The Organised(?) Teacher

For some reason, my colleagues are often surprised when I say that I’m disorganised. I think people expect mathematicians to be organised as a consequence of the logic of the subject. It doesn’t take a mathematician (or perhaps it does) to see the fault in this. I can think through a problem, come up with a strategy and follow it through sequentially to a conclusion. But if you tell me the problem when I’m on my way to a lesson and then ask me about it later in the day, I’ll more than likely say: “Ah yes, I forgot about that. What was it again?” I’m forgetful, I procrastinate, I’m easily-distracted and I’m disorganised when it comes to managing tasks. But memory, focus, organisation and record-keeping are crucial for teachers, so I thought I’d take some time to share my strategies (or trade secrets, perhaps).

The Year Plan

I know we have a scheme of work. But it’s in a shared network folder which isn’t easy to access outside of school. If I made an electronic copy it wouldn’t get updated. If I printed it, it would use too much paper and I would leave it in the wrong place. Each year, I now produce a “student year plan” for the courses I teach, which briefly summarise the topics on a week-by-week basis. Here’s an example:

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Every student has a copy to put in their folder so they never have to ask which topic is next, or which textbook to bring. I have a copy pinned above my desk so even if by Wednesday I have forgotten what we’re doing that week, it’s right in front of me. It’s also saved on Google Drive so I can access it from anywhere.

Do we stick to it? Well, no. Of course there is a natural ebb and flow to teaching. Right now, we’re ahead of the game with M2 so Statics will shift from November to October. That doesn’t mean I’ll re-print the whole thing – we’ll all just annotate our own copies. Come November, I might try and start teaching Statics again but I’ve told the students to remind me not to…

The Week Plan

I’ve never been able to plan a whole week’s lessons in advance. Every day I like to see how the class have found that day’s material and what they would benefit from as a next step. However, we do have some weekly structure set by the school: students are tested every week and they are graded every week. Thus to maintain a routine, I allocate Thursday as test day for all my groups so they can have their tests returned and discussed on Fridays. Grades are then entered on our system by Monday morning.

A corner of one of my whiteboards is always set aside to record the topics that will be covered in that week’s test for each group. This reminds the students permanently that tests are on Thursdays and stops them giving me a headache asking “What’s this week’s test going to be on?” three times a day. But again, it’s there for me as much as for the students: sometimes I have to look there on a Wednesday afternoon as I ask myself “what do I need to put on this week’s test?”.

Our grading system is excellent: students are graded in every subject, every week, for both achievement and effort. This is all recorded online and students, tutors, parents and teachers can all see the grades each week. And I get a relatively friendly nudge at 10:30am if this hasn’t been done…

Planner or Markbook?

This is where I have constantly struggled as a teacher: keeping records of things that I really-ought-to-have-a-record-of but that seem almost inconsequential until the big day when someone (who, I don’t know…) actually asks to see my records. I guess in part, it’s the buy-in factor: I’m not a fan of unnecessary admin, so I really need to see the purpose. Our official attendance is done twice daily by housemasters. Will I really look back in 6 months’ time and think “Ah yes, Fred was absent on that Monday morning because he had to see the dentist”. As a teacher, my main concern is to ensure that Fred has caught up with work as soon as possible on his return. But I should keep a record of attendance. Because it’s the done thing. I should have a record of their scores from weekly tests. Apparently I should also have a duplicate of all the online information about their weekly grades, SEN support and EAL needs. I worry that some of this ‘need’ comes from the box-tickers’ fear of inspection. “What if they ask you about your SEN students?” – surely I would show them the centralised online information with all the associated details and targets? It’d be a hell of a lot more informative than the little red asterisk and green plus sign in my markbook…

