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Virginia Journal of Education


Getting it Done Without Pulling Your Hair Out

Classroom hacks to reduce stress and improve productivity.


By Jalisa Logan

There’s a lot going on during the school day—in addition to teaching, we have to manage behavior, attend meetings, complete paperwork, the list goes on. Outside of school, many of us are caring for children or parents, working second jobs or taking classes, too. No wonder we’re squeezing in work duties like planning, grading work and reaching out to parents in the wee hours of the morning, evenings and sometimes not at all.

So, how can teachers manage all our responsibilities without burning out? Here are three hacks that may save you some very precious time and energy.

Hack 1: Store all your lesson plans in a spreadsheet.
On the surface, something like Excel or GoogleSheets doesn’t seem the best system for developing lesson plans; however, using a spreadsheet to create and store plans and then mail-merging data into a Word document will save you lots of time. Here’s why: It is easier to find, copy and change lesson plan components stored on one document than it is to copy and paste from many different Word documents. When using the spreadsheet, label the columns with the headings of the different parts of a lesson plan—course, date, day, cognitive level, period, SOL, objective, learning experience, assessment, etc. For each heading, create a drop-down list. The more pre-entered selection options you create in your spreadsheet, the less time you’ll spend typing in information.

If learning Excel is too difficult or time-consuming, you can create a GoogleForm of a lesson plan template, which not only converts your information into a GoogleSheet, but also gives you charts and graphs to analyze the data you’ve entered. Once you have your spreadsheet, mail-merge your data into your lesson plan template. Using a spreadsheet is an excellent tool, especially if you’re required to submit lesson plans in a certain format. Changing lesson plan templates is no problem, because you can mail-merge your information into any Word document.

Hack #2: Create seamless lines of communication with parents.
Use free applications such as Remind, MailChimp and GoogleVoice to correspond with parents. Teacher-initiated correspondence that is consistent, frequent and two-way is a proactive way to make sure parent communications remain positive and productive throughout the year. 
 
Remind (remind.com) is a two-way messaging application that allows you to safely send text messages and emails to parents. Teachers can send messages to large groups or to individuals, and Remind keeps a log of all correspondence. Its system also provides information on whether parents received and/or read your messages, and can serve as an excellent way to keep parents in the loop on homework, upcoming assessments, class announcements and student progress. You can also send parents pictures of their student’s work or share student accomplishments. The best way to generate participation for Remind is to sign parents up yourself. When you send home student information forms at the beginning of the year, include a place on your form that asks parents to check the box if they’d like to be signed up for the service. Most parents will check the box, and you’ll be able to keep track of which parents are registered and which are not.

MailChimp (mailchimp.com) is an excellent application that allows you to create, send and track professional-looking emails to parents. MailChimp serves well as a monthly class email or newsletter to parents and, like Remind, can help generate positive public relations for your classroom by featuring pictures of class activities in your correspondence. You can create multiple distribution lists and, because it’s designed for business, MailChimp provides excellent analytics information. For instance, it will track how often your emails are opened and viewed by parents and how many times recipients click on links in those emails. Once again, the best way to generate participation from parents is to sign them up yourself. While parents can opt in or out at any time on their own, it is easier to increase participation by taking the time to sign parents up manually. 

GoogleVoice (google.com/voice) offers users a free phone number through a Google account that can be linked to a mobile phone and managed online. If you want parents to have a number at which they can reach you, GoogleVoice screens calls on your mobile device, allowing you to know who is calling before you pick up. It also offers text-messaging and transcribed voicemails. For some teachers, this may feel like parents have too much access to you; however, if parents know they have an open line of communication with the teacher, student issues are more likely to be resolved quickly and efficiently. Just be sure to set guidelines for use, such as “office hours,” or times in which you are available and willing to accept calls from parents. Additionally, GoogleVoice can be creatively maneuvered as a classroom tool. One music teacher used GoogleVoice to assess students, who would call her GoogleVoice number and leave a message of themselves singing!

There are plenty of ways to make use of these tools in your classroom. Teachers of older students, for example, may use Remind and GoogleVoice to correspond directly with their students. However, I do encourage you to use caution. Make sure you have parental support, especially when it comes to younger students. For example, Remind asks that you verify you are texting participants that are 13 years of age and older. For students younger than 13, a parent email address is required. Just to be safe, I would also include parents on any correspondence with students under age 18. 

Hack #3 Make old PowerPoints interactive to engage students.
As we’re encouraged to develop more active, student-centered classroom activities, it’s a good idea to move away from PowerPoint presentations that don’t have any engagement features, as this supports passive student learning. A quick way to make PowerPoints more interactive is to use applications like PearDeck or Nearpod to add student response features. These can create various response options for students on their computers, tablets or phones.  
 
PearDeck (peardeck.com) is an interactive presentation platform compatible with Google.  For schools that have adopted Google Apps for Education, PearDeck syncs nicely with Google Classroom. During presentations, students’ screens change as the teacher controls the lesson. Teachers can also assign lessons individually through students’ Google accounts and the lesson code. At the end of a lesson, PearDeck provides students with “takeaways,” or copies of the presentation with their responses, directly to their GoogleDrives. For educators who already have access to their own PowerPoint presentations or some developed by others, PearDeck is a great tool for taking presentations from passive to active. Users can upload PowerPoints or GoogleSlides and then add the interactive response features for each slide. During a unit on real-world trigonometry, for example, I had students use PearDeck to draw and label the scenarios. It is amazing how creative students can be with the “Draw on the Screen” response feature.
 
Nearpod (nearpod.com) is another interactive presentation platform. Unlike PearDeck, however, Nearpod has a store filled with ready-made lessons which you can explore for relevant course materials and adapt them as necessary. Nearpod also offers creative features, such as virtual reality lessons, that allow students to visit and explore locations using a panoramic camera from their computers. Like PearDeck, Nearpod lessons can by teacher- or student-operated. For whole-group lessons, teachers can control student screens. On the other hand, a teacher may also assign lessons individually by assigning different Nearpod lessons to different students. It’s extremely easy to use and, like PearDeck, Nearpod lessons are entered by using a code. Students simply go to the website and enter the code to begin. Nearpod is especially useful when working with young students who may have difficulty remembering account login information.

Both PearDeck and Nearpod offer the option of creating presentations from scratch, and both save student responses from each session. Although both require paid subscriptions for full access, they are definitely worth the investment. Don’t let cost be a barrier to use. Apply for a VEA Mini-Grant or seek other groups that offer classroom funding. Part of the stress we face as teachers is lacking the resources we desire. Make this the year where you take advantage of funding opportunities available to you. Create the classroom you envision for your students. 

Striking a healthy balance between your professional and personal life is essential to reducing stress in the classroom. In addition to the hacks presented here, taking time to decompress from the school day and affirming your role as an important person in a child’s life will help you refocus your perspective, especially on those tough days. So, how do you reduce stress and increase productivity in the classroom? First, make sure to take care of yourself.  Then, use these hacks to win at teaching!

Logan (Jalisa.Logan@pps.k12.va.us), a member of the Portsmouth Education Association, is a technology resource teacher at Cradock Middle School.


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