Time Saving Hacks For The Overwhelmed Teacher

Teaching can be wonderful, teaching can be transformative, and teaching can be down-right overwhelming. The duties and responsibilities placed on the shoulders of a teacher are rivaled by very few other professions. Add in teacher guilt and it’s a perfect recipe for pulling 50-70 hour weeks in a desperate attempt to keep the classroom operating. Educators did not choose this profession to then face years of feeling like they’re drowning to meet expectations. Steps can be taken to get rid of the underlying stream of stress that comes with teaching- these tried and true hacks may just help save your sanity and give you more of a teacher-life balance.

The most common complaint that surfaces from teachers in forums focuses around the concept of time, more specifically, around the lack of time that teachers have available to complete the tasks that are required of them. Legally, districts are only required to provide one lunch period and one prep period per work day. It is a common complaint that this is not enough time for planning, printing off necessary work, grading student work, providing constructive feedback on writing, entering in grades to keep the Student Portal updated, creating teacher lessons and materials, updating classroom bulletin boards, contacting parents about celebrations/concerns, etc. I found myself frequently working through my lunch period, gulping down my lunch just so that I didn’t have to take home as much work to grade that night. I truly felt like a zombie and knew that it was time to figure out some ways to get more of a balance between my real-life and my teacher-life.

Does this sound like you? Are these your concerns too? If so, I have figured out a few time-saving hacks in the past few years that have truly and honestly given me my lunch period back (most of the time).

Common Mistake: Grading Student Work As It Is Turned In

When I was a new teacher, I used to grade homework assignments, test/quizzes and essays whenever the students turned them in to me. In my eyes, I was SAVING time for future me because I was grading the paper now. In reality, I was slowing my grading process down entirely by forcing my brain to grade a paper on characterization that was turned in, then switching gears to grading a few papers turned in about irony, etc. I was exhausted within a few months.

Time-Saving Hack #1: Batch Work Being Graded

“Batching” work means to collect all of a certain assignment BEFORE beginning the grading process. You are essentially streamlining the grading process, and will shave minutes if not eventual hours off of your time spent grading. Your brain can get into a rhythm when it is grading multiple copies of the same assignment, thus eradicating the need to think for a few seconds about each question’s answer before determining its appropriate level of correctness.

Of course, students who turn in work late can’t be avoided, so those assignments will need to be graded when turned in (unless you can wait for all assignments, if the students do not need immediate feedback).

Batching tasks in general is a huge time saver, and something you may already be doing intuitively. When there are papers to be sent to the office, wait until you have everything around that needs to be done in the main office (worksheets to be copied, that book you need to return to a co-worker, study guides already printed to the office, etc). Your time is so valuable, make sure each trip you make is purposeful. You may find yourself feeling less frazzled, less anxious and more present just by getting several tasks done at once.

Common Mistake: Thinking You’ll Remember To Do It Later

I used to have a good memory… before I became the teacher/counselor/cheerleader/second-mom/disciplinarian/coach to over one hundred students a day. On a daily basis, teachers make more split second decisions than most doctors, and are keeping track of multiple levels of data merely by observing behaviors of students. Your to-do list? DEFINITELY not going to be most prominent in your memory space.

Time-Saving Hack #2: Keep a Daily To-Do List For the Week

Print off a weekly to-do list that breaks down each day. Teachers who groan at list-makers, stop. Go print one off. This is not “just one more thing to do”, this will actually aid with time-saving hack #1. Each morning I get to school with enough time before my first period class begins to write out the tasks I have to accomplish for the day, tasks I can push off until the following afternoon, and tasks that need to be completed sometime before Friday at 3:30 PM.

I keep this paper on my desk all week long, crossing out each task completed and jotting down more as ideas come to me. When I get an idea for a neat project I’d love to do (you know, when I get time) I write it out on the back of the paper. Sometimes I DO get to that project over the weekend, and sometimes I file it away for a later date. Either way, I’m not losing the ideas that are always popping into my head because if they are not written down, I can never guarantee they will re-emerge into my brain.

