Two Scary Phone Habits That Will Bring Back Your Fire for Teaching

You’re not a victim: empower yourself by controlling your phone.

Photo Credit: Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

You’re lying in bed, minutes away from going to sleep. You’re looking sleepily at your phone and notice a new email. It’s from a parent of one of your students, and the subject line sounds emotional.

Uh-oh.

Your blood pressure skyrockets as you scan the opening lines. You put the phone down beside your bed, but it’s too late. You’re already rehearsing responses and worrying about how much time and energy this issue will steal from you the next day.

Bye bye, sleep.

On another evening, you’re trying to focus on a complex task and your phone starts buzzing repeatedly. Who’s messaging me like a madman right now?

You try to recenter your focus on the project, but you can’t shake the question. After a minute or two, you pick up your phone. I’ll just see who it was.

Fatal mistake. The teacher chat is popping off with questions about a school event happening the next day, and someone’s asking for support. As one of the more experienced members of the team, you’re one of the few who can answer questions and share resources. You jump in, and now you’re living in the chat for the next 30 minutes.

The conventional wisdom says you’re a victim.

These are well-known problems in teacher land, and the fingers often get pointed angrily at the origins of the messaging.

Why do they need to send me an email so late in the evening?

How dare they message me on my weekend?

Why won’t they respect my time?

First: the practical problems with scheduled emails

One well-traveled admonishment that I’ve heard in the last few years is for teachers and administrators to schedule all emails. Never send in real time on an evening or on a weekend — always schedule it for the next school day morning, this thinking goes.

I tried to hold to that religiously for a while. But I’ve noticed some practical problems with the practice.

For one, scheduled emails can waste everyone’s time.

Let’s say that a teacher emails three colleagues for a solution to a problem they’re facing. It’s entirely possible for all three recipients to craft lengthy, thoughtful replies to the query and schedule them all for Monday morning.

When the three replies arrive, it turns out there’s a whole lot of overlap and redundancy between them — they’re all saying the same thing. It’s a maddening waste.

Scheduled emails can also create confusion.

Scheduled emails can lead to email threads with conflicting or old-news replies jumbled together out of chronological order.

The thoughtful reply that was crafted on Saturday morning has been made utterly irrelevant by a decision made on Sunday night.

Worst of all, scheduled emails can create more stress than ever.

Just put yourself in the shoes of any teacher who comes into school on a busy Monday with no scheduled prep blocks to be greeted by an avalanche of unread emails written since Friday at 3:30. I’m not convinced that’s such a blessing for teacher mental health.

Feeling some doubts around the scheduled email practice, I went to teachers to get a sense of their preference. I posted a poll on Twitter and 189 responded.

As I suspected, the majority of teachers would actually prefer the option (not mandate) of reading school-related communications on the weekend (if and when they want to) versus the Monday morning avalanche.

Two radical phone habits that will bring back your fire for teaching

If scheduled emails aren’t the answer, we’re still left with the phone anxiety I described at the top. How can we keep digital communication in its place and make sure that we are engaging on our terms and not someone else’s?

As Dave Ramsey likes to say, you have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired in order to make real and painful changes.

Perhaps you’re there with phone emails and notifications.

Wherever you are and whatever your lived experience, here are two radical moves that will transform your lived experience.

Buckle up.

Habit 1: Leave your phone out of the bedroom at night

What if I told you that there was one simple change that you could make to your life that would produce the following:

  • Less stress about work
  • Less blue light in your day
  • Less electronic activity near your body
  • More sex
  • More sleep
  • More reading
  • More pillow talk
  • More journaling and reflection

That’s right. Leaving your phone out of the bedroom at night will produce all of these benefits and more. Guaranteed.

I started this practice a few years ago and find it easily one of the most personally transformative changes that I’ve ever made. It’s one of those simple-but-hard moves that absolutely anyone can make that costs nothing.

Even beyond the bullet list of benefits above, there’s a quality of mind that’s hard to describe and impossible to quantify when your phone is not on the same floor as you. It’s like going off the grid, but better.

And you can do it. Of course, I’ve heard all the reasons why people can’t make a similar move to keep their phones away from their bedroom at night.

  • “I need my phone for an alarm clock.”
  • “I need to be available for my children.”
  • “I need to be available in case of emergencies at the school.”

Most of this amounts to “What if” and FOMO.

Relax.

You’ll be okay without your black mirror beside your head while you sleep, just like your parents were.

