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Tips for taming time: the author of Teaching Smarter and Teaching Smarter II returns with techniques designed to reduce teacher stress and fatigue, while producing more responsible students.

It's great to visit with you again! I recently retired and am now totally focused on sharing specific ideas to help teachers stay in the profession they love and have an energetic life outside the classroom.

As you may remember from my previous Techniques articles, I encourage educators to "do the best job you can in the time that you have." My research into the business world provided fresh ideas to accomplish this goal. I studied cutting-edge business practices, modified these ideas using my 30 years of teaching experience at all age levels and developed what I call the Teaching Smarter classroom.

Since 1999, I have been presenting at state and national conferences across the nation. It is my great pleasure today to share seven of the more than 100 ideas from my new book. I hope you find that these ideas help you have more energy for your away-from-work life!

Tip One: How to Save Time with your Mail

I used to get my teacher mail from the staff room mailbox, carry it back to my room and put it on my desk, thinking, "I'll sort this stuff out during my planning time."

Of course, things got busy, and soon there was a disorganized stack of mail taking up a corner of my desk.

Here's a hint to reduce the amount of mail that makes it to your desk. When picking up mail from the teacher mailbox, stand next to a nearby garbage can and do an initial purge. If there is no garbage can close to the teacher mailboxes, ask for one to be placed there. Never take junk mail to your room! I frequently could reduce the amount of mail to half (or less) with this simple first step.

Once the mail is on your desk, use the "Chicken Pox" technique to limit the number of times a piece of mail is handled. Simply have a felt tip pen in your hand whenever processing the mail. Each time you handle a piece of mail, but do not make a decision, put a felt tip dot in the upper corner. If you handle the item several times, there will be lots of dots in the upper corner (thus the name "Chicken Pox"). With this technique, it is not necessary to make an immediate decision regarding the mail, but the dot keeps track of how many times each piece of mail has been handled.

I was surprised when I first used this technique. I was handling the same piece of mail numerous times--as if there wasn't enough new mail to take up my time! If nothing else, when I now pick up a piece of mail and there are three or four "pox" marks on it, I am driven to take some type of action (use, file or trash).

Tip Two: Do You Really Want to do All That?

We are all asked to do additional tasks from time to time, whether it is to serve on a PTA committee or to attend building remodel meetings. I found that after I had agreed to be on a few committees, I suddenly became one of the first people asked to participate in more committees. Soon I found more and more school work was being taken home, because the after-school time was being eaten up with committee work.

Here are the words that helped me begin to get my after-school time back: "I am flattered that you thought of me, but I am going to respectfully decline at this time."

If you find that you are becoming the "go to" person for committee memberships, begin to "respectfully decline" and allow others to play their parts as committee members.

Schedule appointments for yourself in your planner. Use a code if you need to. It is important to schedule a time for your yoga class, your child's softball game or doing grocery shopping.

Then, when you are asked, consult your planner and truthfully say, "I'm sorry but I have an appointment at that time." People rarely ask for details.

Keep in mind that it is not usually the complexity of our many individual tasks that exhaust us but the number of easy tasks existing all at once. Write down all the tasks for which you are responsible. Then you have two choices: 1) continue exhausting yourself doing everything, and eventually wear yourself out, or, at the very least, see a decrease in the quality of the jobs you are doing; or 2) intentionally reduce the number of tasks, and keep your good health and high quality standard. We need to focus on taking care of ourselves, so we can do a good job of caring for others.

Tip Three: Use a Consistent Start and End

It is important to begin each class period with a consistent start-of-class routine. It is likewise important to close each class period with an end-of-class routine. You can use all the creativity you want between these two times.

The students do not find a consistent start-and-end pattern boring. In fact, knowing exactly what is expected at the start and end of each class is comforting to them.

If you are not already using a consistent start-and-end routine, I highly recommend giving it a try. As you are developing your pattern, remember that it takes about 20 days to change a habit. Devote 20 days to establishing your start-and-end ritual. Soon you will find the students fulfilling the start-and-end expectations without your reminders, or at least with minimal reminders.

Give your students the comfort of knowing what to expect and how to act every day at the start and end of your time together. It's amazing how comforting it is to the student and the teacher when the start and end of every class is consistent, predictable and peaceful!

Tip Four: Go Vertical

Part of taming time is being able to find things quickly when we want them. It is easy to fall into a habit of putting everything on our desks. I have seen large piles of paper-clipped sets of student papers at the corner of a teacher's desk. A student walks by and accidentally nudges the paper pile. Next thing we know--paper avalanche! The student usually attempts to help out by restacking the papers, but the teacher will probably have to spend additional time re-sorting the papers.

For class sets of papers, it works well to fold them in half "hotdog style," rubber band them together and stand the sets vertically in a small box (about 10 inches x 10 inches x 10 inches). The box can then be placed behind your desk on the floor. In this way, the papers are easy to access and "avalanche" proof.

Another "go vertical" hint is to use wall spaces to install shelves. If your school is not able to install the shelves for you, there are inexpensive shelf units available at home stores or on the Internet. If you prefer to take your vertical storage with you, look into the plastic storage units with multiple drawers. They frequently have wheels for easy portability, and they go on sale for reasonable prices (usually in January).

