You can’t do it all, but where can a teacher really cut corners?

The question I’m answering today is one of the most blunt and honest questions I’ve ever received from a teacher. She wrote:

“Everyone knows that a first year teacher is not going to perform at the same level as a 30 year veteran. I would like to be intentional about where I am cutting corners so that my inexperience has the least impact on my students. What areas do you think are most important for first year teachers to focus on? How do I ask for guidance about where I can cut back without sounding like I’m incapable of doing my job?”

Here are six things to consider as you figure out where it’s okay to cut corners.

1) Refuse to internalize the pressure to be as good as a veteran teacher

I commend this teacher for realizing that it’s highly unlikely that a new teacher will be as good as a 30-year veteran, and that in all likelihood, new teachers will need to cut corners. Recognizing this is one of the biggest hurdles new teachers face because they internalize the pressure to DO ALL THE THINGS and do them all perfectly. That is not possible, and you cannot allow yourself to take on such a heavy burden, no matter what pressure you’re facing in your school.

Mentally, you have to tell yourself, Nope, I am not expecting myself to be an expert in every single area of curriculum, instruction, pedagogy, and classroom management in the first few months of the job. This is complex stuff that takes years to master, and I refuse to feel guilt or shame because I’m at the beginning of the process. I’m learning more every day, and that’s all I can ask of myself.

You can’t do it all, but where can a new teacher really cut corners?

2) Focus on cutting corners in areas that have the least impact on students

I also think it’s wise to realize that the shortcuts should come from areas that have the least amount of impact on students. Your priority should be the stuff that matters most for students and their learning. And that can be challenging because it’s often easiest to take shortcuts with the kids. The kids are far less likely to call you out on it than your principal or the parents!

Students often get our leftovers because the adults in our lives demand our time and energy in ways that are harder to ignore. As teachers, we all have moments when we scramble around to find some busywork for students so we can handle a paperwork or data request that was made at the last minute. We have all had moments where we assigned something to keep students out of our hair while we finished lesson planning or grading papers or something else we just weren’t able to keep up with during non-instructional hours. Please don’t think for a moment that this is not happening at least occasionally in every classroom across the country.

And it creates tremendous guilt and frustration, because we’re spending our very limited time on things that don’t have the biggest impact on kids. There’s nothing we want more than to have dynamic, engaging lessons fully prepared in advance and to be completely present and tuned into our students while teaching those lessons, and it’s easy to get discouraged when that’s not a reality 100% of the time. You have to start by realizing that’s not possible, and be prepared to cut corners.

You can’t do it all, but where can a new teacher really cut corners?

3) Don’t try to do all your lesson plans alone or create everything from scratch

Lesson planning is too big (and too important) of a job to struggle through alone when you’re new. Co-plan with your team members whenever possible. Buy ready to use activities from TeachersPayTeachers. Even if you don’t love your colleagues’ lessons or the materials you find on TpT are not a perfect fit with your teaching style and your students’ needs, you’re better off utilizing them than staying up until 2 a.m. every night trying to reinvent the wheel.

I promise that some other teacher has already figured out a way to teach the skill you need to teach in a way that’s going to work for most of our students. Over time, you will learn what works for YOUR students and you’ll be able to adapt ideas you find online very quickly and easily. But that day will only come after you’ve had more teaching experience, so don’t beat yourself up about not being in that place right now. Use pre-made activities and experiment with small adaptations until you can really make them the lessons your own.

You can’t do it all, but where can a new teacher really cut corners?

Do not buy into the idea that is perpetuated in some education circles, particularly on Twitter, that you’re not a REAL teacher if you don’t make all your lesson plans and activities yourself from scratch. There are some very outspoken people in education who seem to think that teachers are somehow cheating their students if they re-use lesson ideas from year to year and don’t make brand new activities for each group of students they have. They pressure teachers to not only personalize all resources for their class but to then spend their evenings and weekends online sharing everything they made with other educators.

If you can do that, great. But I think it’s putting way too much pressure on teachers to insinuate that they should be customizing every set of materials that they use in their classrooms and that they should not find or buy ready-to-use materials online. Really high quality resources do not require a ton of modifications, especially for a new-ish teacher who is probably better off doing things the way an experienced teacher says has worked best for them, rather than trying to carve out a brand new, uncharted path for 5 or 6 lessons every single day.

Of course, you don’t want to be teaching the same exact lessons the same way 5 years from now, and you always want to make sure you’re reflecting on what works and what doesn’t and adapting things for your kids’ unique needs. But during those first few years in the classroom or when you’ve moved to a new grade level or subject area, it is perfectly fine to rely on what your coworkers or other teachers have created so that you can keep your head above water with all the other tasks that are on your plate.

You can’t do it all, but where can a new teacher really cut corners?

4) Reach out to other teachers unabashedly

Find someone who is fantastic at teaching your grade level or subject area and mooch off them constantly. Seriously, if you’re a first year teacher, it’s okay. Truly excellent teachers love to share what works in their classrooms and enjoy mentoring new teachers who are enthusiastic and willing to learn. It actually makes them feel bad when they find out you were muddling your way through something unsuccessfully when they had everything you needed the whole time and just didn’t realize you were struggling.

So ask colleagues whom you admire for activities, forms, materials –anything you’re lacking. You should feel no guilt about this. And when you hit your third year of teaching, remember how needy you were and reach out to someone else who is new. (You will have a tremendous amount of experience and wisdom to offer by your third year in a grade level, believe me!)

