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.

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.

Why do teachers feel guilty when they look after themselves?

I got shingles last week. Shingles is the disease you get when you’re overworking , stressed and have lowered immunity, which causes the chicken pox virus that has been lying dormant in your nerves to break loose and cause havoc. It’s not pleasant. Look it up if you’re curious.

I guess I have been overworking. While I am on maternity leave, I have been doing a lot of work while also parenting a baby and a three year old. The work was voluntary. I chose to do it. I enjoy working. 5 days a week I would work try to squeeze in what I usually do in a 7 hour work day into 3 hours, while the children napped, plus concurrently making puréed baby food, washing dishes, laundry and all the domestic stuff. No wonder I got shingles.

So for the last week, I haven’t done any work. When the kids napped, I napped or watched TV. But I felt guilty. It’s a special kind of guilt called teacher guilt. It is a feeling many teachers get whenever they are not working and taking time to look after themselves. I’ve been having teacher guilt since I started teaching. If you’re sick you feel guilty for not showing up to class and causing inconvenience to your colleagues. When you’re at home sick, you feel guilty for not checking emails or marking or working on the school plan or something else. You feel guilty in the holidays if you’re not making programs, marking, etc. If you search the hashtag #teacherguilt on Instagram hundreds of photos of teachers saying the feel guilty because they are sick or relaxing on school holidays. I don’t think other professions have this guilt. I haven’t heard of accountants saying they feel guilty whilst on holidays because they aren’t doing tax returns for their clients.

Perhaps teachers can sometimes love their jobs too much and care about others too much that they neglect themselves. So from now on I’m going to make a conscious effort to look after myself more because I’m no use to students or my colleagues if I don’t.

(I still have shingles so today I went out for coffee instead of working while the baby napped.)

Work life satisfaction – my #edugoal progress

Previously I have blogged about my #edugoals for 2016, one of which is work life satisfaction. I don’t think I have achieved it. I sometimes still feel very overwhelmed being a teacher and also a Head Teacher.

And then I saw this photo posted on Twitter from a book by @teachertoolkit.

One thing I’m learning to accept is that there’s always more to do. It doesn’t matter how much you do as a teacher, there’s always more you can do. I’m learning not to stress too much when the to do list isn’t completed. Don’t get me wrong; I do know how to priortise . But what I have forgotten to do was to have wellbeing in the priority list as well. What I’m doing now is adding wellbeing activities on the to do list. Things like read Harry Potter or watch TV, because these little things are just as important as replying to the never-ending emails and modifying programs.

What do you do to achieve work life satisfaction?

My #EduGoals for 2016

In many areas of Australia, the new school year is about to start. In the state of New South Wales, many schools return this week. As the new school year beckons, I’m like many teachers who are thinking about their educational goals (EduGoals) for the new year. Here’s my 3 EduGoals for 2016:

1. Using learning spaces to further enhance teaching and learning


My classroom this year

Last year I was very lucky to have received a bunch of more flexible furniture from John Goh. To put things in context, I’ve always been very lucky to have a “nice” learning space. The science lab I’m in was only refurbished in 2010 so my classes and I have always worked with new furniture. However, when I began my project based learning journey in 2012, I realised that the standard two-seater rectangular tables were no longer working. Students wanted a space where they can easily transition from whole-class instruction/discussion, to small group work and to individual work. The space, as it was, was very effective for whole class instruction, but not for small group work where students needed to collaborate and often worked on different projects at different paces. For the next few years, students spilled out into the hallways, took up nearby classrooms if they weren’t being used and even moved out into the quad in order to work on their projects as a team.

I’m hoping that with this new set up, more space is created. John enlightened me last year when he told me that it’s not about furniture, it’s about space. For a long time I’ve always looked at how to get round tables or pac-man shaped tables so that 30 students can have their own desk. It isn’t about that. It’s about creating space to learn. At the moment there’s only enough table space for 24 students. However, students can sit on the floor or move over to the “wet” area of the lab where there are standing desks. I gave away lots of my original furniture in order to do this. I think I still need to get rid of more.

I’m continuing to ensure the walls of the classroom is used for learning. I visited a New Zealand school a few years ago where the teacher said: “Anyone, doesn’t matter if it’s a student, teacher, parent or someone else, should be able to walk into a classroom and know what the class is learning and doing immediately without asking anyone.” I haven’t used my classroom walls for “decoration” for a few years now. The walls are filled with our learning routines, our “topics”, current projects, relevant learning strategies and displays of student work.

stuck posters

Posters of strategies to encourage independent thinking and problem solving

classroom wall

Timetable and posters showing current topics for different key learning areas


2. Using technology to further enhance teaching and learning

Last year, I played around with OfficeMix. I really like how it is an addition to PowerPoint and can create videos that work across all platforms. This year I’m going to be using OfficeMix to create a flip classroom for maths. I’m planning to have students sign in so that I can get analytics and use that to inform my future practice. I’m also going to get back into OneNote. I’ve been following the work of Pip Cleaves in how she is using OneNote to create staff and class notebooks. I’m keen to see how it can work for me, my faculty, my students and my school.


3. Using video to improve my practice

Classroom observations is a key strategy in teachers reflecting on, and further improving on their practice at my school. I’d like to step it up this year and include video analysis when a colleague observes me. Having a video recording to look back on would seem to enrich the feedback from the colleague in the post-observation meeting. I know video analysis of teacher practice is done regularly at some schools and I’d like to try that personally.


