The secret to staying sane as an elementary teacher is having classroom systems, procedures, and strategies that help your teaching life run like a well-oiled machine.
So if you’re having trouble keeping it all together in your teaching career, then this post is for you!
What’s the Primary Key to Staying Sane as a Teacher?
For starters, let me say this…
My 13th year of teaching (yes 13, the supposedly unlucky number) was the bomb! I’m not at all saying this to brag but I have a point to make, so hang in there with me for a sec.
It’s the year that all of the moving parts came together for me as a teacher.
It was a hallelujah!!! year for me because I’d finally figured out routines and strategies that actually worked for me at that respective school.
The key is that all of my classroom systems, routines, and strategies aligned.
I will admit that being at the same school for a number of years definitely helped (I had the school culture down to a science so I knew how to maneuver), but having a bit of “luck” with factors beyond my control was a key factor, too (e.g. a great administrator).
I want to share with you what factors (that you can control) contributed to this “successful” year so that you “take-away” some actions to implement in your teaching life to make things better for your unique situation.
At the core, it all goes back to classroom systems, routines, and strategies that prevent you from being stressed out and constantly overwhelmed.
In this article, I break down the top 10 classroom systems and procedures that you need in order to save (or maintain) your teacher sanity.
If you don’t have a well-thought out plan for each of these elements, your teaching life won’t necessarily be chaotic but too many weak areas will eventually have a negative impact on you and potentially lead to teacher burn-out.
And you definitely don’t want that!
So here goes… (in no particular order)
1. Design Your Classroom.
How you design your classroom does affect teaching and learning.
When putting your classroom together, keep in mind the type of classroom environment you want to create.
At the beginning of the school year, I always stand at my classroom door looking around my class, envisioning how I want it to function.
- How well will my students be able to move about the classroom?
- Where will centers be done?
- In which direction will students face when on the carpet listening to a book during read aloud?
- How well will learners transition from one teaching activity to the next?
- Are necessary materials readily accessible to students?
- Is wall space utilized appropriately and focused on teaching/learning?
These are just a few questions that guide you in establishing your classroom design.
And though classroom design is often taken over by decoration talk, the most important aspect of it is actually how well your environment encourages a smooth flow of procedures plus routines.
- To work smarter, adopt a minimalist classroom design. While I do love Pinterest for inspiration, it can get overwhelming with all the magazine-worthy classrooms. To stay sane as a teacher, keep things simple and functional.
- Eliminate clutter. You don’t have to be the neatest person in the world to accomplish this. Clutter adds zero value to teaching and learning.
- To piggyback on the idea above, throw out materials and/or paperwork that no longer serve a genuine purpose. They’re simply taking up much-needed space.
- Keep this in mind: “What impression do I want to give to visitors who come to my room?” And remember that organized chaos (especially when it’s centered around students learning) is a good thing!
2. Tame the Physical & Digital Paper Flow.
One of the top issues that elementary teachers tell me they face is the constant flow of paper and information that comes their way throughout the week.
It can be a headache to manage all the papers that you grade and photocopy.
And let’s not forget about paperwork received from the office, parents, the local community, etc.
On top of that, you probably get tons of work emails flooding your inbox daily.
If not managed well, all of that paper will control you!
- A few simple organizational tools go a long way. You can purchase those cute teacher crates or boxes to stash things away or better yet, use a few of those discarded cardboard photocopy boxes. The lids are great for collecting papers and the deeper parts wonderful for storage.
- For more easy classroom organization ideas, check out this post, and zero in on #8. It’s a fantastic idea for storing light student supplies.
- Once again (yes, because it’s that important), declutter folks! Holding on to papers that no longer serve a purpose isn’t a good idea. Throw it out; you’ll feel better.
- And when it comes to digital “paper” trails, save time with these teacher-friendly Gmail hacks. You’ll never again look at managing your email inbox as a pain-in-the-rear!
3. Ace the “Small” Details.
So what do I mean by ace the small details?
More or less, I’m referring to school culture.
You know, those little details that no one tells you about because in the moment, they aren’t too significant but are really important in the big scheme of things.
Those little things can add up to one big headache if you’re not prepared.
- How will you handle student absences?
- What happens when there’s in-door recess?
- Is there a stash of leveled books somewhere in the school? A supply room?
- Can I laminate myself or is there a designated person for that?
- Are there unwritten rules for how I should choose my room parents?
The questions go on and on…
A lot of this stuff relates to school culture.
