In What State is your Plate? Teacher Tips to Keep it Together!

I was just reflecting on a journal entry I wrote recently. “Why do I come home from work feeling undone everyday, even though I love my job?”

It might be the plight of every dedicated schoolteacher in the world. (Notice the term, “dedicated.”)

Or, it might just be because I have no idea what I am doing!

I really hope it’s not because of that. (Smile here.)

Recently, I had a friend say to me (We’ll call her Bettie… because that is, in fact, her name), “Your life is like a paper plate. But instead of a nice, sturdy Chinette plate, your plate is from the dollar store. It’s paper thin and flimsy. And your commitments are like heaping piles of hot food. You just keep piling more on. Yes to burgers. Yes to fries. Yes to that… thing, whatever it is. I mean, I can’t tell by looking at it, but I’ll say… YES! Then you say yes to… GRAVY!!! You pour that over the steaming hot pile of food, aka commitments, and the plate is heavy, the gravy is greasy, and eventually that paper starts to tear apart. That’s when things ‘fall through the cracks’.” Ah, my brilliant friend Bettie! (I love her.)

Notice Bettie didn’t just mention to me the food on my plate, but she started with THE plate.

It’s paper.

It’s thin.



It’s not going to stand the test of time and commitments. Doggone it!

I think there are thousand questions that I, personally, can dig into that analogy and ask of it.

Why is my plate not quality? I mean, that’s the foundation of my life, right?

What are the piles of food I plop on it? And do I do so haphazardly? Letting all of the foods mix and mingle together? Sweet and savory, creamy and crunchy, are they all getting mixed up? (This might explain why I feel confused often.) Because if they are all mixed up then, well, most of the time it’s just pretty gross.

I wouldn’t want a Waldorf salad to be mixed in with my mashed potatoes and gravy. That wouldn’t taste good and it wouldn’t “go down” well, either! In fact, I might even gag.

With all the great places the analogy can go, let me focus in this one blog entry on the big question for this particular venue… what does it mean to me as an educator? Why do I come home at the end of the day feeling undone, even though I love my job? What are the commitments I’m piling on my plate everyday? More importantly, WHAT is the gravy? Because whatever that is, I need to avoid it!

The Plate

It is the foundation of your teaching experience, and thus the experience of your emerging life-long learners as well. It needs to be Chinette! Or even, it needs to be china. Let’s face it; no gravy is going to break down china.

Making the Plate Sturdy:

In my vast 4 years of teaching experience (I know, that’s funny, right?) I would say that there are a few things you can do that ensure your plate is made from solid materials.

Organizing That Which is Required of You
Organize Your Day

First, be organized. Oh, this is sooooo hard for the disorganized person! I have a worksheet that use every day, which I adapted from the wonderful Anne Vosskamp. She has a daily planner page that is well, brilliant. I took it and morphed it for the classroom. Thank you Ann! (click here for your own free copy)

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 12.54.43 PM

The “Classroom Daily” has these sections:

  1. The Day’s Dire– only 2 slots for this (I’ll explain more later*)
  2. The Definite– Emails! Because you really just can’t avoid them, unless you let your email box get so full it’s out of memory and yes, I’ve heard that excuse. Teacher A to me, “I couldn’t respond to your email because I have too many pictures in my email box and so it won’t let me send anymore email.” Um, really? Can you get pictures on your personal email? You know, so that you can use your work email for well, WORK?
  3. Duty- It’s a checkbox. The idea being that you fill out tomorrow’s Classroom Daily before you leave at the end of the current day. Checking that little box will remind you that you have duty tomorrow. You’re welcome.
  4. Meetings- because you can’t avoid them and in this profession you have more than you ever dreamed possible!!! CFO? Account Manger? You people have NOTHING on us teachers when it comes to meetings. (Principals have more, no doubt.)
  5. To Do- in Franklin Covey style, you’ll move your daily “to do’s” that you didn’t get to from one day to the next… just to keep them before your eyes. And you know how it goes, if you procrastinate an item long enough, it does often go away on its’ own!
  6. The Day’s Draft- with time slots so you can quickly jot down WHEN you are going to call that parent and WHEN your meeting is and WHEN you plan on making copies, etc.
  7. Notes- take them. They will save your bacon from time to time.
  8. Coming Up- to write down whose birthday is this week, what you might to have face tomorrow… stuff like that.

    I have my local copy store make a stack of these babies and glue them together in a nice little notepad! What a deal, right? And, you might even have them be a color so that they are easy to spot. Everyday before I leave I take 5 minutes to fill out tomorrow’s plan. IT WORKS. Do it.


*The Two Slot Day’s Dire– a brilliant principal I once had used to say this to me all the time and it saved my life my first year of teaching, “Decide on two things you have to do today… TWO. Do those. Go home.”


