Teacher Work-Life Balance

Managing Teacher Workload During the Regular School Day

When I first started teaching in 2007,  I stayed after school hours grading and schlepped piles of papers home each weekend and school breaks.  While my husband watched football on Sundays, I spent the day in our bedroom watching TV surrounded by books, papers, red pens, and highlighters.  I also ran the middle school student council and planned all school dances and activities, and I served as the ELA Department Chair.   I was at my school until 6pm at least 2 days a week, sometimes more. This continued until my 4th year of teaching when I was slowed down only by pregnancy.  After my son was born and I returned to work when he was 4 months old, I was tired and had less time at home to complete work.  I still brought home piles of work to grade over weekends and breaks, but the piles mostly stayed in the trunk of my car while I spent time with my son and family.   

During those first 6 years or so of teaching, I had not yet figured out how to complete my teacher responsibilities during the school day.  I often felt like I was playing catch up with one or the other – sacrificing planning time to spend time with my family, or sacrificing time with my family to finish my plans or grade papers. I felt this constant push and pull between my duties as a teacher and my duties as a wife and mother, and I was drowning. After I had my daughter in 2015,  I became hyper-focused on separating work and home and was committed to starting my work week at 7:20 am Monday morning and ending it at 3:00 pm Friday afternoon.  It didn’t change overnight, but over time, I made simple adjustments that have become part of my routine. While these adjustments might not work for everyone, this is what worked for me. 

#1 Stop Grading Everything

After observing and talking with some veteran teachers, I learned the most valuable piece of knowledge: you do not have to grade everything the students do.  Instead of giving each individual classwork and homework assignment a grade, I started giving weekly grades for those categories and keeping a simple tally sheet based on the student’s completion. Under this system, each student gets a grade for the week for their readiness to learn and engagement in the lessons, so a lot of the smaller activities (Do nows, closures, discussion participation) become integrated into that one overall grade.  I use a simple rubric and I keep track of what the students have done by using a checklist on a clipboard during class time. The first thing I do on my prep Monday morning is tally up the checks and enter the weekly grades. Just this task alone has saved me hours of time previously spent on grading every piece of paper the students turned in. The assignments that get graded separately from the weekly grade are grades like progress checks, essays, exams, presentations, and projects.  In other words, the assessments. 

#2 Use Rubrics

Rubrics not only assist in grading but also make it clear to the students what is expected of them and what standards you are expecting them to meet.  Since I teach AP classes, there are many rubrics readily available to me to use when grading and evaluating student assessments. You can also find rubrics online or create your own using Rubistar (http://rubistar.4teachers.org/index.php) or other online resources.  Many of the rubrics I use are modified from rubrics I borrowed from other teachers throughout my teaching career.  The rubrics are not meant to replace real feedback, but rubrics can help save time spent writing the same comments over and over again on multiple papers.  Rather than write a lengthy comment in the side margin the student most likely won’t read, I will circle the rubric comment and point to a sentence or paragraph that is an example of something they could do better.  I then use this as a starting point when I meet with students during their quarterly writing conferences. 

#3 Conduct Student-Led Conferences

About 4 years into teaching I learned a harsh truth – students don’t read your feedback.  They flip to the grade and then toss the paper aside.  When I started using clear rubrics I stopped littering my students’ papers with red ink and feedback on every paragraph.  I still mark important things I am looking for – the thesis, the supporting points, sources, etc. and I aim to write at least 1 piece of feedback per page of writing or per rubric category.  Initially, I told students if they wanted more feedback, they could meet with me during class time, after school, or during lunch for a more in depth discussion of their paper.  That worked fairly well, but it was mostly the high-achieving students who wanted to know why their paper was an A- and not an A that made the effort to come to see me.  So I started engaging in writing conferences with every student as a regular practice during class time.  These writing conferences are student-led, with the student first re-reading their paper and assessing it using the rubric as their Do Now for the lesson.  When I call each student up, I listen and record what they say, and then I go through the rubric row by row and give them my score.  I look for one area of growth and focus on that.  The students take notes during the conference and create an action plan for their next essay.  I read their essays prior to the conference, but I save the grading and commenting for the conference.  At the conference, the grade gets entered into the gradebook and the student gets their immediate feedback, and I have accomplished it all during the regular class period.  While I am conferencing with the students, the other students are engaged in a short-term research project or annotating a piece of writing for later discussion (it must be something of value and not “busy work”).  The year I had 30 students in an AP Language class, it took 2.5 67-minute class periods to finish all of the conferences.  When I had 10 students, it took just 1 class period. Regardless of my class size, it has saved me countless hours of grading time outside of the classroom. 

 #4 Maximize Your Preps

It is easy to get distracted during prep periods as a teacher.  Time stands still while you’re chatting with colleagues about the latest Tik Tok trend or talking about your weekend plans, but that time also passes and that is time that you haven’t spent grading or planning. That is not to say I never take the time to have small talk with a colleague or that I avoid the teacher’s lounge altogether, but I set goals for my time there and leave when I have accomplished them.  To best illustrate how I pre-plan and maximize my prep periods, here is a sample weekly schedule (based on 5 67-minute class blocks with 4 blocks of teaching):

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Teaching Teaching Teaching Teaching Teaching
Prep – Grading Prep – Grading Prep – Remaining grading, start planning Prep – Planning Prep – Planning
Teaching Teaching Teaching Teaching Teaching
Teaching Lunch – Parent contacts TeachingLunch – Parent contacts TeachingLunch – Parent contacts TeachingLunch – Parent contacts TeachingLunch – Parent contacts
Teaching Teaching Teaching Teaching Teaching
Study Hall – Grading Study Hall – Grading Study Hall – Grading Study Hall – Planning Study Hall – Planning

Mondays and Tuesdays are always set aside for grading the work from the previous week.  As an ELA teacher, I have a fair amount of essays to grade each week, so I break the essays into manageable chunks and do the easier grading (participation, multiple choice quizzes, classwork) in between. I also conduct student writing conferences during class time that allow me to grade and give verbal feedback to students at the same time (see #3), which saves a tremendous amount of grading time. And yes, you will note that I also plan tasks during my lunch period.  If I don’t have parents to call or email that day, then I might do some more grading or planning as I eat lunch in my classroom. 

All of these changes have enabled me to leave at the end of the day knowing that I don’t have to take work home just to stay afloat.  Despite the popular belief otherwise, a teacher can leave at the end of the day without taking work home by making small changes to their school day routine and grading practices.  I think it is important to remember that the goal is not to completely eliminate the work that you take home, but to minimize and decrease it.  If you start out thinking this system will allow you to never bring work home, you may fall short and the disappointment could have a detrimental effect on your social-emotional health.  Start with a reasonable goal and work from there.  I can count on one hand the amount of times I had to bring work home last school year, and that is a number I can handle and accept. Know what your number is and aim for that.