A 40 hour week for a teacher is almost unheard of. The growing number of teacher-bashers out there have somehow gotten the idea that we work far fewer hours that. And of course, anyone who’s ever worked in the field knows that the time spent at school combined with the time spent on paperwork at home often averages out to 50-70 hours a week…or more.
I believe there’s a healthy balance between the perception of teachers working only from 9-3 and the unfortunate reality of them working 7-7. As a classroom teacher, my goal in finding a work-life balance was to dedicate 40 hours a week to my job. Sure, I might spend additional time in the evenings looking online for new lesson ideas or making manipulatives while I watched TV, but those were tasks I really enjoyed. They didn’t feel like work to me, and I didn’t do them every day. My goal was to complete my “work-work” tasks during the course of an 8 hour day: grading, paperwork, photocopies, etc.
I succeeded about 90% of the time. The beginning and end of the school year were the major exceptions. At those times, I was always prepared to work as many hours as it took. 70-hour weeks were not atypical for me in August and September (weekends included). And during those years when I was new to the grade level, school, or school system, I sometimes had to settle for alternating 8-hour days and 10-hour days, or spending Sundays working from home, but I did always manage to get to a 40-hour week by late October. Usually, the only time I’d go beyond 40 hours in a normal work week was if there was a special project or event coming up.
So that means I don’t have a fool-proof system that will guarantee you’ll leave the school parking lot before sundown every night. But I do have some tips to share that made it easier for me to work a reasonable amount of hours. I’ve shared seven pages of timesaving tips for teachers in chapter 34 of The Cornerstone Book, Timesaving Strategies: Discovering How to Be a Teacher and Still Have a Personal Life. Here are six additional ideas ideas for lightening your workload:
1) Replace worksheets with hands-on activities.
The more paper and pencil work you give, the more stuff you’ve got to photocopy, organize, pass out, collect, grade, record, and return to students. Not only are hands-on activities more meaningful for students, but you’ll spend less time making photocopies and grading papers. It’s a win for everybody.
2) Make the most of Morning Work or Bell Work.
When your kids come in the room in the morning and after lunch, there should be something on the board for them to get started on right away. While they are doing morning work, you should be able to complete attendance, check all homework, read and respond to parents’ notes, and so on. My goal was to get this done in 15-20 minutes, but typically I didn’t end the morning work time until I finished these tasks–I wasn’t about to leave myself with a messy pile of half-sorted papers and someone’s class picture money just lying out on my desk. I felt no guilt about this because my students’ morning work assignments were meaningful and open-ended: the kids were actively engaged in projects, reading books, etc. When my administrative tasks were done and I was comfortable with beginning our day, we started.
3) Choose bulletin boards that are timeless.
The background paper and border you put up in August can be left there until June. Switch out student work once a month (or every 6 weeks) and choose stuff that’s not tied to the holidays or seasons. (What’s the point of putting up Valentine’s Day work on February 8th when it’ll look dated on February 15?) You can also put your students in charge of the bulletin boards: let them choose their best work, self-reflect on the back of their papers, and hang them up. At the end of the year, their monthly work sample choices can serve as a portfolio.
4) Keep your room neat and clean during the day instead of staying after school to straighten up.
It only takes a few seconds to push student desks back into position and remind students to pick up their belongings that are on the floor before you take the class to lunch. Tape up that poster that’s falling off the wall while students are writing the heading on their papers. Clear or at least straighten piles of papers on your desk during a moment of downtime instead of checking email for tenth time. Tidying up for two minutes here and two minutes there can easily save you a half an hour that would otherwise be spent staying late after dismissal.
5) When you work beyond your contracted hours, try to choose times when few other people are at school.
I was contracted for 35 hour weeks when I taught in Maryland and 37.5 hour weeks in Florida, so a 40 hour week for me meant coming in an hour or so early or staying an hour late. I found that I could remain completely undisturbed for at least forty-five minutes if I came in early, but staying late was pointless because I’d end up hanging out in a co-worker’s room or slumped at my desk in exhaustion. There’s no point in working long hours if you’re not really working. If you’re too tired, someone is constantly coming in and asking you for things, or you’re tempted to wander next door to chat, pick your “overtime” hours wisely…or even complete them at home.
6) Create a self-running classroom that frees you to teach.
I’ve shared a lot of resources on this topic on my website and even more extensively in my book and webinar series. Creating a self-running classroom means empowering students to take charge of their learning and learning environment. It means giving students ownership over the learning process instead of carrying all the responsibility yourself. Teaching kids simple procedures for every task in the classroom will save you countless hours of instructional time throughout the year because your classroom activities will flow more smoothly and have fewer disruptions. Automate your routine tasks so that not a moment is wasted and you can focus on what matters most about your job: teaching and connecting with kids!
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