Feeling overwhelmed?

This is my first year as a middle school science teacher. I teach two different grade levels and after a few months I’m still feeling swamped. It seems like I spend every waking moment working either in my classroom or at home on lesson plans and student assignments. What can I do to save my sanity? Does it get any easier?
—Erin, Rochester, NY
Even the best pre–service teaching or internship experience is not the same as being on your own in the classroom. It’s not unusual for beginning teachers to feel overwhelmed—I was ready to quit the October of my first year! I was fortunate to have a principal and several colleagues who helped me with suggestions and broad shoulders to lean on.
You are not in this alone. If you don’t have a mentor, find some positive people in your school with whom to eat lunch, share ideas, ask questions, and attend school functions. Join up with another early career teacher or get involved in online communities of teachers (such as NSTA’s e–mail lists and discussion forums) for mutual support.
Your health and sanity are non-negotiable. It may be hard at first, but schedule some personal time several times a week (if not daily) for something just for you—take a walk, go for a run or bike ride, work out at the gym, read a chapter or two of a book, play a computer game or musical instrument, tend a garden—anything that you enjoy (that’s not necessarily related to school). Take care of your physical health, too. Don’t skip breakfast or lunch. Keep some hand sanitizer in your desk and use it. Get enough sleep and exercise.
Most science teachers have a more intense workload than other teachers in the school.
Science teachers have responsibilities to set up lab investigations, manage inventories, and maintain a safe environment. It’s hard to do these along with other teaching responsibilities, so give yourself permission to prioritize your time. For example, rather than creating and installing new bulletin boards every month, have seasonal ones (or better yet, have students bring in materials to display). Use lesson ideas that have been shared online rather than trying to invent everything yourself—you can revise them next year based on this year’s experience. When faced with a stack of lab reports, consider if you must grade every one. You could choose a few randomly to get a feel for how students responded, or you could focus on one or two aspects (e.g., data organization and analysis) and grade and comment on only that portion. Decide if it’s necessary to return every assignment the following day. Be sure students (and parents) know that you will return assignments when you’ve given them the attention they deserve.
Teaching two grade levels can be challenging. Try not to have to set up two different labs on the same day and schedule tests, projects, student presentations, and notebook reviews for each grade level at different times to spread out the preparation and paperwork. Keep yourself (and the students) organized. Divide your bulletin boards and shelves into two separate areas so that students in each level know where things are and where to turn in their assignments. When I taught three different courses, I used a unique logo for each course, putting it in the upper right corner of handouts, quizzes, or other documents. I used separate three-ring binders and separate folders (with the same logo) on my laptop for each course to organize lesson plans and other resources. I also had a tote bag for each course to keep material from getting mixed up.
Your second question is tougher to answer. Anyone who says that teaching gets “easy” has never been a teacher! This year you’re obviously spending a lot of time preparing lessons, but next year you can reuse those lessons with some updating. So in that sense lesson planning might be less time-consuming. But you’ll have other challenges to occupy your time—finding new ways to engage students, creating different assessments, trying new strategies, taking on an extracurricular position, and attending professional development activities. You could be assigned to a different subject or grade level. And of course, you have a personal life with other kinds of responsibilities. So we can’t really use the words easy and teaching in the same sentence.
Above all, keep your sense of humor and be flexible.  Things will get better if you take care of yourself!
Photo: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3661/3448845988_cfee8da6fa_m.jpg

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