Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 7. Managing Time and Paperwork

And you thought teaching was mostly about direct instruction and interactions with students. If only that were so.

Secondary school teachers are besieged with paperwork, and you had better organize yourself from the beginning or you will feel like you will never catch up. There are daily attendance rosters to manage, not to mention reports to various offices, lesson plans to write in which you pretend to know what you might end up doing in the future, homework assignments to read and check off, papers to evaluate, tests to create and grade—the list goes on and on.

We don’t mean to be discouraging, just realistic. Paperwork doesn’t have to get you down if you are well-organized, efficient, and sensible in the ways you operate.


Your attendance book is a legal document and can be subpoenaed by a court of law. It takes a few minutes each day and must be attended to with care. One teacher we know videotapes his classes, one student at a time, as they say their names and something brief about themselves. He then studies the tape on his own time, drilling himself to memorize names. Students are thus very impressed that he can take attendance after the first few days simply by scanning the room. Teachers with digital cameras can quickly take pictures and print them on seating charts to help them learn their students’ names.

Another unique way to take attendance is with a specially designed board in the front of the room. Each student has an assigned magnet that is kept in a column up on the board. As students enter the room each day, they see a question written on the board with several possible answers. These questions can relate to the subject matter or even be more playful, as the following examples show:

The question: What is your favorite fast food?

The choices: pizza, hamburgers, tacos

The question: Where is the Nile River located?

The choices: Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Australia

Each day, you would make up a different question for students to consider as they enter the room. They would then remove their individual magnets and place them in one of the columns. The names leftover are those who are absent. You can even begin class with a discussion of the question that you asked. Remember, it is your responsibility to check that the magnets accurately reflect who is present in your class.


As a classroom teacher, you will frequently receive requests for students’ grades, whether it is from a counselor, a parent, a dean, or the student. In a formal way, many secondary schools send out progress reports indicating “unsatisfactory progress” midway through a reporting period. Athletic and activity (spirit leader, band) eligibility checks take place regularly, too. Therefore, it is very important to have the grading up to date. For this purpose, a computer grading program is strongly recommended. Programs such as MicroGrade are easy to use and compute the averages as soon as grades are entered into the computer. You can even e-mail messages or grade reports to an individual student or to everyone in the class.

The computer programs are flexible and allow you to designate your columns based on whatever categories you prefer (participation, class work, homework, projects, quizzes, tests) and whatever weighting system you choose (points, percentages). They will even compute extra-credit work into the average. Furthermore, if you have access to a printer, the programs allow you to immediately print a report of a student’s grades very quickly. It is helpful to have this information for reports on students that you submit to athletic directors or other administrators or parents on request.

Some districts now allow teachers to use printouts of the computer pages as formal records rather than complete traditional grade books by hand. Also, some districts will provide grading programs for you, so check before you buy your own.

Most teachers are still required to turn in a traditional grade book. These books are designed in such a way that very small lines run horizontally, in sets of two or three, across the page. This works fine if all you are doing is keeping attendance, as you can easily use one line for each student.

Although the lines may be numbered, I (Ellen) ignore the printed numbers. On the top line, I print the student’s name and mark attendance. Then, I use the next two (or three or more depending on how many categories I have) for grades. For example, the second line is used for test and quiz grades. The third line is used for homework and class work. On the fourth line, I keep a running average of each student’s overall grade for the reporting period, and notes to myself to indicate places and people the student visited other than my class (such as a field trip, or the nurse’s or dean’s office). It is too hard to squeeze all the information in on one line, so I try to be creative in my use of a traditional grade book. The advantage of this system is that when a student is missing a grade, you can quickly see if it was due to negligence or due to an absence. Some schools will require a page for attendance only and subsequent pages for grades. In that case, you may have to adjust your record keeping.

Students can be taught to keep track of their own grades and compute their own averages. You need to explain the weighting system and give examples. Many teachers provide forms for the students to use throughout the card-marking period. You may want to have parents sign to indicate they have seen these forms and are aware of their child’s progress in your class.


One of the major mistakes common to beginning teachers is giving too many written assignments. Remember: You are making as much work for yourself as you are for your students. Each paper or assignment must be read, evaluated, graded, recorded, and then the grade must be averaged. All of this can be very time-consuming, and some of you may wish to have some sort of life outside of school.

