De-Cluttering your Teaching Practice

Earlier this year, I was revisiting John Hattie’s work on visible learning, and was struck by his mantra: Know thy impact.

To be honest, I’m not sure I know what to make of his study of the effect size of different teaching practices and influences. There seem to be as many voices that challenge his findings as support them, and I know so little about research methods or statistical analysis that I don’t feel I can even have an opinion.

But I am interested to know if the work I do does have impact and achieves the desired outcomes for my student. So to that extent at least, I’m a fan of Hattie. I really concur with his message:

Educators, know thy impact.

So what has that to do with the title of this piece: De-Cluttering your Teaching Practice?

We are so busy as teachers, we don’t always consider the impact of what we do. We can spend an inordinate amount of time on things that don’t matter. We take on new practices but we hang on to the old. We work too hard, the benefits often far out-weighed by the cost.

As an example: In NSW primary schools, we use the Human Society and Its Environment Curriculum (HSIE). It has learning outcomes for each two-year stage of schooling.

Years ago, my stage team found we could cover those outcomes over 6 of the 8 available terms, and we mapped out a plan to do that. As Term 4 was our busiest, with end of year concert preparation, swim scheme, and other events, I advised teachers not to include HSIE in their Term 4 program. There was enough to do, and the curriculum requirements had been met.

However, some would not heed the advice. Some found it hard to come to terms with the idea of NOT teaching HSIE every week of every term, because in primary schools, that’s what you DO. It’s embedded.

I’d observe them struggling with stress. They’d feel guilty for not covering things and extremely over loaded. Sometimes they’d blame me, or others in the management team. I felt for them, I did. But it was clear that at least part of their overload was caused by being unwilling to let go of an unnecessary practice.

I observe this repeatedly: teachers hanging on to practices because they feel they should be done, it’s the way they’ve always done things, or because its something they happen to like.

How to De-Clutter 

For the last few years, I’ve been working on decluttering my practice, but keeping Hattie’s words in mind, has proven particularly useful this year. If we reflect on the impact of our practices, we can make far better choices in how to spend our time.

As I consider my practices, I ask myself,

“Will this have a positive impact on my students and help achieve our goals?”

If I can say yes, I ask this follow up question.

“Will the amount of impact be worth the time taken to implement this practice?” 

If I answer yes to both of those questions, I implement the practice. If the answer is no, I need to either drop or redevelop it.

Finally, I need to ask,

“Do I have time to implement this practice? What low impact practice can I discard to make room for this?”

I realise there’s a lot in teaching that we have to do, but as a starting point for decluttering, it might help to think about this for areas within your control:

Consider what you spend your and your class’s time on. In primary schools for example, we seem to love creating and laminating resources. Will that chart or board game have any sort of real impact? Is it worth the time it takes to create? Will laminating it increase its impact?

If its something that will make a difference, you’ll use it again and again, and the time spent creating it really is worth the benefits for your students, go ahead, create and laminate it. But if not, then why spend the time? Time is precious, make sure you spend it on the things that matter.

What about productive use of classroom time? Do you really need to have all your students come and sit on the mat when they enter the classroom, and quietly wait for you to deal with parents, notes, roll call and messages, before commencing their learning? Is there something more productive your students could be doing for those first minutes of every morning before you call them together to meet as a class? Can you adapt your class routine, to maximise the benefit to students and and minimise waste?

Our time is precious and limited, lets direct it to where it can have greatest effect.

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Work-Life Balance …

All adults are prone to guilt; in teaching, it’s the main thing that stops you from having a work-life balance. Everyone else is either coping at school, or expected to cope. It’s hard telling your line manager that you didn’t have the time to finish a PowerPoint for a meeting because you didn’t have the time, so you struggle to do it in your break or at lunch, or even while you are in front of a class. Your work suffers because you don’t seem to have the time to do the things you want to do at work. Your life at home suffers because you keep on doing the things you think you should have done at work.

This quote is from a great article about work-life balance for teachers published in The Guardian. Read some tips for managing it here 

Lesson Preparation: It Gets Easier

Tonight on #Teacherwellbeingchat we were talking about planning.

