How I stopped my emails from killing my productivity

buried in emails by yng yng from the Noun Project

Like many teachers, I get LOTS of emails each day. In the past few years, I’ve noticed that my email practices were negatively impacting my productivity. Email notifications would break my workflow. If I was marking student work and I saw email notifications, I felt the need to read and sometimes reply to these emails immediately when it was not necessary. Even if I didn’t read the email, seeing and hearing the notification is a distraction. I was also tempted to check emails more often than I should. Time is a precious resource for teachers and I can’t have emails taking up more time than they should. Here is a summary of what has worked for me that may be useful for other teachers.

Turning off desktop notifications

I use the Outlook desktop app and notifications are turned on by default. I found the notification sound and the little pop up at the bottom corner of the screen was distracting me, particularly when I needed sustained focus. So I turned off desktop notifications. This way I can still have my emails opened, but I won’t know I have new emails until I am ready to look at my emails. Here are instructions to turn message alert pop-ups on or off.

Having a To-Do folder


The To-Do is a sub-folder within my inbox folder with emails that required me to do something, I use to have them floating in my main inbox folder, which sometimes caused me unnecessary stress as they constantly reminded me of everything I needed to do. Instead, I now immediately move these emails into the To-Do folder. I allocate time in my calendar to follow up on these emails.

Setting up rules to filter email notifications

I choose to receive Google Classroom emails notifications so I can keep track of questions and comments from my students. However, I don’t need these emails to constantly show up in my main inbox. I’ve set up a rule so that all Google Classroom notifications go straight into a special folder. Like the To-Do folder, I allocate time during the day to look at them. Here are instructions to set up rules in Outlook.

Unsubscribing from unwanted emails

Over my career, I have accumulated a number of subscriptions that I no longer need or find useful. I spent a couple of weeks subscribing from these each time an email arrived. My inbox is so much better now. See here for instructions on different ways to unsubscribe from unwanted emails.

Moving the email app to the last screen of my phone

I know many people choose not to have their work emails on their personal phones. I don’t mind it. I find it convenient but I turned off push email notifications on my phone years ago. I have also moved the email app to the last screen page of my phone so I’m not tempted to tap on it unless I actually need to look at my emails.

Not sending or responding to emails outside of core work hours

I deliberately do not send or respond to emails outside of core work hours. For me, emails are sent and responded to between 8 am and 5 pm on school days. If I wanted to draft emails outside this time, I set them on delay send so they are sent at 8 am the next work. Here are instructions on how to do this in Outlook. I personally believe it is important for leaders to set an example and not intrude on others’ personal time.

Giving time for students to think – using learning logs to guide student reflection

In high school, the curriculum often feels overcrowded and rushed. There are just too many things to cover and not enough time. However, it is important to give students the time to stop and think about what they are learning and how they are learning, which are important for becoming self-regulated learners. Students need to be supported to set goals, monitor their progress towards their goals, identify areas for improvement and evaluate the usefulness of different learning strategies.

Using learning logs to guide student reflection

Last term, I decided to prototype learning logs with my Year 7 mathematics and science class. We dedicated 50 minutes every week where we stopped “pushing through the curriculum” and wrote learning reflections. We used the learning log Google Slides template from the NSW Department of Education.

We wrote in our learning log every Friday, for ten weeks. In our dedicated learning log lessons, we would first brainstorm as a class what we have learnt in mathematics and science this week. We did this on Zoom using annotation tools as we were in remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I shared the following template on Zoom and students used the text annotation tools to do a class brainstorm. The template was modified from an existing Canva template.

After we have completed our weekly reflection brainstorm, I would ask volunteer students to unmute in Zoom and elaborate further on their thoughts. Students will then individually write in their learning logs.

Here are some samples of our reflections.

Benefits of learning logs to guide student reflection

I liked this learning log template because it provided students with a variety of reflection questions. This is opposed to asking students to write a reflection or journal entry as an extended writing activity, which many students find challenging because not only are they trying to think about their own learning, but they also have to learn the structure and language of reflective writing.

As a teacher, I also found these learning logs useful as a form of formative assessment. I can use the students’ self-assessment on what they are confused about or from their questions on the topic to guide my lesson planning for the next week.

Challenges of learning logs and student reflection

Some of the challenges we faced were some students wrote very little in their learning logs at first and I had to work quite intensively with them to write more for each reflection question. Some students also did not yet see the value of reflection and completed the entries with minimal thought and as quickly as possible. However, their attitude and work standard improved over the term.

