As a (somewhat) veteran teacher, I often think back to life as a struggling first-year teacher.
I’ve spent my entire tenure in the education profession serving students from low-income backgrounds. My students are systemically low-performing, as education so often takes a back burner to the struggles of securing their basic, everyday needs.
This took quite an emotional toll on me, particularly as an already overwhelmed first-year teacher. Transcending the incredible obstacle that was the achievement gap I encountered with the students entering my classroom each day proved its own unique challenge that I’m not sure I entirely grasped in my first few years.
These students needed so much more than even a veteran teacher could easily give them, and I remember the mounting guilt that began weighing on me as my first year wore on. I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough. There was never enough time for everything that needed to be done, and it still just wasn’t enough.
Why I joined the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program
But before we get too far in, I want to give you a little bit of background on my situation. I teach two math preps, Pre-Algebra and Algebra I, to eighth-grade students. The school in which I began my career is also the school at which I had done my student teaching. The teacher that mentored me was moving to a different school, and I was to fill her classroom.
The other 8th-grade math teacher was also leaving the school, and his job was being filled by another math teacher already employed at the school moving up to eighth grade from sixth. Both of us were new to teaching eighth-grade math, and while I had more experience in that capacity than my new partner, neither of us had ever really tackled the curriculum in its entirety before.
I am very fortunate that the district in which I work provides a lot of assistance in managing the curriculum, including providing us with a curriculum pacing guide that takes our state standards and breaks them down into units with pre-established testing deadlines that are consistent for all middle schools across the district. They also provide tests to be given at the end of each unit, something I was very grateful to have in my first year.
With both of us new to eighth-grade math and hardly a resource between the two of us, we had a very tough go of it in the beginning. Finding the time to put together lessons, grading, and just helping all the students that needed help began to fill up my calendar faster than I could plan it.
I finally found a rhythm … prepping one day at a time.
I would spend hours, just making sure that I had everything ready to go for the next day. I may have been exhausted at the end of each day, both mentally and physically, but hey, at least I was ready to go, right? I was finally managing to put band-aids on all the holes in my boat, and I was starting to think that this must be how all teachers were doing it; I thought that I had finally figured it out.
However, by Thanksgiving break of my first year, I was reaching a breaking point. It started to dawn on me exactly how much time I was spending at the school, and how much time was being taken away from my family.
On a whim, the Friday before Thanksgiving week, as I stopped at the sign-out sheet, I added up all the hours I had spent working that week and was in shock.
I had spent 65 hours working that week.
I still to this day have the picture of that sign-out sheet saved on my phone to remind me to never go back to that.
During that week, I was paid for 40 hours of work.
During that week, my school got 25 hours of work out of me for free. That’s a part-time job!
That was 25 hours of missed playtime with my kids.
That was 25 hours of missed movie nights with my husband.
That was 25 hours of hobbies, dinners, and bedtime stories that I gave away for free.
Something had to change. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but something had to be different if I were going to continue as a teacher.
Over Thanksgiving break, I saw a Facebook advertisement for the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program. I remember wondering how I would possibly find time to squeeze one more thing onto my calendar, but a quick glance at that sign-out sheet photo convinced me that I should give it a chance. After all, the Fast Track program was only 6-weeks, right? I could do that.
Little did I know how that 6-week program would start me on a pathway to completely changing my life, both as a teacher and beyond.
One of the most impactful things I carried from that Fast Track program was the concept of batching. Batching is such an amazingly helpful process that I use it in every aspect of my life, even outside of my classroom. To simplify, batching requires that you group like tasks together to improve your efficiency at doing them. It makes sense when you put it plainly, but as simple as it sounds, it really does work!
Coming from the day-by-day prepping that I had been doing prior to my entrance into the 40 Hour program, the idea of putting off some tasks in place of others that seemed less important chronologically really terrified me. I was worried that I would finish one day and not be ready to go for the next, so I fought trying it for a few months.
Once everything evened out over Winter Break, however, I decided it was time to take a chance on 40 Hour. The results were a game-changing process that I still use today to help me build and execute lesson plans efficiently.