Here's one more "go vertical" hint. In addition to using the outside of cupboard doors for important student reminders, don't forget the vertical space that is frequently missed--the inside. You can use the inside of cupboard doors to tape important pieces of paper you want to find quickly (such as when report cards are due, important upcoming meetings, etc). Sometimes you can even lock the cupboard if the information is sensitive.

You can have a neat desk and find things quickly, if you utilize vertical spaces efficiently.

Tip Five: Rediscover the Power of a list

This is such a simple idea, but I didn't use it for years! I used the tool of writing "to do" lists at home, but I didn't make the transition to my world of work.

As a result, in the early morning, I would find myself thinking on the way to work, "Don't forget to check with the principal about the assembly." "Don't forget to run off the test." "Remember to grade those math papers," and so on.

Then I got smarter. I wrote down the things I wanted to do the next day as I thought of them throughout the workday. The next morning, I would arrive in my room, and there was the list waiting for me, and I did not have to spend any brain time on the ideas for the entire time I was away from school. I had not realized how much energy I was using telling myself, "Don't forget ..."

The same is true for errands you need to do on your way home, or during the evening after work. Rather than trying to remember each individual item, just jot the idea down on a piece of paper--and forget about it until you are ready to leave. Then, grab the reminder paper, and you won't forget anything!

Here's an extra part to this hint: write the reminders on a brightly colored piece of paper and put the paper on the wall near your desk (that way the list does not get "lost" on the top of the desk). It will be easy to find the "after-work-reminders" paper as you walk out the door, and the "next-day-reminders" paper will be on the wall where you can easily find it the next morning. Taming-time hints are not just physical changes; sometimes they involve mental changes.

Tip Six: Define your Own space

If you have your desk in the classroom, define your "teacher space" by using an L-shaped arrangement with your desk and a large table. It looks different from the students' workspaces. Plus, you gain some much-needed surface area with the table, and you have a spatially enclosed area where you can store additional supplies (such as the box mentioned in the "Go Vertical" tip).

I usually chose a corner at the front of the room. The definition of "teacher space" is even more successful if we build, or buy, a long six-inch-tall shelf to put on the top of the desk on the edge that faces the classroom. The shelf does not block the view of the students, but it increases the desktop storage space, and it keeps curious eyes from easily checking out what is on the teacher's desk.

I was much more successful in keeping pencils on my desk with this arrangement. Isn't it amazing how some students have the philosophy of, "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine?" They do not consider taking items from my desk as anything more than "borrowing." Before I clearly created a teacher space, there were times when I spent valuable time looking for my dictionary, only to find that a student had "borrowed" it from my desk, and then left it at the back of the room.

Clearly define your space and students will respect it more--and time is saved as you will find things where you left them.

Tip Seven: A Trash Can--How Simple is That?

At the end of a long day, it was not uncommon to find candy wrappers, papers and other pieces of trash stuffed into drawers at the back of the room, or in those spaces under the desktops. It seemed that the front of the room was too far away to dispose of the waste-paper, or the student meant to throw it away at the end of class and then forgot.

Reclaim that time spent cleaning up the clutter by simply putting a couple of trash cans at the back of the room. You see, people are willing to do what we want, if we make it really easy for them. Even if you do not have the same room all day long, get together with the teachers who share the room and suggest this idea. I was amazed at the difference in clutter!

The same is true at home. Rather than trying to remind (some would say nag) our family members to pick up their trash, simply observe where it tends to "gather" and place a wastepaper container in the spot. The waste container can be a pretty basket or a decorated plant pot.

I have a waste container in every bathroom and bedroom, the den, the living room and by the back door (where I stand and "purge" the mail from the family mailbox). Reduce household clutter by trashing the junk mail before it has a chance to take root on one of your home's surfaces--just like the school idea in tip one.

Reduction in clutter is a proven stress reducer. Reduction in stress increases our ability to focus, which reduces the time it takes to complete our tasks.


There you have it, seven easy ideas to begin reducing your stress and fatigue, and tame your time. As I say in my presentations, these ideas are part of the Teaching Smarter buffet of ideas. Just like at a food buffet, for some of the ideas you may say, "Wow, this is great! I can't wait to try this!" For other ideas you may say, "I like the basic premise of this, but I'm going to add some spice to make it more to my liking." And for yet other ideas, you may say, "Hmmm, not for me." Either you do not like the idea, or you are already doing something that fits the need just fine.

I once had someone tell me that many of the Teaching Smarter ideas are "flathead ideas." You know, ideas where you hit your forehead with the palm of your hand while saying something like, "That's so simple! Why haven't I thought of that?"

It is always easier to modify someone else's ideas than it is to think of the ideas by yourself. The two Teaching Smarter books are designed to share more than 150 ways of successfully increasing student responsibility, reducing behavior problems and reducing teacher stress and fatigue. It has been proven over and over that the more stress people are under, the less creative they are. Your wonderful teacher creativity just needs some startup ideas and less stress in your life!

Teachers are leaving classrooms not because the subject matter is too tough, but because of the time, paperwork and student-management issues. I feel blessed because I have the opportunity to offer ideas that help keep teachers in classrooms. We need you to stay in education. Thank you for all your hard work!

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Sandy LaBelle, a retired educator, is the author of Teaching Smarter and Teaching Smarter II. She can be contacted at
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Author:LaBelle, Sandy
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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