Six Teacher Work Habits We Can Learn from our Advice to Students

We’re always talking to students about study habits, but sometimes teachers need methods for managing our own daily responsibilities. Good news: embedded in some of those lectures we give to our students are tips that can work for us, too.

“Organize your stuff.”

When students don’t have specific places to store their notes and homework, they haphazardly shovel papers into their backpacks, never to see them again. This drives us crazy. Yet we’re making a similar mistake when we let the inbox on our desks fill up with a combination of things that should go elsewhere. Teachers need filing systems for the various types of papers that land on our desks. I describe these in detail in the Piles and Files chapter of my book, but here’s a quick reference to get you started. You should always (a) have a place to put student work you plan to grade (and a separate file for work you plan to collect but not grade), (b) set up folders for papers you don’t need daily but still need to keep track of, and (c) start an “ideas for later” box for potentially-great ideas that you simply don’t have time to look at until summer vacation.

“Don’t wait until the last minute.”

We get frustrated with students who wait until the night – or the lunch period – before a due date to work on major assignments. Teachers, too, need to set up routines for things that are important to keep up with but not urgent yet. This includes parent contact; work toward your teaching certificate; and of course, grading the student work in those files you’ve set up. Otherwise, “Report Cards’ Eve” can feel a whole lot like your students feel when final projects are due – and unlike students, we can’t bring in a note about how our printers broke.

“Keep track of important dates. Preferably all in one place.”

We know students don’t keep track of assignments written on their hands or on tiny scraps of loose paper. Likewise, teachers set ourselves up for trouble when we try to juggle a desk calendar, daily-inspiration peel-off calendar, lesson-plan-book calendar, wall calendar, and smartphone calendar, plus multiple handouts with testing and meeting dates. To avoid missed deadlines and scheduling conflicts, pick one calendar and stick with it. Then, make sure all important dates are on one the one calendar you look at every day. Fill in all school holidays, faculty meetings, and testing dates in pen. Then pencil in other deadlines, and map out academic units so they fit into the rhythm of the school year.

“No, this is not group work.”

Teachers know that student group work can involve a whole lot of group, and not much work. Again, we’re usually not much better. Collaborative planning sessions often become disorganized meetings that involve neither collaborating nor planning. Grading papers with teacher friends also backfires much of the time – especially if you feel the need to compare notes or read your worst wrong answers out loud. Next time the idea of a paper-grading happy hour starts to sound tempting, remember: much of our work is best done with our eyes on our own paper. (Then, by all means, go to happy hour.)

“Stop playing with your phone!”

We know we need to limit distractions if we want students to stay on task. The same is true for us. There are some things that you will only do if you can separate yourself from anything even remotely fun – or even just tolerable. This explains why bringing home a bag full of essays suddenly motivates us to clean our entire house. If you’re on Facebook, those essays don’t stand a chance.

“Finish at school and you’ll have less homework.”

Another lesson we often learn from students: Taking work home doesn’t always mean it will come back finished. Sometimes it’s better to work tasks into the school day so you don’t have to take them home at all. Can you assign some jobs to student helpers? Can you grade a few papers or give feedback on the spot while students work? If you do decide to take work home, be realistic about how much time you will have to work on it. Then plan accordingly. Students who are always promising to work harder aren’t necessarily the best students. Likewise, towing home a rolling crate filled with a supernatural workload doesn’t make you a better teacher.

For both students and teachers, the main point is to come to class prepared.

P.S. You can now get your copy of Adequate Yearly Progress: A Novel!

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