Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Why I Need to Work Smarter—Not Harder


Each week in the series Diary of a First-Year Teacher, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.

We hear it all of the time—work smarter NOT harder. This mantra is used as a management tip to make a company more productive, shared by guidance counselors to help students get good grades, and is certainly applicable to the running of a classroom.

I was trained with the mentality of running a class with urgency. I was warned of how much ground I would need to cover in the year and I was told that even by first grade my students would already be behind.

Before I started, I was trained to run my class on a quick watch. The only way to teach my kids everything they needed to know was to do so without wasting a moment. I followed this model relentlessly.

My heart would race anytime I felt us getting behind schedule. If a bathroom break went too long, I would snap at my students. If a transition to the carpet was sloppy, I felt like our learning was largely set behind and I would be distracted during my lesson.



Throughout the day, I would check my watch again and again worried that my principal would walk in and find us off schedule.

(It is of note that my principal has never walked in and shaken her finger at me for being off schedule or doing anything too slow. In fact, the only thing that has ever been a concern is whether or not the children are learning effectively. Which thankfully, most times when she comes in, they are.)

But with state testing, she has assured our staff that all of her time will be spent in the upper grades to support them in getting ready for state tests. With my mild fear of authority appeased, I have allowed some flexibility into my day.

I’ve allowed literacy centers to encompass my entire morning. I’ve extended my math lessons and  decided if they eat into my science time because of student questions it will be okay because the core subjects are far more important for kids to master.

Although a quick pace can be important, it can take away from students’ and teachers’ enjoyment at school.

In fact, I have also done away with science and social studies lesson to allow the end of my day to be a strict writing workshop so my students have made their growth in writing. I’ve let my transitions and breaks be as long as they need to be to truly give my kids an brain break so they are actually ready when we begin work again.

Finally, I’ve added in some free playtime every couple of days to give them a chance to make decisions and learn how to work with others.

As a result my children are far more relaxed, and so am I. Students have to enjoy working. Although a quick pace can be important—and is valued by my administrators and consultants—it can take away from students’ and teachers’ enjoyment at school.

So instead of working as hard as we can, in my room we are now working as smart as we can. We are allowing the time we need for breaks and diving deeper into a lesson if we need.

Related Stories on TakePart:

• Diary of a First-Year Teacher: The Trouble With Being White

• Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Finally, I’m Out of Survival Mode

• Diary of a First-Year Teacher: I Never Thought I’d Feel So Isolated