I believe that every teacher owes it to herself (or himself) to work smarter, not harder.
There’s this elephant in the room called the guilt trip.
He tells you that if you’re not working the hardest, staying at school the latest, participating on every committee – if you’re not doing everything absolutely perfect – then you’re not a good teacher.
We really need to let go of that prototype of the “perfect” teacher because that mindset is burning teachers out – you and everyone else on the front lines every day teaching in K-12 classrooms.
Plus, this notion of “working harder” is creating insecurity and unhealthy comparisons among educators.
And if you’re not feeling your best, then you can’t give your best teacher-self to the kids (or your family).
During my first year of teaching, I used to wonder how all the experienced teachers did it.
How in the world did they manage to handle it all…
- the grading?
- classroom management?
- standardized testing, etc.?
and make it look so easy?
Eventually, I learned the secrets of working smarter, not harder.
It didn’t happen overnight, though.
It took reflection, trial/error, and a complete change in mindset.
After a while, everything started to fall into place, and I’m here to help you get there, too.
Your journey begins here.
Below I share my best strategies for working smarter as a teacher. You’ll become more efficient, happier, and healthier.
Related: Reduce or prevent teacher burnout! See our tips for setting healthy work-life balance boundaries.
Your Teaching: Work Smarter, Not Harder
1. Leave Bulletin Boards “Bare” at Start of School Year.
The beginning of the school year…
You’re all refreshed, rejuvenated, and mentally ready to start the new year off right.
But then…you walk into your classroom after a long summer, and see…
- desks on top of desks,
- stuff, and more stuff.
The stress begins to settle in.
“Where do I even start?”
THE HARD WAY: You stress over your bulletin boards.
You begrudgingly or nonchalantly gather all of your cutesy designer borders and slug away at the boards for the remainder of your work day and maybe even into the next day.
Those bulletin boards just have to be Pinterest-worthy perfect!
THE SMART WAY: You can have nice bulletin boards without all the fuss. Simply cover all of them with butcher paper and a simple border.
If you must have something to show, a welcome banner does the job as do simple classroom job helper cards.
During the first week of school, the boards will begin to fill with student work.
This routine will continue throughout the year, as the boards will always have fresh content as students’ work is displayed regularly.
Now you’ve got classroom decoration planned for the entire school year!
Anchor charts and student-made word walls also serve as decent wall decor.
2. Let Go of Perfection.
THE HARD WAY: Your bulletin boards have to be absolutely perfect, and everything in your room has to be labeled…with a label maker. Folders must be color-coded.
The teacher next door is steps ahead of you with her classroom organization and decor, so you’ve got to up your game! You’re exhausted already and haven’t even started planning yet.
THE SMART WAY: If you don’t have the time nor energy, prioritize.
Label by hand.
Don’t get crazy with all the different color codes.
Less is oftentimes more.
Yes, you want your room to be functional and pleasing to the eye, but that doesn’t mean it has to be magazine-shoot worthy.
Secretly competing with colleagues isn’t healthy either.
Is it really that serious?
3. Seek Self-Validation.
THE HARD WAY: Let’s be honest.
Sometimes we do all the extra stuff because we want validation from others.
We want someone to tell us how beautiful is our classroom…
How cute our bulletin boards look…
And we’re secretly competing with the teacher down the hall.
Yes, comments like those are nice, but are you really doing it for you and your students first and foremost or others?
THE SMART WAY: What you think matters.
Your basic, neat classroom is enough.
So what if you don’t get any comments about how nice your room looks?
Your simple room is enough, your best teaching is enough, you’re enough.
4. Assign Each Student a Classroom Helper Job.
THE HARD WAY: You do all the work. Everything.
THE SMART WAY: Work smarter, not harder by giving every student a classroom helper job.
This is going to save you so much headache, time, plus keep your classroom running smoothly.
Your to-do list as a teacher is never-ending, so get your elementary students to chip in.
Elementary kids love to help out, and classroom jobs teach them responsibility plus accountability.
5. Establish Routines, Systems, and Set Schedules.
THE HARD WAY: Changing routines too much confuses students and contributes to poor classroom management. Plus, you never get into a set routine yourself.
THE SMART WAY: Have set routines for students to follow throughout the school day: morning arrival, transitions, walking from/to class, etc.
Keep these routines consistent, and to better help students, place a list of the most common procedures in a prominent area as a reminder.
Additionally, strategically plan your school weeks.
At the beginning of the school year, pencil in all of the important dates/events for each quarter.