Change #1: Batching my lesson planning
I begin my prepping by laying out a unit calendar. At this point in my teaching journey, I batch plan all my units for the quarter, but when I first began batching, I only mapped one unit at a time. Both ways work, so if you’re testing the waters with batching, try prepping for just one unit.
To plan my units, I use the reverse planning process in which I put my testing deadline on the calendar first and work backwards from there. So, the very first things on my calendar are the testing days and any days where we might be off from school or have other activities that could affect the amount of class time that I have that day.
I always build in review time right before the unit test, so I put that in next. I give my students two review days: one study guide day for individual study and one review game day for whole group study. Once I have those three days on the calendar (one testing and two reviews), I see how many days I have left in the unit. I then take that number of days and divide by the total number of sections in the unit. From there, I adjust for when those days don’t divide evenly or for any sections that I feel may need more or less time.
Once I have the timing planned out, I start filling in generalities. I start with the first section and assign each day a general task about what kind of thing I would like to do that day: notes, practice, quiz, etc. At this point in the planning process, I am not putting any specifics on the calendar. By keeping things general, I can plan faster because I don’t have to spend the brainpower thinking through every detail about what I want to do. I complete this process for each of the sections in the unit until the entire unit has been planned out. This is what a general unit plan would look like for me:
After I have the general unit plan down, I take one section at a time to set out the specific tasks for that section. I give details about what standard(s) the notes might be over, what type of practice I’m doing that day (whiteboard, worksheet, etc.), and anything else I feel like needs to be specifically mentioned for that unit.
This is where the “thinking” comes in, but I still don’t deep dive into the specifics on what I need to do to make each of those lessons happen. We are just planning. One of my favorite parts about the batching process is knowing that somewhere down the line, there’s a place for everything, so when those creeping feelings of “but what about…” come in, I can easily shake them off because I know that there’s a place in the process for that.
Once I have all the specifics on the calendar, my unit plan will look like this:
After all the specifics are done, I have a complete, usable calendar that I can take to the next task I batch: planning my to-do list for the week.
Change #2: Prioritizing tasks with a weekly to-do list
To create my weekly to-do list, I go through each day for the upcoming week and write in the specific tasks that need to get done for me to be able to teach the lesson for that day. While my planner’s to-do list page has sections for high-priority tasks and other tasks, I use a three-section system that makes more sense to me with my two preps: Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, and General tasks.
If it’s something that I need to do, it goes on the list. I make sure to write down anything and everything that I need to do for the upcoming week, to make sure that I don’t forget anything. (Don’t trust yourself to just remember it! You think you’ll remember, but you won’t!)
My weekly to-do list will look something like this:
I add dates to each task to remind myself when that task needs to be completed, and I list them in order chronologically according to those deadlines. I love digital planning and appreciate the ability that I have with my digital planner to be able to move tasks around to re-prioritize them as needed as new tasks arise.
Even though my tasks are listed chronologically, I like to tackle them in order of completion speed. This isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone, so if it doesn’t make sense to you, that’s completely fine! For me, I like to tackle the easiest to check off tasks first as a motivator. I love watching stuff come off my to-do list, so I get rid of the easy stuff first to help me build momentum to tackle those harder tasks I’m not looking forward to.
During this step, anything that would take me five minutes or less to complete, I finish first. Things that are a quick check of a particular resource or a simple Google Classroom post; stuff that doesn’t require a lot of time to remove from the list.
These small tasks are also batched: all the Google Classroom posts completed at the same time (thank you Google for the “schedule to multiple classes at once” feature!), check all the notes or quizzes saved in Google Drive at the same time, etc. You would be surprised at the amount of time you save when you’re not traveling back and forth between various web pages and waiting for them to load.
Change #3: Identifying my Main Thing each day
With all the small tasks out of the way, everything left on the list is going to take a bit more time to complete. It is these remaining tasks that become my Main Things for each day in the upcoming week. I assign myself one Main Thing each day and schedule it into the biggest time slot I allotted for the day to ensure that there is ample time to complete the task in its entirety. I also make it a priority to ensure that there are no interruptions during this time, allowing me to work more efficiently because I won’t have to restart my thought process each time there’s an interruption.
