Regular readers of this blog know what I think about teachers working over the summer. For those late to the party, allow me to summarize:
Most teachers shouldn’t and they shouldn’t feel an ounce of guilt over the number of days they don’t even think about their job.
However, like many things in life, there are exceptions to the rule. One of those exceptions is this:
If the work you do over the summer saves you a bunch of time/energy/aggravation during the school year, then it may be worth doing, even if you are working for free.
So, if you’re sick and tired of the beach, or if it’s a rainy day, your cable is out, and the wifi is down, or if you just can’t stop thinking about next school year, here are three things you might consider doing now so you have less to do later.
Purge and Organize
A lot of teachers have a lot of crap. That’s not a good thing. Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that subjects in a disorganized environment had a harder time maintaining attention than those working in an organized environment. The study showed that physical clutter competes for our attention, resulting in poorer performance, and increased stress. You and your students will be less irritable, less distracted, more productive, and better able to process information in an uncluttered space.
So purge and organize. Ideally, you should do this at the end of the school year, while there’s free labor around to help you do it and while you’re still getting paid. However, the end of the year is a busy time, and it’s just as likely you’ve been tossing things in a file cabinet or on your desk, knowing you’ll have all summer (or the beginning of next school year) to get around to it. So if you didn’t declutter at the end of the year, now’s the time to do it, because once the students show up, you’ll have far too many other things to do and your untidy piles and hidden messes will snowball.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had to pack up my room two years in a row. This has done wonders for clutter. The fewer things I pack, the fewer things I have to unpack, so the moves have served as excellent motivation to throw things away. I also benefitted this year by being relocated to a room that has much less storage than last year’s room, which meant I had to be more judicious about my stuff.
These decisions were forced on me, but they provide clear guidance about what all teachers should do before the start of a new year. Here are the rules I used to decide what stayed and what went in the Dumpster:
1. No sentimentalism – I’m not a sentimental person, so this one was easy for me. However, many people hang on to things because of the fond memories they attach to them. I had a stack of road maps I inherited years ago that were likely used for a social studies project back in the day when all maps were printed on paper. I like maps. And road maps remind me of family road trips when I was a child. But I hadn’t used these maps in years and I wouldn’t ever again because technology has made them obsolete. Nostalgia isn’t a good enough reason to keep a bunch of stuff you won’t use.
2. The two-year rule – Marie Kondo tells people to throw stuff away unless it brings them joy (or so I’ve heard), but that’s a little too emotional for me. If I followed that rule, I’d still own a Skid Row T-shirt that I have long outgrown and that should never be worn in public. I follow the two-year rule instead: If I haven’t used it the last two schools years, then it stands to reason I won’t be using it this upcoming year and also that I’ll probably never use it again. Why two and not one? Because if you don’t use something one year, you might just have forgotten that you own it. But if you don’t use it two years in a row, then a.) you just proved you don’t need it and b.) it is, by definition, forgettable and therefore probably not all that great, so you shouldn’t be using it anyway.
3. The “Would I Buy It Now?” Standard – One of the psychological challenges with throwing things away is what’s known as the sunk-cost fallacy. Once we’ve spent money on something, we’re reluctant to let it go. This may be because we don’t want to admit we didn’t get as much value as we expected out of our purchase or because we don’t want to see ourselves as wasteful. A good way around it is to apply the Would I Buy It Now standard. When determining whether or not to keep those unifix cubs that are taking up room in your tote of math manipulatives, don’t ask yourself, “Might I have a use for these this school year?” Instead, ask, “If I didn’t own these, would I go to the store and buy them for the upcoming year?” That answer is often no, which tells you that if you’re considering keeping the item, you’re probably doing so for bad reasons.
4. All paper has to justify its continued existence. As the years have gone by, the files in my file cabinet have grown. This in spite of the fact that I hardly ever pull anything from my file cabinet. Even if I own a graphic organizer, my first stop is almost always Google because I can find things faster on Google than I can in my file cabinet and because it’s easier to hit print than it is to walk a paper copy down to the copier. Therefore, all paper has to justify its continued existence. This summer, I went through every file and applied this standard. When I was done, I was left with 12 file folders. The only papers I kept were those I didn’t have in digital form and that could not be found online.
