I just started my first teaching position (middle school Earth science) and already I feel overwhelmed. It seems like I need 36 hours in a day. What can I do to get everything done? Does it get any easier?
—Ted, Fargo, North Dakota
Congratulation on your new position! I’ll answer your last question first. Yes, things do get a little easier after your first year when you’ve established routines, developed your basic lesson plans, and organized your lab/classroom. But even veteran teachers wish for more time. After students are dismissed, the teacher’s job continues with planning and preparation, evaluating assessments, faculty or department meetings, and professional development programs. So take a deep breath, celebrate your successes, and permit yourself to make (and learn from) a few mistakes.
Transition time is important. Some teachers like to arrive very early. They use this quiet time to get materials ready for class, catch up on reading, enjoy a cup of coffee, chat with colleagues, and prepare mentally for the day. Other teachers stay late to organize the classroom, prepare for the following day’s activities, review student work, contact parents, answer emails, and reflect on the day’s lessons. I often found myself doing both—but I always left with a clean lab prepped for the following day.
In the frenzy to get everything done, don’t neglect your physical and mental health:
- Make time for exercise on your schedule and stick with it.
- Depending on the quality of your school’s cafeteria, you might consider packing your own lunch to include healthy foods. It might be tempting to eat at your desk, but eating in a lab is not advisable, and it’s important to socialize with other adults, even if only for a few minutes.
- During your first year, you might not be immune to the school’s “germs.” Overall good health will help, as will lots of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and boxes of tissues for you and the students. If you do get sick, stay home and recuperate (see a previous column on “Plans for a substitute“)
- Spend some time in the evenings or weekends with family and friends on non-school related activities. Get as much rest as you can.
- Keep up with your hobbies and interests for your own peace of mind: reading, sports, outdoor activities, arts and crafts, games, music, gardening, or community organizations and events.
As a science teacher, your most important focus is on instruction: lesson planning, implementing inquiry-based activities, designing or selecting appropriate assessments, and using technology appropriately. You’ll also have 100+ students to get to know. To accomplish this, prioritize your planning time with a focus on what enhances your instruction and interactions with students:
- You don’t need to spend a lot of time on elaborate bulletin boards. A previous column had some suggestions for “Displaying science on classroom bulletin boards.”
- You may be asked to take on an extracurricular activity or serve on a faculty committee. This can be an enjoyable opportunity to get to know the students and your colleagues. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed as a new teacher, you might offer to accept a role as a co-advisor or assistant. It’s also okay to respectfully decline requests: “No, thank you. I don’t think I’m ready to take on that additional responsibility just yet. I hope I can participate next year when I’ve had a little more experience.”
- Establish classroom routines for activities such as handing in assignments, accessing notebooks and other materials, cleaning up after a lab activity, and taking attendance while students do a bellringer activity to prepare for class. Don’t dismiss a class until the room is tidy and organized for the next class.
- Reviewing and grading student assignments can be overwhelming. The column “Struggling with paperwork” has suggestions for managing paperwork.
Above all, don’t be shy about asking your mentor, other science teachers, or your principal for advice and suggestions on time management and classroom organization. You’ll soon learn who the go-to people are in your school (including the school secretary and custodian). We all want you to learn and be successful!