Scary habit 2: Keeping your phone permanently on Do Not Disturb

As Tristan Harris points out in The Social Dilemma, things that are actually tools don’t control us. They don’t call to us. They don’t insist on breaking our focus.

Tools do exactly what we want them to, when we want them to. They are humble servants.

It’s for that reason that I don’t want to hear from my phone. At all.

Turning my phone’s ringer off is a no-brainer place to start, but that isn’t enough for me.

I don’t want vibrations when my phone is sitting on a surface. I don’t want my phone waking up (lighting up) with notifications of any kind. Ever.

If I’m occupied with a task, I want radio silence and a screen that stays dark.

And that’s what I get. By leaving my phone on Do Not Disturb (look for the moon symbol) 24/7, my phone never lights up, vibrates, or rings.

My phone tells me that I’m receiving an average of 168 notifications per day, and the apps pictured below the graph show the number of notifications each one would generate on a weekly basis if I allowed them to.

Some of the 168 notifications per day that I’m not receiving on my phone thanks to DND

The iPhone exception: favorite contacts can reach me

I can’t speak to Androids, but iPhones allow a small loophole for the conditions I described above.

If I’ve tagged a contact as a Favorite, their calls and messages will come through. That means that my wife, kids, parents, and school administrators can still call and text me. As a husband, parent, and vice-principal, I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that some exceptions must be made.

For the rest of the world, including my colleagues, they are still free to message me on iMessage, Google Chat, WhatsApp, or whatever. I purposely leave badges on those apps, so the next time that I open my phone, I’ll see that I received a message.

But I’m coming to the message on my terms, when I want to. I’m not allowing others to barge in on my work whenever they please.

Why not just remove all school email and apps from your phone?

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without addressing the Scorched Earth method. I know at least one colleague who refuses to have school-related communication (email or Google Chat) on his phone. And I know there are others who believe in that level of compartmentalization.

I respect the intention there, but I’m not interested. To me, the ability to be able to read and respond to emails and DMs from my team when it’s convenient for me is far too valuable.

My logic is that if I can read, file, and respond to 30 emails while I’m standing in the Costco line-up or waiting for a family member in the car, that’s 15 minutes of relaxation time that I can spend with my wife instead of sitting down at the computer.

Or let me put it this way: if I remove all school email and apps from my phone, I’m giving up those micro-opportunities to fend off Email Mountain that a typical day provides. Instead, I’m choosing to either stay longer at the school or give up more of my home time for work.

Do you like those choices? Neither do I.

Instead, I keep all options open so that I can respond to them on my terms: when I want to, when I have the emotional energy, and when it’s convenient for me.

Boundaries create freedom and empowerment

I titled this piece Two Scary Phone Habits because that’s what they are: scary. Most readers will acknowledge some level of logic in my arguments but will likely ignore both suggestions.

And that’s okay. It’s not my intention to should on you.

But if I hear you complain about school messages and emails coming to you at all hours of night and weekend, I’m going to remind you of something: you’re not a victim of some angry parent or over-zealous administrator.

Take control of your phone.

Take back your sanity by giving these two phone habits a chance.

The results just may change your life.

Photo credit: Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

Should Teachers Attend Student Performances Outside of School?

“Why didn’t you attend our daughter’s musical?” the parents asked.

Photo Credit: Kristijan Arsov on Unsplash.com

Teaching is an amazing and rewarding space to work in.

It can also be utterly exhausting. As Washington teacher Tyler Rablin reminded us, it’s emotionally, mentally, and physically demanding work.

In the third term of last year, I was asked to attend three different performances involving my students. These were personal events completely unrelated to school. They included gymnastics, a choir performance, and a musical. They were scheduled on evenings and weekends.

I declined all of them.

You know these students mean well. In fact, it’s touching — humbling, even — that they wanted me there at those events, in the seats, cheering them on and bearing witness to the product of their dedicated preparation.

So I don’t blame them or their parents for wanting me there.

But as a part-time vice-principal, I get a little feisty when teacher wellness is put at risk unnecessarily. School-sanctioned evening events are already a big ask and take a big toll on teachers: I’m thinking here of Meet the Teacher Night, parent conferences, band concerts, and the like.

Keep in mind that many teachers are also parents, meaning they’re pulling double or triple duty for these evening events.

One night they’re supervising a band concert at their own school, the next night they’re wearing their parent hat and attending their child’s concert at another school. One night they’re hosting parent conferences, the next night they’re attending them.

Been there.

This on top of all the other countless demands that teachers must stay on top of outside of class time: lesson planning, feedback, IEP communication, email, and endless administrivia.

