8 Productivity Lessons from the Teacher’s Desk

8 Productivity Lessons from the Teacher’s Desk

Teachers have an immensely difficult job. Faced with a classroom of children, they have to plan the lessons, produce the materials, manage the classroom and deal with the politics of the front office and parents. If a teacher is not productive, they end up working hours beyond their contract hours and adding to their stress burden.

It has been four years since I entered the classroom to teach high school math. Even though I only lasted a year in that environment, it was enough to pull lessons for my own productivity that I still use today. In this article we will look at the 8 productivity lessons I reinforced during that time.

1. Energy Management is Foremost

Teaching is a physically and emotionally draining job. Teachers are on their feet most of the time; keeping students on task requires walk-abouts, rather than teaching from the front of the room. Dealing with children and their challenges is also emotionally draining; during my first week I dealt with cheating, bullying and teen pregnancy.

Managing energy becomes a top priority for a teacher. If the teacher isn’t energetic, the students aren’t either, and the lesson can deteriorate quickly into drudgery. At the school where I worked, we were on a block schedule, so the classes lasted for 90 minutes. That’s a whole lot of time to be energetic.

Energy management is crucial to getting the job done. This means adequate sleep, proper nutrition, and adequate hydration at the base level. It also means comfortable clothes and shoes and making the most of your break time.

During my time as a teacher, I ended up doing the following to manage my energy, which I still do today:

  • Early bed nights. On Wednesdays I went to bed at 7 pm in order to get enough sleep to get to get me through to the weekend. Being up at 4:30 every morning to be in the classroom before 7 required this.
  • Pack nutritious lunches the night before. If I was rushed I would grab junk. There was no option to go out or have delivery, so I was stuck with what I brought.
  • Have nutritious snacks on hand. A big warehouse store-sized box of low sugar snacks were crucial to keeping me going before my lunch.
  • Bring adequate water. I toted filtered water from home every day, because student water fountains were disgusting. This also allowed me to make sure I was getting enough water because it was pre-measured.
  • Wear decent shoes. Some of my colleagues taught in 3-inch heels. I wore Birkenstocks. The support kept me energized and I never dealt with the foot problems most of my colleagues did like bunions and swollen feet and ankles.

2. Batching Gets Things Done

Teaching requires a lot of preparation. Each lesson I taught required a warm-up activity, the smart board presentation, a lesson plan and photocopies. Oh my goodness, the amount of time I spent at the photocopier….

Batching got things done faster. I would batch both for each day, and across the week. For instance, when photocopying, I would do all the photocopying for a given day of lessons at once. But for my warmups, I would do the set of exercises for each class for the entire week at once. This across-the-week batching allowed me to review what was taught the day before as well as reinforce concepts.

Here are my batching tips:

  • Batch across a time span. Group by types of activity. Research all at once, plan all at once, pay bills all at once. This allows you to be in the same mode of thinking and makes it go faster.
  • Don’t batch too much. I have heard stories of teacher who plan the entire quarter at once. I never found that my classes would fall into those buckets since I would have to adjust pacing. Batch only as much as you can reasonably expect will be carried through without rework, otherwise you are wasting time and energy.
  • Batch across the day. If you have the same activity that needs to be done for several times in a day, combine them. I did my photocopying all at once, my grading all at once, attendance all at once. In real life that means we do the dishes all at once, clean all at once, and at work, I deal with email only twice a day.

3. Use Technology Where Possible

It amazed me that with all the technology out there, teachers still did paper and pencil (or red pen, as the case may be). My first semester I did that as well. Then I discovered the power of technology.

By second semester, I did all my grading via my phone. I did attendance live into the district system via iPad. I printed class notes into PDF from my smart board and put them up on a website, from where the students could review and print makeup work.

Technology saves time and effort. Here are my favorite technology tricks for home and work:

  • Use appliances for cooking. Instant Pots, slow cookers, bread machines and many more appliances will do the work for you while you are doing something else. Isn’t it nice to come home to a hot meal?
  • Link apps with IFTTT. IFTTT is a free service that allows you to link things together in an if-this-then-that scenario. I use it to let me know when the temps have dropped to the point where opening the windows is viable; turn on my lights when I arrive home; notify me of the weather forecast; and add “bring an umbrella” to my task list when it is going to rain.
  • Control appliances. I’ve recently gotten into Google Home and smart outlets. Lights turn on and off with the sun, and the coffee maker turns on every morning. I can also turn them off via voice.

4. Automate/Routinize Everything You Can

Teachers are short on time and attention. If there is some way to free up either, it leaves more time and attention for the students. Automation can help with this by performing tasks without our thinking or input.

Automation can also apply to habits and routine because they are automatic. I built several routines, including start of class, end of class, and end of day. By having these routines in place I was able to do things automatically instead of having to think of everything that needed to be accomplished.