When I think about my early years of teaching, there was so much planning. Every single lesson I taught for the first year was being taught for the first time, and every teaching situation was being encountered for the first time. I had no repertoire and  no experience to fall back on. It was hard. I had to not only learn the content, but figure out how to teach it. A I was new, I didn’t trust my choices and I spent a lot of time second guessing myself, trying to figure the best way to teach a concept. I would spend most evenings staying up late, planning my lessons and creating resources for the next day. It took as long to plan the lessons as to teach them, if not longer.

If you’re in your early years of teaching, you’re possibly experiencing a similar sort of stress. You feel like you’re a constant slave to the job and you can’t slow down, because if you do, your students will suffer, or your class will be out of  control, or you just might not be asked back to teach again next year.

Well it gets easier – much, much easier.

As you build your experience a few things happen:

  • You learn to trust your judgment. When you stop second guessing yourself, planning becomes a lot quicker and easier.
  • You stop being such a perfectionist. After experiencing more than a few lessons that don’t go the way you planned, you start to realise that its not a disaster, and you start to work out how to plan lessons that might not be perfect, but are good enough to get the job done.
  • You build a repertoire. Every time you teach a successful lesson, you store it away – both the content and the strategies, so next time you teach that subject, you have it up your sleeve ready to go.
  • You know your content – you do eventually become familiar with all your content. So there’s less time spent on researching and understanding it.

There are also some fabulous resources out there to help you like this:

Do you have any tips to help with the planning process? Share them in the comments below.

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Making a Difference

Sometimes the demands of school life can become so great that it becomes easy to lose sight of the reason we are there.

We aren’t at work to please our colleagues, our boss, the parent community. We’re not there to be popular, approved of or well-liked. We’re not even there to be the most perfect teachers, with the most innovative, rigorous programs and the most immaculate classrooms. It’s not a competition.

The core business of schools and of teachers is our students.

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It’s the final week of term in Sydney. With that comes many distractions. I’m battling tiredness, the cold I regularly get at the change of season, and have quite a few deadlines that I need to meet.

As I go to work each day this week, I plan to ask myself this question:

How can I make a positive difference to my students today?

When I keep that question in mind, it helps me get past all the distractions and I remember why I’m there

 

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Teaching – Why I Don’t Give Up

Last Sunday I wrote a post about the stress of teaching, and how it was affecting me. It received some interesting responses, both in the comments and on Twitter. The Twitter consensus seemed to be that most teachers feel that way at times. There are moments when the stress builds, it all becomes too much and the smallest thing will break you.

But this tweet made me think:

I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of teachers. We often hear about teachers burning out and the high attrition rate, especially in the first few years of teaching. The stress and workload demands drive many from the profession.

But even though I DO feel stressed and have days like lasts Friday where it all just seems too much, I’m not seriously entertaining the idea of leaving.

This is why I stay:

1. Teaching is Rewarding

I love that moment when a child’s eye’s light up because they’ve learned something – the excitement and appreciation that they show. Learning is a joyful experience and it’s incredibly satisfying to be a part of a student’s journey. I also find that I am continually learning. Even after 20 years, I’m still being challenged and inspired to find new ways of doing things. It’s never boring.

2. Teaching allows me to be creative and to vary my days

No two days are ever the same, and as a primary school teacher, I get to teach all the subjects. I teach art, music, HSIE, mathematics, writing, public speaking, dance, drama. I am a person who craves variety and primary school teaching allows me plenty of that. The process of designing units of work and planning lessons is also highly creative and I enjoy coming up with new and engaging ways to teach. I enjoy the challenge of having students with special behaviour or learning needs. I like to think outside the box and find the key to reaching students for whom traditional teaching approaches don’t seem to work.

3. I love my students

I am blessed to work at a school with a very positive culture. The students from K-6 enjoy coming to school and most greet me enthusiastically whenever they see me either in class or in the playground. They are keen to learn and appreciative of our efforts. They are nice kids and working with them is a joyful experience.

3. I have great colleagues

I am also blessed to work with a team of very committed and enthusiastic educators. There is none of the cynicism that abounds in some workplaces. My colleagues care about their work and, like me, are continually learning. We support each other through collaborative planning and teamwork and share the load. We recognise that not everyone has strengths in every area and help each other out. A teacher who is talented in music will take that subject for another teacher, who in turn might teach PE for a teacher who has difficulty in that area. When people are sick, run down or going through difficult times, my colleagues are quick to help out, shouldering some of their responsibilities at time until that person is able to cope once again.