Afterwards, do the same with the scope and sequence curriculum for all the subject areas you teach.
Doing this lays the foundation for your planning throughout the school year.
Seeing the big picture helps to put everything into perspective and provides a guide as you plan each week.
Also pencil in planning periods.
Maybe Thursdays will be lesson planning days or Mondays photocopying days.
In a nutshell…have systems, and stick with them until they become habits.
6. Give Less Homework.
THE HARD WAY: You give lots of homework regularly, and it’s getting hard to keep up with it all.
Is this really helping kids or just keeping them busy?
THE SMART WAY: Work smarter, not harder by giving less homework.
While I’m not generally an advocate for homework, I would give it as needed.
Don’t create more work for yourself.
Having students read nightly (and complete a reading log) is perfectly fine.
Online learning tools such as IXL, Mathletics, and BrainPop jr. are also great low-maintenance homework ideas if your school has a subscription to any of them.
7. Regularly Put Into Practice a Student-Centered Classroom.
THE HARD WAY: Maybe you dominate book discussions, “over help” students, and/or don’t give them enough time to analyze information.
THE SMART WAY: Remember, you are the facilitator.
Make students the center of it all; they should be doing most of the work, not you.
And don’t baby them.
If we’re going to work smarter, every person, including each little cutie pie in your room, must do his part.
Of course if they need assistance with something you’re going to help.
However, making a habit of enabling does no good for anyone.
Create an environment where it’s okay to take risks.
8. Utilize Student Grade Sheets.
THE HARD WAY: Keep students in the dark about their grades and academic progress until progress report time.
THE SMART WAY: If you teach 4th or 5th grade, I highly recommend that you use a simple grade sheet with students if your school uses the traditional grading system of a, b, c, d, f.
These simple grades sheets are usually a hit with kids and parents!
Assuming every assignment carries the same weight (100%), have learners record and average their grades each time an assignment is returned.
Send the grade sheet home to parents weekly or biweekly for review.
Grade sheets promote accountability, and help you worker smarter, not harder. No more surprised parents at report card time.
With students tracking their progress along with you, they are much more involved in the assessment process.
9. Don’t Formally Grade Everything.
THE HARD WAY: You have tons of papers to grade. Fortunately, not all of those papers are created equally.
Some are informative but won’t necessarily impact a student’s final grade.
THE SMART WAY: For quick assessing, use a stamp system. A green stamp stands for “great job”.
Yellow is “review – you have a few errors”.
Red means “What?! Please redo.”
If a stack of papers is really no good -maybe all of the kids did poorly on an exam – or the assignment wasn’t a good one to begin with – just chunk ‘em quietly.
Yep…I said it!
THE HARD WAY: You attempt to do everything yourself.
If you want something done well, do it yourself, right?
THE SMART WAY: No… this isn’t working smarter.
It’s definitely working harder.
Delegate various tasks.
If you have an assistant, have her work with a small group, organize files, make copies, etc.
Parent volunteers are a great resource. Room parents are able to organize parties, field trips, help with making copies, etc.
Back-to-School night is a good time to have parents sign up to volunteer for something at least once during the school year.
11. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.
THE HARD WAY: Creating every lesson from scratch is time-consuming and definitely not practical.
Why not use what’s already out there?
THE SMART WAY: When it comes to lessons and activities, don’t reinvent the wheel.
Switch things up but always start with what’s available.
Take a standard lesson, and make it your own. Make it more engaging, more hands-on, interactive, or add a technology thread to it.
12. Organize Files + Declutter Digitally.
THE HARD WAY: You store files randomly or without a strategy. This is a sure way to accumulate clutter and disorganization.
THE SMART WAY: Maintain one of those crates that hold hanging folders.
Have a folder for each child and a folder for any topics that you teach. When students bring a doctor’s note or return signed assignment papers, they file them in their respective folder.
On the teacher’s end, once you’ve taught a lesson, put the template sheets used for that lesson in its appropriate topic folder.
If you do a lot of activities on your computer or simply have a lot of school stuff there, organize those files into different folders.
Delete files clearly not worth saving, but file everything else into its digital folder.
On another note, are you one of those people who have two or three thousand emails going way back like six or seven months?
For your sanity (and for the love of glory!), delete those emails or archive them.
Psychologically, I think you’re going to feel so much better after doing so. It’s like one big purge.
And for the future, within 48 hours, try to have answered any new email and/or archived it.
Keep that inbox streamlined.
13. Collaborate With Your Grade Level Team.
THE HARD WAY: You plan solo.
