One of the hardest things to learn when you begin teaching is how to be organized as a teacher. But it’s also one of the most important skills you will need to avoid burnout.
Today we’re going to look at 8 tips for how to stay organized as a teacher.
This may seem obvious, but having routines about how and when you do specific tasks will make your job so much easier.
I like to split routines up into sub-categories – those tasks you do in your classroom on a daily/lesson-by-lesson basis and the more nebulous tasks that you do as part of your job, but not part of your day-to-day.
Classroom routines are a BIG topic, so we won’t be able to cover every single thing. But it’s important to think about and have routines for events and tasks such as:
- moving into/out of the classroom
- where students sit
- beginning the lesson/ending the lesson
- where students can access homework/missed work/assignment sheets etc
- how to put away classroom materials
- where classroom materials are stored
- student behavior expectations
- lesson planning
Other routines are those more nebulous tasks that you have to do as part of your job, but that may not be day-to-day tasks. Examples of these types of routines include:
- communicating with parents
- taking notes for parent contact
- sending positive feedback home to parents
- grading work and giving formative feedback
- planning lessons and how they fit into a unit of work
- completing mandatory professional development
- storing student work/data etc
- following up on student behavior or parent communication
- writing emails/letters or making phone calls
Tips for establishing and keeping to routines
The hardest part of routines is keeping to them. Often it takes some experimentation to find out what works for you. Try a few different systems and see what works best for your situation.
Things you may like to try include:
- color coding binders/folders/paperwork by subject to contain lesson materials
- using bulldog clips to hold marking/grading
- set reminders in your phone/diary
- using a planner or diary
- pick a day to do all of your lesson planning
- using a wall calendar
- write reminders in your planner/diary
- using an all-digital system with a digital calendar and note-taking app
- set aside time to plan your lessons/day/week
- pick a day to do all non-essential/non-urgent correspondance
2. Plan ahead
Again, this will seem like a no-brainer – you have to plan your lessons ahead of time. Using a teacher-specific planner can help with this. But you can also use a regular diary.
I’ve used both methods and I ended up defaulting to a regular diary for a few reasons:
- There is more variety in size and design
- I can organize my work-life and home-life in the same diary
- Teacher planners often only come in A4 size, which I hated lugging around. I prefer A5 size diaries.
- The organization of teacher planners was often just not-quite-right for me. The size of the boxes were all either too big or small. They didn’t have a to-do checklist. They included an attendance-taking roll at the back but the pages always fell out by the end of the year.
- Teacher diaries can be pricey! My first one was a gift, and I bought my second one. But after that I decided $30 for a planner was too expensive when I could buy a diary from Kmart for $6. Especially when the diary was smaller and suited my planning style more.
Aside from using a planner, having a routine around when you do tasks makes it easier to get them done. Things to consider include:
- Writing out important dates/events into your planner for each week/term/semester, depending on how organized you/your school are. I used to look at the week ahead and write events in my diary a week ahead. I found that events in my schools changed too frequently to plan much more than a week ahead.
- Picking a day/time to get your lessons planned – realistically you may not get it done in your planning/preparation time. You might be better off using that time to do things you have to be at school for, such as photocopying, catching up with a colleague about something, or checking in with a student.
- Having a time to tidy your classroom/desk each day. It doesn’t have to sparkle, just be tidy and organized so you don’t walk into an administrivia ambush each morning.
- Picking a day/time to make contact with parents. Then do them all at once. I used to prefer writing emails because then I could copy/paste them to all the appropriate students. Then if I couldn’t get email addresses for everyone I would call the ones leftover.
3. Build in whoops time
Another important tip is to build in whoops time. You know what I’m talking about.
Whoops I forgot my class was scheduled to pick up their library books that day and now I have lost a lesson.
Whoops I forgot it was the sports carnival today and now I have lost a lesson.
Then you feel rushed trying to get through the curriculum in time for the assessment.
To avoid this, build in whoops time when you’re planning. I like to leave a lesson for each subject in each term empty, in addition to a revision lesson, so that I am giving myself an extra lesson to catch up on content that may have been lost to a whoops.
4. Get students to help
Another tip for how to stay organized as a teacher is to get students to help. This goes hand-in-hand with routines – if you train them to help you, you will eliminate a whole lot of work for yourself.
Tasks that students are more than capable of include:
- cleaning up the room at the end of lessons
- running errands such as taking attendance rolls to the office or a note to another teacher
- giving feedback to their peers
In fact, one of the best choices I made in my first year of teaching was to force the students who turned up on the last day of school to clean our classroom from top to bottom.
The high school I taught at had rampant graffiti, with students feeling as if they could draw on everything. But I was lucky enough to have ‘my own’ classroom, so all my students came to me.
I got students to scrub graffiti off the walls with dishwashing soap, prise hardened gum from under desks, and wipe the dust from the shelving.
Not only was my room spick and span for the next year, the students from those classes that I got in subsequent years told off anyone who thought graffiti and gum were a good idea.
And they didn’t turn up on the last day of school the next year. (Cue evil laughter).
Not sure I could get away with this nowadays. I suspect poor little Jimmy’s mum would ring up and tell me her precious son shouldn’t have to get his hands dirty cleaning other people’s graffiti.
5. Keep your desk/room tidy
Another tip for staying organized is to keep your desk and classroom tidy. This is a constant battle, but doing a little each day helps keep the chaos under control.
