Don’t Just Manage Teacher Overwhelm–Prevent It!

Mini lessons. Student conferences. Note-taking. Reading groups. Read alouds. Shared reading. Phonics. Vocabulary. The list goes on and on. And this is JUST your literacy block! You also have the rest of the day to deal with, along with getting to know your students, answering parent questions (and email after email), lesson plans, grading….and, oh yeah, also having a life!

How is this all even possible?

Some of the best advice I have ever heard, and continues to be what I have always told my teacher mentees, comes from Lisa Corcoran, from Teacher’s College during a summer professional development session. She says to “do all the parts, but focus on only one thing.” She was talking specifically about the parts of a workshop lesson, but this is advice I have given to others and followed myself for years, and it’s been a key factor in remaining excited about each new school year and steering clear of overwhelm. But what, exactly, does this even mean?? And how do you make it work?

Pick your ONE thing

There’s a saying that is credited to Steven Covey that goes something like this: Move your biggest rocks first, and the rest will fill in nicely. Focus on the small things first, and there’s no room for the big rocks. He was talking about productivity and work/life balance in the business world, but this applies to us as educators, too. We have LOTS of big rocks and a million small stones to put into place.

There are so many components of literacy. And this post will not go into them all. That’s a LARGE discussion for another day. Here’s the deal. No one can do it all and do it well right off the bat. No. One. Literacy instruction is a monumental undertaking. There’s a steep learning curve, and each new school year brings a wide variety of student needs and challenges that we must respond to. No one leaves college fully prepared and ready for everything that’s about to come your way your first few years of teaching. To top it off, the longer you’re in it, the more you realize you don’t know, and that begins a cycle of constant new learning. Accept this. It’s OK! Not only is it OK, it’s exciting.

First, pick the ONE thing you really want to focus on. For me, that was writers’ workshop. I relied on my team and my other curriculum to help me with the other parts of the literacy block, and I dabbled and experimented for a bit those first couple of years. I kind of knew what interactive and shared writing looked like, I somewhat understood what guided reading entailed, and I had an idea about teaching phonics. And I did them all. Was it all perfect? Lord, no. But it was enough, because it was my best.

My Own ONE Thing

But I really honed in on my writers’ workshop. I sought all the training I could, I read the books, I observed other teachers who were masters at it. I spent a lot of time writing my lessons so they flowed well and made sense, practiced them outloud, and used a timer to internalize what 7-10 minutes felt like. I studied various levels of student writing across grades, and I dove full-on into conferring and small group instruction. I lived and breathed writers’ workshop.

And I did this for three whole years. It got easier and more natural after that first year, and because of that I was able to dig a little deeper into the other parts of my instruction (ok, not math–that took about 5 years for me to really get into!), and over the course of time, those parts became much stronger, too. But my writing block was something I was proud of. My students, each year, made tremendous strides, and each year, it was by far their favorite part of the day. In year two, other teachers and district-level administrators were coming to observe me. By year 3, I no longer needed my written out lesson plan on my lap (it was on my desk, in my planning binder), or even post-its to remind me of my cues. It was in my bones.

Then I felt ready to move to readers’ workshop. I had been teaching reading, of course, but it had not been as laser-focused as writing had become. Guess what? Because I was able to transfer the skills I had honed as a writing workshop teacher so readily to reading, it was a piece of cake! I had already mastered the hard parts–designing lessons, keeping them mini, actively engaging my students, meeting with them consistently in small groups and 1:1 conferences–so shifting to reading instruction was a cinch!

Now, It’s Time For the Smaller Rocks

The rest fell into place quite naturally and quickly after that. I learned more and got better with every component of my balanced literacy day because I had already moved the biggest rocks. I knew the structure, the timing, the methods. I knew how to engage and be responsive to kids, to confer in powerful ways, to take notes that would further my instruction, to plan effective lessons. Workshop was a major part of my day–enormous rocks. The smaller stones: guided reading, shared and interactive writing, interactive read aloud, and phonics and word study were much easier to incorporate because I took them one step at a time, in small doses. These were all smaller rocks. Before I knew it, I was able to weave all of the components together, with ease.

So, some of my best advice to you: this upcoming year, figure out what your one or two biggest rocks. The ones that if you focus on just those, will make a world of difference to your students? Focus on those one or two things. Get comfortable with them, know them inside and out. The rest will follow.

And before you know it, you will have moved mountains.

Related Posts: Lesson Planning Tips that Help You Do More, Better–In Less Time, Mastering the MINI lesson, Are You Inadvertently Causing Your Own Time Frustrations?, Build Self-Care Routines From the Start to Prevent Burnout

Want some support figuring out how to make your teaching time more efficient? Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together! And, join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!

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