And planners? They just don’t seem to work for me. I’ve tried the standard teacher’s planner product. I’ve tried creating my own custom version, printed at the beginning of term. I’ve tried an old-fashioned simple markbook. All the same problems come up: it’s never in the place I need it and I fail abysmally at keeping it up to date. It becomes another chore in the week to retrospectively fill in all that week’s gaps, by which point 90% of the information is redundant. I’ve even tried the app iDoceo: a “powerful teaching assistant for teachers”, which some people swear by. I’ve tried it twice or three times now. I get as far as adding in students and blocking out term dates/holidays and adding our timetable structure. Then I don’t have my iPad with me or I don’t have an internet connection and it all goes out the window before the first full week of teaching. I’ve tried Moodle too: you can record test scores, attendance and share documents with the class. This time, sadly, it was the clunkiness of the gradebook that let me down and, although I could access it anywhere through a browser, the sheer number of clicks needed to get through to any useful information also put me off.

New Year, New Plan

This year, I’ve tried to rationalise everything: I need convenient access and I need to store some key student data. It turns out Google Sheets might be the solution that works for me: quick to access, available anywhere and I’ve learned about cell comments.

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I spent quite a while tinkering and experimenting with the layout and merged cells, but I like the simplicity of what I’ve set up: attendance is taken care of with the 5 small boxes each week; and underneath these are the student’s test score and weekly grade. At the top I can also quickly see the main topic, and with conditional formatting I get the ‘at a glance’ view of strengths and weaknesses. I have one spreadsheet per class and one tab per half term to reduce scrolling. As for cell comments, this is what I always felt was lacking but I Googled for them out of desperation and they do exist! If you notice, for example, the cell saying ABSENT. It has an orange mark in the upper right corner. This indicates I’ve added a comment, and by hovering the mouse on that cell it will pop-up giving more details about the absence.

Other Records

I should have a record of teaching and for me this is covered by 3 things: the year plan, the scheme of work and the Google Slides presentations that I build up over the course of a topic. See for example these ones on M2 Moments or C3 Trigonometry II – depending on when you view them there may be more slides. Of course, I can also easily share these with students via the same direct links. If I make any alterations, I don’t have to re-send the whole presentation or re-upload it to a VLE.

I should have a record of prep. I think I’m in a grey area right now, if I’m honest. As you may well have read from my posts here and here, I’m running prep in a different way from my colleagues. The students themselves have the full record of all the prep they’ve completed, along with my feedback. They’re all tackling different combinations of questions, so I could never hope to record that myself. If they lose their orange book, this record is gone. But they have still done the prep and received feedback, and I think that’s the most important part of the system.

All The Other Jobs

As you might be able to imagine, I am also hopeless at keeping on top of any kind of “to do” list. The problem isn’t recording jobs to be done, it’s getting in the habit of checking that list and acting on it. Again, I’ve tried apps, post-its, and even the old-fashioned note on the back of my hand. (I currently have ‘Q6’ written there in red, but I haven’t the faintest clue why. I’m sure it’ll come back to me…)

The habit of checking is always the downfall to the systems I try. For my boarding duties it’s simple: I have the rota stuck on my fridge door. I only need to check it when I’m at home, and I always see it when I’m at home.

This term, I’m trying out a system called the Bullet Journal. I’ve bought a Leuchtturm notebook, so I’m literally invested in the system, and I took the time to mark out calendar pages and the beginnings of my to-do list. The essence is that tasks are listed, then either completed or rescheduled. Each day you add to and/or cross tasks out from the list. It turns out I’m not alone as @dazmck, @MathematicQuinn and @MrDraperMaths are also using this system. However, it does rely on my keeping this notebook at my side throughout the day. I chose an orange one – my favourite colour and hard to lose. Only time will tell if this helps!

Basically, I Cheat

The secret to my organisation is really relying on other people. I give the students full information so they know what’s happening on a weekly basis. All teachers love the starter task of “Tell me what we learned last lesson”. It’s rare that I have to rely on that to know what I’m doing, but it has happened… I keep minimal records in an easy-to-access online place and I drop in to see my HoD when I have that feeling that I should be doing something, just to check if I really should be doing something.

What works for you?



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