The parent and partner guilt that most teachers live under

Speaking of family life, many teachers operate under a continuous cloud of guilt. They may not admit it on the surface, but talk to them for any length of time and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.

They wish they could be more emotionally available for their partners.

They wish they could have more energy for their own children.

They wish they could have more time to cultivate real relationships outside of work.

Now take the weight of this guilt and imagine them sitting through a 2-hour musical on a Wednesday night. It’s not good.

They’re tired. Their partner or children are at home. Lessons are waiting to be planned. Assignments are waiting for feedback.

It would be a touching gesture on the part of a generous teacher to show such support, but in my mind it just doesn’t add up.

The problem of precedent that parents must keep in mind

There’s another important reason why teachers are wise to decline these kinds of out-of-school student performances, and well-meaning parents may not recognize it at first.

If Miss Robinson says yes and attends Jackie’s figure skating championship, that only raises the pressure on her to also attend Jenny’s violin recital, Eddie’s swim meet, and Twila’s musical.

Even worse, it raises the pressure on her colleagues to do the same. It becomes a lot harder for teachers to decline all student performances when a colleague is somehow out in the community attending one of these performances after another.

Why didn’t you attend our daughter’s performance?

Last year I sat (in my role as part-time vice-principal) with a teacher while her parents asked her point blank: “Can we just ask why you didn’t attend our daughter’s performance?”

The implication was clear. You should have been there.

I didn’t like the question at all, but I was silent and allowed my colleague to respond.

It was a difficult moment. In my 22 years as an educator, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that question before.

If put in that situation again, I’d like to jump in. “Because we encourage our teachers and colleagues to say no to student performances happening outside of school,” I’d say flatly.

Teacher health and wellness requires a recognition that our time and energy are limited. Limitations require careful budgeting, and budgeting requires discrimination based on priorities.

None of us are wealthy enough to distribute money indiscriminately. That’s just common sense.

The same goes for time and energy. These are finite resources. And in the teacher life, they’re incredibly valuable.

Photo by Daniel Thomas on Unsplash

In defense of teachers: parents, please don’t ask this of them

Parents, we love you dearly. It is such an honor and a privilege — truly, it is an incredible joy — to serve your beautiful children each day.

Help us be our best selves.

Help us keep the joy in our work and the fire in our eyes.

Help us protect the emotional bandwidth we need for the dozens of little people we interact with each day.

When it comes to your child’s performances, you’re welcome to send teachers a YouTube link to their wonderful work. If we have time, we just may watch a minute or two and leave a comment.

But please don’t ask a teacher to attend your child’s performance in person.

It’s Time to Rethink Formal Teacher Evaluations

When it comes to our current observation processes, is anyone winning?

On November 29, 2019, a teacher from Ontario posted a heartfelt, transparent update about his experience with a formal observation, something he calls a teacher performance appraisal (2:50). It’s worth a watch.

What strikes me most about his story is the sheer relief he expresses. It’s visceral. The observations are over, the report has been written, and he was given a stamp of professional approval.

There’s some pride and satisfaction there, for sure. But what I sense most strongly is the relief. He celebrates the fact that he won’t have to endure this process again for another four years.

Sadly, most educators can relate to that feeling.

Similar processes of formal teacher evaluation have been in place in most North American school districts for decades. They usually involve administrators sitting in classrooms for a series of classes in order to observe the teacher’s every move: their instruction, their feedback, their classroom management, the ways they interact with students, and much more.

Checklists and clipboards are present, and long reports follow.

And despite vigorous efforts to spin it otherwise, formal observations of this nature feel like a giant magnifying glass has been focused squarely on the teacher. It’s gotcha at its worst, and most teachers dislike the whole ordeal immensely.

It brings out all the insecurities and imposter syndrome like few other experiences in education. And it creates a lot of sleepless nights.

Yes, the teacher receives written feedback on their performance in the form of formal reports once the observations are said and done.

But aren’t there better ways to support teacher growth?

The instructional coaching model packs powerful potential

Enter the instructional coaching model, which has been making incremental gains in schools across North America over the last decade. More and more districts are recognizing the fact that instructional coaching is far and away the most effective tool for professional development.

Conferences are great. Workshops can be transformative. Books, podcasts, online courses, and YouTube content can all be inspiring and helpful.

But nothing can touch the power of another education professional in a teacher’s classroom who shows up, encourages, asks questions, and offers constructive feedback day after day for a planned series or season of classes.

