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Time Saving Tips for Teachers

by K. J. Wagner

At times, teaching can be overwhelming. You have stacks of papers to grade, conferences to attend, grades to calculate, emails to respond to, and, if there is any time left—teach. So much to do, and so little time in which to accomplish it. Included herein are teacher-tested ideas on how to save time without sacrificing the quality of your teaching.

Before instituting a time management plan, however, you need to spend a few days simply observing and reflecting. Keep a notepad nearby; when you find yourself using your time inefficiently jot it down. For example, do you spend a considerable amount of time explaining to students what they need to do in order to make up missed assignments? Is your time taken up by filing, emailing, phone calls, disruptions, copying material, taking attendance, repeating directions? See where your "time leaks" are and then find a way to plug them. You may be surprised at the activities that are soaking up your valuable time.

Organization: The Key

Organization is the cornerstone of time management. A big time waster, according to many teachers, is "hunting and gathering." That is: looking for that missing lesson plan, collecting tools and equipment from students after completion of a project, searching out that IEP that was due yesterday, procuring books for a unit. (If you are one of the lucky ones who are already organized, skip ahead to the list of time-saving tips.)

Effective time managers are masters of organization. "A place for everything, and everything in its place," is their motto. If you are one of the chronically disorganized, the task may seem daunting. If so, start with one area at a time and work your way around your classroom. You may want to start with your desk. Then move on to your file cabinets, then your closets. After you have organized one area, give yourself a reward for a job well done! Here are some tips for getting organized:

  • Throw out unused materials. (Admittedly, for some of us pack rats, this is the most difficult step.) Do you really need those worksheets you have had filed away for the past five years, just waiting for the right time to use them? Be ruthless. If you haven't used a thing for more than two years, then it is probably time to let go of it. (You may want to put them in a box, write "Free" on the side, and put them in your school's faculty lounge.)

  • Create a place or space for the materials you keep. As you tackle your desk, divide your paperwork into categories: To Do, To File, To Read, To Hold (and any other broad category of paperwork that you need to keep nearby). Your "To File" pile will probably be the largest. For now, put it to the side and we will deal with in the next step. In order to keep your paperwork organized in the future, you will need some type of file holder to place on your desk or near it. As each piece of paperwork lands on your desk, place it in its proper category. You will, of course, periodically file the "To File" paperwork—don't let it build up.

  • Now for the "To File" pile. You will want to have file folders and a marking pen for labeling the folders handy, as well as the "round file," otherwise known as the trash can. Again, be ruthless! Throw out anything that you know will never use or that is out-of-date or no longer useful. The type of folders you will create depends on your individual circumstances. Make a file for everything you need to keep. (Even if the file has only one piece of paper in it.) This will make finding paperwork much simpler. Some teachers use colored files for certain categories (e.g. blue for student information, yellow for curriculum, green for tests/quizzes/answer keys. Here are some typical categories:
Lesson plans/Lesson plan ideas (It is a good idea to keep individual lesson plans in their own folder, properly labeled. You may also want to keep any ancillary material in there also---transparencies, handouts---any item you will use with that particular lesson.)

Student information (if you have more than one class, make a separate folder for each class)

Discipline Issues

Student scores (if you need to keep Lexile, test scores, or other evaluation scores)




Originals (of handouts, worksheets, etc.)

Test/Quiz Masters and Answer Keys

Substitute Information (including emergency lesson plans, instructions)

Place your now-full file folders in a file cabinet or holder. You may want to alphabetize them, put them in order of use, or according to color.
  • Closets are wonderful to have in a classroom. But they can become so cluttered that you can't find anything. If your closet looks like this, the best course of action is to completely remove everything, wipe the closet out, and start fresh organizing it. (As you remove items, again, throw out unneeded or unused items.)

  • If your shelves are far apart, get or make some type of mini-shelving to sit on the larger shelf so you can stack and organize items. (A cheap alternative is small corrugated boxes or plastic containers.) Try to keep related materials together. You could, for example keep markers in a shoebox, crayons in another.

Teacher-Tested Time-Saving Tips

  • Use a daily planner. Keep all your "to do" lists there. Or, keep one calendar handy and write everything on it that you need to accomplish. Memories fail at times. Some teachers keep a planner on their desk at all times, some use large desk calendars. Whichever type you prefer, use it.

  • Do not try to accomplish difficult tasks when you are tired. Save those for your peak periods.

  • Do not waste class time by calling out students' names in order to take roll. Once students are at work, take roll. If you have a seating chart, you can see who is absent in one sweep. Elementary teachers have many options: You can write each student's name on a clothes pin and pin it to a chart near the door. As students come in, they place their pin in a small bucket. Or, vice versa. The pins could be placed in the box and the student takes his or hers out and places it on the chart. (Especially useful if you have to do a lunch/milk count.)

