In this episode of the Truth for Teachers podcast, you’ll hear a coaching call with a 7th-grade honors and regular ELA teacher named Rebecca.
She’s a graduate of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club and has put a lot of strategies in place to streamline her workload and focus on what really matters in her instruction. And, she’s been teaching for 25 years, so she also has a lot of expertise.
Rebecca’s feeling a bit resentful about the late start she’s getting on her weekends because she’s spending so much time on getting her lessons prepared for the week ahead, particularly given how experienced she is. She’s wondering: Isn’t it supposed to get easier and faster by some point? Why can’t she get out of the door on time like her colleagues?
We’re going to explore ways she can streamline her lesson planning process and avoid time-wasters to meet her goal of leaving by 4 P.M. on Fridays.
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ANGELA: So Rebecca, tell me about what was happening in your life a year or so ago that made you think it is time to join the club. What was your goal in joining?
REBECCA: I love this job and it just keeps me wanting to come back and keeps me energized. But oh my gosh, I’m still putting in 10 hour days so regularly. Fridays, when I’m trying to get everything mapped out for that next week, I’m one of the last to leave. And I wonder, What am I doing wrong? I’m a good teacher, but I would think that I’d be winning every national award in the book with how many hours I put in. I’ve learned a lot from this program and it’s gotten much better than what I just said, but I don’t think I’m there yet.
So your goal is to not be the last one to leave the building — to feel like the hours that you’re working are really paying off and that they’re commensurate with your results.
So what have you done already to move toward this goal? What are some of the mindset shifts or some positive changes that you’ve made?
I’ve really taken to heart a lot of the instruction that you’ve given about lists, about not making my lists too long so that I end the day feeling frustrated, and about having one big thing. I guess that when I’m mentioning isn’t so much about unit planning. I guess what I’ve done on that front is I spent some time this summer front-loading what the first month was going to look like pretty much day-to-day. And that really lifted a lot of stress off of my soul. So I had that done. Now what I’m finding as we get into September and October is that maybe I have a few days here and there, maybe I’m going to have a sub so I can’t do what I would have done with the class, so I have to adjust that.
Or, I have two or three extra days that I want to fill in, and what’s the standard that I want to hit? And what do I already have that’s good to fill that in and be engaging for the kids? But still, it’s like this overload of information. Even when I look at what I have saved from Teachers Pay Teachers and I try to curate all those lists of different go-to activities, but I’m not there yet.
So you’re feeling like you have a lot of resources and a lot of things to sort through. It sounds like there’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle that you’re trying to incorporate.
Well, it is, and when I was lesson planning for what was going to work for the first few weeks of school (we start the year with story elements), I’m actually looking at the calendar and being realistic this year about how long it’s going to take to get through some of these things. And hearing my team saying, “Okay, are we going to do a theme? Are we going to do elements of the plot?” Because really, there isn’t time for both right now, which it’s strange to actually acknowledge that you realize those are both bread and butter things, that in this English class, I’ve got to teach sometime this year, but when? And no wonder the unit that I planned as having taken two weeks takes a month because I was never being realistic about it in the first place.
Yeah. I think you hit on something really important there, which is really getting realistic about how you’re just not going to be able to teach every skill as well as you would like. It’s just not possible, and you’re probably not going to get permission from anyone in your school or district to do that. No one’s going to say, “Oh well, I guess we’re just not hitting that standard well enough.” But it’s the reality. There are too many things you’re trying to teach with too many interruptions and distractions, too many things taking away your limited class time, and you’re just not going to be able to do everything to get every kid to master all those standards.
And I think that can be a big frustration with lesson planning because you think, “Okay, maybe if I just spend a little bit more time on this, I can figure out how to make it all fit. Maybe I can find this one magical resource that suddenly is going to get every kid there, and all these skills that I didn’t get to teach are going to all come together in this one class period. I’ll just work harder and then it will happen and I’ll be able to fit everything in.”
Putting in that extra time for lesson planning doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be able to fit everything in, and knowing that can really help a lot. Does that make sense?
It makes a tremendous amount of sense because I just think of the years and the hours that I’ve spent trying to do just that. And then when I find a way to maybe be just a little bit more efficient with what I’m doing, it’s overwhelming to the kids, and that week in class was really rushed, maybe I’m not very patient.
Exactly. When we over-plan, we end up rushing the kids constantly. They can feel that we’re trying to cram too much in. What do you think is the main thing that I could help you figure out today?
How do I create that go-to list of some high leverage, engaging strategies that are a good fit for me as a teacher? And some things I could see myself doing and that are going to be good for the kids.