As Main Things are completed, I make sure to keep everything organized in Day of the Week folders, which are my catch-all folders for masters, answer keys, copies, and anything else I need to teach that day’s lesson. These folders are kept in a hanging file box behind my desk where they can be easily accessed to help keep me organized and on track for the week.
Change #4: Batching my material prep and copies
Once all my big tasks are completed, I will know what things I need to make copies of, so that is one of the last things that I batch. I easily save myself an hour each week making the long trek to the copy room only once instead of waiting in the inevitable copy room line five different times each time I find something new I need copies of.
I also like to schedule copy room visits after school, as I have found that most teachers tend to make their copy room trips in the mornings instead of after school. When there’s no copy room line, this is normally a quick task that takes me less than 10 minutes, something that can easily be completed within my remaining contract time at the end of the school day on a Friday. I can also use more than one copier at once, which saves me even more time.
Once all my copies have been made, I immediately put them in my Day of the Week folders, which I take to the copy room with me. This helps me to keep all my copies organized and in the correct place for the correct day and saves my desk from clutter.
Change #5: Batching my daily instruction boards
The final task that I batch is my “boards.” These are the daily instructions that are displayed on my SMART board every day when students come into class. These let them know what supplies they will need for the day, as well as the day’s agenda and a list of upcoming due dates for them to be aware of. I save this as the last task that I have each week to allow me to take a complete look forward at how the next week is supposed to look.
One of the things that worried me about batching when I first started was wondering how I would be able to keep track of what I was doing each day if I wasn’t doing it all together by day. By saving this daily checklist for last, it allows me to regroup after batching all my tasks and view my week, day by day, to get a sense of how the week will run. This also allows me to run a final check to make sure that I have everything absolutely finished and am completely ready to go for the upcoming week.
And seriously, hitting the “x” button on that final daily instruction board feels like Christmas. It feels amazing to know that I’m not just ready for one day at a time, I’m ready for a whole week. I often think back to that first time I ever contemplated batching tasks. I had so many reservations that I now know were unfounded, so many fears that were fallacies. It has now become so ingrained in the way that I teach, I really can’t imagine doing it any other way. The more that I batch, the more efficient at batching I become, and the more time that I save.
Prepping used to be a huge ordeal for me as a first-year teacher. Now, with all these resources and a wealth of new knowledge at my fingertips through the completion of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program not just once, but several times (Fast Track, Full Year, and now proudly in the Graduate program!), I proudly tackle all my planning and lesson building in mere hours each week. I have gotten so much time back, and not just time, but energy, mental focus, and life!
I have so much more time for the kids I felt so guilty that I couldn’t help. I am giving so much more of myself now because I have so much more of myself, and I am choosing to give it. I have taken on coaching my school’s Science Olympiad team and even been gifted the opportunity to be the team lead for the best team in the world. And I would not have been able to do it, continuing to struggle through my teaching journey the way I had all those years ago, when I first stumbled across 40HTW.
The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek and the published works of Angela Watson and those on her team have truly saved my teaching career.
Teaching is a long game. It’s a marathon. We knew that when we signed up. We knew we would be in the business of planting seeds. But I never really thought about that in terms of how it related to me as the teacher.
I’m in the business of planting seeds, but I can’t just do it for the students. I need to be the seed planter for me. While the fruit is important, the planter is too. Without the planter, there would be no fruit. It is just as important to take care of the planter as it is to plant the seeds. You have to do those things now that are going to make tomorrow easier for you. You HAVE to.
We are present in one of the hardest times ever to be a teacher. If we as a profession want to survive this hard winter to freely plant seeds again, we have to take care of the planters. You have to take care of the planter. The field needs it now more than ever.
Take care of the planter.
Want to learn from more 40 Hour Teacher Workweek members?
5 teacher organization systems that save me time and restored my sanity
The “Big 5” tips for teacher productivity to reduce overwhelm
These teachers’ small changes made BIG reductions in their workload