Having worked in lots of schools over the years, I can tell you with certainty that each school does things differently.
Those who’ve taught in one school for years may take for granted these “little” things, but for a new person on staff, they stick out clearly and can throw major curve balls in your teaching game.
- Ask a trusted person on staff about all the “important” “little” things you need to know about how the school operates. This does NOT include gossip about who at the school has done whatever what. This is information that you need to do your best job as an educator.
- Though this checklist is designed for new teachers, it’s a great starting point of knowing what to ask and/or for what to think about when preparing for the unexpected.
4. Streamline Classroom Management.
Oh my goodness… classroom management.
Classroom management is a biggie and lays the foundation for most everything else you do when it comes to teaching.
If you don’t have a good handle on it, you’re going to waste loads of mental energy.
Furthermore, staying sane while trying to perform your teaching duties will be hard.
Look around the internet, and you’ll see that there is no shortage of opinion on what a good classroom management system looks like.
Above all, do what is best for you and the needs of your students, and if required, follow your school’s guidelines, if there are any in place.
- Include administrators, counselors, and support teachers in your classroom management plan. They should serve as a support system and offer assistance when needed.
- Assign each student a classroom helper job! Each learner should have a vested interest in maintaining the order of the classroom. It holds them accountable and many times makes them feel special.
- While I’m not a fan, you may find some golden nuggets in Harry Wong’s The First Days of School book.
- Smart Classroom Management is a website focused on helping teachers manage their classrooms. It has lots of good take-aways.
- Collaborate with teachers who have a similar classroom makeup as yours, and ask them what strategies have worked for them. Facebook and Reddit groups are great for this.
- Involve parents. When parents are on board, they help to reinforce the procedures and routines you’ve set in class. That further strengthens your foundation.
5. Optimize Planning & Instruction.
There’s a time and place to reinvent the wheel but planning isn’t it.
There are so many great lesson plans and activities online. Use what’s readily available, and tweak each so that it fits the needs of your learners.
- Teachers are killin’ it online! Scope out low-prep, hands-on, higher-ordering thinking lessons and activities created for teachers, by teachers.
- Use the K.I.S.S lesson plan strategy when planning for the week. It will save you time and is just easier to use.
6. Reduce Grading Time.
You want to assess your students throughout the year, but yes, it can be overwhelming and you can overwork yourself very quickly.
Consider quick assessments such as exit tickets which you can use daily or throughout the week to collect anecdotal evidence about how well your learners are progressing.
Also think about these things…
- What formal and informal assessments will I use? You don’t want every assessment to be formal or standardized.
- What assignments can I simply review and not assign a formal grade?
- Should I grade homework?
- Utilize exit tickets as they’re quick, easy, and very insightful.
- You don’t have to grade everything. An informal stamping system works very well. Here’s an example of how it works…
A green stamp stands for “great job”.
Yellow is “review – you have a few errors”.
Red means “What?! Please redo.”
- Keep a swipe file of baseline report card comments handy when drafting report cards. Reuse them each quarter, tweaking each with new information about each child.
7. Arm Yourself. (Colleague Dynamics)
This strategy isn’t often thought of when one thinks of staying sane as a teacher, but boy oh boy is it significant!
For starters, colleague dynamics can make or break you.
And when I say colleagues, I’m also referring to administrators and teaching specialists.
No matter how great your students, parents, school building, commute, etc., if your teaching team and/or administrator is toxic, vindictive, jealous, gossipy, two-faced, incompetent, and/or has no spine, it’s going to be a long year.
A toxic work environment is draining.
And contrary to popular belief, avoiding the issues don’t always work because well, you actually have to deal with these people most days of the week and it can get quite annoying.
- Nurture those work relationships that do give you positive energy. Invite them to happy hour or lunch. Send them a thank you card if they assisted you with something.
- Don’t stoop to the miserable colleagues’ level by projecting their same actions. Habitual vindictive and gossipy-like habits are character flaws that say a lot about the other person and aren’t really about you at all.
- Vent to no more than 2 people about your work frustrations, preferably individuals who don’t work at the same school as you or who aren’t even in the teaching profession. If you’ve got more steam to let out, consider a Facebook support group or Reddit.
- Have a strategic plan in place to handle difficult colleagues. Will you call them out when their bad behavior is directed at you or just ignore the behavior? In my humble opinion, ignoring often backfires and reinforces poor behavior. Besides, who wants to be a pushover?
