overwhelming-teaching-load

“Help! My teaching load is overwhelming…”

If your inbox causes anxiety, and your calendar induces panic, then you know what it’s like to be a teacher in September.  Yes, it’s exciting to meet new students and get back into the rhythm of this awesome profession. But with that rhythm comes the dance: the mental juggling required to balance grading, planning, and life outside of the classroom.

Any teacher can relate to that experience, but those who are

  1. At a new school…
  2. In their first year…
  3. With a tremendous amount of students…
  4. Assigned to a new teaching assignment…

…might feel these pains especially.

This year, I’m blessed in the total-number-of-students department, with fewer than 100, though I teach four different courses, two of them new. So, lots of planning, but a totally manageable amount of student work. Many teachers would scoff at this schedule, I know.

But with any challenge, like teaching new classes, teaching in a new building, or teaching 150 students, there are things within our control that we can use to get our job done without burning ourselves out. Here are a few ideas I’m keeping in mind as the teaching workload ramps up:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, even on the weekends. Though you might feel like you’re “catching up” on sleep missed during the week, it’s probably not good for you.  This year, I’m trying to stay as close to my weekday routine as possible on the weekends, which seems to make it easier to fall asleep on most nights. If you’re dealing with an overwhelming teaching load, that’s a physical task, too, so it’s important to maintain good health.
  • Recognize and apply the concept of satisficing. Satisficing means doing it “good enough.” I learned about this idea from the blog of Dave Stuart Jr.  Dave writes:

The tricky thing about teaching is that, of the thousands of decisions we make every day, some may literally be matters of life and death, quite a few are matters of long-term flourishing, but an incredible amount just aren’t mind-shatteringly important. (emphasis mine)

For any teacher who has felt burdened by bureaucracy or wanted to erase Microsoft Excel from the universe, you feel me on this one. If you’re teaching four different courses, the things you might satisfice might change in each one. Is classroom management super important in your class of 25 energetic freshmen? Then establishing routines, getting to know their interests and designing lessons might come before rushing to get enough grades in the grade book. Is the brand new elective stressing you out with planning? Well, then maybe you won’t be experimenting with new lessons and technology as you just try to learn the content. Satisficing as a teacher means picking your battles.

  • Schedule regular planning times with other teachers. This year, each of my courses is co-taught or taught by another teacher. We find a time to meet and plan together, or share a quick review conversation to check in with each other. No common prep times? This is the norm for most teachers. You can make it work anyway by:
    • Starting an email thread where you correspond about your shared classes
    • Using digital tools like Voxer and Google Drive to communicate asynchronously
    • Establishing a short weekly check-in: Arrive with plans or materials, and quickly compare ideas
    • Asking your administrator for permission to occasionally skip a hall duty or other non-teaching responsibility to work with your colleague. Explain how the time would work towards improving the school and/or district goals.
  • Use the lessons, strategies and materials that have worked in the past.  I learned this in my first gig after student teaching as an in-class aide with first graders (now I teach high school English). On the first day’s reading lesson, I noticed that the teacher was using the same basic structure of reading workshop that I had learned from Dr. Meixner at TCNJ, and these kids were just beginning to learn how to read and write. Some pedagogy is broadly applicable to teaching.

Having a physical list of ways you can start class, end class, structure discussions, and facilitate readings is helpful. These are a few teaching activities that I can apply to nearly any English class. They include:

    • The Read Around Group for facilitating peer feedback on student writing
    • The Gallery Walk for having students preview multiple images or other types of media in a kinesthetic way
    • The Topic Flood
    • The Quick write for getting students to write freely and honestly about a topic, text or question
    • Think-pair-share for getting students comfortable with participating. I combine this with always giving students the option to summarize the thoughts of their partner instead of their own, so they have an out if they weren’t sure about their own response to the question.
    • Reading Conferences, Big Idea Books, the book talk, book pass, To Read Next list, and other strategies for creating a culture of readers in the classroom (All detailed in Hacking Literacy)
  • Begin a regular reflection practice. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of using three questions (What worked? What didn’t? What next?) to reflect on the week or the end of the unit. This process becomes even more valuable when teaching multiple classes. If a benefit of an overwhelming teaching load is that the teacher gets more student interactions, more time honing her craft and more impressions of student work, then there needs to be more space created for reflecting on and learning from all that work. Use a notebook, use a Google Doc, use a voice recorder or talk to yourself in the car. Work out your ideas on your own so you can learn from your mistakes and keep improving.

Writing this article, I’m brought back to September of last year. My wife Jen and I had just moved into our new home. Jen was beginning grad school and an internship at a local elementary school. Our son Gerard was five months old and still not sleeping through the night. Walking into school on the first day, my time and energy were fixed. After spending a few years devoting lots of time to professional development and extra work in the classroom, my approach had to change. There could be few late afternoons staying at school to get work done, and early mornings would be tough, too. But, I also knew the situation was temporary.

I made it through by clarifying the most important parts of my job and focusing on the kids in front of me. Hopefully, this article will help you to do the same. Good luck this year.

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