THE SMART WAY: Plan with your team, if you have a good one.
Each team member plans for a different subject, and then you swap plans. Tweak to make them your own or use as is.
Working smarter and not harder many times involves working with others. Take advantage of collaborating with colleagues if you think the opportunity will serve you well.
And if you departmentalize, all the better.
14. Change Your Mindset and Say No.
THE HARD WAY: You think participating in every single school activity or going over-and-beyond is the way to get into your administrators’ good graces.
To make matters worse, you have a hard time declining offers of involvement.
THE SMART WAY: Change your mindset.
You don’t have to stay at school the latest or arrive the earliest. That doesn’t make you’re better or worse as an educator.
And you don’t need to volunteer for every committee.
Yes, you want to have some level of involvement, but it’s okay to decline sometimes.
And no need to feel guilty about it.
15. Cap Your To-Do List.
THE HARD WAY: You cram every little task possible within your 24-hour day.
THE SMART WAY: Set a specific number of items to do each day and call it a day after you accomplish them.
I complete 3 professional and 3 personal things.
Professional goals could be something as simple as responding to a parent email or drafting a couple of report card comments.
Personal goals include taking some time for myself once arriving home, reading a chapter from a juicy book, spending time with loved ones, etc.
Customize your to-do list to your likening, but work smarter, not harder by completing those tasks and then releasing the pressure to have to do anything else until the next day.
Your to-do list will never be empty.
So set your daily goals, and once you reach them, done!
16. Make Efficient Use of Technology.
THE HARD WAY: Do you use technology simply for the sake of using technology?
For whichever lesson you use it, does it really maximize the learning of the targeted academic objectives?
THE SMART WAY: Every few years, schools implement some new technology strategy or app.
Though well-intended, many of these instructional methods end up being more of a hassle than a help for teachers.
If technology use is creating more stress and problems for you and your students, just stick to what technology you know.
And if the use of a certain app or device is required, seek the assistance of the Technology Coordinator.
Technology should make work smarter, not harder.
17. Focus on Your Strengths, Not Weaknesses.
THE HARD WAY: You try to do things you’re simply not good at (even when your skill-set demonstrates otherwise). You don’t make the effort to improve on your weaknesses.
THE SMART WAY: Know your strengths and weaknesses.
Play up your strengths, and work on improving your weaknesses.
When you focus on and showcase what you’re naturally good at, it becomes much easier to validate and exude your worth.
What high value you see in yourself (from a professional standpoint) matters more than any opinion from a colleague, parent, or administrator.
I honestly believe that.
18. Pass on the Expensive Classroom Decor – Use Recycled Materials.
Save yourself money and headache by reducing the amount of expensive, cutesy stuff used in the classroom.
Instead, use recycled materials to create a warm, inviting classroom.
You can find crafty class decor ideas all over the Internet. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a nice-looking teaching and learning space.
19. Don’t Put All Your Eggs Into One Basket.
Obtain multiple certifications to make yourself more marketable, and be open to relocating if the job market shows no love for your certification area.
20. Work in Independent Schools.
Need a different teaching environment or a different type of professional challenge?
If you want to stretch yourself professionally, take a look at independent schools in your state.
21. Choose a Grade Level that Works for You.
When it comes to your teaching career, one of the most important decisions is the grade level you choose to teach.
How you feel about a certain grade level will play a huge role in how well you respond to that age group and the teaching team.
Whenever appropriate – whether that be during an interview or end-of-the-year evaluation meeting, mention your preference and why you feel it’s the best fit for you.
22. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.
Grab a copy of the book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and It’s All Small Stuff by Richard Carlson.
It’s a quick read, but you’re going to find yourself referring to it whenever you need guidance and wisdom.
23. Take Care of Yourself.
This goes without saying – take care of yourself.
Get moving, eat clean, and spend time with those you love.
You’ll do better at your job as a result because once you take care of yourself, you’re in a better position to help others.
24. Set Boundaries.
Set clear boundaries for work and home.
Disconnect from work-related stuff once you arrive home, and don’t respond (or even check for) work emails or engage in any work-related tasks after a certain hour.
25. Advocate for Yourself.
Last but not least, when things don’t go your way at work or when something goes down because inevitably it will, speak up for yourself.
Don’t be afraid to say how you feel.
Hoarding feelings is never a good thing, and if you don’t say anything, others will assume everything’s okay.
Wrapping Up: Work Smarter, Not Harder
You owe it to yourself to work smarter as an educator.
Teachers are nurturing, but let’s not lose ourselves in the work and daily grind.