aha moment, balance, Be the change, being a teacher, being me

12 Ways I Got My Life Back in Balance as a Teacher


I get asked often how I do it all.  How do I teach full-time, have 4 children, a happy marriage, and also write, speak, and all of those other things that I am so lucky to do without losing my mind.  And the truth is; I don’t know.  There are good days where I feel like I have succeeded in most things and there are days where I feel woefully overworked.  There is definitely a chase of balance always going on.  Yet, there are some things that have simplified my teaching life that I now take for granted.  Things that used to take up a lot of time that I no longer do or have changed to allow me to not work as much as I used to.  Because the truth is; being a teacher is a never-ending job.  Your to-do list is never done.  There will always be one more thing that should get done, one more idea to try.  Knowing that, I knew I needed to change a few things, in and out of the classroom in order to save my sanity and have a life.

I stopped grading everything.  Or at the very least I stopped grading every single thing that my students created.  Kelly Gallagher inspired me to do this specifically with what they wrote but Alfie Kohn inspired me to really think about what grades communicated to my students.  The thing is when students expect a grade/score/comment on everything they do, they will never learn to create for the sake of growth (rather than a grade) and they will not become students who can actively reflect on their own learning.  When we teach in a way where the teacher has the final word on assessment we cannot create conditions for students to take ownership of their learning.  That means that students will continue to look at us to see how they did, rather than realize where on their learning journey they are.   (To see more on my moving away from grades journey, go here.)

I stopped decorating the room.  I used to spend an inordinate amount of time refreshing the room with great new bulletin board displays, changing out student work, and lining up new visuals for the students.  Yet my students never seemed to appreciate it much or even notice it.  So by student request we formed a student bulletin board committee who took charge of what they wanted to display.  Student work is no longer displayed by me, but instead shared with classrooms around the world for feedback through Google and Skype.  Anchor charts are made with the students and then removed when we do not need them.  We now relish the bare walls that surround us as we try to create an oasis of calm in the classroom.  And the time I spent on setting up the classroom to look cute is now spent on other things.

I shut the door.  At school, we have an unspoken rule that if someone’s classroom door is shut, they are busy working.  Seldom do we interrupt them during that time.  While I adore my colleagues (I  work at an amazing school with an amazing team), I also know that once we get started on stories, most of my prep will be gone and that is not fair to my own kids at home.  So whenever I have a lot to do, I shut the door and get to work.  This way the time we are actually given at  school is used better.

I wrote down 3 things.  My to-do list is usually about 10/15 items long for various things at school and home, yet when I looked at it, I always gravitated toward the easiest things to check off, leaving the longer tasks for “later.”  Now I prioritize 3 things that must get done that day and one of them has to be a “harder” task.  Once those 3 things are done for the day I can focus on anything else I can do that day.  As for the to do lists, I keep a bullet journal that I absolutely treasure.  This method of keeping track of my life has worked  well for me and has also been a great way to keep memories fresh.  I no longer feel like the to-do list in itself is another to-do.

I stopped multi-tasking.  I thought I was the queen of successful multi-tasking until I realized how little I got done.  Research has shown that our adult attention span is now 8.25 seconds ( a goldfish has 9 seconds) and I wanted to combat that with setting better work habits.  So now when I work I close all of my tabs on the computer, turn off the TV or music,  and actually focus on getting to work.

I set a timer.  I seem to have two ways of doing work; right away or a very long time from now.  And yet, I am under deadlines for writing two new books, I have projects to look at and also lessons to plan.  So now when I dread a task or feel like I am in a writing slump, I set a timer for 30 minutes.  During that entire 30 minutes I am not allowed to do anything but work, this ties in with the no multi-tasking.  The thing is with 30 minutes that anyone can spend 30 minutes on something without losing an entire evening.  That is not very long and so it tricks my brain into thinking it is manageable.  I often find when the time is up I continue working simply because I am now in a groove.

I cut down my email replies.  In these days of instant communication, we all seem to get a lot of email.  I can only imagine what administrators must get, and I often felt the need to write lengthy replies back typically with various niceties interjected.  Yet that is not efficient, to say the least, so I now go by the two-line reply rule.  If a matter needs more than 2 lines to be addressed then I either propose a phone call or a meeting.  If it is someone I can speak to at school, I try to find them at some point to discuss, and if it does need a lengthier reply then I wait until I have the time to write it well.  I also try to be cognizant of how many emails I send in a day; are they really needed or can a quick phone call or face to face conversation handle it instead?

