Entry 3 – The Teacher Work/Life Balance & All-Boy Classes

It was a short week with Labor Day off.  This weeks reflection prompt is:

Are you working too hard? Do you have tips for achieving life-work balance?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  Talked to my sis last week and she teaches Spanish in public school in Tennessee.  She has five or six classes and three of them have 35 students.  That’s huge.  She shared how she tries to make assignments that are a little easier to grade but when looking for correct spelling and usage and accent marks for 150+ students, that’s going to take a while.  Not to mention the district mandated lesson plans that have a copious number of requirements.  She works a lot at home.  While my colleagues and I have far fewer students and more autonomy in our workflows, the work/life balance comes up a lot in conversations around school.

I was listening to a podcast this week that also addressed these issues.  The guest on the podcast gave five tips for saving time as a teacher.  Over the six years I’ve been teaching, I’ve come across most of the techniques she shares.  Some of them I do consistently and they really do save me a lot of time.  Some of them continue to be one of those things that I know I should be more intentional about, but I rarely am.  I’ll share the techniques and my experience with each.

1.  Eliminate unintentional breaks

Unintentional breaks include any interruption when I’m trying to work; social media, email, chatting with a colleague, texts, etc.  I try to keep my work time as focused as possible.  I’ve downloaded the Self-Control App on my laptop to block certain websites for a certain amount of time.  Haven’t used it a ton but for times I’m feeling particularly distractible, it’s there.  I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter off my phone and I’ve disconnected my email from my phone.  Just yesterday I deleted the YouTube app as I found I was just always stopping to watch videos throughout the day when I could have been doing something more productive.  There was a lot of internal resistance to take most of these apps off my phone (what if I miss something important!) but I realized that every time I open my laptop, I check my all my email and social media.  I WILL see those notification, but having them off my phone gives me a little more control over WHEN I see them (ideally not in the middle of focused work).

2.  Figure out The Main Thing to do first

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-12-03-53-pmThe Main Thing is usually the thing you really need to get done that day but put off.  It’s the thing you can get done today that will make you feel you accomplished something important.  It’s so much easier to do a ton of smaller, less important tasks than the most important task that may take more focus and time.  I try to work on The Main Thing first in the day.  I use an app called Momentum on my Chrome browser.  It allows you to write your Main Thing right in the center of a new tab and it shows up with every new tab you open.  I will also try to rearrange my Wunderlist so my Main Thing is at the top.  When I have implemented this tactic, I feel a lot better about what I accomplished by the end of the day.  That said, many days I find that I don’t write The Main Thing in the app or structure my to-do list with The Main Thing on top.  I fall back into the trap of doing the smaller, easier tasks instead.

3.  Work ahead by batching and avoid multi-tasking unless the work is mindless

I’m pretty terrible at this one, especially with email.  Email make me feel important.  Someone is trying to contact me and needs to ask me or tell me about something.  I feel a sense of pride of being at ‘inbox zero.’  Ideally, I’d like to check email twice a day instead of every hour.  So much more efficient.  Taking email off my phone has helped in that regard.  Here are some of the notes from the podcast regarding this:

Many items on our to-do lists happen in fits and starts throughout the day and the week, mixed in with other obligations in these inefficient lumps of “multi-tasking.” Instead of completing tasks one by one—like going to the photocopier every day on an as-needed basis or checking e-mails eight to ten times a day—start doing tasks in larger, less-frequent batches. Get all your photocopying for the week done in one trip. Only check and respond to emails twice a day—but respond to ALL of them in that time. By doing more of the same thing all at once, we actually free up more time for ourselves later.

