer for detailed in-person feedback for any student who schedules a conference with me after school. That way, the kids who truly care still get the feedback. 🙂 Cheers!

  3. Marine

    Thanks for this Ms. C. I have posted it on our PGCE Facebook page…I don’t recommend DropBox – it loves virri (??). I would recommend Google+, Picasa or my personal favourite: Microsoft’s One drive for storing & sharing all your resources. Kindest regards, Geek MFL teacher

  4. Pingback: How Teachers Can Create a Work-Life Balance | Robert Peters - Assistant Superintendent of Manor ISD in Manor, Texas

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