I stopped planning the whole lesson.  Now when I plan, I plan the initial steps and then discuss with my students as we flesh out the plan for the long run.  This means that they have input, leading to better buy in, and it also means that it becomes more personalized.  Planning with my students means that I do not have to have every single little thing figured out, leaving me more time to focus on the big picture.

I got rid of my book check-out system.  Even with the advent of electronic check out systems, it was simply one more thing to manage.  Now when students want to borrow a book, they simply borrow it.  They do not have to ask, nor do they have to write it down somewhere.  The only exception is if they borrow a hard cover book, then they write their name on a post-it and stick it on the dustcover which they then hand to me.  I keep track of them until the book is handed back and the dustcover is put back on.

I stopped committing right away.   I am very good at saying yes; if you email me a request, chances are that my instant reply would be a yes.  A yes means that I can delete the email, a yes means I know what to do.  Yet a yes also meant that I now had one more thing to do.   Now instead of answering right away, I spend time mulling it over  and really think about something before I commit to it.  This may seem simple but it has been incredible for me. By not rushing to make a decision, I preserve my energy for the things that matter the most to me.  I do not feel guilty when I have to say no because that means I get more time with my own kids.  And when I do actually say yes to something, it means I am excited to do it.  I use this approach for almost all requests that come to me, big or small.

I stopped trying every new idea.   I used to think that to be an innovative teacher I had to try every new big idea that was presented to me.  Yet, that just means that you work a lot more on things that may not fit into the vision you have.  Now, I pick and choose, I do not feel guilty that I have not gamified our classroom or created a makerspace.  We do things in a way that works for us.  That doesn’t mean I am apposed to new ideas just that I know to only pick a few and to try them out when I can.  The same goes for technology; I would rather pick a few tools to use a year and use them well then try many new ones and not know them.

I removed apps from my phone.  I removed email notifications and certain apps like Facebook and Twitter off of my phone last tear and I have not missed them.  I did not realize how much time I was spending checking in mindlessly.  I felt like I was always on, because I was.  Now when I check my email I am cognizant of the time I am using, the same goes for anythig with social media.  My own children and those I teach deserve me to be present, and I cannot be if I am constantly drawn to the ding of my phone.

Awhile ago, I wrote a post on how balance is much like a unicorn; wonderful to imagine even though it doesn’t exist.  And while I still believe that to be true, I do know that there are better ways to balance being a teacher and everything else.  So what have you done to reclaim your life from your constant to-do?

PS:  My friend Angela Watson is a master at reclaiming work time, I have much to learn from her.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

balance, change, classroom management

The Dangerous Weapons in School, Or When You Remove the Permanent Markers……

Recently, and no I am not making this up, we were asked kindly to confiscate all permanent markers from the students.  It wasn’t that there had been a huge problem with students using these to write on things, but there had been a couple of incidents and it was therefore deemed necessary to ban permanent markers in the 5th grade totally.  After all, it is much easier for us to ban things rather than teach appropriate usage.  To say I was perplexed at the approach is an understatement.

So this got me thinking, if we remove the permanent markers, what else should we remove from the students?

  • Paper – not only can this create dangerous paper cuts but it can also be used to communicate secret messages or ideas.  Highly subversive stuff if left in the wrong hands, and let’s face it, all students hands are wrong.
  • Pencils – this master weapon can be used to write these aforementioned dangerous messages, and also if you sharpen it really really well it is a dangerous weapon in itself.  (For more bad usage of pencils duo check out #pencilchat on Twitter – there is some scary stuff there)
  • Rulers – ever see a kid spin a ruler on their pencil – ’nuff said.
  • Compass – sharp points and the ability to poke things, no more of these.
  • Scissors – who allowed this stabbing and scratching tools into the classroom in the first place?  Gigantic bad idea.
  • Erasers – these things can be thrown at other people and also used to erase things we want to see such as notes being passed and wrong answers.
  • Textbooks – these mammoths of knowledge create backaches for kids, they can be torn apart by devious students and dropped on someone’s foot.

The more I think about this more I see the problem here.  These kids are not equipped to handle any of these tools maturely and I am sure there are more out there that need to be banned.  Think of how wonderful this will be; then all the students will have to do in a classroom is listen tot he teacher filling them with knowledge.  Win!

answers, assumptions, balance, being a teacher, twitter

Is Twitter a Cop Out?

I am a Twitter fanatic, if you ask anyone, in particular my husband, they will tell you how often I quote something that I learned abut from this social media or how this or that idea came from there. Twitter has enriched my life in ways that I would never imagined when I first signed on a few years ago. In fact, Twitter has radically changed the way I teach and the way I think. Not bad for 140 characters.