If you don’t want to search for a weekly to-do list or create your own, borrow mine. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it is easy-to-use. Oh, and it’s free.

Common Mistake: Not Having a Set Place For Students to Turn In Work

There are so many different ways of collecting papers from students. Some teachers have been taught to ask students to pass their papers to the front of the room, some teachers collect work from the desk as students are working on something else, other teachers have no system and sometimes ask students to hand their work directly to them. Now, if those systems are working for you and you love them, then you just keep on keepin’ on! However, I have found that I lose papers those ways, I spend too much time shuffling papers around instead of starting the lesson, and I just toss them somewhere on my desk to dig through later. Recipe…for…disaster.

Time-Saving Hack #3: Create a Set Turn-In Location

I purchased cheap paper bins that are each labelled according to grade level and class period. I train my students during the first two weeks of school that any and all assignments need to be placed into the bin. I give them small tasks and they practice placing the work in the bin without me even telling them it is practice. I make a point to refuse to take any paper from a student during those first few weeks, and instead gently ask, “Where do we turn in papers for this class?” which is immediately met with a giggle and feet headed towards the Homework Bins.

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Example of Homework Bins

You will need to create a clear and calm expectation that turning in work is to be done in a timely manner and quietly. Any student during the initial learning period and at any time later in the year who turns in work, then chats with a neighbor, is loud and obnoxious etc you must immediately ask them to stop, go collect their paper, return to their seat, and try again. Yes, this will eat up precious classroom minutes… but will pay off in the long run. Remain patient throughout, and keep a neutral face. If you are calm as you teach them this process, they will learn that it isn’t something that can get a reaction out of you and should just be done well.

This system saves time in a few ways:

  1. Students are more certain of expectations for completed work and feel confident enough to walk in after school, in between classes, etc and place their work in the correct bin without having to interrupt me.
  2. The teacher does not have to shuffle/organize papers right then and there, but may immediately begin prepping the next part of the lesson while students return to their seats.
  3. You do not lose papers in the mass struggle of papers that may be accumulating on your desk.
  4. You have an enormous amount of control over where papers are and can strongly counter any student who tries to claim that you, the teacher, lost their paper when in reality… they never completed nor turned the paper in. Consider having a set slot near your desk that you place papers to be returned to students (one slot per class period), that way there is very little room for error.

Common Mistake: You Grade Everything

I think this may have been (and sometimes still is) my greatest downfall as an English teacher. I saw where my students were lacking and I felt that I needed to place a specific, numerical grade on every single assignment I gave. I also felt I had to leave feedback on every paper I returned to them, and so I spent most nights curled up on the couch making notes and helpful tips that students glanced over and then filed away without any further thought. OUCH.

Time-Saving Hack #4: Only Grade What Needs Constructive Feedback

First, take a good hard look at everything you are assigning. Is each one necessary? What is its purpose? If you are assigning it as work to keep the students busy for the class period, but the work itself is not super helpful in achieving the skill you want them to eventually be proficient in, then you have some changes to make. For your sanity, more so than anything else.

Keep assignments that have worked well for this cohort of student. Keep assignments that kids year after year seem to LOVE to complete, and assignments that tend to give the most kids “Aha! Moments”. Then, take an objective eye to the rest and nix assignments that you can admittedly say are not pulling their weight.

Then, gather the assignments that you deemed were valuable for your teaching and organize them into three piles: assignments that need to have written feedback, assignments that need a numerical grade and assignments that need a check-plus, check or check-minus grade. If you’re unsure of the purpose of the latter, it is to let students know where their work fell in terms of quality without you having to assign a specific grade or write feedback. I give these grades to papers that we will all go over in class together, and we discuss why some responses landed in each category. Students learn how to improve their work without taking a hit with a poor numerical grade.