So I like that you’re even thinking about this, because I think a lot of teachers don’t even know it’s something they can be thinking about. What you’re talking about is not trying to reinvent the wheel, right? Not trying to have a different activity for every single day, but to have some go-to strategies that are open-ended and versatile and that you can use for different lessons. Do you feel like you have a handful of those things to start with?
I feel like I have some, yes.
After 25 years, I think you have more than some. You might be underestimating yourself.
You know, you’re right. There’s always the Jigsaw. There’s always Cornell Notes. Those are a couple of good ones.
Yes, and there are things that sound really basic as teachers are like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s been around a long time.” I know that that’s not new and exciting to us, but if it’s effective for kids, that’s a really good strategy. Cornell Notes are something you could be doing all the time if you know that it really works for your kids.
So it could be that you give yourself permission to not have quite so many things to choose from. Particularly since you feel like you’re already spending a lot of time looking through all of these resources that you’ve downloaded from TpT, and different things that you’ve collected over the years, to maybe step back and take some time to figure out what is actually most impactful: Which things do I feel are really giving me the most bang for my buck? And then try to incorporate those a little bit more.
It’s easier with my honors kids because most of them are reading at grade level. Now with them, it’s really pretty easy for me to be able to give them a text, give them an article, something out of the textbook, or something supplemental that I found. And there’s a summarizing strategy called One Word at a Time that I just love. The kids read a paragraph, they stop, they write a keyword. They collect all those keywords together and they turn those into a paragraph.
I love that. I bet the kids love that, too.
Yeah, it’s really powerful. So, I can also do that one with my regular blocks. Just making sure that it’s with text that they can be looking at independently, and that’s kind of hard with that group.
I was just looking at that again, just the other day. And I think I need to spend more time with that. I’ll make sure and give that another look because I did see some things that I liked. I think the last time when they came out last year, it was so much, and then I kind of forgot about them. I almost felt like I had to read that aloud to myself or something to really envision the kids doing the things.
It can be a lot to process because it’s 30 different activities that are open-ended, and you have to think about how that’s going to fit into your lessons. But I think if you go through that document, I think there’ll be a couple that just stand out to you right away. Like, “Oh I get it. That makes sense to me. I can envision that in my classroom and just start with that.”
So if you can get 3-4 things from that resource, and then you have 3 or 4 activities already, we’re conservatively talking about 8 really good teaching strategies. That can be two weeks’ worth of lesson materials. You can rotate through those. Assuming that of the two-week time period, maybe two of those days will end up being testing or review or holidays without school, etc. So if you have eight days of instruction in the two week period, you can rotate through those eight activities, and then the next two weeks, rotate through those eight things again.
So the kids are only doing each one twice a month. That’s really not that often, and it’s enough for them to get proficient with the activity so they understand what the expectations are and they’re really focused on the skill, rather than always trying to figure out, “What does she want me to do? What are we supposed to be doing here?” How does that sound, repeating the same types of activities?
Well, I could see myself doing that and maybe even just having that on some kind of document that it’s in my binder or on my clipboard so that I can always have that and see it on one page.
Exactly. And would you feel comfortable repeating activities that much? So you were having them do that same thing twice in one month?
Yeah, I like that actually. The kids like those routines. So I’m definitely good with that.
Actually, I think, as teachers, we get bored faster than the kids do. And that’s particularly true at the secondary level because your kids are only with you what, 45-90 minutes a day. Because you’re doing the same thing with multiple groups of kids, you’re going to get bored of it way before they are. They’re really not spending that much time with you. And I feel like, at the elementary level, the little ones really love the repetition. It takes a lot longer for them to get bored with it. So I think a lot of times, we end up not wanting to repeat activities, but if it’s something the kids like and do well with, then you can do that a lot.
And if you feel like you’re pulling that activity out and the kids are like, “Aw man, we have to do that again?” … then that’s your clue that, “Okay, maybe I’ve overused this.” But I think in many cases we’re underusing effective strategies. When we find something that works, we’re like: let me go find something else that works. But you already found it. You already found something awesome. Let’s take that and do more of what’s already working instead of trying to find more things that work.
That could simplify your lesson planning a lot if you think about it like this: “I’ve got these 8-10 strategies, then each day I can just plug one of those into my plans” instead of trying to think of something new each day.
You had mentioned earlier that it was taking you a long time to get out the door on Friday afternoons. Is that when you’re doing your lesson planning?
That would be when I am plugging in which activity, which day. What I found in the last year or two that I think works is to kind of get all those puzzle pieces plugged into the next week. And there are a lot of routines — we do a DOL kind of activity — so that’s already done. I give them some grammar work and that’s already done. All I have to do is copy those things and that’s done. But yeah, I guess just wrapping my brain around things like, “There’s an assembly on Wednesday. There’s a sub on Friday because I’m going to be out.” Thinking through that stuff takes me a long time.