A huge challenge was TIME. As I mentioned earlier, the curriculum is overcrowded and learning often feel rushed. At the start, I found myself questioning whether I can spare 50 minutes each week for learning logs. However, after persisting for a term, I think the time is worth it. Having dedicated time to support students to self-assess, to think about their own learning and reflect on their successes will help them grow into self-regulated learners.

Where to next

Next term, I am going to continue the learning log with my Year 7 class, but I’m going to change some of the reflection questions. I would like to move them towards reflecting more on learning strategies and the significance of what they are learning. There are some sample reflection questions from an Edutopia post that I would like to incorporate. Eventually I would like to make better links between the learning log and their goal setting processes.

If you are thinking about embedding student reflection in your lessons, I would highly recommend scheduling a dedicated time for it each week/fortnight. Giving it class time show students the activity is valued. It is not something they do at home or done as an extension activity. While it does take time away from continuing with content, it is worth slowing down and allowing students to think about their learning. The learning log template I mentioned earlier is a great way to start.

How I run online learning during COVID-19 lockdown

In Sydney, NSW, we are currently in our second round of lockdown due to COVID-19. This means families are being asked to keep their children at home if they can and students are being taught remotely. For my school, we have decided that most of our remote teaching and learning will be conducted online on Zoom and Google Classroom. I’ve blogged about this in our first round of lockdown last year, but many have asked for more details so this post is to share how I set up my online classes. Note that these practices work for my students as many were already established routines (Google Classroom routines in particular) before online learning.

Every lesson is posted on Google Classroom

Even before online learning, I post every lesson on Google Classroom the day before the lesson. The lesson post would have the learning intention and success criteria for the lesson, the class activities we would be doing and all videos, slides, worksheets and other resources would be attached. This is so students can preview the lesson if they wish and it allows me to be more organised in class. At the start of a lesson, I put up Google Classroom on the interactive screen and everything is there.

An example of a Google Classroom post before online learning

For online learning, I still do the same thing. However, instead of posting the lesson as a Materials post, I post it as an Assignment post with a due date as the day of the lesson. This is because an Assignment post with a due date will make it appear on a student’s Google Classroom homepage. At my school, we have a whole school process that every lesson is an assignment post with a due date and all lesson posts for the day need to be posted before 8:45 am. So when students log on in the morning, they can see a summary of all of their lessons for today. Most of our parents have also signed up to Google Classroom Guardian so making every lesson an Assignment post allows parents to receive a daily or weekly email summary of whether their child has submitted the required work.


In my online learning Google Classroom posts, I also include Zoom details if there is a live Zoom lesson so everything a student needs for that lesson is in the one Google Classroom post. Many students are already overwhelmed with suddenly transitioning to a completely new mode of learning, by themselves at home, so I try to minimise their need to click on too many different things and potentially getting lost.

An example of a Google Classroom post before online learning

Live Zoom lessons

I run live Zoom lessons for almost every lesson, but not all. My live Zoom lessons always start in the same way. Students are admitted into the meeting room at the start of the lesson where they will see a holding slide with today’s lesson outline or a quick quiz, depending on the class. The holding slide replicates our classroom whiteboard set up when we weren’t in lockdown so it offers a sense of familiarity. The slide has a YouTube countdown music timer clip so students know when the live instruction will begin. This allows three to five minutes for students to enter the room. The countdown video lets them know their audio is working. I also let them use these three to five minutes to use the Chat function to say hi to each other.

Holding slide for a Year 7 Zoom lesson
Holding slide for a Year 11 Zoom lesson

Zoom routines

In the first week of online learning, I teach my classes how they should behave on Zoom. We go through expectations and consequences so everyone has a shared understanding of how we act on Zoom.

An infographic of our Zoom lesson expectations

In the first week, I incorporate activities where students have many opportunities to practise our Zoom learning routines including:

  • raising their Zoom hand and waiting for me to ask them to unmute before speaking
  • having a choice of asking questions by raising their Zoom hand or in the Chat
  • using the Yes and No reactions in Zoom to respond to regular questions to check their understanding to determine if we can move on (I use to ask them to type in the chat, but using the Yes and No reactions is much more efficient as you can easily see a tally of who is saying Yes and who is saying No in the participant list)
  • expecting to be randomly selected to respond to questions (before online learning, I used Class Dojo for a ‘no hands up’ approach to responding to questions, which we have continued on Zoom)
  • taking turns to use the shared screen annotation features, which is particularly good for maths and chemistry

Integrating other apps

While the annotation tools and whiteboard on Zoom are sufficient for most of the activities we do, sometimes I find it easier to connect a second screen such as from a document camera or an iPad. I find an iPad with an Apple Pencil are really good tools. I particularly like the Microsoft Whiteboard app on the iPad with the Apple Pencil to teach maths and chemistry as it feels more like writing on paper and makes my digital handwriting neater.