  1. Assignments that need to have written feedback: paragraphs, essay drafts, planning sheets, short responses.
  2. Assignments that need a numerical grade: tests & quizzes, essay final drafts (use a rubric to avoid having to write further extended feedback), study guides.
  3. Assignments that need a check-plus, check or check-minus grade: journal writes, grammar practice, initial worksheets on new skills, background knowledge charts, class work.

This will save (especially English teachers) a LOT of time in grading papers. Oh, so much time.

Common Mistake: You Print Things Off Only As You Need Them

Your first years of teaching may feel like treading water in the Atlantic Ocean – you can barely keep your head above the waves. One mistake teachers make is to only print off worksheets the day before or even the morning of the day that they are going to use them. This puts them in constant prep mode, where they can’t really relax and focus in on the their teaching as they are thinking about what materials they need to print off for the next day.

Time-Saving Hack #5: Print Off Most (If Not All) Materials You Need For The Week At One Time

Admittedly, this ties back into batching your tasks in the first time-saving hack, yet this one is important enough to earn its own header. I plan for my week ahead on Sundays, you may choose a different day according to your schedule. On that day, make a list of materials that you absolutely will need for that week’s lessons. This includes Bell-Ringers, worksheets, homework assignments, Exit Slips, handouts… everything. Make a point of getting to school a bit earlier than everyone else and before you do anything else, get your copies made for the week. Paperclip them into piles according to grade level or class, and keep them somewhere organized by day. Now, you’ve just freed up (at least) one prep period standing in line at the copier, and probably made your week a little bit more blissful.

Here’s to you finding more time for the things your heart truly loves, and investing less time on silly tasks that drain your creative brain.

If you’re looking for a great organizational hack for managing absent work, read my article on a Stress-Free System for Absent Students.

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Absent Work Bins


Christmas Gluten-Free… and Easy

DISCLAIMER: THERE ARE AFFILIATE LINKS IN THIS POST. THIS MEANS THAT AT NO COST TO YOU, I WILL RECEIVE A SMALL COMMISSION IF YOU PURCHASE THROUGH MY LINK. I WILL ONLY EVER PROMOTE THE PRODUCTS AND SERVICES THAT I TRUST AND 100% RECOMMEND.

Guest Writer: Colleen Cavagna-

Since finding out this spring that I have a gluten intolerance, I have been slowly going through each holiday realizing, with shock and frustration, all the things that I can no longer eat during the holidays. Now, I could have wallowed in self-pity and made everyone around me feel terrible about my new eating regimen but, since I am not the Grinch and not one to miss out on my favorite foods during the holidays, I did my research.

I have happily been trying out gluten-free (GF) versions of the dishes and treats I really don’t want to miss out on and if your diet is also gluten-free OR if you have guests that are gluten-free, I have done all the work for you on how to have a Merry Christmas for everyone. For tips that focus on the main feast, head over to my earlier post that explains how to make the perfect GF gravy, stuffing and other dishes!

Now on to the topic close to most of our hearts… desserts.

  1. Cream Puff Cake

During the cold weather, I think back to my youth when my father and mother made cream puffs. We would drag ourselves into the house from sledding with frozen fingers and toes to be greeted with cream puffs and hot chocolate, mmmm. Well, making cream puffs with GF flour that tastes like I remember wasn’t something I considered possible – until I tried a recipe called Custard Cake. With my first taste, my tongue said, “Whoa, cream puffs,” while my eyes said, “Wait, this doesn’t look anything like cream puffs, what’s up?” Frankly I didn’t care, I just kept eating. I had to fight off my husband for the last piece.

Follow the directions exactly, and you can enjoy this GF dessert that everyone will delight over. This recipe came from Nicole’s Gluten on a Shoestring blog.