Things to consider include:
- Ensuring all classroom materials have a place. Teach younger students (or heck, even older students) where the place is and make sure you have a label for what goes where.
- Using organizational tools to store classroom materials and lesson materials. Cheap things such as plastic bins, cardboard boxes, pencil cases, files, folders or binders help to keep everything in place so they’re easy to find and put back.
- Use a digital filing system to tame your digital files – Thomas Frank from College Info Geek has a good video about this
6. Backwards map
Another great organizational tip for teachers is to backward map units of work or begin at the end when you are planning units of work and individual lessons.
By working out where you want your students to end up – what skills and knowledge you want them to have – you are able to focus your time and attention on the most important things in each lesson.
So, for example, say you’re teaching your Year 8 students about the Vikings. You know that you want them to know why the Vikings raided and traded outside of Scandinavia.
Well, then you backward map and plan a lesson about the landscape of Scandinavia and the difficulties in farming it. You’d also need to plan a lesson about how the Vikings built amazing boats to travel and why the boats’ shallow keels were a huge advantage.
By backward mapping from what you want students to know, you ensure that
- you cover required content
- students know what they need to do in each lesson
- you have a plan for teaching them what to do for each lesson (except the whoops lesson, which you’ll fill up with whatever you need to catch up on or re-teach)
- students learn the skills they need and have in-class time to practice the skills
- you focus your time and attention on the skills and knowledge that is most important and avoid wasting time on off-topic information
7. Prioritize your tasks
Another tip for how to stay organized as a teacher is to prioritize your tasks. Teaching is one of those jobs that can fill up all the hours of the day. If you let it.
If you want to claim back some of those hours, you need to prioritize the tasks and complete the most urgent tasks first.
This may mean you don’t finish everything on your to-do list each day. But if something has been on your to-do list for six months, do you really need to do it? (Asking for a friend).
I like to prioritize my tasks as follows, but you do whatever works best for you.
- First priority is anything that needs to be done for lessons tomorrow. Because to me, teaching the kids sitting in front of me is the most important part of my job. So, I write lesson plans, finish PowerPoint presentations, confirm computer lab bookings, photocopy worksheets etc for tomorrow.
- My second priority is anything that wasn’t urgent during the day but needs attention sooner rather than later. Tasks like planning for future lessons, contacting a parent about a misbehaving student, finishing taking attendence for your second period class, sending that email with feedback for that student’s assignment.
- Next is anything that I know is coming up in the next few weeks that I need to be organized for – such as an upcoming exam, an assignment due and therefore a computer lesson required etc.
- Finally is anything that needs to get done that I haven’t gotten to yet. Professional development, longer-term planning for future units of work, reading next term’s novel etc.
Now, if you’re a middle or high school teacher, you’re probably wondering when I do my marking and grading. I try to use sick days for this.
I try to pick a day where I can set easy substitute-teacher lessons, such as videos with worksheets, assignment work, or I know the lesson has some kind of special activity on where I’d simply be supervising. Then I take a sick day and do my marking.
BUT, my huge caveat to this is that this was pre-children, and I almost never took sick days. I had lots of sick time banked up. And I only took 3-4 a year. I did as much marking as I could. And I saved my sanity.
Post-kids, I don’t know if this will work when I return to work because I will also need to take sick days to look after my children when they get sick.
8. Manage your time effectively
Now, this is another duh! tip. And most people probably think that they manage their time effectively, but they probably don’t.
For example, I have heard teachers (myself included!) say that they don’t have time to do x, y, and z. But then they have a chat for 20 minutes at lunchtime with their teacher bestie.
Now we all know that having a chat is important to build relationships, vent, swap ideas, and debrief about how meh Black Widow was. But when you are in a time crunch, sometimes you gotta skip the chats.
My favorite way to subtly avoid distraction is to put in my earphones. When people see me wearing them, they know that I.am.working.
And I find that low music works like white noise to block out conversations that I would otherwise want to join in on . . . I mean Florence Pugh was hilarious, but I think I’m tired of the entire Marvel universe after the six hundredth movie.
I’ve written a few other great tips about time management in this blog post here. But to summarize, do the most important things first. They are usually the hardest things that you are trying to avoid by doing busywork.
Try using a schedule to do certain tasks at certain times – you might pick Monday after classes to do marking, Tuesday after classes to do planning etc.
Make everything an email – or at least try to. And only answer your email at set times so you’re not distracted from the most important tasks.
Other helpful time management tips include:
- Don’t reinvent the wheel when planning lessons – use textbooks, share resources with colleagues, if you can afford it buy stuff from TPT, re-use resources from previous years or colleagues and update them instead of starting from scratch
- Use videos in class to give yourself time to do the administirivia
- Whereever possible, use class time to mark and give feedback
- Copy and paste the email about an assignment being due to all the parent’s of the kids who didn’t hand in a draft
- Use a tick and flick feedback form on students’ drafts – if they want more detail than that they need to seek you out. Students need to learn to take responsiblity for their work. And teachers need to give them a chance to do that.
- Don’t feel bad if you didn’t finish your to-do list – it’s never ending. If you didn’t get to it today, you might tomorrow. If it’s not done in 6 months it’s not important enough to worry about.
How do you stay organized as a teacher?
We especially want to hear some teacher organization high school specific tips!