An example of using the Microsoft Whiteboard iPad app with Apple Pencil, shared in a live Zoom lesson

We have also used Quizlet Live on Zoom to practise our vocabulary. I think playing synchronous games like Quizlet Live allows the class to maintain their relationships and enables them to have experiences they use to before lockdown. Running games like Quizlet Live or Kahoot via Zoom works better if students have a second device. So they will view the Zoom lesson on their laptop and play Quizlet Live on their phone or tablet.

Screenshot of a Quizlet Live game played on Zoom

Formative assessment

In face to face learning, a lot of my formative assessment and feedback processes happened with student interactions. This included checking their work books in class, speaking to them and being able to gather an overall sense of how they are going. Most of these practices require all of us to be in the same room and these have been the most challenging to pivot to online learning.

I don’t ask my students to take photos of their exercise books and upload it onto Google Classroom. I use to but found this practice to be unproductive and too time consuming for effective, timely feedback to occur. It also didn’t allow me to make adjustments to future lessons quickly enough. This is particularly important in maths as mastery of concepts are often required before moving on. So instead of asking students or post blurry photos of their work, I set quizzes every 2-3 lessons. For maths, I use Stile. While this platform is officially for science, I create maths quizzes in Stile because students can use their mouse or touch screens to easily write their working out and mathematical processes such as fractions that are difficult to type.

Screenshot of a maths quiz in Stile
Screenshot of a maths quiz in Stile showing working out with a mouse or touch screen

Overall, I try to make online learning include as many live Zoom lessons as possible where they involve explicit teaching with lots of worked examples. Google Classroom routines are set up so it offers familiarity to students and allows them to access everything they need in one place, reducing cognitive load as much as possible. However some practices in face to face teaching have to be adjusted for online learning.

Using Google Sheet to manage student and teacher workload

In high school, students can have up to eight different subjects, all with their own assessment schedules. In NSW, Australia, the final two years of schooling would see students juggling approximately five to six subjects so five to six assessment schedules. If faculties of different subjects don’t collaborate in an effective manner, students may end up having an excessive number of assessments due around the same time. This may impact on their ability to manage their time and negatively affect their wellbeing. Many schools already have processes to ensure this is avoided as much as possible. I decided to play around with Google Sheets to see if it make this job more time efficient. The embedded tweet shows how it works. The editable Google Sheet template can be downloaded here. The template was created for my school to try for the HSC, so it will need to be edited to suit your context.

The week numbers are the column headings and the subject names are the row headings. If the Google Sheet is shared, teachers can check the boxes to indicate the week they would like an assessment task for their subjects to be due. The running tally automatically adds up the assessment tasks for a week. This can be used to indicate if particular weeks would have too many assessments due. The check boxes allow teams of teachers to have a discussion to moving assessment due dates and the running tally accurately updates the number of assessments per week. So if assessments have to be moved, it makes the negotiation process more efficient.

The same template can be used for faculties or teacher teams to track their workload to identify pressure points throughout a term or year. Just delete the text in column A and replace it other tasks or activities. These may be report due dates, assessment marking, parent teacher interviews, etc so teacher workload can be better managed.

The joys and challenges of COVID19 online teaching and learning

In NSW, Australia, school students will return to face-to-face learning in the classroom full time from Monday 25 May. As a teacher and parent, I couldn’t be happier. As a teacher, I miss my students. As a parent, I feel my child needs the teaching expertise of her teachers, which are beyond what I can offer as a parent. So on the day before things move to new normal, I thought I’d reflect on my own joys and challenges of COVID19 online teaching and learning, from the perspective of a teacher and a parent.

Equipment set up for online teaching

I absolutely loved learning new ways of working with technology

In just under two months, I think I have learnt what I would usually learn with technology in 12 months. This included new ways of using Google Classroom, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Screentastify, Loom, Explain Everything, Microsoft Whiteboard, Microsoft Stream. You name it, I probably learnt it. Leading whole school technology meant that I had to learn probably a lot more than others in order to make recommendations for whole school approaches. It meant learning as many digital tools available, evaluating the pros and cons for your own school context, setting up whole school processes, communicating the case for change and then supporting all teachers, students and their families through the change processes, in a very narrow timeframe without the luxury of the usual consultation and prototyping processes. These are complex processes without COVID19.