Cream Puffs
Ingredients:
3/4 cup All Purpose Gluten Free Flour
1/4 tsp Xanthan Gum 
2 Tbsp cornstarch
4 eggs,  at room temperature, separated
1 Tbsp lemon juice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla
9 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled
2 cups warm milk (about 95°F)
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8×8 baking pan and set aside. In bowl, mix flour, xanthan gum (omit if your blend already contains it), and cornstarch.
  • In stand mixer, whisk egg whites and lemon juice on medium-high speed until frothy. Add half of sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form (about 2 minutes). Transfer egg white mixture to another bowl and add yolks to the mixer bowl with the rest of the sugar and vanilla until combined.
  • Add the melted butter to the yolk mixture and beat well. Then add the flour mixture and the warm milk to the bowl in three parts each until just combined. The mixture will be very thin (watery). Add the beaten egg whites to the batter in three parts as well, whisking GENTLY to combine after each addition. The batter should be light and fluffy. Pour into the prepared pan and place in center of preheated oven. Bake until the top of the cake is lightly golden brown and springs back when pressed gently in the center (about 1 hour and 5 mins to 15 minutes, depending upon your oven).
  • The cake will shrink up when removed from the oven and cools. Dust lightly with confectioner’s sugar before serving or top with a pudding then dust with confectioners’ sugar, or top with fruit or a fruit mixture or, or, or, the possibilities are endless!
  1. Frosted Sugar Cookies

Christmas just isn’t Christmas without frosted sugar cookies. Big fluffy Santa’s, snowmen, stars; my mouth is watering just thinking about them. Well, fear not, you can still have your sugar cookie Christmas fix with this recipe. These ones are soft and thick with your favorite frosting!  Celeste at Life After Wheat provided this wonderful recipe.

Sugar Cookies

Ingredients:
¾ cup shortening (I used butter)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ Tbsp vanilla
1 cup prepared vanilla pudding
4 cups All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour
1 tsp Xanthan Gum
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream shortening (or butter) and sugar together for 1 minute. Add egg and vanilla; mix until smooth.
  • Add pudding and mix on medium until blended. Add remaining ingredients and mix for 1 minute. Dough should be just slightly sticky. If it’s too thick/crumbly, add additional pudding or milk 1 Tablespoon at a time until you have the right consistency.
  • You can wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 4 days at this point, or proceed to baking. Roll dough out to desired thickness (I did about 1/4″) on a surface that is lightly dusted with gluten free flour and cut into desired shapes.
  • Arrange cookies on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper 1 inch apart and bake 8-10 minutes until they appear set and the bottom edges are just barely (just barely!) starting to turn a golden brown.
  • Let cool on cookie sheet a few minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Frost with your favorite frosting and decorate as you like.
  1. Jam Thumb Print Cookies

This means Christmas! They taste so good with your homemade jam and rolled in nuts. I wanted them to taste as close to the gluten version as possible, so I just modified the recipe I have been using for years with delicious results!

Jam ThumbprintsIngredients:
½ cup butter
¼ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp salt
1 ¼  All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour
½ tsp Xanthan Gum
½ – 1 cup chopped nuts

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream butter, sugar, and 1 whole egg and 1 yolk (set aside the white for rolling the cookies).
  • In a bowl, combine flour, salt, xanthan gum (only add this if your flour does not already include it.)
  • Add vanilla to creamed butter, sugar and eggs – mix. Then add flour mixture. Dough should be slightly sticky. Add more flour as needed to get to right consistency.
  • Put dough in refrigerator for 1 hour or overnight if you don’t have time right now.
    Shape dough into balls, roll in whisked egg white, then roll in chopped nuts (I use pecans, but you can use whatever nuts you like best).
  • Place on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Press your thumb in the middle of the dough ball to make a nice deep indent. Maintain a ridge at the edge of the cookies so that the jam does not come out.
  • Bake 8 minutes, remove from oven and add enough jelly to each cookie to fill the indent, return to the oven and bake an additional 13 – 15 minutes or until dough is cooked.
  • Allow to cool and then enjoy.

Obviously, there are plenty more desserts we all like for Christmas, but this will give you a place to start for your gluten-free guests (or yourself) that your gluten guests won’t even realize are gluten-free!