And how long do you stay late on Fridays?
Let’s see. Contract time says we can get out at 3:15 P.M. I’m there until 5:00 or 5:30 pretty regularly. Maybe not every Friday. I’ve been really good so far this year, but I find I’m not as busy in the fall as a lot of other teachers.
How are you feeling about your work hours overall?
Gosh, if I could leave every day at 4 P.M. — since our contracted times ends at 3:15 — if I could leave at 4, I’d be happy.
What I heard you sound more hesitant about was the idea of just being there until 5-something on Fridays. Is there anything else you’re doing on Friday afternoons besides looking at your lesson plans for the week ahead and sort of plugging things in?
A lot of times, what I’m also doing is kids have turned in some work on Fridays. They’ve turned in that week’s worth of exit tickets. Then I have to go through those and put them in the right piles because like I said, I feel like if it’s fresh in my mind, I don’t want to wait on that. So I can’t start planning until I do that. I can’t start planning until I kind of have my desk cleaned off and have imposed a rule on myself that I am not supposed to read email after school. If I don’t get to get through it during my prep, then I don’t get to it.
Do you do exit tickets every day?
Most days, yes.
What if you didn’t give them on Fridays?
So just have them turn it in on Thursday?
You could, and then it’s just one less thing to do on Friday. Do you need to have that information from them?
Well, I suppose not. But a lot of times, I have them reflect on the week. It’s kind of nice for me to go through them. It makes me feel good to read the things they talk about, that they learned or that they still need practice with. It makes me feel like a good teacher. But maybe it’s one of those third rails that you mentioned, you know, that I don’t really need to do.
You’re willing to consider that it’s not a good idea, so I don’t think it’s a third rail for you necessarily. And I think if it’s something that makes you feel good, then I’m sort of into keeping it. Anything that’s motivating and makes you end the week feeling like, “My kids actually learned something and I did a good job and all my hard work is having an impact here.” I think that’s good — I would keep that. Is there something else then on Friday afternoon that maybe you could cut back on?
I need to be better about having the kids get the room straight at the end of the day, so it’s not me. But a lot of it is just that planning. It’s clearing off my desk, all the papers that wound up on my desk throughout the day.
I love the Fridays where the kids are doing more seat time and I’m doing less teaching. I really try to go for those activities. They’re so much happier. But I don’t always pull that off just depending on what we did and didn’t get done or if we’re reading a novel. Like we’re reading “Outsiders” right now, so we kinda had to finish up with our chapters for the week and have a quiz.
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That’s good to know about yourself because you’re the one who’s creating the assignments that you then have to assess and use to plan for the following week. So if there’s a specific type of assignment or activity that is better for you to give on Friday, so that you’re able to get things done, that’s something to think about too in terms of helping yourself get out the door at a reasonable hour. Would it feel better if you left at 4 P.M., or 4:15? What was the time you wanted to aim for?
Yeah, 4 P.M. or 4:15.
What if you left at 4 and could some of those things be done on Monday? Would that make it worse, because it feels like things were left undone?
Yeah, that feels a little panicky. I at least like to have it laid out.
If Friday was the only day you were staying late, would that make it feel better?
So maybe that’s the place to look then: How can you work on leaving around 4 P.M. from Monday to Thursday, and then just know, “Friday’s my day. I stay an extra hour and I get things done.”
Okay. Friday — that’s my favorite day of the week. I think that I’m a little bitter. Yeah, I’m a little bitter about it. So I think that I should really try to protect Thursdays by not having appointments, not having meetings, or other things I have to do, and I should probably really be more intentional about staying late on Thursday.
Okay, that’s a good solution too! When I was student teaching, my mentor teacher always picked Fridays to stay late. She would stay until like 6:30 on Fridays and I was like, “Who wants to do that before their weekend? Are you kidding?”
And I’ve done that and been there that late.
Yeah. And she’s like, “Well, it just makes me feel more prepared for the next week.” But I understand what you’re saying. There’s something about Friday — people are going to happy hour, the family’s excited for the weekend, you have friends who are doing interesting things, and it’s like, ugh, I don’t want to be stuck in the classroom. So if Thursday feels better, then that’s fine.
Our school does happy hour the first Friday of the month. And you know, sometimes I can’t make it because I have an appointment or something with my kids, but there’ve been so many times that I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to really try,” and then it doesn’t happen. I’m still there in my room working.