4. Finding work/life satisfaction

Last year was my first year of full time work after returning from maternity leave. My baby is now 18 months old. Being a parent and a full time teacher plus a leader is challenging. My online PLN often talks of work life balance. However, Jason Borton said to me on Twitter that he calls it “work/life satisfaction” and not “balance”. I really like the term “satisfaction” than “balance”. To me, balance is more quantitative. Something like ‘I must spend equal amounts of time doing work, spending time with my family and doing things I enjoy.’ On the other hand, “satisfaction” seems more qualitative to me. ‘Am I happy?’ “Satisfaction” is also more personal. Work/life satisfaction is different to each individual and it doesn’t have to be 50/50 all the time.



baby V

Baby V

Speak up – #MentalAs

This week is Mental As Week on ABC TV. For those who don’t live in Australia, it is a week where Australia’s national broadcaster focuses on mental health and wellbeing and it coincides with World Mental Health Day on October 10 2015. In the spirit of raising awareness of mental health and wellbeing, I’m going to share my story.

Me and Baby V
I have always been a “worrier” since I was a kid, but being a worrier didn’t really impact on my life until I had my baby. Baby V was born on July 2014 and I have previously blogged about her. My worrying felt like it exploded exponentially after she was born. Is she getting enough sleep? Is she getting enough milk? Am I breastfeeding her correctly? Is it OK if she falls asleep in my arms rather than on her own? On top of this was my expectation to continue my pre-baby life, and in the first few weeks of Baby V being born, I did. When she was 3 weeks old, I went into school for Project Mars. I had Skype meetings. I worked on units of work for the new syllabus. I also was not used to the unpredictability of a newborn baby. I placed a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I was doing it “right” for Baby V and to continue working in the same way as I did before she was born, to the point where I wasn’t taking care of myself. This all built up for about 3 months and that’s when I started having trouble sleeping. There was 5 nights in a row where I could not sleep even though Baby V was sleeping. That’s when I was encouraged to see a worker from Tresillian (an organisation that supports families in the early years of their child’s life), who then referred me to see a psychiatrist. I was not diagnosed with anything clinical and I only saw the psychiatrist once. However, from this process I learnt about mindfulness and it led to me taking an online course from Mindspot for managing anxiety. The course taught me strategies to manage anxiety and how to look after myself, something I have neglected to do way before Baby V arrived.

I’m sharing this story because I want to build on the current momentum that issues associated with mental health and wellbeing should NOT be stigmatised and needs to be discussed in the same way as physical health. No one will bat an eyelid if someone says they have sprained their ankle, but too many people still see mental illness as a weakness. Mental health is no different to physical health. However, people are often hesitant to raise issues with their mental health because of the stigma. People are hesitant to seek help because they think they should be able to deal with it or get over it themselves.

Cartoon showing if physical illness was treated like mental illness

I am also sharing this story to emphasise the importance of teaching people on strategies of taking care of themselves and how to deal with difficult times. We are taught how to look after our physical health. We are taught about nutrition, dental care, exercise, etc. We also need to learn how to look after our mental health. We need to learn about strategies like mindfulness so we have a toolkit of strategies to use when it is needed.

Most of you who follow my blog know that I’m a teacher. Teaching is one of the most stressful fields and mental health and wellbeing is extremely important for teachers. It surprises me how many teachers open up about their mental health when I speak to them about my experiences with Baby V. A lot of mental health and wellbeing focus at schools are focused on students (which is fantastic) but the same amount of focus also needs to be placed on staff.

So in the spirt of Mental As, we should all be talking about mental health and wellbeing. Share your story. Ask someone whether they are OK. The more we talk about it, the better we will be as a community. Speak up.

Babies and school – how to find balance


I haven’t posted a lot lately because I have had my first baby in July. She is definitely the best thing that has ever happened to me. However she is also the biggest challenge I have faced. It is more than the challenge of taking care of a tiny little person who is totally dependent on you round the clock. For me the biggest challenge has been adjusting to how I define myself and how I will find a work life balance.

I have always identified myself through my work, especially my work ethic. I pride myself in being able to dedicate 500% of myself to my students. This has meant long hours of work after school and on weekends to create the best learning opportunities and resources for my students. I pride myself in being able to juggle multiple roles. In addition to my roles at school, I also worked with UTS, UNSW and Microsoft. I rarely said no to any opportunities that came before me. Even before the baby arrived other teachers have said I was going to have a nervous breakdown because I was working so much.

And now the baby has arrived, I have realised I can’t continue doing what I did. I now need to say no. So far I have said no to working on the national assessment program for science literacy with UNSW, the summer school program with UTS and presenting in Singapore because I was either physically unable to or doing so will mean I will not be sleeping for months on end. Not saying no will no longer just impact on me, it will now impact on a little person as well. This is something I am really struggling with at the moment. It feels like I’ve lost a part of who I am.

However, the biggest challenge for me will be next year when I return to work full time. Baby will be 6 months. I am already thinking of how I’ll balance work commitments from school, my baby’s needs and my own wellbeing. Some things I have asked myself are:
-When should I do school work? Should I stay at school and finish everything at school? This would mean picking up baby from daycare late and by the time we get home, it will be time to put her to bed. If I pick up baby straight after school, I’ll get more time to spend with her but will I then be doing school work till the early hours of the morning and affecting my own health and wellbeing?
-Will I be able to dedicate myself to my students & my faculty as much as I used to?

I’d like to hear from other teachers who are parents and are already on this journey. What are your advice & tips? How do you balance your passion for teaching with your family’s needs, and your own needs?