Five years ago, I was drowning.
I was struggling to keep my grades updated and my administration was receiving complaints about it. Because of budget cuts, a math teacher was cut and I was asked to teach 7th-grade math and merge two levels of high school integrated math into one.
I was also teaching an overload. I was doing what I could to help our department but I was paying the price. Then I discovered the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek and began eliminating unnecessary tasks that caused me to be overwhelmed. I was starting to get a handle on what I wanted to do and was prepared for the following school year.
Since starting 40 Hour, I lost another colleague in the department, had to get my Master’s Degree in Mathematics, and taught several new classes. It was a process, but over time I have learned to prioritize what is important in my life and RARELY do any work at home.
I teach five math preps plus have students that are taking classes independently but I am able to complete all of my work in school and only do grading or prepping at home when grades need to be submitted or if I have to prepare for a sub. Even when I was coaching volleyball, I could still maintain this balance.
It took me five years to get to this point, but this is the best I have felt mentally and physically since I started teaching 25 years ago.
These are the things that are helping me maintain a work-life balance:
1. Find and use a list system that works best for you.
I used to make a to-do list using the back of a piece of scrap paper and scratch things off as I completed them. I would find myself adding items to the list more quickly than I would cross them off. I would often lose the list and would need to try and recreate it.
The list system from the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek was the answer to my problem. What I like about this system is I can type in tasks that need to be completed every day without having to rewrite them. Tasks that need to be completed weekly can also be saved on the correct day. I look at my calendar for the week and type in any important meetings or events that will be taking place for the week.
To keep it fun and interesting, I use a different colored pen each new day. My favorite part – checking the item off when completed. Tasks that are not completed that day are highlighted so I focus on them the next day.
2. Don’t be afraid to use technology, but don’t overly rely on it, either.
I feel I am pretty tech savvy but I have been guilty of trying the newest and latest technology fad and not having it benefit my classroom or my students. At times, using technology has actually given me MORE work to do instead of making my life easier.
40 Hour helped me to examine what tools benefit me and my students the most and I chose to embrace those. These are my go-to technology tools:
- Planbook.com – I have been using it since 2016 and it has been WORTH EVERY PENNY. It saves every lesson plan for each school year for every class that I have taught and I can copy and reuse an entire year or just units for the current school year. I easily adjust the lessons, enter non-school days, and freeze lessons to certain dates.
- Google Classroom – The pandemic showed me the benefits of using this online tool. Students turn in all their assignments through Classroom by taking pictures of their worksheets. Recordings of each of my math lessons are also posted to this site. Anything the students need can be accessed through the class page.
- Interwrite Workspace and Mobi board – This is the tool I use to teach my lessons in class. It allows me to teach from the back of the classroom so I can see all my students and I have the ability to record the video and audio of each lesson. These recordings are posted to Classroom for my independent students, as review, or to access the lesson if absent from class.
- Desmos – Best FREE online graphing calculator out there and is a great tool for my lower ability students so they don’t have to buy a graphing calculator. It’s easy to use and the graphics are so much better than on a standard graphing calculator. It can be used on a Chromebook and there is an app available for phones and tablets.
- Quizizz – This is an online quiz tool I use for unit reviews or days in which I have a sub. I can create my own quizzes or use quizzes posted by other educators. It’s self-grading and also connects to Classroom.
- Dropbox – I pay for the extra gig space so Dropbox can back up the video recordings and anything that I created or saved that is not in my Google Drive. My Dropbox syncs to all my computers and my cell phone so I can access any of my documents, photos, or videos.
3. Make collecting and grading homework a simple task.
I like to use worksheets for most of my math classes because I can easily see which problems are being completed and work can be shown on the paper. However, correcting the homework during class would be a huge time waster. Ten to fifteen minutes would be spent having me recite the answers, students would correct their own papers, and I would see students feverishly write down their answers as I said them so they could get the points.
I changed my mindset after attending a workshop and the importance of homework was discussed. Since the assignments are actually “practice”, I decided not to put so much focus on the students having the correct answer. I changed the weight of homework on the overall grade to only 20%, have the answer book available so students can check their own answers during work time, and I grade the assignments on completion instead of the number correct.
Students get immediate feedback on whether they are doing it correctly and I can use that extra time to work with students. Grades are updated weekly by batch grading after giving a quiz or a test. I also set a firm deadline for homework to be accepted and I stick with it. Once the unit test is taken, late assignments turn into zeros and a comment is placed in the gradebook saying “Missed deadline”.
Quiz and test corrections are done with me one-on-one so I can grade those as we work through them and can immediately change the grade in the gradebook. This has eliminated a lot of extra work at the end of the grading period.
4. Set work times and stick with it.
Teaching when schools were shut down really opened my eyes to how much I made myself available to students outside of school hours. Since I didn’t have my forty-minute commute, I struggled turning the “teacher” off so I could be there for my family. It really became evident when I had a student email me three times on a Saturday morning, and two of those emails were just to check if I received the first!
I now have firm work hours of 7:30 am – 4:00 pm. I do not respond to emails outside those hours. If I do receive an email from a parent that requires some thought, I will write a response in the evening and then use the “Schedule Send” feature and have it sent at 7:30 am the next morning. This way I no longer have that email weighing on me but I am still letting the parents know when I am available.
5. Make every free moment you have a productive one.
I learned quickly how to do this when I was teaching an overload schedule for ten years. I didn’t have a prep period so every time I had a moment to correct something or enter grades, I would use it. If students have some work time in class, I use that time as well to catch up on grading. I usually pick something easy like recording homework that doesn’t require my complete concentration. This way if a student has a question, I can easily stop to help them.
I also don’t get sucked into the trap of socializing with colleagues when I could be working. We do have to monitor the halls before and after school but I wait until the scheduled time to be there and leave when I am done so I can catch up on work.
I use my 25-minute lunch period as the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and take a break from school work. I make myself each lunch in the staff lounge so I do have that mental break so I am ready to go when it’s time to go back to my classroom.
6. Know when it’s time to let something go.
After a year and a half of Covid restrictions and teaching online, I decided to take last summer off and focus on things I wanted to do. I bartend as a second job and didn’t pick up any extra shifts like I normally would. I decided to start gardening again and focused on creating a brand new raised bed garden. We decided to raise chickens so we spent a month deciding and building a coop and raising chicks. I was really enjoying spending that time focusing on what I wanted to do and enjoying the small things.
Mid-August came, and it was time for volleyball season to start. I have been the assistant coach for 23 years and for the first time, I realized that I was not excited to go to practice. I really wanted to stay home. I thought it was just because of the tough season we had the year before so I trudged on through the practices and matches. While we had a pretty successful season, my heart wasn’t in it.
I had learned during day one of our season that my sister-in-law had cancer and she died shortly after I was done coaching. I had volunteered to help take her to her appointments but she said “You’re too busy” and wouldn’t let me. After she died, that phrase really stuck with me. Right before our volleyball banquet, I came to the realization that it was time to hang it up. I wanted to spend more time at home, help on the farm every night, and just be available to the family if I was needed.
Once I made this decision, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and I felt like I could breathe. Teaching became easier because I didn’t have the stress of wondering what next fall would be like. I felt rejuvenated because I took that step to think about myself and what I needed to be happy.
Making even the smallest changes can have a big impact on how much time you spend doing work outside of the school day. Start with one, and then gradually add more until you find the place you want to be.
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