  • At the beginning of the year, assign each student a number which corresponds to the number in your roll book. (Roll books usually numbered lines for students' names.) Instruct students to put their numbers (along with their names) on their papers. Then, when you collect the papers, simply have one student put them in numerical order. Marking grades in the book then becomes a snap because you are not jumping from name to name trying to find a particular student.

  • If you have never tried "grade-book software" you may like it. It can save you time by tallying grades, curving grades, allowing you to print the grades for a particular student (along with absences), quickly seeing what assignments a particular student is missing, etc. Some are better than others. Ask for recommendations from your colleagues.

  • While waiting for a parent conference, meeting, etc. try to accomplish those small, "interruptible" tasks.

  • Remember: Every single paper-and-pencil task a student completes, does not have to be graded.

  • Allow students to self-grade or peer-grade when appropriate.

  • Create a generic "Classroom Procedures" list for substitutes. (Include schedules, important points to remember, the process of taking roll, etc.) This can then be attached to specific lesson plans.

  • Keep a small area set aside where you store often-used supplies for students to use. (This also helps keep them from taking things from your desk.)

  • Keep a supply of notebook paper handy. Tell students they make take a sheet when necessary. (Works especially well in middle school, where students seem to regularly forget their supplies.)

  • Make transparencies for directions to tasks. (This way you won't have to repeat yourself several times.)

  • Pull out of storage all material that you will be distributing that day and place it in one area. Think through the lessons you will be doing and what materials you will need for each one.

  • Distributing material. You may want to assign a student assistant to distribute material for you (makers, rulers, art paper, newspapers). Talk with the student about how to distribute the material and how to pick it up and put it in its proper place. Some teachers find it handy to have a number of small containers and fill each one with the needed materials for each student. (For example, they will place in the container a pair of scissors, glue stick, markers, etc.) They then simply distribute the containers.

  • When students pass in papers, tell them to pass them across the rows instead of passing them forward. The people in the row to whom the papers eventually come can then pass them forward to one person. (A side benefit of this is less poking.)

  • Create a list of classroom routines and procedures that will make the day flow smoothly. Go here for some ideas.

  • Make a "To-Do" reference sheet for events. For example, you may want to have a list for field trips. Include on the list everything that must be done before, during, and after the trip, then check off as completed. Make copies of your reference sheets and use them as necessary.

  • Create templates for materials you create regularly. For example: Store on your computer a lesson plan template, then use "save as" to name the lesson plan.

  • Keep a file folder handy with copies of forms you normally use.

  • Keep like items together. For example, you can buy (or sew) an overhead fanny pack.

  • Keep a log of phone calls made to parents. You can make a form which includes the name of the student, phone number, reason called, results.

  • Assign tasks to students. If a student can do the job just as well as you can, then let her or him do it. Most students love having responsibilities. Some teachers for example, have a classroom librarian whose job it is to be in charge of the classroom library. They shelve and straighten books, recommend titles, and keep the area organized.

  • Learn to say no. Admittedly, this is not easy for some people. Remember though that your time is valuable so guard it wisely.

  • If you are planning a big project or unit, keep a box handy for the materials as you procure them. Label the box and place everything in there that you will need. Or, alternatively, you may only need a file folder.

  • If you find yourself constantly running to the office or media center or any one particular place, try to consolidate trips. Place the material you are taking with you in one area and limit yourself to one trip.

  • When making phone calls, write down the points you want to discuss ahead of time so you can "get to the point" as well as remember what you wanted to talk about.

  • If you are constantly losing your seating chart or other paper that you use daily, attach it to you chalkboard with a magnet. You may also want to buy some magnetic tape (available in school supply stores) if you don't want to (or can't) use the traditional magnets. Some teachers, for example, will place magnetic tape on the back of a plastic pencil cup holder, fill it with pencils, and place it on the board for handy use.

  • Before you dismiss the students have them look around their desks and pick up any trash, papers, or items on the floor. You can assign one student to pick up "wandering items" and put them in their proper place.

  • Allow students to create one or more bulletin boards. Most children enjoy this.

  • Keep a large calendar handy for noting make-up assignments for students who were absent. Instruct students to check the calendar when they return from an absence. Place any materials they will need near the calendar. Assign one student to be "in charge" of telling returning students what they missed. If you are a middle school or high school teacher, make a file folder for each of your classes and put the missing student's work in the folder with his or her name on it. Tell students that it will be their responsibility to check the appropriate folder when they return.

  • Don't reinvent the wheel. There are literally thousands of lessons, units, and thematic plans, and interdisciplinary plans available on the Internet. Go to a search engine such as Google and type in keywords. Or, visit the EduRef. It is a storehouse of terrific information for teachers!

These are just a few time-saving tips. There are books available that concern only this topic. If you have a district media center or a professional section in your school media center, check there. Additionally, ask your colleagues for their time-saving tips.

©2004 K.J. Wagner, M.A.