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Try This - Tame the Paperwork Tiger!

Colleagues share their secrets—what’s yours?

You signed up to teach, right? Not to push paper. And yet here you are, entering data and writing reports that keep you away from the work you love.

In North Carolina, it got so bad the North Carolina Association of Educators got a law passed that says school districts should stop asking educators for information the district already has. Then there’s the kind of paperwork that helps you teach, like correcting and commenting on student work. You know it’s useful, but you’re up late at night churning through it and you need your sleep. If you taught at Hogwarts, you could probably point your magic wand, shout, “Scribeo!” and it would be done. But if your wand is lost somewhere in the pile, try some of these ideas from your colleagues.

Get organized

Joyce Jasso of Milwaukee cuts off the paper deluge at the source. “I take care of mail right in the office when I pick up what’s in my mailbox. I throw away everything useless to me, sign and return everything that requires me to, then take back the rest to sort in my read-and-respond, file, and due-today baskets.”

Theresa Iliff, a vocational and special needs teacher in Nebraska, wrote that she uses a box of colored folders, four colors for each class, to keep her student papers straight. Red is her Out folder, green is In, yellow is Hold, and blue is Make Up Work, which means handouts and notes she wants to give students who are absent.

Sometimes, technology can help. Abraham Jones, an elementary special education teacher in Delaware, uses an Excel spreadsheet to monitor progress in Response to Intervention.

Elementary school teacher Diane Postman also uses Excel spreadsheets for record-keeping. “Once you have created a few, you'll have templates that can be reused. I use them as checklists for myself. I also keep a phone log so I won't have to try to remember calls I need to make or ones I have made.” She also uses the calendar feature of email for everything. “It gives me pop up reminders of meetings, paperwork that is due, appointments and the like.”

“I do almost everything on the computer,” she notes. "It is faster, neater, and I can save everything. Forms can be created to streamline many of the mundane things you have to do like lunch orders and attendance.”

Determine what’s optional and prioritize

“Not everything has to be graded!" notes California teacher Valerie Barnes Doyel. “They'll never know the difference.” But, she cautions, “realize that if you're going to throw something away, do it at home! My fourth-graders like to look in the trash, and you certainly don't want them to discover their worksheets in there!”

Writing teacher Lorraine Hirakawa echoes that advice. “Here’s the real secret: You don't have to grade everything. One of my favorite techniques is to have students choose their favorite paragraph of an essay for a thorough read.”

Get someone else to do it

Jones has some of his students code and store their own weekly progress on a whiteboard. “They enjoy this process as they are able to track their own progress,” he reports. “I have noticed that students have begun to understand the need to make progress from week to week. This has been a big hit for administrators as well, to see that tracking data can be student-centered.”

Monica Richards, a middle school teacher in Pueblo, Colorado, gets her students to check their own work, too. “This not only saves the teacher hours in the evenings and weekends, but provides immediate feedback to students and the teacher about what has actually been learned!” she says.

Kids do it: Monica Richards has her students correct papers.

Of course, there’s a great deal of paperwork that can’t be handled by students, including mountains of special education paper. Los Angeles high school special education teacher Austin Naughton has a solution, but it may be hard to follow his example. His school, Fairfax High, has a full-time special education coordinator, a teacher solely responsible for overseeing the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. There’s also a full-time office technician who schedules IEP meetings and handles all of the many required notifications.

“Our school has about 17 special education teachers plus all sorts of specialists (full-time and itinerant), so it is a very substantial bureaucracy,” Naughton reports. Why such good support? Naughton thinks it has to do with the district’s efforts to comply with court orders after it was found to be violating the federal special education law. “It has been a great learning experience for me to encounter all of these resources,” he says. “When I learned about such support, I was motivated to switch from my previous district to this one. It allows us educators to focus more on teaching and less on paperwork. Sigh.

For more ideas on taming paperwork, check out the NEA Works4Me website. Search for “paper” or “paperwork.”

Low scores, high paperwork go together

Schools with the lowest test scores have the most state-mandated paperwork—a whopping six hours a week—according to a study conducted for the Louisiana Department of Education. The survey asked teachers how much time they spend on paperwork that’s required by the state and unrelated to teaching. The average was three hours—bad enough—but it was twice as much in the lowest-scoring schools.

Why the difference? According to a report in Education Week, the reasons include higher student and teacher mobility, more student misbehavior, and more reporting requirements imposed by the state because of the low scores. And those numbers are probably an underestimate.

Focus groups conducted as part of the same study revealed that teachers fill out a lot of forms that they don’t realize are required by the state. Because of the economic downturn, the state has been thinning out department staff, so now, according to researcher Susan E. Kochan Teddlie, “Districts are continuing to send more and more paper up and no one has any time to look at it.“

Photo: Carol Bronko

Illustration: David Clark

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Reducing Paperwork

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