- Don’t stop being who you are but be cautious. Be friendly and open to everyone, but like Maya Angelou says, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Take more notice of what people do, not what they say.
- Align yourself with colleagues with whom you vibe and who want to see you win. There’s room for all to shine.
8. Cultivate Parent Relationships.
Yes, I have included parent relationships as a classroom strategy because I believe teaching is a three-way process involving students, teachers, and parents with everyone working together to help that child meet a certain objective.
Building parent-teacher rapport begins at the start of the school year (ideally initiated by you, the teacher) and is on-going.
- During back-to-school night, display a special-events volunteer sign-up for parents. Events can include Reading Week, holiday parties, science fair, etc.
- Send a simple “Here’s What’s Going On In Room 2B This Week” type of email every Monday. This keeps parents in the loop about what their child is learning each week.
- Maintain an open-door policy. Communicate with parents often that you’re always willing to schedule a conference to speak with them about any concerns they may have.
- Aim to be respected more than liked. Lots of teachers (and folks in general) prefer to be liked rather than respected. Phooey I say! Where’s the honor in being a “yes” man/woman? I care more about being myself because you can’t please everyone. We’re at school to do a job ~ not make friends with parents. No, you don’t want to be an a-hole, but butt-kissing ain’t it either.
- Start and end report card comments plus progress reports on a positive note. These notes can trigger stress for parents, so write them in a way that is honest yet encouraging. This library of report card comments is a great resource to keep handy when writing meaningful comments about student progress.
- BONUS: If you ever have to relay less-than-positive news to parents, the blow will be softer if you’ve built up a positive rapport with them. Score!
9. Draw Clear Boundaries.
Your teaching job should not consume you.
If it does, step back and ask yourself, “What is causing the problem, and how can I fix this?”
When it comes to staying sane as a teacher, this element is arguably the most important one you need in order to have your teaching life run like a well-run machine.
The secret ingredient is putting yourself first.
Think about airplane emergencies: Before you can help others, you’ve first got to put on your own oxygen mask.
As educators, we simply can’t afford to have our jobs dominate our lives because guess what?
Your work to-do list will never be empty; it’ll be right there waiting for you tomorrow and with more added to the list.
- Stress less and STILL get more done by working smarter.
- Have a strategic timeline in place to implement all of the classroom systems, routines, and strategies mentioned within this post. Each action you “master” becomes one less degree of stress.
- Grab a physical or digital copy of this book: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways To Keep The Little Things From Taking Over Your Life. Knock out a chapter or two whenever you need a “How in the world am I going to make it?” pep talk.
- Reduce your planning time by using the K.I.S.S lesson plan template. It works wonders and even helps your lessons flow more naturally!
- Focus on the “right” things. If you’re uber stressed with work but still stressing over “unimportant” things such as color-coded labels or what Halloween costume to wear to the school parade, refocus. The priority matrix is great for guiding you in figuring out where to really align your attention.
- If all else fails, it may be time to switch environments. Seriously. It’s easier said than done I know, but if you’ve truly tried all you can to fix the issues and nothing is helping, the best bet may be to find a better fit ~ that could mean another grade level or school.
10. Grow Professionally.
Most educators look forward to professional development as much as they look forward to watching paint dry.
More often than not, PD is absolutely boring and mostly deep-rooted in theory vs. reality.
Let’s look at it from another perspective…
Using the convenience of the Internet, there’s no need to leave the comfort of your home to grow professionally. You can find PD opportunities that meet the needs of you and your students right from your mobile device.
Think of it as global professional development!
I love quicky professional development sessions customized to my needs as an educator.
Here’s a super simple way to get started…
Join a few teacher support Facebook groups or Reddit discussions, and ask away!
You’ll get real solutions to real problems faced by educators in the classroom doing exactly what you do everyday. Advice for teachers, by teachers.
Yes, there is a time and place for “formal” professional development (like when you need those CE credits), but with the Internet, solutions to teaching problems that you’re dealing with right now are at your fingerprints.
- Teacher support Facebook groups
- Teacher Reddit groups
- Take advantage of the variety of information at your fingerprints thanks to the Internet.
How Do You Stay Sane as a Teacher?
Staying sane as a teacher is no small feat, but it’s possible.
Strategically put these 10 classroom systems and routines into place, and you’ve hit teaching life gold!
Comment below, and share what other systems, routines, and strategies you’d add to this list.