There are a number of things you can consider as ways to reduce your workload:

Always consider the merit of the assignment. Is it really necessary in order to accomplish the larger goals you are after? There is nothing that turns students off more than busy work in which they can’t see how it will help them in some constructive way.

Can the assignment be self-graded or self-evaluated? Because the purpose of many assignments is to give students systematic practice in new concepts and skills and then to integrate feedback into their future learning, there is no reason why you have to be the one who does all the evaluating. Post the correct answers on the board, and let students review their own answers. Occasionally, you can spot-check for accuracy, with warnings that if students make too many mistakes in their self-corrections, they will lose all credit.

Can you use a scantron machine to score the assessment? Using scantrons will be a great time-saver. The forms are available in many sizes, and some have space available for essay questions. Students, especially younger ones, need opportunities to “bubble” their responses as practice for standardized tests.

Can the assignment be completed as a group or paired activity? This is one way to cut the number of papers you have to grade in half. Students may also benefit from the cooperative effort, assuming they each participate equally.

Does the assignment need to be graded at all? Sometimes, feedback (such as constructive comments and corrections) is all that is needed. A grade may not be necessary.

It isn’t always necessary to collect homework assignments each day. Sometimes, a weekly or biweekly homework check may be sufficient, in which case the students are responsible for maintaining their own paperwork.

Control the length of the assignments to fall within reasonable limits. Do this both for the students’ benefit and to manage your own available time. Students may not need to write an essay, when they can provide an outline or concept map of ideas to show they have mastered an objective.

Vary the type of assignments and evaluation methods you use. Do this not only to give students a chance to demonstrate different skills, but also to create variety for yourself.

Rather than just requiring written assignments, be creative. Design performance or project assignments that can show mastery of the material. Students can create dioramas, plays, posters, or videos. This will benefit those whose learning strengths are other than writing and those learning English.

Share the load. An interdisciplinary approach might have one teacher evaluate an assignment for content (e.g., science, social studies) while another evaluates for technical writing skills (English).

Use aides, if available. Many schools provide student aides for teachers. Often, you will be able to create assignments that the aides can correct, if not grade. With the use of computer grading programs, aides, if permitted, can be taught to enter grades on the computer for quick averaging.

Use rubrics. Create your own rubric or have students create rubrics for scoring. This way, students know before they begin an assignment what the criteria will be for evaluation. Rubrics will allow you to quickly assess student work.

Decide on the best time for you to examine student assignments. Some teachers are able to get most of their work done during preparation periods. Others remain in their rooms after school so they can go home without anything else to worry about. Still others prefer to relax for a while and complete their paperwork at night or early in the morning. Whatever structure you prefer, stick with a consistent program so you are able to keep on top of things.

Be punctual in returning assignments to students. Remember that you are modeling appropriate work habits. Always do what you say you will do, if you expect your students to do the same.

I (Cary) remember one time how hard I worked for a certain grade in math class. Needing an “A” to achieve a good grade for the quarter, I spent countless hours reviewing the material. After taking the test, I turned it in to the teacher confidently. As my next math class approached, I got really excited waiting to get my test back. I really needed that reward to keep my momentum going because the next lesson was really hard.

I showed up for class the next day and was surprised the teacher said nothing about returning our tests. When I asked him what was going on, he said he’d have them ready the next day. Again I waited not so patiently, and again the same thing happened. A whole week went by, and still we never got the tests back. Finally, I got up the nerve to ask the teacher again; this time, he yelled at me to stop bugging him.

About a week and a half after taking the test, we finally got the test back, and I received my A. But it didn’t seem to matter any more. We were already on to other stuff, and I cut back on my study time because I had no idea how I was doing in the class.

When kids work hard for tests, they deserve to get their grades back as soon as possible. Whatever you do, don’t lie by telling them they’ll have their tests back within 2 days and not give them back for a week. If you are going to have problems grading the tests right away, tell the kids so they will know what to expect. Better yet, get the grades back to us as soon as you can. We need to know how we’re doing in your classes.


Along with the things you initiate for your students to complete will be paperwork required by the school. Some days, it will seem impossible to keep your mailbox empty. Every time you go by, there will be something in it for you to peruse—announcements, requests for information, forms to fill out, plus the countless catalogues and letters from text and instructional materials companies. It’s a good idea to check your mailbox frequently—before and after school, during lunch, and at other times during the day if possible.