Image Source: https://readingraphics.com/book-summary-the-coaching-habit/

And the very best part for many teachers: an instructional coach is usually not a part of the school’s administrative team. Their records and observations aren’t included in professional evaluations and files, and they don’t report their experiences to the principal or board.

This is a game-changer. With time — and as trust accumulates — the teacher starts to see the instructional coach as an ally, a professional friend, and someone who is safe. The coach is in the room to help, back up, promote strengths, ask thoughtful questions, and even join in the instruction.

That’s all wins and no losses. It’s the professional learning dream.

The challenge schools face without instructional coaches

Unfortunately, the reality for many schools and districts is that no such person exists on staff. Perhaps the school isn’t large enough to support the added salary, or the district hasn’t made it a priority.

Whatever the story, an instructional coach isn’t always available. Which brings us back to administrators and their formidable formal assessments, or as the teacher from Ontario calls them, teacher performance appraisals.

Man, that just sounds terrifying.

More formative, less summative = more teacher growth

It’s been well-established that students don’t learn a lot from summative assessments, especially those which allow no opportunity for review, revision, or reflection. Perhaps the worst offender in this category is the standardized test, which is typically administered as an isolated event and offers little connection with learning that came before it.

It’s a snapshot, and it gives the evaluator some information. But left by itself, it doesn’t move student learning forward a single inch.

On the other hand, we know that students learn a whole lot from ongoing, conversational feedback. Like learning to ride a bike or play basketball with the help of a coach, it’s real-time feedback for real-time learning. Growth can be instantaneous and sustained.

As Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy write in Embedding Formative Assessment, “The biggest impact happens with ‘short-cycle’ formative assessment, which takes place not every six to ten weeks but every six to ten minutes, or even every six to ten seconds.”

No, principals and vice-principals don’t typically have the time to sit beside teachers with the kind of sustained frequency that full-time instructional coaches can. And the fact that principals are involved in the hiring and firing of teachers works against the kind of safety and trust that can be found in a coach.

Image Source: Edtechteam.com

But there’s still plenty of opportunity for administrators to move away from an evaluative mindset and into one of coaching:

Fewer checkboxes, more encouragement.

Fewer reports, more learning conversations.

Less written analysis, more curious questions.

Less critique of weaknesses, more identification of strengths.

Less catching the teacher in non-compliance, more celebrations of growth.

It’s a paradigm shift.

Can formal evaluations be scrapped altogether?

As I close, we have to acknowledge an uncomfortable fact: as things stand in K-12 today, formal evaluation processes are difficult to eliminate completely.

Formal observation reports can actually be quite valuable for teachers when they decide to apply to other schools and districts. Few things say “This teacher is a an exceptional educator and competent professional” with more authority than the kind of in-depth analysis and commentary that these reports provide.

By the same token, formal documentation is quite important when principals are faced with the unpleasant task of dismissing incompetent teachers. Teacher dismissal can be a formidable task at the best of times — so onerous that most public school teachers across North America are basically un-fireable short of egregious professional misconduct. But if and when dismissal or remediation is required, proper documentation is an essential part of the conversation.

That’s not to say that formal evaluations must stay.

Would teachers experience vastly better professional growth if all the time and energy spent on formal evaluation processes was spent on coaching in classrooms instead?

Yes.

Would staff wellness, culture, and climate in most learning communities improve?

Yes. (For principals, too — formal evaluation reports eat up huge amounts of time and energy.)

Can formal observations and evaluations be scrapped completely?

I’m not sure.

But let’s keep moving in a coaching direction.


How I create digital seating plans quickly and easily

9 Survival Tips for New Teachers

How to survive and thrive in the toughest years of teaching.

Dear New Teacher,

Thank you for joining the teaching community. Thank you for your commitment to the learning and growth of our little people. Thank you for bringing your optimism, your ideas, your passions into our world.

We love you. We need you. We’re glad you’re here.

And it’s because we appreciate you that we want to help you make it.

We want to see you grow, not go.

We want this work to give you life, not take it from you.

So with that in mind, here are some tips and strategies that will help you survive and thrive in your toughest years of teaching.

9 Survival Tips for New Teachers

1. Your only professional learning goal is to survive.

The idealism that you bring into the profession is inspiring. You want to teach well, learn quickly, collaborate with colleagues, and be better every day. You’re ready to embrace the school’s latest initiative, improve your assessment practices, refine your instruction, and love your students well all at once.

