How to read, write, and think in our noisy teacher lives

Don’t rely on willpower to do your work. Block out noise, set priorities, and use systems to get work done.

This year, my students and I read an excerpt from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in which he lists all of the virtues that he believes will lead to a successful life. A common thread running throughout these virtues is moderation or self-control. And though Mr. Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence 240 years ago, controlling our impulses is still an essential skill for living a good life.

Ben Franklin had far fewer inputs battling for his attention, though. The modern teacher faces a daily war of mental energy and focus.

Here are a few habits I practice in order to teach English and write consistently without working much at night or on the weekends.

  1. Write out the six periods of the day and 1-3 words describing how I’ll spend that time. This can be a class period or a prep period. Even though I’ve already got my lesson plans written before the week begins, this list of six items helps me visualize the day and stay focused. It is especially useful for the prep periods, where I am prone to reading articles researching for stuff in the future that doesn’t need to be done now. If I had to choose just one item on the list to use, this would be it.
  2. Check email 2 scheduled times during the day. Get to inbox zero unless absolutely impossible. This one might feel uncomfortable because it seems that all sorts of important pieces of information will be missed if we’re not glued to our inboxes. For the most part, that’s just not true. The constant checking of email is a distraction from the work that is important but hard. We run towards a quick mental fix of checking email we so we can deal with someone else’s priorities instead of our own. You don’t have to check email as often as you think you do.
  3. Use Google Keep to capture the ideas, links, checklists and other text that is important but doesn’t have a specific place to go. I use Google Keep to write temporary checklists or long-term goals that I’d like to review every once in a while. Along with Clipboard History, Keep is a place to save comments that I use when providing feedback to students during class discussions or common types of writing. The notes can be colored-coded, exported to Google Docs, turned into dynamic, and shared like a Doc. Keep is the unsung hero of the Google Apps, and it’s probably the only “productivity app” that I need. 
  4. Take short walks during work times. During a prep period or when I’ve taught a few periods in a row, I’ll make sure to take a quick walk to get a drink of water, pop my head outside the door for a few seconds of fresh air, or even just do a lap to the end of the hallway and back. You need exercise to keep your brain stimulated.
  5. When I enter my room in the morning, I don’t turn the computer on first thing. Instead I walk around, straighten up the chairs, pick up anything that’s left on the floor or lost & found items, peruse my professional books or classroom library, then make my way over to my desk and computer. That’s where I write down the six blocks of time for my day.
  6. Do a “complete shutdown” at the end of the school day. Another idea that I’ve put into practice from Cal Newport’s Deep Work.  Newport’s logic, as far as I took it, is that we need our brains to devote intense focus to one task, and then we need to shut off that focus and leave the work behind, restoring our brains for the next work session. This cultivates a more balanced, present-state life.  The complete shutdown is a quick ritual to allow the brain to truly recharge when you leave your classroom or office. There are three parts to the work shut down: Scan the email inbox for the last time, ensuring there are no urgent messages, clean off the physical work area (the desk, for example), and review the task list to make a rough plan for tomorrow (I use Trello to keep track of upcoming tasks, it’s an incredibly powerful tool).


    A screenshot of my task list on Trello (tense errors and all).

  7. Review the excessive notes that I take during conversations, meetings, and readings. I may have a case of hypergraphia, and often times the notes and scribbles go unused. However, taking a few minutes out of the day for review helps me to keep track of the lesson ideas, connections, and other inspirations that cross my mind during the school day.
  8. Do a weekly teacher reflection. This is one that is more about the act of writing and less about reviewing or reading the text later. After I’ve built up a few years of these reflections in my Google Form, I’d love to look at the trends and patterns, but for now the act of reflecting at the end of the week is cathartic in itself. It reminds me of the positive and negative trends happening in my teaching and in my life, and helps me return all things back to the baseline and towards improvement. Here’s a link to a copy of the form       

Even though the word “habits” is mentioned above, it is a constant battle with my willpower to maintain each of these.  It’s like the meditator who notices his wandering mind and brings his attention back to his breath. I’ll notice myself leaving for the afternoon with a super messy desk or notice that I have no plan for a prep period and then correct for next time.

None of these individual tasks is a cure-all. Some of them won’t work for you, and some may. For me, these actions help to calm the mind, get more done, and read, write, and think in our noisy teacher lives.

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