In the beginning, it is wise to look carefully at the papers that are placed in your mailbox. Once you become familiar with the types of information you receive, you will be able to categorize and prioritize your responses. Daily announcements will be stuffed in mailboxes every day, usually at about the same time. Scan these for the information that pertains to you or your students. You can post an announcement of a forthcoming assembly (with the bell schedule for that day) on the class bulletin board for reference later in the week. College visits and college scholarship announcements can also be posted, in addition to competitions and performances that are coming up. Each day, you can refer your students to the latest additions to the bulletin board. Telephone messages from parents and messages from other teachers will be placed in your mailbox, too, another reason to check your box regularly.

Take a pen with you to the mailbox. Often there will be a request for information that you can provide on the spot. Such requests are very common at the beginning of the year as administrators check on the numbers of students, textbooks, desks, and other equipment. These forms are often placed in the mailboxes in the morning and usually require a quick turnaround time—the end of the school day. Also, there will be information sheets to be posted—fire drill procedures suspension rules, reminders about no food or drink in the classroom, and the like. The good news is that the amount of paperwork in your mailbox will decrease as time goes on. If you have a writing tool with you, you can process some of the paper and send it on its way.

Advertising catalogues, brochures, and flyers will find their way to you. It will take a little while in the beginning to sort through the new products that are being offered. But as time goes on, you will be able to determine which companies have books or products that are worth your consideration for a particular course. File the catalogues by class or by publisher until you are in a position to request an order. You will also get information on various programs and competitions that you and your students may be interested in, as well as information on professional development opportunities. Check with other teachers and your department head for their opinions on the information you receive.


Just as students are advised to use daily planners in study-skills classes, we suggest that a calendar or electronic planner (personal data assistant—PDA) will be helpful to you as well. Such a planner is useful for keeping track of scheduled meetings, student activities, and deadlines for various projects. You can color code entries to distinguish between professional and personal entries, and you can indicate optional activities, such as attending a debate in which one of your students will be participating. You can also include reminders for forthcoming events.


The early weeks of the fall semester will be especially busy with the first department and school committee meetings of the year. There will be several tasks that must be completed right away; for example, an individual and department professional development plan may need to be written. Most schools require these to be submitted to an administrator. Emergency lesson plans may have to be written and filed as well. Once they are completed, they must also be updated from time to time. Also, texts and supplies will need to be inventoried and stored, at least temporarily. And, forms—well, this topic merits a section of its own.


Certain forms are distributed on a regular basis. You can mark your calendar so you know when to expect them and when they are due back to a particular office. For example, athletic and activity eligibility forms are distributed on a regular schedule and are due back by a specific time. Some schools require these every week; others may only want them every third week.

In order to evaluate eligibility for sports and activities, some teachers make a notation in their grade books as to which students play a given sport or participate in a given activity. Then, they scan the list of names and check the grade averages for those students. Other teachers find this information distracting in the grade books, so they circle the names on the lists that are given to each teacher and just check the circled names against the grade averages in their grade books.

Unsatisfactory progress report forms are distributed at some point in the middle of the grading period. Teachers usually have several days to complete them. You can check the due dates, usually with the registrar or the principal’s secretary. Progress reports may also be requested for certain students on a weekly basis. These forms may come from the student, parent, counselor, special education teacher, dean, school social worker, or school psychologist.

Some schools have teachers complete daily attendance rosters. The forms are in the mailboxes in the morning and have to be turned in at the end of the day. Suspension lists and withdrawals are posted daily. The teacher usually has a part in the withdrawal process—checking in textbooks and indicating withdrawal in the grade book, which is a legal document. You may also have to sign a form. A good procedure to follow is to check the lists against your record book at the end of the day before you turn in your attendance.

Excused-absence lists are irregularly distributed, so you have to be on the lookout for these. Students may be excused for competitions, assembly preparation, sports events, field trips, and other programs. In addition, several tests are administered throughout the year for different groups of students. You might consider marking these on your calendar, too, so you will know why students are absent.


Take a moment to analyze your work habits and your work space. Is your desk rather cluttered at the moment with papers, folders, and books? Or, have you seen the advantages to clearing your desk except for the current project?