As a teacher, I used Outlook automation to process my emails, sorting emails into three main areas: district, school and parents. For routines, my start of class routine was to put the warmup document in the basket by the door as I went out into the hall to monitor passing time. My end of class routine was to clip everything together from the class that needed grading and put it in the bin for that class, staple all handouts; and put names on for missing students and put those in the make up work bin on the back of my door. My end of day routine was to move the photocopies for the next day into the appropriate class bin.

  • Pay bills online. 99% of our bills are paid online. Only the sewer, which for some reason doesn’t allow electronic payment, is manual. This takes it out of my attention and into the automatic.
  • Use automation to get information. Instead of having to watch the news or check an app, I get the weather messaged to me every day. Same with reminders on when I have to leave for an appointment, taking vitamins and getting enough steps in.
  • Have start and end routines. Having start- and end- routines for you home and work day sets things up for a better flow.

5. Re-use Your Material

Second semester brought me a repeat class from the first semester, and two extension classes. I re-used my lessons and activities from the first semester, except when I thought a lesson needed a revamp because the students hadn’t progressed as fast as I had wished. For the extension classes, I reused a lot of the same materials, but also reused materials from colleagues who had taught the same concepts in other classes.

The takeaway lesson for me here was “don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Here is how to apply this:

  • Google it. If you are about to attempt something you’ve never done before, like sanitizing an RV water system or cleaning the glass on your oven or ironing a shirt, google it. Chances are there are written instructions and probably a video to walk you through it.
  • Use the tips. You can get a lot of advice, both good and bad from the internet. Using the tips found on the internet can save you time both with the task at hand and also avoiding things that don’t work.
  • Save your procedure. If it is something you will have to do again, and not soon, write down what you did. This will save you time the next time you have to do it.

6. Structure Builds Systems

Lots of teachers move from one fire to another, responding only to what is urgent. I noticed that those teachers without systems were the ones who were working nights and weekends. Needless to say, after the first month, I didn’t work evenings and weekends. I found the pattern within the work I had to do and used it to build a system.

Every day I had a planning period. This coincided with third block every day (because even though my school ran on an A/B system, I officially had my kids for two classes and saw them every day). During this time I was determined to finish as much of my work as possible, finishing up by staying until 3:30 every day.

I used batching to get the work done, but I also tried to split it up by days. Mondays would be for getting the basics of the plan for the next week done; Tuesdays and Wednesdays for filling out that plan. Thursdays were for finding exercises, and Fridays for photocopying. After school I would do my grading, respond to parents and catch up my gradebook. I was highly regimented, but it worked – after the first few months I didn’t work evenings or weekends.

You can apply this outside the classroom as well:

  • Have a single day for errands. This will save you trips, and your family will soon know that they have to wait if they forget to tell you about something they need.
  • Focus. If you allow yourself to wander too far off track, you will have to make up the time later. Keep focused and get the job done.

7. Simplify to the Bare Bones

There are a lot of nice-to-haves in the world. But when you are short on time and energy, these are the first things that should fall by the wayside. I loved the idea of interactive notebooks – notebooks filled with cut-and-paste items to help cement concepts. But in a classroom where the students were struggling to grasp the basics of variables and arithmetic, it was more important to hit the underlying concepts and drill them on it. We may have played games and done walk-abouts, but the kids were always doing the math, rather than cutting and pasting.

When you’re short on time, you can cut back and make things easier on yourself:

  • Go for gift cards. Yes, a gift is more personal, but for many occasions or for when you don’t know the person particularly well, gift cards are better. My niece and nephews receive gift cards at the holidays because they know best what they want and need.
  • Potluck it. Dinner parties are great, but if you are super busy, organize a potluck. You still get to socialize but without the stress of doing a whole dinner party.
  • Dress simpler. Wear easy-care fabrics with a minimum of fuss. It will make getting ready less stressful.
  • Simplify the personal care. If you wear makeup, have a set that you use every day. Make it neutral so it works with everything, but keep it minimal so you can get through it faster without having to make choices.

8. Manage the Paper

For as advanced as we are, I am still amazed at how much paper is still used. When I was a teacher, there was plenty: handouts, exercises, warmups, quizzes and tests (and I didn’t give out homework!) Keeping binder clips with labels on them for each class made sorting and keeping paper together much easier.

Paper is still inherent in most people’s lives. Here are some ways to manage it.

  • Use binder clips. The end of a large binder clip is large enough to put a label on. Label your clips: bills, letters, to file. Keep the piles organized with a single clip for each.
  • Recycle what you don’t need. Don’t even bring stuff into the house if it is destined for the recycle bin. Toss it on the way from the mailbox.
  • Go paperless. Most paper in the form of statements are there to give you a way to double check your accounts. Go paperless, and you can get the information electronically, saving you the extra steps of having to shred or otherwise manage the paper.


I can’t say I miss being a teacher. It’s a hard job demanding a lot of stamina, patience and moxy. I relish the fact that I haven’t been sworn at or had things thrown at me in years, and I can also use the bathroom whenever I want. But the lessons I had driven home are still valuable to me today.