4. I have a great principal

The principal I work for is committed to making good educational decisions. She is not swayed by political interests, or the pressure to produce higher and higher results in standardised tests. Instead, she allows the specific learning needs of our students to determine our directions for school improvement. She listens to staff and consults with us. She acknowledges our hard work. If there is a period of time where I am overloaded, as I have been lately, she will find ways to release me from face to face teaching so that I can catch up, and will be flexible with deadlines wherever possible.

I realise that I am lucky. Not all schools have this positive culture. In fact, this article by Dan Haesler explains that many new teachers leave the profession because of the lack of support from their colleagues.

I am fortunate because, even when I feel stressed and demoralised, I work in a supportive environment. That’s what keeps me going.

It’s the culture of the school that makes the difference.

Teacher Stress

This evening I’m participated in a twitter chat about teacher stress. The topic got me thinking…

I do believe teaching is one of the most stressful jobs. I haven’t based that on research, though there is apparently plenty to support it, but just my anecdotal evidence. There are also all sorts of articles online to back me up like this and this.

A quick google search for teacher stress reveals its actually quite a divisive issue. High numbers of teachers are reporting that they are extremely stressed, and high numbers of non-teachers are telling them that they don’t know what stress is.

Whether or not teaching is one of the most stressful professions is not really the point. The point is large numbers of teachers report FEELING high levels of stress. Those stress levels have serious implications for health, family and our ability to perform our job well.

So why are we stressed?

Again, speaking only from my own experience here are some of the things I believe contribute (in no particular order).

1. We Have An Impossible Workload

We are expected to cater for every individual need in our class. Planning a lesson isn’ t just planning a lesson any more. Lesson planning involves individualising it to ensure all students are accessing appropriately challenging curriculum. As I plan my lessons for tomorrow, I have to consider my student with ADHD who cannot concentrate for longer than 5 minutes, needs frequent changes to activity and plenty of physical activity. I also have to consider my student with learning difficulties who needs an entirely individual program, my ESL students one of whom has only very limited English language, my very anxious student who is reluctant to attempt any task without an adult by her side, my gifted student who is already working at a Y5 level in my Y2 class and requires her own curriculum. Then there is my student on the autism spectrum, and the one who…. I could go on to describe all 26 of my students, but you get the picture. We teach approximately 6×40 minute lessons per day over a 5 day week – with 3 lesson times a week taken by another teacher while we do administrative tasks. That’s a lot of planning and individualisation. Planning one 40 minute lesson well, with all the differentiation required to meet individual needs frequently takes well more than an hour.

Of course, not only are we asked to cater for all our individual needs, we are also supposed to document how we do it. To accurately document our work also takes an enormous amount of time.

Our workload also includes:

  • marking work
  • decorating our rooms – to create that welcoming and engaging environment
  • responding to student discipline and welfare issues – sorting out playground issues can take a very long time
  • parent meetings
  • reading and responding to emails
  • staff meetings
  • curriculum meetings
  • professional development meetings

On top of that, if you are an assistant principal like me, you have to fit in an executive load as well.

2. We Feel a High Level of Personal Accountability

Our personality is intricately linked to our work as a teacher. We use it as a tool to welcome, support and engage our students. Teaching success or failure feels personal. Because our work is so tied up in our personality, our ego is greatly invested. When things aren’t working, it is very difficult not to take it personally. When a parent complains that their child is bored or doesn’t want to come to school, it’s hard not to take that as a personal failing. Instead of looking at what adjustments can be made to the lesson or the curriculum, we frequently beat ourselves up. We become full of self-doubt.

3. Children’s Futures are at Stake

We are very aware of the consequences of failure. If we fail, our students become illiterate or innumerate. The social consequences of a failure to educate are dramatic.

4. We are a Political Football

Just in case we weren’t aware of the importance of our work, and the consequences of failing in our duty to educate today’s children, the politicians and media are constantly reminding us. We keep hearing of failing schools and failing teachers. We are frequently demonised in the press.

There are many other contributing factors to teacher stress as well – student behaviour, angry parents, unsupportive working environments… The list is endless.

