Struggling with paperwork

This is my first year of teaching in a middle school, and I am really struggling with paperwork. Currently I am spending all my time checking papers to make sure my students are actually doing their homework and grading worksheets, lab reports, and tests/quizzes. On top of that, I’m planning each day as it comes. How can I get away from my desk once in a while? I need some balance in my life!
—Nicole, Newbury Park, California
The first year you teach a subject is the hardest, especially for a new teacher. But even experienced teachers find it challenging to plan lessons for a new course. Be sure your lesson plans are detailed and keep a file of assignments, handouts, notes, lists of resources, and assessments. At the end of the lesson, take a few minutes to reflect and annotate your plan with what went well and what should be revised. Next year, you’ll be updating rather than recreating the lessons.
One of my big “aha” moments as a teacher (with 150 students) was realizing that different kinds of assignments require different levels of attention from the teacher. Summative assessments and major projects certainly do require in-depth evaluations. However, teachers can overwhelm themselves with trying to assign points to every piece of student work. The real value of in-class assignments, homework, and formative assessments is in how they contribute to student learning, rather than how many points they’re worth.
For lab reports, I borrowed the idea of “Focus Correction Areas” from my Language Arts colleagues. Instead of reviewing the entire report, focus on one or two key areas, such as the research question/hypothesis, data tables, graphs, or conclusions. Glance through the rest of the report for glaring errors or omissions, if you like.

Differentiate between proofreading and providing feedback. Part of your rubric for major assignments could be “clarity of communication,” but correcting every spelling or usage error on every assignment takes away time from providing constructive comments related to the science goals.
In terms of homework, a few purposeful assignments are better than lots of busywork that is not directly related to the learning goals of the unit. If the assignment is to practice a skill, be sure the students have a basic understanding so they’re not practicing incorrectly. If the assignment is to prepare for the next day’s activities, be sure the students understand the purpose. Some teachers give a homework “quiz” to catch students who didn’t do it (or reward those that did), but you’ll have to decide if it’s fair to penalize students before the lesson for a misconception or an incomplete understanding.
At the beginning of a class, have the students put their homework or notebooks on their desks. As they complete a warm-up activity, walk around to scan the assignments for key items and rubber-stamp those that appear to be complete. The students can then revise their work during the class discussions or activities.
Giving students more ownership in and responsibility for their work was another “aha” moment. It’s frustrating to spend time reviewing student work and then re-reviewing it after they make corrections. For projects or writing assignments, try a peer-review process in which teams of students use the rubric to assess their own work and provide feedback to each other. The students make their revisions and then turn it in. As they’re working together, you can visit each group to get a sense of their learning and guide them through the feedback and revision processes. Having a completed assignment could be a prerequisite for this peer-review activity. In addition to saving you some time, the students can benefit from discussing their work and making their own revisions.
Use science notebooks as much as possible. Each week, review a few from each class or focus on a key assignment. Have students include their vocabulary, notes, graphic organizers, summaries, or bell-ringers and review them holistically instead of individually. During lab or small-group activities, spend some time with each group to observe their work and do a quick scan of their notebooks.
If you have access it a “clicker” system, use it for multiple-choice assessments. As an alternative to paper-and-pencil quizzes, use small white boards or half sheets of paper on which students can write and display short responses and hold them up. A brief scan of the room lets you see the responses.
Finally, take a break from the paperwork once in a while—go for a walk, read a novel, wash your car, do some yardwork, exercise, visit a coffee shop, or do something fun with your family or friends. Your health and sanity are just as important as today’s science quiz.
Add a comment if you have additional suggestions for Nicole.

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4 Responses to Struggling with paperwork

  1. Bev DeVore-Wedding says:

    After 25 years of teaching I still grade more than most of the other teachers in my building. If I as a student to do an assignment, work, etc. I collect and grade. Yes, some are checkmarks, but I do read them all and learn every day! Call me crazy!

  2. Uttermost says:

    I also tried working with lots of paper! Sometimes, I’m so upset seeing them so boring!

  3. KGB says:

    After 17 years I am still grading the majority of student work and spending a lot of time handling papers. My overloaded desk is the school joke, but no one laughs too loudly because I usually can lay hands on whatever paper someone is looking for! I don’t spend as much time on student paperwork as I used to, though. From Time-saving Tips for Teachers: whenever possible, have students grade their papers in class. I give each student a red pen, and they get a zero if I catch them using pencil once we start grading. Students grade their own papers. They get immediate feedback, and you get a chunk of work done. Other ideas? Next year, I’m going to use clickers for my weekly multiple choice quizzes! Collect one or two sets of notebooks each day to correct, correcting them every week, and setting a reasonable time limit for yourself to get them done (I play music and challenge myself to finish before the playlist is done). Do class or group quizzes and lab reports, and everyone in the group gets the same score. Decide if an assignment is important for the effort or the precise answer, then grade accordingly. Sometimes practice is just practice, so just check that it is done. Don’t waste your time–or theirs– on “busy” work. Hardest for me, don’t feel pressured to grade every piece of paper. For those assignments you really need to read and grade all by yourself, create a rubric you can use efficiently. Set a few key elements of the assignment as grade “mileposts” and score accordingly. Connect with other teachers in your school or district for good ideas for saving time, energy, and sanity. Good luck to you!

  4. MaryB says:

    I like your ideas on prioritizing assignments and components of assignments. Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences!

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