Teaching is a stressful job. Teachers must prepare classes, grade student work, plan special activities, and deal with relationship issues. You have so much to do and so much to remember that you inevitably forget something. Forgetting isn’t usually a disaster, but it adds anxiety to an already demanding job.
For many years, I didn’t take time to establish a system for remembering and organizing the events in my life. Unsurprisingly, trying to keep everything straight without forgetting anything was a constant source of stress. When I finally put together an organization system, it lifted a load from my mind. No longer was I forced to keep a window open in my brain simply to remember what I was supposed to be doing. Now I was free to teach while my system took care of remembering for me.
David Allen, author of the productivity book Getting Things Done said, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” This quote has stuck with me. If you let a notebook or app hold your ideas, events, and tasks, it frees your mind to do what it does best: think through problems, help you be a better teacher.
My organizational system consists of three pieces: calendar, task list, and notes. Although many people prefer using paper calendars, planners, and notebooks for each of these, I prefer digital applications for reasons that I will give throughout this post.
The calendar is the storage place for your events. Events are activities that must occur at a specific time and place. Teacher-parent meetings, special activities, due dates for papers—these are all events to enter into your calendar
Why Use a Calendar?
Not only does a calendar help you remember activities. It also helps you avoid overloading your schedule. If you already have several class activities scheduled during one week in February, you should probably push the due date for that research paper to the next week. If you notice a week is too full, you can open it up by reshuffling things. Calendars are also useful for mapping out intermediate assignments and due dates for long-term assignments. You can read what I’ve written about intermediate assignments here.
Here are tips for using your calendar effectively:
- Enter all school calendar events into your calendar at the beginning of the school year.
- Teacher-parent meetings and faculty meetings
- Report cards due
- Student birthdays
- Holidays, teacher work days
- Enter events throughout the year.
- Due dates for larger assignments
- Special activities
- Enter events that your students should see on a calendar hung on the wall of your classroom.
Which Type of Calendar Should I Use?
Before personal electronics became inexpensive and user-friendly, there was only one choice: paper calendars or planners. Now we have a plethora of digital apps to choose from. Keeping your calendar on paper certainly has its benefits, but I’ve found that I prefer a digital calendar. I use my smartphone and computer daily, and I love that my digital calendar automatically syncs between all of my devices. This means I always have my calendar nearby to reference or enter a new event.
There are many good calendar apps, but one of the best is Google Calendar. Many people already have a Gmail account, and Google Calendar comes free with Gmail. The Google Calendar app is simple and easy-to-use. It works on either Apple or Android devices. If you don’t have a Gmail account, the Outlook app from Microsoft integrates both your email and calendar into one app. Many smartphones already have a built-in calendar app that you can link to your Google Calendar account.
Not only do I love checking off tasks on my task list, but it is also a vital part of my organizational system.
The task list is a place to store items you need to complete that don’t need to happen at a specific place or time. Grading math tests, calling a parent about an issue with a student, or preparing a lesson plan for literature class next week, are all examples of activities that would go into a task list. The purpose of a task list is both to help you remember what you need to do and when, and to organize your tasks so you can find them later.
Your task list should be easy to use and ever-present. If it takes too much time or effort to use, you won’t use it. If you never have it with you, you won’t be able to enter the tasks that you think of in unexpected moments. For both reasons, I prefer using a digital task list app that can sync my tasks between all my devices.
As with digital calendars, you’ll find many different task list apps, and I’ve tried quite a few, but I finally settled on Todoist. One of the best things about Todoist is its natural language processing. This means that you can type “Grade Unit 7 Math tests tomorrow” and Todoist will automatically schedule the task “Grade Unit 7 Math tests” for tomorrow. Todoist has many more features that I can’t explain in this blog post, but if you are interested, you can find more information on the Todoist Getting Started web page.
How to Use Your Task List
Categorize tasks. Many digital task list apps allow you to organize your tasks into projects or lists. Organizing your tasks into separate buckets allows you to quickly see what all tasks you need to complete for “School” or “Personal,” instead of seeing all your tasks mixed in one jumbled list. Some examples of projects or lists you could use might be “School”, “Personal”, “Writing”, or “Trip to Iceland.”
Use due dates and reminders. Tasks that must be completed by a certain date should be assigned due dates. Most task list apps have a viewing option that allows you to see the tasks due that day or week. This allows you to see at a glance all you need to accomplish during that time. You can also plan your day or week by giving due dates to the tasks you want to complete during a given time.
We’ve all realized we were supposed to do something after we were supposed to have done it. Set reminders for tasks that must be done on a certain day or time. The little ding or vibration from your computer or phone may remind you of a task just in time and save you embarrassment or frustration.
Use recurring tasks. In both your personal and professional life there are certain tasks you need to do every day, week, or month. Most task list apps allow you to set up tasks to recur the first Monday of every month, every Friday afternoon, or almost any other time you would like. One such use would be to set a recurring task for the morning of the first weekday of every month to remind you to transfer the class schedule or activities from your personal calendar to the classroom calendar.
Use it! This seems obvious, but you cannot reap the benefits of a task list unless you take the time to use it. It may feel like you don’t have enough time to set up a personal organizational system, but spending a few hours organizing your life now will save time and reduce anxiety in the future.
Every teacher needs some way to write and keep track of their notes. Whether it is jotting down ideas for class activities or writing lesson plans, having well-organized notes helps you be better at your job while saving you time.
Just as with calendars and task lists, you can use a paper notebook, but I prefer a digital app because I can always have it with me on my phone—and I can type much faster than I can write. You could take notes using a word processor like Microsoft Word, but a specialized note-taking application, such as OneNote or Evernote, has some advantages over a word processor.
A digital notes app syncs between all your devices, is easily searchable, and can be organized into notebooks and sections that match different areas of your teaching and your life. Instead of trawling through folder after folder of Word documents, you can search all your notes at once and find what you are looking for in seconds.
None of these apps or methods will magically make you more organized or productive. It takes discipline to enter events, tasks, and notes into your organizational system. You may think setting up your own system will take time and energy you don’t have. However, I will attest that a little time invested now will help prevent or minimize the stress that comes with a complex job like teaching.
CONTRIBUTOR: James A Goering II