How to Deal with the Stress

I’ve noticed, that while all those issues still exist for me, I don’t suffer from stress nearly as much as I used to . Here is why:

Set Priorities

It took me years to work out that my workload actually IS impossible. I can’t possibly achieve all that is asked of me to the standard I would like  – ever. I used to have sleepless nights worrying about everything I wasn’t doing, but that’s changed. Now that I’ve finally worked out I can’t do it all well, I just figure out what the most important things are and do those. As a result, my desk is untidy, and my classroom walls don’t look as nice as I would like. I’m also behind in all but the essential paperwork. I don’t cater for ALL student needs ALL of the time, either. But I do cater for all of them throughout the week, and I’m constantly finding better ways of doing that. Really what’s changed is my attitude. I’ve become more realistic about what is achievable, and put time into the things that will have the most impact. I don’t put a lot of time into things that aren’t really going to lead to improved outcomes – like putting up nice borders around my displays.

Single Tasking

When things are really busy, I find it easier to focus on one goal for the day or the week, and accomplish that. It’s better than attempting multiple tasks and finishing none.

Trust Myself

One thing I’ve learned is that there are always times when it is going to be stressful and the workload seems impossible to manage. But I also know that in the last 20 years I have successfully navigated my way through every one of those busy periods. Somehow, no matter how much is dumped on us, we always manage to make it work. A lot of the stress I used to experience was anxiety – a fear that somehow I wouldn’t get through what I needed to. Now I know that I will, and just get on with things.

Stop Taking Things Personally

I used to assume I was at fault if an angry parent stormed into my classroom. Now I am able to step back more and look at the problem objectively. On the rare occasion a parent does storm in, it’s usually because of issues outside of school. If it really was a problem with me, then there would be a class full of parents storming in. I’m also aware that you can’t please everyone and chances are I’ll have 25 satisfied families, but one who is very critical and quick to find fault. That’s just the nature of a democratic society. When I do have those difficult conversations, instead of becoming defensive, I find the best approach is to simply listen to the issue and come up with a plan. Take the focus away from who is to blame and towards ‘Where do we go from here?’. Usually, once the parents understand that I am listening to them and taking their concerns seriously, any aggression or anger just dissolves. We start working productively as a team.

Don’t take work home

Because there is always more that we can do as teachers, I learned a few years ago to stop taking work home. I work long hours at school, often not leaving until around 7pm, but that’s it. My evenings and my weekends (mostly) are my own. Home is a place where I can relax. I don’t even have to think about work if I don’t want to.

Yoga

I love going to my hot yoga classes. The health benefits are enormous, and I love the mental focus – it shuts out all thoughts of school, and is incredibly mentally relaxing.

Outside interests

Yes, it might surprise some people that I do have other things in my life aside from teaching, since it’s all I tweet about. But I do. I am always studying something – usually art, writing, or learning musical instruments. I sing in a very amateur covers band (we have had one gig). I’m part of a book club. I also have a very satisfying home and social life.

Well, those are some of the reasons I find teaching stressful, and some of the ways I deal with it. What do you find stressful about teaching and how do you manage it?

Know Your Intentions

 

Tonight, I just have a very quick update for you. I’ve been very busy the past week, so I haven’t had much time to think, let alone come up with a well thought out post.

My work schedule was crazy – I averaged 13 hour days at school, without breaks. There were a lot of reasons for that.  There are times as an assistant principal, when juggling the responsibilities is difficult. We have a full time teaching load with only 40 minutes additional time to attend to our executive role. I spent my breaks, and the hours before and after school, organising casual relief, re-doing timetables, in meetings with teachers, support staff and parents, and attending to student welfare issues that cropped up which simply couldn’t be ignored or delayed.

Some weeks the workload is manageable, but others, like last week, the workload gets on top of you.

As a result of all the demands on my time, I had absolutely no time to plan lessons, reflect, mark work or do any of the things that are really necessary for quality teaching. But, in spite of everything, my students still were engaged in meaningful learning.

This evening I wondered how I managed to make it all work.

I think the key was that I had worked out clear and explicit learning intentions for each lesson. I was able to articulate these to the students, and draw on the repertoire of strategies I’ve developed over the years to come up with some engaging activities on the spot.

Knowing the learning intention is critical. Without a clear idea of what it is you want your students to learn, it’s impossible to plan well. It’s also impossible to see whether or not you have been effective.

Weeks like the one I just had are rare, but we all have them. When they come along,  try making it a priority to set the learning intentions for the week. Once they are in place, the rest of it will come more easily.