YES! Repeat after me:


Decide on TWO THINGS I have to do today.



 This is your “2 Do” to do mantra… make it work!

Organize Your Space– there is not much to write on this except that it is so important and so personal. I comb through Pinterest for ideas. I find the most important pieces of organization for me are:

  1. An inbox where EVERYTHING from my teacher mailbox goes. Period. And do not let anyone else take anything out of your teacher mailbox. I mean, come on, that workroom mailbox is part of the organization of your brain, right?! ELD scores? Oh yea, still in my mailbox. Duty schedule? Still in my mailbox. Materials I ordered from Scholastic? Still in my mailbox…

    Then, the inevitable happens… someone, out of the goodness of their heart, takes all of my stuff out of my mailbox and takes it where? MY CLASSROOM! Oh no! All that stuff is now lost in the abyss! At least when I it was in my mailbox in the workroom, I KNEW where it was!

    Yea, don’t be like me, and rely on the teacher workroom mailbox to organize your teacher life.

    Bad idea.


    Make a real physical “inbox” and put it on your desk.

    Mantra 2. Repeat it:

    Mailbox to inbox. Mailbox to inbox. Mailbox to inbox. Mailbox to inbox.

  2. Mon – Friday bins. I got this idea from Pinterest. I use stand up magazine holders. Each one is labeled. This has worked great for me and my classroom aides. If they copy a worksheet we are using on Tuesday, I don’t even have to ask. They bring it to the room and instead of putting it on a surface somewhere in the abyss; they put it in the “Tuesday” magazine holder. Brilliant!
  3. Classroom Aide/Volunteer Inboxes- yep, I’m that teacher. When my parent volunteer comes in to do Friday folders she doesn’t have to ask. All that PTA paperwork, etc. is in her box and a stapler is conveniently located next to it. She just gets to work. She puts all that lovely paper in the students’ inboxes (yes, they have inboxes, too!) all stapled and ready to go. From my teacher mailbox to her inbox. It’s beautiful!
  4. Student Work- simple and easy. Hanging file folder system to sit on a classroom surface. Each file folder is labeled with a student name/number. When something is completed (aka worksheet) and ready to go home, have the child “file it” in his/her file folder. On Friday while my students are at recess I pull each stack of papers from each file, browse it, make sure everything has a check mark indicating I have seen it, and I staple and put it where? In the student’s INBOX. It’s ready to go home and it’s all there and nothing has been thrown in the trash or lost in a backpack.

Organize Your Student’s Week-  This is all about the teacher bulletin. Click here for a copy of mine (email me if you want that in *.doc form for editing).

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 12.55.02 PM

This bulletin does A LOT of great things:

  • Gives students a chance to share what they learned in class that week
  • Documents work ethic and behavior
  • Allows me to write a note
  • Spelling pre-test and post-test scores
  • A joke to lighten the mood (I let kids contribute the jokes, they love this)
  • And very importantly, notifies parents of upcoming events.

That’s the biggest thing. Parents need to know. Trust me, it will make your life a bit easier.

And even though I put things in the student’s daily planners and forms go home, well, these are kids. Things get lost. And, you know that abyss of a classroom you have? Well, backpacks are also the abyss. And some of your kids go home to a paperwork abyss… you know the little darlings who can’t organize their way out of a paper bag? Well, that fruit does not fall far from the tree sometimes.

So, help your student’s upcoming week be better organized by a Parent Bulletin. I know what you are thinking… sometimes the bulletin doesn’t get read either. But, half of your parents will read it and if the bulletin doesn’t get written one week someone will ask for it, letting you know how much they appreciate it. It’s just a good idea!

 More, more, more organization!

Admittedly, there are a thousand more things to address when talking classroom organization; curriculum, supplies, calendar, events, etc.

This, dear teacher-reader, was just the tip of the iceberg, as you well know!

I may, or may not, ever get around to writing a post just on organization because, frankly, I’m not that organized. I’m no expert believe me.

But, let’s get back to “the plate”


Let the Plate Breath

I am sorry. I cannot.

Mantra 3. Repeat: I’m sorry. I cannot. I’m sorry, I cannot. I’m sorry. I cannot.

Hmmm… depending the size of your plate, the amount of food on your plate and what your plate is made of, you might want to practice the following:

Someone needs help with the talent show? I’m sorry. I cannot.

Someone needs a teacher to lead up After School Patrol? I’m sorry. I cannot.

A parent asks you for ANOTHER meeting? I’m sorry. I cannot.