I have a feeling that some of the work still needs to be done Friday because you need to have closure to the week and you need to be ready for Monday. But if you could do most of it on Thursdays, that would probably help a lot.
Yeah, I need to do that.
Anything else around this that you think we can talk through?
Well, I love my colleagues so much. They’re my friends and I love them. But how do you gracefully step away from some of the chitchat and conversations without being that person who’s like, “Well, I have to go back to work”? It’s hard when I genuinely really like them and I care about what they’re up to, but I do find that when I get done with some of those conversations, that maybe it’s draining for me. You’ve talked about noticing what energizes you and what drains you. When it comes right down to it, a lot of times that stuff really drains me.
I wonder if maybe you could just set a boundary for yourself: “I’ll do the socializing from Monday to Wednesday, and then Thursday and Friday, I can’t, because I need to start preparing for the week ahead and I want to get out of here on time.” And I think that would feel fair enough to say to people, too. Like, “I would love to stand out here with you guys. This is so much more fun than getting my work done. But I’m going to go in because I want to be able to leave when you all leave.”
I think as my time is more freed up (my kids are driving now, it’s amazing) maybe I can just ask people to lunch, or ask them to go to Happy Hour, even if they’re too busy to do it. But if they just see that I do care and I want to know what’s happening with them.
Yeah, that’s a great idea. And how much more fun would that be to be out in a restaurant relaxing instead of just standing in your hallway knowing that you’ve got work to do?
Exactly! Oh my gosh, it just weighs on me. I’m a worker bee, you know, and I like to get my work done, so yes, I think I’ll try that.
Okay. So we’re looking at socializing more or at least offering to socialize some time after school when you can all really relax, and being strict about not chitchatting on Thursday and Friday afternoons because you’re really trying to get out of there. And you’re going to spread the work out over the two days, right?
Yeah, stay later on Thursday if I need to, so I don’t have to stay late on Friday.
So Thursday is your later day. Friday, you’re out of there by four, but both of those days not chitchatting as soon as the kids are gone. Get to work because you know you’ve got to get stuff planned on Thursday, and on Friday, you want to get out of there, and hopefully, you’re going to do something that will allow you enjoy your colleagues too outside of school.
And then the other piece is having those go-to activities: going through the Teacher’s Box of Tricks and picking a couple things, and also picking a couple of things that you have discovered on your own. Then, pulling from those when you’re doing your lesson plans so that you’re not spending so much time looking for new ideas.
Right. So that’s a little bit of front loading that I’ll need to do. Or maybe I should just open up a Word document. I found another good one just recently. I was at a staff development we just had, and just started to kind of copy and paste those ideas into a document.
I think that’s a great idea because you probably have — I’m guessing, Rebecca — I bet you have 50 really good go-to strategies. It’s just that you’ve forgotten about things. And I think they’ll come to you throughout the year. I think one day you’ll be teaching and be like, “Oh yeah, I remember three years ago I did this one thing and it was really cool. “And now if you have a place to record that idea in a doc, now you won’t forget about it, and you can return to that over and over again.
Yeah, put it into that doc, I like that. I know I have lots of good ideas, I just forget about them. Once in a while, I’ll go through and open all the folders on my computer, and I just say, “Oh wow, I forgot all about this. This was so great.” You know?
That’s the dilemma of being a teacher, right? Cause you’re always uncovering new things. You’re hearing about new ideas and so many things you could be doing. And that’s what creates the overwhelm because there are so many possibilities, and it’s the fun and creative and enjoyable part of the job, at least for me. I love thinking about different ways to do things. But it can also just be a tremendous time suck and it’s not necessary. If the end goal is to help kids learn, that doesn’t require something new all the time.
It’s true. And you know, sometimes I’ll just think, “Well, I’ll just go on TeachersPayTeachers and I’ll look for something and that’ll be faster than combing through all of my stuff.” We both know that’s not true. That’s a rabbit hole. I mean, it’s fun to look at everything, but it’s essentially shopping.
Exactly, because then you’re choosing the fun thing over the thing that ultimately is going to get you better results. Anything else we talked about that you want to take action on right away? As you think back to the different things we discussed, anything that really stands out to you?
There are so many good ideas that you just gave me. I just want to thank you. You’ve changed my life, to be honest with you. You’ve just given me so many things to think about. And I don’t know if 40 Hour Teacher Workweek is my favorite or Fewer Things, Better. There’s a quote from the book that I have on a bookmark, and it says, “Staying perpetually over-committed is a way that people hold themselves back from what their true goals are. It’s a self-sabotage behavior.” And that just hit me so hard. I’m really trying to train myself to have more open time, and not just a calendar full of things all the time. It’s so powerful.
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