As I get more involved with Twitter and the people that I connect with though, I am starting to wonder whether Twitter to me has become the ultimate cop out? By reaching out through the internet, limiting myself mostly to blog posts (which are pretty one-sided) and 140 character tweets, am I shutting off real face-to-face collaboration? You see Twitter doesn’t talk back all that much or go to the teacher’s lounge and roll its eyes. Twitter doesn’t go to your principal laughing at the new hare-brained idea that was just presented. In short, Twitter doesn’t make me take a risk. If I offer up an idea I seldom get negative feedback, instead some people take the time to praise it and often comment. I do the same for others, in fact, I hardly ever discuss something in negative terms unless everyone else is. So Twitter becomes the ultimate safety net where we are not forced out of our comfort zones but instead selectively choose who we care to share with and listen to. But I wonder whether that is “real life?” Or does it even need to be?

It struck me today as I read one of my student’s blog posts about what was missing in 4th grade. Her comment was that she wished we did more with the other 4th grade classes. And she is so right; that is missing from this year. And not because we don’t want to, the initiative just never gets taken. Instead we create global connections which have been incredible parts of our school year, yet perhaps we forgot about our local connection in the bigger picture. bAnd yet it is those local connections that radically determine our day, it is those local connections that see all our flaws and strengths, that see us grow without a lens. Those people that can have the most profound effect on us.

At school when I have an idea I have to find people willing to participate in it, someone whom I trust enough to listen to me and who will then weigh their options. I have to make my case and put myself out there for possible rejection, and it hurts when something gets shot down. Yet it is through these awkward moments of self-selling that we become bigger people and a tighter knit school community. Let’s face it, it takes real courage to speak up at a staff meeting surrounded by your everyday peers. Does it take courage to speak up on Twitter?

So I guess I leave you with this question; has Twitter strengthened your local relationships as well or has it made it easier for you to forget about them? Are we all, in fact, just hiding behind our computers waiting for someone like-minded to come and find us? I am not sure anymore.

aha moment, answers, assumptions, balance, being a teacher, believe, change, education, education reform, educators, elementary, hopes, inspiration, invest, school staff, talented, teachers, teaching

Bring Out the Experts

The education community loves experts. Experts are flown in, bussed in, and wined and dined. If you are an expert on something chances are there is a school that wants to pay you for sharing your thoughts. In fact, you don’t even have to claim to be an expert, others will often bestow that title upon you as a favor. After all, how else will your expense be excused? So I wonder, how does one become an expert, after all, aren’t we all just humble learners?

The word expert is tinged with weight. To be an expert you must be not just knowledgable, but also an authority. Yet who decides when one is an authority? Does it need a book deal? A huge following? Or someone else who is an expert to look at you kindly? Who decides who the experts are?

We are quick to bring in outside experts whenever there is a need but often I wonder who could we have turned to on-site? Who at this school could already have shared that same information at a fraction of the price? Who at this school could have had the opportunity to teach others, much as we teach our students every day. I consider myself lucky being surrounded by experts every day. I find myself among some incredible educators that work hard to bring their expertise into the classrooms to benefit the students. Isn’t it time for all of us to recognize the experts among us?

I dare to propose that we are all experts. Although not world known, or even known outside of our small circles, yet we are knowledgable of something particular, something that we can claim authority on. And so consider this; at school you are indeed surrounded by experts. Whether they are experts at teaching the civil war, grammar, haikus or how to dribble, they have deep intimate knowledge that they can pass on to others. So share your expertise with others, go ahead open up and discuss what you know you are good at. We have to get better at celebrating each others knowledge, each others succeses, simply each other. We are all experts, how will you foster expertise?

balance, being a teacher, hopes, inspiration

Have You Balanced Your Account?

This year it will be all about balance for me.   The accounts of our life have to be balanced and mine seem a bit unbalanced at the moment.  I have started this incredible blogging adventure, well-knowing that I then chose to give some of my precious time to this investment.  And it has certainly paid off in big ways.  However, whenever I choose to give my time somewhere, I am taking it away from somewhere else.

So as I continue this learning journey, I am resetting my calculations, deciding how big of a percentage of time each big category will have.  These categories are the thread of our lives, the love, the drive, the inspiration.  Those memories we carry with us, the ones that us feel like we have lived.  So I look forward to taking stock, reinvesting where I need to, and diminishing where I must.  It has to add up to 100% since there is only so much of me, so much of time, so much of life to be lived.

Are your accounts balanced?