Use discretion, obviously. Haven’t helped the PTA at all? Not once ALL YEAR? Might be time to say yes. BUT, look at your schedule. Probably not best to say yes to an event during your planning/pulling off Colonial Days. Probably not best to agree to host the Volunteer Breakfast if report cards are due that week (Heaven help you if your admin is planning the volunteer breakfast during report cards!).

And OF COURSE with parents be reasonable. If it’s the parent who has sent you 50 emails in 6 months and you have respectfully answered every single one, believe me it’s probably okay to say no. (Unless of course they’ve asked for an assessment in writing or something legal like that!)

Let your plate breath… meaning there must be room between the pile of mashed potatoes and the pile of green beans. Remember, you’ve got to eat and swallow all of that food! (I hope you like it… that stuff you’ve allowed on your plate.)

I’m not saying only do exactly what is expected and no more. Who wants that teacher for their kid? Not I! But don’t be a doormat either (or in this case the dollar store plate)… “Oh, Mrs. So and So will say yes, she always says yes.”

Don’t be that teacher this year.

Learn to say no based on the scientific evidence of what is actually on your plate and what is being served up next. Yes, I said “scientific”… provable. In other words, things that are required to do your job effectively get put on the plate first. That gravy? Well, think twice. If you have room and you want to and it’s reasonable, go for the gravy. But if the plate is loaded and you are tired then the gravy is just going to make the plate crumble, and without your plate what do you have? A teacher out on disability for mental stress. We don’t want that because we love teaching!

Ask for Help

I spent the first few years never asking for help. Then, last year, I had an available parent and I asked her to help with Friday Folders.

First of all, I made a terrific friend. What a great lady!

Second, I cannot express the load it took from me to NEVER EVER EVER worry about getting all the paperwork out of my mailbox, collated, stapled and put into Friday Folders. She was here every single week. She was trained on that first Friday of the school year and off she went. And, on occasion, this darling mom would show up with COFFEE for my classroom aides and me. The last day of school she brought us a home cooked meal that was out of the world, crazy good!

The point being, though, is I didn’t realize how a little thing like Friday Folders could add to my stress and workload even though it seemed to be a small thing.

A small task taken over and managed by a parent volunteer becomes a HUGE task when it is taken off of your plate. (That is a pull quote from me!)

Yes, my classroom aides (Special Day Class Staff) could have done it. But they were teaching just as much as I. And all day long they were picking up the things I was dropping… so it was a huge blessing for them as well that this parent came in and took over Friday Folders.

Huge blessing.

Ask for help.

Make the Plate Purdy (I know, I misspelled pretty… it was for emphasis.)
If you are the creative type, then by all means make the plate beautiful! Sometimes the biggest sigh of relief is when I, or my students, or we are making something in the classroom. Don’t overlook the science experiment, art project, Colonial Days or a field trip because that all sounds likes MORE to put on your plate (unless, of course, it is actually “more”).

Get creative!

Get outside of the box… or off the plate if you will.

Every once in a while we would just put all of our stuff away and make things… color pictures, cut out construction paper, MAKE PAPER AIRPLANES. Oh yea… airplane party!

I could feel the stress ebb away when involved in creative tasks with my students.

But, that’s what floats my boat; so if you are not the creative type, ask yourself what it is that helps your teacher stress ebb away. Shared reading? Writing? Playing the “Quiet Game?” PE?

Go for it.

Differentiate your plate!

Break it up (the day, not the plate)… make it different… make it yours.

A New Year, A New Plate

I’m going to try to not be undone everyday when I get home from work this fall. I’m going to delegate more, create more, and plan/schedule more, and say “no” more, so that in the flow of the day in my classroom I can find small moments of refreshment.

Time for another Bettie Metaphor: You are sponge.

You go to the work in the morning with your sponge full of water because you rehydrated the night before with all the things you enjoy doing. But as soon as you hit the door, people start squeezing your sponge. Every squeeze dries you out more. Then you get home, collapse on the couch, remote in hand, order takeout and ignore your spouse and kids.

Oh wait! I’m talking about ME here! You probably never do that!

Anyway, as with the plate (don’t pile on too much), don’t let the sponge get dry either. I have a coworker who went around banging on 4th/5th/6th grade doors last year and said, “Why am I the only one in the teacher’s lounge at lunch? Get out of your rooms and eat lunch with me!”

I’m SO glad I did. I looked forward to those 30 minutes times of lunch everyday. I know they helped me maintain balance during hectic seasons. I ONLY thought I had to work through lunch but I did not. Ever. Never again.

I’m going to keep my plate reasonable, fashionable and sturdy. I will not be a dollar store plate this year and I’m pretty sure I’ll be passing on the gravy!

In what state is your plate? What kind of plate do you carry? What kind of food do you pile on? What is the one food item you cannot say no to?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!





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