4.  Look for innovative ways to relax any standards that create unnecessary work

This one is all about picking & choosing your battles when it comes to deciding what to be a perfectionist about.  I used to spend a ton of time formatting my slide shows and any handouts.  I literally would spend 20 or so minutes looking for cool new fonts to use so my sheets weren’t as boring.  Not worth it.  I have a classroom economy where students have jobs and many jobs are things that I used to do; write the agenda on the board, keep the website up to date, etc.  A part of me is still kind of like ‘hmm, that students handwriting really isn’t super neat…and the way they wrote the agenda on the board isn’t very even…maybe I should do it.’  But alas, I just give the student feedback for next time and leave it as is.  There are better ways to utilize my time.  It’s about learning to know when things really are ‘good enough.’

5.  Use scheduling to create boundaries around your time

This is the one that excites me the most!  I tried this yesterday.  My last class was out by 2:30 and I wanted to be gone by 3:15 so I could see my wife before she headed into the night shift.  Each Friday, students in my advisory write a weekly update email to their parents and me.  I respond to all of them (14).  I typically save this work for the weekend but I’m wanting to try and start getting it done before the weekend.  In the past, when I would plan to leave school around 4:15, I would get out of class at 2:30, hang around and chat with people, watch some YouTube videos, maybe make a cup of coffee, chat with some more people, and finally sit down to work at 3:15.  From 3:15 – 4:00, I would be back and forth on social media while working a bit on some stuff.  By the time 4:15 came around, I did maybe 20 min of solid work, most of it unimportant.  Yesterday was different.  Weekly updates typically take 45 min or more to read and respond to.  I sat down at 2:35 knowing that my goal was to be done by 3:15.  There wasn’t time to mess around with social media or anything.  I responded to all of them and took care of some other important emails I needed to get to.  I was done by 3:10.  It was such a good feeling.  Creating that boundary of time helped me focus instead of just thinking ‘eh, I’ve got an hour and a half, what’s the rush.’

That said, chatting with colleagues is something I find important as well, and I plan on being intentional about catching up with my peers during our lunch hours whenever we don’t have meetings.

Anywho, that’s where I’m at with all the work/life balance stuff.  Onto my classes.

PRE-ALGEBRA

I wanted to make a video this week but just wasn’t sure what to make it off.  I realized I should have made it about our Pre-Algebra lesson on exponents.  After discussing the patterns on why anything to the zero power is 1, I ask students to discuss what they think the value of zero to the zero power is.  Every year, this sparks some pretty awesome debates in class.  Students defending their thinking and even proclaiming I DISAGREE WITH YOU THOM!  It’s awesome.  If you’re curious, zero to the zero power is 1 (kind of).  I tell them it’s OK to disagree on this one, seeing that some calculators will say it’s undefined, while others will say it’s 1.

MATH SKILLS

Things are progressing slowly but I think students are gathering a more conceptual idea of what we’re talking about with decimals.  I teach two classes of Math Skills and one of them seems to be moving a bit more quickly than the other.  I usually try to keep classes in step with each other, mainly because it’s just easier to plan that way, but I’m thinking I’ll have to follow their lead.  Go ahead and move forward with the class that’s ready and take things slow and steady with the class that needs that.

ROBOTICS

I have a class of eight boys.  Of the four semesters I’ve taught robotics, two of them have been all-boy classes.  In both of those all-boy semesters, there was one girl in there at the start who left; the first one didn’t want to be the only girl, the second one had taken it before and just wasn’t really into it.  The first semester of girls had quite a few that ended up in there since it wasn’t their first choice.  A couple of them totally dominated even though they thought they wouldn’t like it.  Last semester there was one girl who was a totally gun-ho and ready to be the only girl in the class.  Her final project also dominated.

I try to let girls know it’s really fun and it isn’t a boys club, but there just seems to be only a small handful who are interested, and that’s OK.  Regardless, it’s had me thinking of how boys and girls generally have different learning styles.  A couple years ago some of our teachers read Boys Adrift.  I have yet to read it but would like to.  What opportunities do I have to structure these classes in a manner which really connects with the boys in there.  I have a feeling it isn’t going to be to have them sit still and work quietly.

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