Laura Mcinerney was a teacher for 6 years in London and is the co-founder of Teacher Tapp. These are her individual views.
As teachers across the land are heading back to school, the new term resolutions take hold. “From tomorrow I will mark all books, plan well in advance, design my room to be fit for a king, will 100%, for definite and forever, keep on top of homeworks.” By 3.20 on Friday, the classroom is covered in pencils, exercise books remain unmarked and wait! You forgot to collect their homeworks. Again.
So how can teacherly good intentions be maintained rather than lost in the new-term onslaught? The trick is in avoiding temptation and selecting just one resolution, rather than many. And secondly, recognize that good intentions are not enough. Lack of determination is rarely what causes our classroom organization to suffer, it’s the lack of a strategy.
Strategies for sticking to 6 new term resolutions
#1 – “I will regularly mark books”: Feedback makes an enormous difference to pupils, but it also takes a great deal of time. Even taking just 3 minutes to mark a piece, plus adding a minute for opening/closing and adding marks to a gradebook, means two hours of marking for one class of 30. If you really must mark all of the books all of the time, you must resolve to mark differently and speedily, rather than just regularly. How? (1) Trial a marking with icons approach, or (2) Have students write out pre-selected targets, or (3) Automate the process so students input their own scores. Either way, pick one technique and stick to it over the half-term. This is important as you will get quicker with each attempt. Once you’re settled into the new routine, you can always add another one for extra speed oomph!
#2 – “I will follow-up on all bad behaviour”: Clamping down on misbehavior is vital but it’s less a matter of getting even, and more one of getting organized. To help keep track of students, one colleague erected a small whiteboard by his desk on which he would write the names of students in need of follow-up. Next to their name he drew symbols – circles for homework, triangles for detention, etc. At the end of the lesson he read out student names and would make them sit down, and then deal with them during break. If the next lesson wasn’t a break, he kept the names until they were dealt with – either after-school, at lunch or in a phone call. He never wiped a name until the issue was resolved, which forced him to make sure he definitely followed-up, even when difficult to do so.
#3 – “I will make my room look much more welcoming”: If you have a classroom, it’s worth making it look nice. But how do you get the enthusiasm to begin, and the time to keep it looking that way? First, pick some excitable students and plan for them to stay after school the first night of term where you don’t have a meeting in order to sort out your room. Their enthusiasm (and potentially their art skills) will carry you through. Then, choose a display monitor, ideally the student in your class who is fussily neat. Keep a stash of staplers, blue tack, sellotape, borders and display paper and have them check the display each day and ‘fix up’ anything going wrong. Likewise, if you want to add plants to your classroom bring a watering can, a big bottle of water and select a daily plant monitor to water it and take them home during the holidays. No-one wants dead orchids by February.
#4 – “I will create a work/life balance”: … Wait. You’re not joking? In that case you’re going to need to (a) decide a specific thing you want from this new “life” time, and (b) make some rules. Vague “I just want more time” resolutions are impossible to keep up. One friend decided to run every other work day. To prepare she had a set of running gear at school and if she knew there would be no other time for running, then she ran the school building several times before getting in her car to go home. In my second year of teaching I decided to set aside specific “no work” time. I reinstituted a rule that I could work as late as I wanted on weeknights, but from 4pm on Friday until the Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday there was to be no work. Our resolutions were met because we made the parameters strict and the rules clear. If kids can follow rules, so can we.
#5 – “I will keep my email inbox empty”: Teachers love email. And reply-alls. And FYIs. And copying in all and sundry. But it’s a time suck. To be more efficient pick one of the following as your new year plan: (1) Put a link to http://five.sentenc.es/ in your email signature. It will take people to a site explaining that you only write emails of 5 sentences of less. Then, stick to it. If you need to write more than five lines, go find or phone the person. (2) If you use gmail, get Boomerang pronto. This app reminds you if people don’t reply to an email you send within a specific period. You can then move the original email from your inbox, rather than keeping it in case you forget. Outlook has no equivalent, but this workaround does similar. (3) If your email system has a half-decent ‘search’ function, stop using folders. Research suggests they’re more effort than they’re worth.
#6 – Be more positive with students: Even the sunniest teacher cannot maintain total positivity. What you probably could do, though, is create a more systematic approach to being positive. How about instituting “feel-good” Fridays? Each Friday, just before you leave school, think of three students who did something praiseworthy and ring home to (a) thank their parents for raising such a child, and (b) explain to the student why their action was impressive. Even better, rope colleagues into doing it at the same time as you and share your stories before you leave. You’ll enter the weekend feeling more positive and you’ll be amazed at the response from students and parents alike.
Ultimately, the trick to improving in the classroom is always start small, stay specific, and have a plan. Do any of these for one half-term and you’ll likely find it becomes a habit that carries you through the whole year.