5) Cut the cutesy and let go of perfectionism

You don’t have time right now to make things beautiful. If you make an activity, leave it plain. You can improve it next year when you re-teach the lesson.

In the business world, people talk about the MVP: Minimum Viable Product. You know how a lot of new stuff comes out in a beta version? Or they release a product and then three days later there are a bunch of updates? That’s because they released the MVP. The company sent something out in the world that is far from perfect, they announced that it’s far from perfect, and then they learned from what happened as real people used the product to figure out how it needs to be improved. In the meanwhile, they were able to keep moving forward instead of being stuck on trying to get every single detail of an item exactly right before showing it to anyone.

How to figure out what's good enough as a teacher

In Season 1 Episode 15 of my podcast, I explain the whole MVP process in detail and share how to use the MVP with your students so that over time, your lessons will become amazing. Click the picture to read/listen.

The MVP is an important part of letting go of perfectionism. As a new teacher, you cannot afford to spend hours creating center materials, rearranging your file cabinet, or leveling your classroom library. Yes, these are worthwhile tasks, but they’re not top priority.

You have to learn how to prioritize tasks when everything seems urgent.  You do not have to do everything your first year. Remind yourself of this over and over when you feel like you are not measuring up.

You can’t do it all, but where can a new teacher really cut corners?

6) Reflect on what works/what doesn’t so you can learn to trust your own judgment

The most important part of knowing when you’ve done enough and where you can cut corners is being able to trust yourself. That’s hard as a new teacher, because you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and you can’t trust yourself yet. Your judgment and discernment as a teacher is still questionable.

But you ARE the only person in the world who truly understands what needs to be done for your unique teaching situation and group of kids. You know your classroom dynamics better than anyone else. And so you can learn to trust that feeling in you that rises up and says, I can stop here. This is enough. I am enough. My value and worth as a teacher is not defined by what I do, but who I am.

Remember, no one in the school system is likely to ever tell you that. They’re not going to say, yep, it’s fine to cut corners here so you can go spend time with your family and rest up a bit.

YOU are responsible for drawing your own boundaries around your time and figuring out how much energy you’re going to expend on every task. You decide. You can’t let guilt or comparison sway you from what you know is right deep in your heart, or cause you to sacrifice your health or your family.

You can’t do it all, but where can a new teacher really cut corners?

I encourage you to allow yourself to stop short of what is perfect and cut corners where you need to in order to survive. Keep pursuing excellence, and know that it’s something you will achieve over time, and not overnight…and that’s okay.You can’t do it all, but where can a new teacher really cut corners?

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Katie November 23, 2015 at 9:40 am

I wish I’d even KNOWN to ask that question way back then!

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2 Angela Watson November 30, 2015 at 10:35 am

Great point, Katie! I’m not sure I would have thought to ask this question my first year, either. I think nowadays, more teachers are realizing that they can’t do it all (especially since the demands are currently so overwhelming) and ready to think about prioritizing. It’s a good shift.

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3 Carol December 6, 2015 at 9:50 pm

I’m a first year teacher and I needed to hear this. Thank you!

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4 Teri December 8, 2015 at 6:22 pm

I think this advice is spot on! I have been teaching in the public school for more than ten years and I still find myself overwhelmed. Cutting back is something I struggle with and this advice is as relevant for me is it is for a first year teacher.

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5 Louise Dwyer January 28, 2016 at 9:26 am

The MVP analagy is a really useful one … as an activity idea and cross-curricular link. Instead of constantly thinking up A* model paragraphs, I’ll offer the class an MVP paragraph and make it their job to make the improvements, while getting the pupils who take business studies to show their expertise of the term MVP. Time saved – tick, pupils learning for themselves and not being spoon-fed – tick; cross-curricular link – tick!

Thank you for planting the seed of this idea.

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6 Angela Watson January 30, 2016 at 6:46 pm

I LOVE the idea of giving students ownership of improving the MVP! I bet they’ll love that, and the end product will probably be something you never would have imagined on your own.

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7 Natalia April 16, 2016 at 6:39 pm

This my first year of teaching in Argentina! This is internationally helpful! Thanks you so much for this and the wisdom you are sharing with me!

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8 Angela Watson April 23, 2016 at 7:21 pm

So glad it was useful for you! All the best to you in your first year!

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9 Pat April 28, 2016 at 12:02 am

Great advice! I have been teaching for a couple decades plus, and have finally decided to leave the cutesy classroom behind. It takes too much time, too much energy, too much money and proves too distracting for some students. I also have finally accepted that perfection is unrealistic and the pursuit of it keeps me so stressed that I cannot be my best self for my students.

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10 Heather Esford August 8, 2016 at 10:22 pm

Angela,
This is exactly what I needed on the evening before heading into a week of PD tomorrow. I was so inspired that I wrote a short blog post about how I’m going to make it a practice to not try to pursue perfection. The blog is new and a work in progress but you can check it out at brighteyedclassroom.blogspot.com

Thanks!
Heather

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11 Logic Roots August 9, 2016 at 7:58 am

Hi, Angela,

This is such an insightful post. We have a huge network of teachers both from US and India connecting with us on a daily basis. And off late the new ones have been approaching us with a lot of jitters. We are going to share this on our facebook page. I’m sure the new members of the teaching community are going to vastly benefit from your post. Thank you so much for writing this.

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