We evaluated over 1200 surveys to establish a whole school approach to online teaching and learning.
One of the whole school approaches to online teaching and learning was how every teacher used Google Classroom so students have a consistent user experience.

Seeing some students thrive in online learning

Some of my students thrived in the flexible approach to online learning from home. These were the students who already worked well independently and had strong metacognition and self-regulation skills. They were able to work at their own pace and not be dictated by the school bell. If they needed more time to do their maths, they could. They could continue learning without being forced to move to another subject and class. If they finished early, they can pursue personal interests. Some of my Year 12s liked doing their work at 9pm the night before and sleep in the next day. Some students were able to better fit in their class work with their family schedules. For example, they could do their class work before school started so they can go to a medical appointment in the afternoon.

It was hard, very hard to be a teacher and parent simultaneously

On some days, I worked from home. This meant I had to be a teacher for my own students and support my own child to learn from home. There were some days in late Term 1 (when there were very high new cases of COVID19 being reported each day) where we decided to keep our younger child at home from day care. These were really challenging times. I had to schedule my own Zoom lessons around my five-year-old’s Zoom lessons, juggle supporting my own students on Google Classroom and helping my five-year-old with her work on Seesaw, timing the three-year-old nap times around Zoom meetings and ensuring I didn’t use YouTube and the TV too much as a babysitter. I have never want to have to do this ever again.

But I became a better teacher by being a part of my child’s learning

While I never want to go through teaching online from home and being a parent supporting online learning from home ever again, I did learn to be a better teacher from playing a larger part than usual in my own child’s learning. Being 5 years old, my child cannot operate Zoom and Seesaw independently so I often sat next to her to help her mute and unmute, and to type or take photos on Seesaw. I learnt a lot of new teaching skills while watching my child’s teacher teach on Zoom and how she structured the learning on Seesaw, which I used with my own students. High school teachers have a lot to learn from primary school teachers.

Numeracy activity on Seesaw on an iPad as an example of online learning from home.
My child using Seesaw during online learning from home.

I’m really glad things are moving on from tomorrow

While I enjoyed many parts of online teaching and learning, I’m really excited that things are moving to a new normal from tomorrow. I can’t wait to have all my students back in the classroom and my child cannot wait to have her teacher back. And I’m excited to be able to get new home readers.

Photo of a classroom set up with individual desks apart.
My classroom set up for the return of students on Monday.

Parent teacher conferences on Zoom

Our school’s usual parent teacher conferences happen in the hall. It’s like speed dating where each teacher has a small desk in the school hall and parents move from one teacher to another. However, COVID19 means we can’t run our parent teacher conferences in our usual way. So we decided to use Zoom. Overall it was a success. We had 78 teachers hold hundreds and hundreds of conferences.

How we did it

Our school uses the NSW Education Zoom so only people with a Zoom account can enter a meeting room. Each meeting room has a password and a waiting room. The teacher is the host of their own meeting room and they have to let the parents in from the waiting room. We used the following steps to set up the conferences.

  1. We used Edval for parents to book times. Usually we allocate 5 minute blocks per teacher. This time we allocated 10 minutes so there was enough buffer time to make sure all conferences ran on schedule.
  2. We created a meeting room for each teacher. In the future, we will use each teacher’s personal Zoom meeting room.
  3. We created a parent guide to explain how to create a Zoom account and how to join meetings. The parent guide listed all teachers’ meeting room IDs and passwords. We decided to send out meeting room IDs rather than links as it was less overwhelming and easier for parents using tablets for Zoom.
  4. We created a teacher guide with step by step instructions. We emphasised teachers need to effectively manage the waiting room and stick to their conference schedule.
  5. We encouraged students to be part of the conference and help their parents with Zoom.

Zoom enabled teachers to share their screens so they can show student samples of work to parents. This would not be possible over the phone.

COVID19 can make us feel isolated. A Zoom parent teacher conference, where you can see each other’s faces, is very valuable in fostering the school-home relationships in these uncertain times.

Using Ozobots in the science classroom

I’ve been interested in using Ozobots in my science lessons ever since I saw this tweet of Ozobots being used to model different types of eclipses.

I really liked how the Ozobots were being used to create a moving model of eclipses, which is quite difficult to do without coded robots that automatically move (I have never found children holding basketballs and moving around another child holding a torch work well).

