I will never forget when I was in my first year of teaching, I would get kicked out of the building at 6:30pm because that is when the custodial staff left and I wasn't allowed to be alone. I would race home to then finish my work by around 10-11pm. Somewhere in between that, I ate dinner, then I'd shower before going to bed only to be up a few hours later to do it all over again. I NEVER felt like I was caught up on anything.
During my second year of teaching things improved for me because I was allowed to stay as late as I wanted! So that meant, getting home between 7-8pm, shoving dinner down my throat and then getting a shower before bed and doing that all over again. See how I gained 2 hours there?
It took me 10 YEARS to realize that life was not good like that and then about another 2 more years to figure out how to change it. Below is an abbreviated list of things I wish I knew my first few years of teaching to save me some time and energy and allow me to have a life outside of school.
1. Prioritize what NEEDS to get done. There is always something to do. As teachers, we just have to accept this. There will always be something that needs to get done and we cannot do it all. The to-do list will never be completely checked off. Once you embrace that fact, life gets easier. Then start to make daily lists for each day. Before work even starts, so in the car or when you first arrive, make a list of "must-do". This can mean copies that have to be done, lessons that need to be prepped, emails that need a response etc. Then don't let yourself get side-tracked with anything else. For example, I know I need to get things copied and lessons planned out. I know I do NOT need to reorganize my library. Yes, that needs to get done and it will get done, but for now, I need to prioritize these other things.
2. Do not go overboard. Everyone wants their classroom to look beautiful on Pinterest or Instagram, but it does not have to be that cute. Trust me. For YEARS I spent tons of money and tons of time making my classroom look amazing. I was really proud of it, but I also missed out on so many other things that were going on because I had to hand craft library labels and build my own chairs to go with my U-shaped table that I built. I missed out on fun things my friends were doing and time to relax because I was creating bulletin boards from scratch or repurposing an old library cart to match my rug. Then I was hired to a school that did not allow us to decorate our rooms. They wanted one bulletin board and that was it. The rest would be student work around the room. Once I was forced to let go of the decorating, I found that NONE of it made any difference in how well I taught or how much the students learned. So please, if you can get away with minimal decor in your classroom then do it.
3. If parents want to meet, ask to make it a phone call and schedule it around your schedule. I cannot tell you how many parents wanted to meet with me which I thought was great! Until I was stuck at school as the sun went down because the meetings lasted over an hour or the parents couldn't meet until 4pm or later! I realized I was way too available to parents when really I did not have that kind of time. Now when I schedule meetings with parents, unless there is a reason for it to be in person, I always suggest a phone call and conduct it on my way home from work or my way into work. Parents are happy that we are taking the time to meet with them, very few feel the need to meet in person when offered a phone call.
4. If you need a day to catch up, take it! One easy way to catch up on things like grading or data that administration is asking for is to give the kids independent activities to complete. This is perfectly fine to do every once in a while and I wish someone had told me that my first year of teaching. There are so many great resources online that teachers offer for free and at a cost. Once you have any resources, you can use them year after year!
5. Check your email before you go home and then do not check it again. This is another bit of advice I wish I had gotten my first year of teaching. I used to check my email constantly. It would side track me from grading, planning and prepping. It's really helpful to dedicate specific time to email instead of checking and responding on whims. I always check my email before school, during my prep (if I am not doing something else more important) and before I leave for the day. When checking email before you leave, do it 30 minutes before you want to leave. That way, anything that might need your immediate attention can be taken care of then. Do not respond and then check the follow up response when you get home. It's perfectly normal and acceptable that you do not check your email after you leave campus. Another thing, do not connect your email to your phone. If you do have it connected then it's ensured you will answer and people will start to expect your availability to never be "off".
6. Set a time limit and stick to it. It's important that first year teachers learn how to set time limits. For example, if you have a pile of 76 essays to grade like I do every quarter then do not plan on grading them all at once or grading as many as you can before your eyeballs fall out. Set a time limit and stick to it. I will set 30-60 minutes of time aside to grade essays. It ends up taking me about 2 weeks to grade all of them, but that is much better than trying to get all of them graded that week AND plan and prep my lessons.
7. Make and set routines for things. Every other Friday I give students a vocabulary quiz. The routine is that I grade it as they hand it in. Once the quizzes are graded, I put the score in my grade book and then in the computer grade book. The following Monday, I pass them back to students. This is a routine that helps me to prioritize the grading of the quizzes and not worry about something else that needs to get done, but can wait. Another example is I check homework first thing as students are settling into class. Then put the homework grades in the computer at the end of the week. Routines are great for the students, but also for the teachers.
Bonus: A book that I still refer back to and I'm in my 16th year of teaching is First Year Teacher's Survival Guide by Julia G. Thompson. This is a wonderful book that not only helps you to organize your classroom, but also gives great suggestions on how to best spend your time so that you are not wasting any of it.
The suggestions above work. Teachers often ask me "How do you get it all done?" The trick is that I do not get it ALL done. I get what NEEDS to be done, done and the rest can wait. I set routines, prioritize and stick to a task. I know that teaching your first year is tough, but you are doing a great job! If you have any questions about what you can do to improve your year so that you are feeling burnt out, feel free to leave a comment and we will give you our suggestions!
Daughter of the King, wife and mother, former upper elementary teacher, curriculum and course developer