If you want to bake a pie, see my Thanksgiving post for a GREAT pie crust recipe to make your pies GF too. January is my time for baking bread (well all of winter really) – before I become gluten-free – so perhaps my next article will tackle that tricky topic. Enjoy yourselves and have a very Merry Christmas.


Three Easy Ways to Make Your Gluten-Free Guests Welcome This Holiday

DISCLAIMER: THERE ARE AFFILIATE LINKS IN THIS POST. THIS MEANS THAT AT NO COST TO YOU, I WILL RECEIVE A SMALL COMMISSION IF YOU PURCHASE THROUGH MY LINK. I WILL ONLY EVER PROMOTE THE PRODUCTS AND SERVICES THAT I TRUST AND 100% RECOMMEND.

Guest Writer for The Genius Educator, Colleen Cavagna

Thanksgiving is in just a few days and for people who can’t partake of gluten, this can be a very frustrating holiday when eating at someone else’s home. Imagine having to ask if each dish contains any ingredient that has gluten? Not a lot of fun. If you are hosting a dinner with gluten-intolerant guests, it doesn’t have to be a big deal! Here are some easy changes that will make you the most sensitive host/hostess ever.

1 – Change your gravy from a wheat-based thickener to a starch-based one: think corn or tapioca. At my house, I use plain corn starch or Cornaby’s Thick Gel (gluten free) which is a type of corn starch that thickens quickly and makes a “very” thick sauce.  Now everyone can have gravy on their potatoes and turkey!

2 –Make Your Own Stuffing… yum. If the bread you use is made from wheat (which includes spelt, farro, durum, semolina, bulgar, and kamut), barley, rye or triticale than your gluten free guests will not be able to enjoy this delicious part of the feast. Making your own gluten free bread for the stuffing is a possibility, but if you don’t have all of the gluten free grains and starches, then this could get costly. Instead, go to your local grocery store or bakery and ask for a loaf of gluten free bread. I buy my gluten free bread from Wegman’s in the bakery section. The brand I think makes the absolute most delicious stuffing is La Brea Bakery, Sliced Multi-Grain Artisan Sandwich Bread – Gluten Free. You can use your own recipe and substitute the gluten free bread or if you don’t have your own recipe, try this one.

Recipe for Gluten Free Stuffing:

La Brea Bread – Toasted or allowed to dry out overnight and cubed. (I toast it as I always forget to leave it out the night before).
Dried Spices – sage, thyme, salt, pepper, rosemary, parsley (for small batches add 1 tsp of sage and salt, ½ tsp of thyme, rosemary, and pepper – they are a more potent herb – and 2 tsp of parsley. Larger batches increase amount accordingly.
Chopped Vegetables: onions, celery
Chopped Fruit: apples
Chicken or turkey broth (2 – 2 ½ cups – increase if making large batches)
Butter

First chop onions and celery and fry with butter until soft (about 10 minutes). Add onions and celery to bowl of cubed gluten free bread. Add spices and chopped up apple bits – toss until all is coated evenly. Drizzle broth over everything.

At this point you can bake this separately in the oven until it is browned or stuff your turkey with this mixture. No gluten worries.

3 – Desserts – It is always the polite thing to include at least one dessert that is gluten free for your GF guests. Again, this doesn’t have to be a chore at all. Many bakeries have gluten-free pies, cakes, and everything you can make that isn’t gluten free. If you are pressed for time, call around and buy something premade.

If you live more remotely or where there are less GF options, making a pie that is gluten free is as simple as regular pie – just with a few different crust ingredients.

You will need to purchase an all-purpose gluten free flour blend from the store. I make my own, but this means buying multiple grains and starches and this just isn’t economical if you are doing this just for guests and won’t do it again for a while. In that situation, just buy a blended brand from the store. I like Steve’s GF All-Purpose flour.  I must order it online as I can’t find it locally. Use what they have locally 😊

Xanthan gum is included in the recipe, don’t skip this ingredient. It binds the non-gluten grains and starches together (which is what gluten does) and is necessary. You can find this at your local grocery stores – it is usually in the baking section, however, some stores put it in the gluten-free section.