Think of your work space in terms of zones. Keep the items you use regularly; by that we mean daily, in the immediate vicinity—on or in your desk. Items that fall into this category include textbooks, confidential information, grade book, lesson plans, paper and pens, and desk supplies kept in a drawer. If you are not going to use it right away, it probably doesn’t have to be on your desk.

Reference items such as the Teacher Handbook, dictionary, and curriculum resource materials should be placed in an intermediate zone, within arm’s reach, such as in or on a nearby bookshelf or table. If you must have piles of papers and materials, and some of us do, request or bring in an extra table so that you will be able to see what you have accumulated. This way you will be able to spread out your papers and still have a place to work.

Decide in advance where students will put their completed work so you will have access to it. Will they place it in a basket on a table on the side of the room or file it in a drawer? Where will they find their makeup work—in a basket, on the bulletin board, or in a file cabinet? Also, determine how you will return their work—will they have mailboxes or folders for retrieval or will you hand papers back personally? Establishing routines will make your life and your students’ lives easier.

Things you use from time to time, such as class sets of supplies or supplementary reading or folders/binders of resource plans, can be stored out of the way in cabinets, wardrobes, or bookshelves on the side or in the back of the room.

Decide whether you will keep lesson plans, lectures, transparencies, and other information in folders or binders; or experiment to find out which is most comfortable for you. We suggest color coding your files, binders, and boxes for easy reference. It goes without saying, keep like materials together.

Space may be an issue in two particular situations. If you travel from room to room, you will only be able to bring what is essential with you on a cart. You will have to be extremely selective in your choosing. Carts have weight limits and can tip over if they are unbalanced. Also, it is difficult to maneuver a cart with objects that extend over the sides in hallways full of students. You will have to find a place for your reference books and supplementary materials, supplies, and student work. You might store them in a department office or in a room shared with another teacher.

If you inherited a room from another teacher, you may find the cabinets full of real or imagined treasures. You may want to box these items for storage elsewhere until you have time to go through them and decide what will be useful for you and what you can discard.


Some days when school ends, you may feel totally overwhelmed, as if you put out one fire after another all day long. When you consider the next day’s work, you don’t know where to begin.

There’s no denying your days will be very full, and each day will be different from the day before. In order to manage your time efficiently, the first step is to create your “TTD” or “Things To Do” list. Next to each item on the list, it is also helpful to identify what resources you will need to accomplish each task. In some cases, you will need to gather additional information or consult with someone else. Sometimes, you can even predict how long each task will take (just as you do with lesson plans). For example, you may identify several short items to do regularly during your preparation period, such as grading and recording makeup work. Other items you may do on a weekly basis, such as getting supplies or calling parents. Examine your list to determine which things need to be done right away, which items within a week, and which have later deadlines. Then prioritize your work and set a schedule for yourself for other things that must be done—personal shopping, dentist appointments, and so on.

It’s important to set realistic deadlines. There are only 24 hours in a day and you need to sleep, eat, exercise, and spend time with your family and friends. Remember, too, to ask for help when you need it. Other teachers may have models for you to follow and suggestions that will help you do things efficiently. A mentor can also help you prioritize your tasks.

There will be many requests and opportunities for involvement at the school, from coaching sports to advising clubs to curriculum development. You will enjoy these commitments, but they also take time. You may have to remind people several times that you are a new teacher, and that while you would like to get more involved, you are not ready to do so at the present. Target what you would like to do and put it on the list for next year!


It’s hard to believe, with everything you are trying to remember as you’re just getting started in the job, but there will come a time when the academic year ends. Unfortunately, this brings another rash of forms to fill out and paperwork to complete.

At the end of each semester, you will need to post schedules for final exams. There will be forms for you to fill out regarding your preferences for teaching next year, textbook needs and supplies, and maintenance requests for your room over the track or summer. Various evaluation forms also will be requested.

Teachers with senior students will have to report semester grades and fines. They may be involved in distributing graduation-related material, such as senior rings, caps and gowns, and invitations. This is the time for recommendations, resumes, and senior projects. Do not agree to review a resume or write a letter of recommendation if the student does not give you enough time to do so—at least a week.

All of this paperwork may seem overwhelming in the beginning. It is really just during the first few weeks and the last few weeks of the year that things seem particularly hectic. Before you become frustrated, remember that almost all professional jobs in contemporary life have their fair share of forms and paperwork to complete. You will become more efficient as time goes on. This is just the price we pay for the privilege of doing the fun stuff.