5. No outside storage allowed – Once I was done unpacking this summer I was left with two boxes of math supplies that I will likely only use on a handful of occasions this coming year. Because storage space was limited, I was tempted to bring the boxes home and return them to school when they were needed. But that’s a slippery slope. When you expand the amount of room you have for things, the number of things you have will expand. Creating more space for your stuff leads to more stuff. So I made a rule that every school-related item I own needs to find a home at school, preferably in my classroom. When you put limits on yourself, you’re forced to make decisions about what you really need to keep. Only by doing this will you whittle your possessions down to the essential.
You will make do with what you have, just like you did when you were straight out of college. When you don’t have something, you figure out how to make it work. Limits lead to creativity, so impose them on yourself.
Establish Systems, Then McDonaldsize Them
If I were advising a first-year teacher on how to spend the week before school, I would tell him to make a list of everything he will ask or expect students to do. Most of the time, these items start with the words “How to.” How to go to the bathroom, how to turn in a paper, how to listen during instruction, how to write during writing time, how to sharpen pencils, how to enter and exit the classroom, how to request help, how to answer questions in whole group, etc. Then, I’d tell that new teacher to write out exactly how he wants those things done. You can’t teach procedures to students until you know how you want them performed yourself.
Most of the problems I have had in my classroom were the result of bad systems. It stands to reason then that having good systems is the key to saving yourself lots of time, energy, and aggravation. I remember hearing about the success of McDonald’s when I was younger. It’s been pointed out many times that McDonald’s is as much a real estate company as it is a fast-food chain. And that’s true. But the other huge factor in McDonald’s success is its systems. Every McDonald’s you walk into is essentially run by 16 year-olds and adults who can’t find jobs anywhere else. That these McDonald’s function at all is a testament to their systems and training. McDonald’s designs systems that can be run by people who most of us wouldn’t trust to babysit our kids.
To McDonaldsize your systems, make them as simple for others to run as possible. Then train your students. The ideal classroom is one that could function without you in the room because students understand and can perform every procedure correctly.
Plan To Do Less
Many teachers start the year with too many goals and quickly become discouraged and overwhelmed when reality falls short of their lofty expectations. Since you’re not going to do everything well, decide ahead of time what’s most important to you and focus your energies on that. I recommend a three step process that will help you focus on what really matters and will, as a consequence, prevent you from exhausting yourself on unessential tasks.
First, choose a focus. Your focus will depend on your values and the specifics of your position. You might choose to focus on making school a place where kids want to be, in which case you’ll direct most of your energy to building relationships with students and designing engaging lessons. Alternatively, you might focus on your subject area and students’ academic performance. As a high school chemistry teacher, you might not have the opportunity to build relationships with many students since you see so many of them for so little time. It may make more sense for your energy to be directed toward teaching students as much chemistry as you can or instilling in them a love for your subject.
Whatever your focus is, the point of it is to direct your energy. You will do things that help you reach your goal and avoid things that pull you in a different direction. Which brings us to the second step: Establish rules.
Start by drawing some lines in the sand. Decide now how you will respond to administrators’ requests on your time. What kinds of opportunities will you say yes to and which will be met with a no? How will you handle colleagues who want to come into your room to talk for thirty minutes after school? How will you respond to parents who want to meet or talk on the phone after school? Protect your time now by figuring out where you’ll set limits and then follow through when the year starts.
The third step is to decide on your defaults. Think of defaults like the font on your word processor. Most of the time, the default will do. But sometimes, you need something different. Defaults are rules that you allow yourself to break given certain circumstances. One of my defaults is: I won’t join unpaid committees. Most of the time, I stick with this default. But last year, I joined the building leadership team because I was new in the building and I a.) thought it would be a good way to learn how things worked and b.) was low man on the totem poll when my grade level colleagues didn’t want to do it. The year before that I’d been on my district’s technology team. It wasn’t paid, but it was something I was interested in and it afforded me the opportunity to pilot new tech products like SMART TVs and Chromebooks.
The process above helps you focus. It’s planning to do less, knowing that doing less overall makes it possible to do more of the things that will make the biggest difference and help you reach whatever goals you’ve decided on for the upcoming year.
You can read about this process in greater detail in my book The Teacher’s Guide to Saying NO.
Hidden Track: Relax
Of course, the best thing you can do this summer to prepare for next school year is relax. Once the year starts, you’re going to spend 10 months working harder than most other professionals. Even if you manage to stick to 8-hour days, those eight hours will often be stressful and energy-depleting. Do what you can now to make your school year easier, but remember that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.