I found this recipe from Nicole on Gluten Free On a Shoestring

 I was ecstatic to find a recipe that tastes as good as the regular pie crusts I was famous for at holiday gatherings!

Important Tips: If you haven’t made a pie crust with sour cream before, it will be much stickier – that is okay.

You MUST, I repeat MUST roll out the dough until it is very thin.  You can’t make this pie crust as thick as a gluten pie crust or you will be disappointed. Make it very thin and you won’t be able to tell the difference.

Pie Crust Recipe from Nicole:

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups (210 g) all purpose gluten free flour
3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your blend already contains it)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (I use sea salt)
6 tablespoons (84 g) unsalted butter, roughly chopped and chilled
1/2 cup (120 g) sour cream (full fat, preferably), chilled
Ice water by the teaspoonful, as necessary

Directions:

  • Make the pie crust dough. In a large bowl, place the flour, xanthan gum, baking powder and salt, and whisk to combine well. Add the chopped and chilled butter, and toss to coat it in the dry ingredients. Flatten each chunk of butter between your thumb and forefinger. Add the sour cream and mix to moisten the dry ingredients with the sour cream. The dough should be shaggy and somewhat crumbly. Knead the dough together with clean hands until it begins to come together. Add ice water by the teaspoon only if necessary, for the dough to hold together. Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap, and press into a disk as you close the plastic wrap around the dough. It will still seem rough. Place the dough in the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 375°F. Grease a 9-inch metal pie plate generously and set aside.

  • Smooth out the chilled dough. Once the dough has chilled, turn it out onto a lightly floured piece of unbleached parchment paper. Sprinkle the dough lightly with more flour and roll it out into a rectangle that is about 1 inch thick, moving the dough frequently and sprinkling it lightly with flour if it begins to stick. Fold the dough over on itself like you would a business letter. Sprinkle the dough again lightly with flour and roll out the dough once again into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Twice more, remove the top piece of parchment paper, sprinkle lightly with flour, and fold the dough over on itself like you would a business letter.
  • Shape the dough in the pie plate. Roll out the dough into an approximately 12-inch round, about 3/8-inch thick. Roll the pie crust loosely onto the rolling pin and then unroll it over the prepared pie plate. Trim the roughest edges of the crust with kitchen shears. Lift up the edges of the pie crust gently to create slack in the crust and place the crust into the bottom and up the sides of the pie plate. Tuck the excess pie crust under itself and crimp the edge gently all the way around the crust by pinching the dough at regular intervals with one hand, and creating a crimped impression with the forefinger of the other hand. Cover the pie crust with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator to chill until firm, at least 30 minutes (and up to 3 days).
  • Parbake the crust. Remove the pie crust from the refrigerator and unwrap and discard the plastic. Pierce the bottom of the pie crust all over with the tines of a fork. Place a sheet of parchment paper on top of the raw crust and cover the bottom of the crust with pie weights or dried beans. Place in the center of the preheated oven and bake until the crust is lightly golden brown on the edges, about 10 minutes. Remove the pie weights and parchment and allow the crust to cool before proceeding with your recipe.

These three changes to your Thanksgiving Feast will make your gluten-free guests feel welcome and they will appreciate your efforts. You don’t have to tell them the only thing you had to do was change a few ingredients without hardly any extra work for you. Remember, vegetables and fruits are naturally gluten-free and including them is another way to give your GF guests a greater culinary selection. Bon Appetit!

 

About The Author

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Colleen Cavagna is Horticultural Educator from New York State. She was diagnosed with Gluten Sensitivity in the Spring of 2018 and has since been learning how to adapt her own cooking to accommodate her sensitivity. She is a lover of gardening, literature and creativity. Her and her husband own a 200-acre beef cattle farm on which they enjoy raising chickens and their dog, Brutus.