This term our school got hold of some Ozobots through the STEMShare initiative and I was able to test out how Ozobots can be used to enhance students’ understanding of the nitrogen cycle. Matter cycles through ecosystems, particularly the nitrogen cycle, can be quite difficult to conceptualise. Common activities include showing students diagrams of the nitrogen cycle, videos and getting students to physically model the cycle by pretending to be nitrogen particles themselves. However, just like eclipses, Ozobots provide an opportunity for students to create an annotated moving model to better visualise the processes.

So last Friday, my Year 9s used Ozobots to create a narrated video explanation of the nitrogen cycle with the Ozobot acting as a nitrogen particle. Here’s one of the videos.

The videos were created in an 80 minute lesson. What I really liked about using the  Ozobots was that it gave students the opportunity to work in teams and talk to each other about the nitrogen cycle. They worked in teams of 2 to 3 students draw the map, negotiate the narration and film the video. The activity gave them an opportunity to test and clarify their understanding of the nitrogen cycle with each other. The activity allowed students to determine if they really understand the nitrogen cycle. Prior to this, we had already done many other activities of the nitrogen cycle (worksheets, question and answer sessions, quizzes) and many students were confident they understood the nitrogen cycle. However, when it came to creating the narrated video with the Ozobots, many found that they didn’t know the nitrogen cycle as well as they thought they did.

Next time, I would also ask students to create a map so that the Ozobot wouldn’t be travelling in a nice unidirectional cycle but back-and-forth through different components of the ecosystem.

STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education


Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

 1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education? 

TeachMeet – professional learning by teachers for teachers

teachmeet-audience

This week I ran TeachMeet Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. It was the third TeachMeet I ran and I have lost count of the number of TeachMeets I’ve attended. I went to my first TeachMeet more than 4 years ago. I still find TeachMeets to be one of the most valuable professional learning.

TeachMeets are structured and informal gatherings of teachers and educators with the purpose of sharing good practices and professional journeys. TeachMeets are educator-driven, not organisation-driven. Presenters are not paid; they volunteer their time and expertise to share with others. They are free. They are open to everyone. They happen outside of school hours. They have a strong online community. It is these characteristics that make TeachMeets are valuable part of a teacher’s suite of professional learning.

Because TeachMeets are free and open to everyone, presenters and participants range from pre-service teachers, teachers, educators who work with schools and university academics. Teachers come from all school sectors. It is this mix of people, who are all passionate about student learning, but work in very different contexts, that enable cross-pollination of ideas. Presentations are short and sweet, 7 minutes or 2 minutes so you get lots of ideas to work on and implement with your students. I also find the strong online community valuable. Like many other TeachMeets, TeachMeet Futures had a strong Twitter backchannel. This allowed people to learn from the TeachMeet even if they were not physically there and it allowed connections to be formed amongst presenters and participants beyond the TeachMeet. It also allows the thoughts and opinions of the TeachMeet to be revisited and reflected on after the event if the tweets are curated and saved via Storify. See the TeachMeet Futures Storify as an example.

So if you haven’t been to a TeachMeet, go to one. And if have been to a TeachMeet, go to another one or host one. The power and impact of TeachMeets stems from passionate teachers and educators sharing and learning from each other.

Why hackathons are the future of teacher professional learning


Yesterday I went to a OneNote Hackathon. A hackathon is basically a group of people, with similar passiona, getting together to solve problems. In the case of the OneNote Hackathon, it was a group of teachers who were passionate about using OneNote to enable improved student learning. We all had 2 minutes to pitch our problems. Problems ranged from using Staff OneNote notebooks to enhance teacher collaboration and increase productivity to creating out-of-the-box Student OneNote Class notebooks for various subjects that teachers can modify and personalise for their students. We then chose which problem we wanted to work on and spent the rest of the day working together on solutions that can be shared with everyone.


I really enjoyed the OneNote Hackathon. Not only did I learn a lot from the OneNote experts from the Microsoft Education team but also from other participant teachers. The Hackathon provided a time and space for a group of us who had similar goals to share our expertise and experience with others. We were from different school sectors, some of us taught high school or primary school or were in non-school based support roles. This enabled all of us to learn from diverse perspectives and contexts.

What I really liked about the Hackathon is the level of productivity. Unlike traditional teacher professional learning where teachers often listened passively to an ‘expert’, get some good ideas and then find they don’t have enough time or the processes to implement those ideas, hackathons let you collaborate with others to design and implement a solution. Hackathons also recognise that every teacher has something to contribute to other teachers’ learning. Just like TeachMeets, hackathons allow teachers to learn with and from each other.

It will be interesting to see how hackathons will be included in the suite of professional learning strategies available to teachers. Imagine a hackathon on the next School Development Day.