Explore these three practices to help you remove (or at least reduce) the number of tasks on your plate: 1) Less grading and more real-time feedback, 2) Set limits — and stick to them, and 3) Just say no (at least occasionally). I hope these edu-resolutions help minimize stress and create small pockets of time to reflect, reenergize, and reignite your passion for teaching and learning this year.

In September I committed to three “back-to-school” resolutions and encouraged other teacher leaders to create their own. In the midst of what I hope is a restorative winter break for educators, and as we prepare for 2016 and the second semester, I’d like to offer three more resolutions for new teachers in the new year.

Unlike many resolutions that add goals and commitments to overflowing schedules, these are three practices to help you remove (or at least reduce) the number of tasks on your plate. I hope these suggestions minimize stress and create small pockets of time to reflect, reenergize, and reignite your passion for teaching and learning this year.

Resolution #1: Less Grading, More Real-Time Feedback

It was at least two or three years into my teaching career before I figured out that I didn’t need to grade every single assignment. This epiphany lightened my workload outside of the school day considerably. Instead of taking home piles of writing notebooks, I began giving more real-time feedback to students through formal and informal writing conferences, polling students for status updates mid-workshop or at the end of class, and encouraging students to seek feedback from their writing partners or self-assess before advocating for teacher support. I also quickly learned that shifting the culture in the classroom from one that is grade-driven to one that is feedback-driven, resulted in deeper and more authentic learning, questions, and buy-in from students. If you are taking mountains of digital or physical work home to grade on a regular basis consider:

  • Developing a feedback or conferring schedule that targets a few students per class per day thereby staggering your feedback and grading load vs. looking at dozens (or hundreds) of assignments all weekend.

  • Asking yourself questions about the purpose of the assignment and the level of feedback students need and adjusting your support accordingly:

    • Is this assignment for practice or performance? (Formative or summative?)

    • Did students receive support prior to the assignment (modeling, brainstorming, discussion, etc.) which might reduce the need for feedback during the process or after completion?

    • Do all students need the same level of feedback at this point? How will you identify who needs feedback and prioritize accordingly?

  • Clarifying for students the purpose of the task, the level of feedback they should expect to receive, and the success measures (rubric criteria, key concepts or standards being assessed, etc.) prior to releasing them to work independently or collaboratively on a short-term or extended project.

Resolution #2: Set Limits — And Stick To Them

If and when you do take work home, set limits on what you will accomplish and your beyond-the-school day availability. One of my middle school colleagues who has two toddlers at home wanted to protect time with his family in the evenings and on weekends. He established a “power off” time each night. He proactively communicated to parents (and the principal) at the beginning of the school year that he wouldn’t check or return emails or phone calls after five o’clock on weeknights. By communicating when he was (and was not) accessible up front, he was able to prioritize both personal time and professional responsibilities.

Resolution #3: Just Say No (At Least Occasionally)

Admittedly, this one is the hardest for me personally and very much a work in progress. It is often challenging to politely decline additional commitments beyond your role as a teacher. From sponsoring a club, to organizing an event or fundraiser, to serving on an after school committee, teachers’ planning periods and time beyond the school day can quickly become filled with extra responsibilities that may detract or distract from the already demanding job of teaching students.

When I was hired for my very first teaching position I was asked in the interview if I would also be willing to serve as yearbook sponsor. Being a brand new teacher (who desperately wanted the position) I agreed instantly, thinking little about the additional workload. I’m embarrassed to admit that I logged more late night hours working on page layouts, organizing photos, and planning the yearbook, than I did planning for my English classes or providing students with meaningful feedback on their work. The yearbook ended up being a huge additional time commitment (with deadlines and a professional product expected in the spring). As a result, the following year I advocated for a yearbook elective class as an embedded part of the school day. This helped lighten the workload and still allowed me to work with the students who were passionate about creating the school’s yearbook.

I’ll never know if I would have received the position had I openly expressed concerns about taking on the yearbook as a first year teacher. But since then, I’ve tried to refrain from agreeing instantly to additional responsibilities. Instead, I’m gradually learning to say yes slowly, and to say no occasionally. And when I decline a leadership role I remember that by doing so, I’m leaving the opportunity available for a colleague.

Here’s to working smart and seeking professional and personal life balance in 2016!

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