How to Be a More Efficient Teacher: Advice from a Veteran on Managing Tasks

Veteran teacher and TeacherVision Advisory Board Member Jessica shares her tips for how you can make the everyday practice of teaching - grading, planning, organizing - more efficient and much less overwhelming.

Updated on: January 7, 2020

How to Be A More Efficient Teacher

Being a teacher is a lot of work! You need to deliver quality instruction, plan lessons, focus on assessments, decorate and re-decorate your classroom, manage parent and administrator relationships, and so much more. It can become overwhelming when you’re trying to complete all the tasks that go along with these responsibilities - which likely feel like they’re all taking you forever to get done.

Let’s explore some ways in which you can try to work more efficiently in your teaching practice, which will provide the double benefit of feeling less overwhelmed and enabling you to focus more time and energy on your home life and the things you enjoy outside of school.

Here are a couple of strategies that have helped me work smarter, and not harder, as a teacher. Try them and let me know what you think!

Stop Procrastinating!

Do you feel like you’re struggling to keep up with all of the pressing “to-do” items in your day-to-day teacher life? While it’s certainly not the most original or Earth-shattering idea you’ll ever hear, learning how to stop procrastinating can be of immense help in managing day-to-day “fire drill” stress. What might this look like for you, exactly? Well, let’s break it down a little bit.

Think through all of the tasks you regularly need to get done (which we’ll explore more in the next section) and note when they need to be completed by.

For example, here are a couple of questions related to things on my to-do list:

  • When do I need to turn in grades?
  • What day are my lesson plans due?
  • Do I need to change up my bulletin board by a certain date?
  • Are there copies that need to be made before the next Monday?

After thinking about the tasks that need to get done, jot them down on a calendar, Google doc, a task-management app - even an old-fashioned pen and paper list will work for this exercise.

Next, add a date next to each task when they need to be completed. For example, if lesson plans need to be turned in every Friday, then you’ll be able to organize the tasks around that during the week to get them done on time.

Finally, order the tasks from “hardest” to “easiest,” and start right away with the hardest tasks first. You’ll probably be tempted to attack the easy stuff first to get it out of the way, but starting with the hardest things first is a more productive strategy. Beyond the simple act of quickly clearing the most problematic things off of your list, the feeling of satisfaction you’ll get from checking off a couple of “hard” boxes will motivate you to move on to and complete the easier ones. This feeling is a natural antidote to procrastination!

Focus On the Most Important Tasks First

In keeping with this idea, after you realize what needs to be done and have marked it down on a calendar, it’s also very helpful to assign a priority scale to your tasks. Organize your tasks from most important to least important. I know what you’re thinking…“But every task during my school day is important.” Well, you’re not wrong. However, when you take the time to prioritize your task list, this will help you take action.

Let’s go back to the lesson plan example. If you know that your plans need to be turned in on Friday, think about every step that must happen before you can hand those plans in. Ask yourself “What are the most important tasks when planning?” Of course, your lesson planning will look different from week to week, so the most important tasks will sometimes fall to the bottom of the list and vice versa.

Do you need to really focus in on teaching a certain reading standard? Is there a concept you need to review before introducing a new concept? Do you need to re-introduce a math foundation concept before teaching something brand new? Thinking through questions like this while planning will enable the most important tasks to rise to the top, and give you a sense of what to do immediately and what can be saved for later or finished last.

Use Your Time Wisely

Most of us have about 45 minutes for a planning period, but we also use time before and after school (and possibly lunch break!) some days to get work done. This honestly isn’t very much time when you think about it. Learning to use your time wisely is really important.

We’ve already talked about writing down tasks. Having a written, organized, and prioritized task list will help you make great use of the small amount of focused work time you have every day. When you sit down to work on any given day, look at the task list you’ve written out for that day. Then, try your best to get through everything on that to-do list. Ideally, you will complete everything and be able to start each day with a fresh list. In reality, you’ll probably carry some things over, which is OK. Anything that carries over from one day to the next should be prioritized accordingly.

Pro tip: If you find yourself carrying over the same things for days on end, it’s time to look hard at whether that item is actually something you need to do or something that would be nice to do. You may find that it’s helpful in uncluttering your to-do list to make a “nice to do” list of things you can work on at other times.

If your school is anything like mine, it’s highly likely that planning time will sometimes get interrupted because of an assembly, field trip, or unexpected event like a fire or tornado drill. Since you can’t always rely on your planning period, using your time wisely becomes even more important. It may be helpful to supplement your planning time by picking one day a week to come in early and one day a week to stay after school. Try to stick with that schedule if at all possible. When I started scheduling certain days of the week on which I work non-contract hours, this quickly became a routine that contributed to getting so much more done.

Know When It's OK to Say "No"

Speaking of interruptions...we all know how common it is to have colleagues, students, specials, paras, and administrators come into your classroom during your planning period or lunch break to ask questions and have conversations. This is part of the ebb and flow of the average day. Know that it’s OK to say “no” in a respectful way to people who intrude on your focused work time.

What I mean by that is this: If your principal comes in during your planning period and you can tell the conversation is going to take longer than 5 minutes, respectfully say “no” when they ask “Is this a good time to talk?” Let them know that you have some tasks to finish up, but you’d be more than willing to talk after school or when your students are quietly working on a lesson later. Don’t just say “yes” to having a conversation if it cuts into focused work time and will cause you to have to play catch-up later. It’s OK to be respectful of the other adults in your building while respecting yourself as well.

We can all work more efficiently. Start by applying just one strategy explored here. You’ll begin to feel a bit better and notice all of the tasks waiting for you to get done aren’t stressing you out nearly as much as they used to.

What are your tips for teaching efficiently? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Jessica Peresta is passionate about providing other music teachers, especially those right out of college or new to teaching elementary music, with the music education resources, lesson plans, teacher training, and community you've been looking for. She believes your domestic life outside of school should be spent soaking up time with family and friends and your music teacher life while at school should not leave you feeling defeated, but should be a joyful, exciting, and rewarding experience. To find out more about Jessica and her passion, visit her at The Domestic Musician.

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