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The initial pandemic lockdown made it painfully clear that I had few boundaries when it came to my work and non-work time. After yet another night of sitting behind my computer until 10 PM, my husband gently shut it and told me that this was not working. And he was right. But how do you set better boundaries when the world feels like it is on fire and you have to be part of the team that sets it right again?
Idea 1: Set your own time frame and limits and then stick to them.
Since preparing for teaching is a job that is never complete; how much are you willing to work beyond your hours? Put a post-it note up detailing how many free hours you are willing to donate to your job a day or a week and then keep it visible. We often forget just how much extra time we are putting in, having a visual reminder of it can help us find more of a balance.
Idea 2: Set up firm boundaries for your availability.
It is so easy to be plugged into work at all times. There is always work to be done, there are always emails to answers, or new ideas to find, but often what we assume will only take a small amount of time, do not when we add up all of the extra minutes we use “just checking.” So set guilt-free boundaries for your own availability and when you will do work over the evenings/weekend often. As a result of clear boundaries, I have strict email guidelines for myself: No work email on my phone, no checking email after 8 PM on weeknights, no checking it on Friday evenings or all of Sunday at all. I also have clear boundaries for when I will work during my weekend: Saturday morning only and only if I absolutely must. Sunday’s are a day of rest, relaxation, and doing things that bring me joy.
Idea 3: Work when you are most productive.
I am a morning person and have been since the arrival of our oldest child. I work best when it is still dark out and everyone is still asleep and so when I have a lot of work to do, my extra hours are placed early in the morning. I think quicker, I have more energy, and my optimism is still sky-high, this allows me to do my best work rather than waiting until evening when I am tired and I long for sleep. Know yourself and your own energy times and try to plan your work time then. Allow yourself to get the rest you need rather than working beyond those hours. Often it takes a lot longer to finish tasks when you are working during your tired time.
Idea 4: First task: Always be ready for the very next day.
This is the simplest yet most effective idea I have that I shared with my own new teacher husband who was working late into the night every night for months trying to keep up. While we often get pulled into grading, answering emails, and planning entire units before we prepare for the next day, I have flipped the order of my tasks; now I start with the preparation or the very next day before I take on the bigger work I need to do. When I walk out for the night, my classroom is ready for the very next day, including materials, lessons plans, and the space itself. That means I can choose to not work in the evening because I know I am ready for tomorrow and that allows me space to be with my family, to read, and to do whatever I want to do that is not work-related
Idea 5: Plan out your prep time.
This idea was graciously handed to me by a colleague who first got me clued into setting better boundaries. So often our prep time gets consumed by quick check-ins with colleagues, copies, classroom clean up or all the millions of other small things that crop up in our day. Instead of leaving things to chance, when I make my daily to-do list, I plan out what I will use my prep time for specifically, so I know when I need to prepare something. Often the first thing is to be fully ready to teach tomorrow, then run any errands around the building I need to take care of, and then grade /plan units after that. I tend to not stop by colleagues’ classrooms unless I have extra time to talk so a quick email or phone call to ask them a question is always my preferred way to get answers. This also helps me be more cognizant of other people’s time as I don’t want to take up more of their time than I need to.
Idea 6: Cut back the extra work.
I spent an extraordinary amount of time laminating my first few years as a teacher, as well as changing out bulletin boards. Now, I hardly ever do either, because I don’t see the need. If I need to change a bulletin board, I ask students for their help and not many items deserve to be laminated. What are your extra tasks that suck up your time?
Idea 7: Do a time inventory.
While this takes time upfront, it can save you time in the long run. Shadow yourself for a day or a week and notice what is taking up your time, both while you are teaching and when you are in preparation mode. Is everything that you are doing needed? Where are you spending more time than needed? What brings you joy and you want to preserve? When are you unproductive and when are you not? Studying your own patterns can help you see areas where you can be more efficient within the time constraint given.
Idea 8: All the other little things.
How else can you save time?
· Create form emails and comments that you can re-use from child to child when it comes to communicating needs and successes, have them saved somewhere accessible.
· Leave comments on your lesson plans as you teach them, so you know what needs to be fixed/reworked/cut out if you use it again.
· Embrace using your ideas again for lessons but rework them and adapt them to the needs of your current students.
· Involve the students in making anchor charts, classroom study guides, and self-assessment, and make these tools live with the students rather than after class.
· Consider what really needs to be given feedback or assessed and consider how much of that feedback can be spoken at the moment rather than written after the fact.
· Shut your classroom door. While an open door often means, “Come on in!” a shut door will often cause people a pause before they enter. It signals that you would like to be left to work rather than chat.
· Stop volunteering yourself for everything. I have the hardest time saying no when it comes to anything for children and yet, I purposefully do not reply at first to any emails that ask for volunteers unless I am excited about the opportunity. Often my volunteering was not because I wanted to but because I felt I should, so step away from that request and give it some real thought.
· Share ownership with students wherever you can. I often spent time on my prep and at the end of the day cleaning up our learning space, but now if the classroom is in disarray, I dismiss kids by table once it is cleaned up. I make sure we have enough time to clean up, so they are not late for their next class.
· Create a list of what really needs to be done: should do, can do, and would like to do someday. If you ever have extra time, refer to the list and see what you can tackle.
What else? How do you lessen your own workload?
If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me coach, collaborate with your teachers, or speak at your conference, please see this page.. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.