Here’s the reality: you likely won’t master everything or anything in your first couple of years of teaching. And that’s more than all right, because your first professional goal isn’t mastery of anything at all.

Make no apologies: your only professional goal is survival. You do that, you end your first year or years with your dignity, sanity, and your sense of self-concept basically intact, and then we can talk about your next steps of professional growth.

2. It’s okay to say no.

Well-meaning teammates and colleagues from other departments will admire your energy. They’ll notice your creative spirit and that special passion you have for volleyball, graphic design, or photography. Coaches and members of your school’s stretched-thin athletic staff will notice the rapport that you quickly build with students. And the requests will inevitably come.

“What do you think about coaching in the spring?”

“How would you feel about a weekly after-school club?”

“We’re starting an entrepreneurship fair planning committee. Would you like to join us?”

It’s okay to say no. You do not owe anyone anything: not your time, your help, or an explanation.

As a new teacher, you’ve got a million things on your plate your hands are more than full.

“No” has sometimes been called the most freeing word in the English language.

Use it.

3. Play the new teacher card early and often — you will make mistakes and that’s okay.

The New Teacher Card is a powerful one. It will buy you grace and liberties and excuses all over the place from veterans who remember well the trauma of their own first years of teaching. Play it early and often.

4. Beware of Parkinson’s Law: set firm boundaries on work time.

This might be my single biggest tip of them all, so stay with me here. No, we’re not talking about a disease.

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. It’s a dangerous principle.

Here’s an honest admission. When I was a new seventh grade teacher, I would sometimes end the school day so mentally and physically exhausted that I would actually take a nap on a couch in my classroom before preparing for the next day.

After 20–30 minutes of snoozing, I would wake up, try to collect my thoughts, grab a bite to eat, and then begin the work of lesson planning.

“I’ll stay at school til I’m done,” I thought. That way, I could sleep well when I did go to bed, knowing that everything was set and ready for the next day.

One problem with that plan: Parkinson’s Law. By not putting a hard limit on my work time, my work would expand and expand and expand. Without the urgency of a deadline, my pace would slow to an inefficient crawl.

I could spend an hour designing a student handout that was of little consequence for learning, convincing myself that what I was working on was critical because my students deserved the best learning experience possible.

Watch this: some of your colleagues are married with young children. (You may be in the same situation, although that’s often not the case for new teachers.)

These teachers often leave the school building as fast as possible and spend the bare minimum of personal time on school work. They don’t have a choice, either: the demands of their personal lives require absolute efficiency.

You can learn from that efficiency. Set tough time limits on your work, and get comfortable saying “This is good enough for now.”

5. Take sick days without apology.

It can be tempting as a new teacher to make sure “I always show up.” To maintain a bulletproof attendance record and play the role of Miss Reliable.

“My students may not be successful without me there” can be a tempting thought.

But at some point over the 200 days of a typical school year, your body may disagree with your noble commitment to faithfulness. The throat will get sore, the chills will appear, or the headaches will persist from one day to the next.

Some frank advice: don’t wait til you’re vomiting over a toilet to call in sick. Say goodbye to the notions of “letting down” your colleagues or students.

When your body is screaming at you that it needs a break, take a sick day. You’ll actually be doing your colleagues and students a favour.

6. Mental health = health.

This point is closely related to the previous one, but it’s so big that it deserves its own place on the list.

Mental health is health.

As a new teacher, it’s quite likely that you’ll feel mentally or emotionally overwhelmed at some point.

It may be during the pressures of a reporting period.

It may be after yet another long and angry email from those parents that are convinced that you hate their child, even when you’re trying everything in your power to help them.

It may be during your sixth difficult IEP meeting when it becomes apparent that you “somehow missed” a key piece of information from the psychological profile of one of your learners.

Perhaps you notice that you dissolve in tears more often and more easily.

You feel like you have no time or emotional margin for friends and family.

The light has gone out of your eyes and you begin resenting everyone and everything around you.

If you’re there, take a break. Call in sick, because you really are sick. And don’t feel guilty doing it.

Mental health is health. It’s not safe for others if you’re in the building with flu symptoms. It’s also not safe for others when your sanity is hanging by a thread.

Take a sick day.

7. If you ever feel overwhelmed by work or life, speak to your principal or assistant principal.

If you ever do find yourself cracking — physically, emotionally, or mentally — don’t suffer in silence. Let your administrators know.

Your principal and assistant principal are charged in part with the health and wellness of the entire learning community. When they know how you’re doing, there may be things that they can do to help. Things that you haven’t thought of.

They may be able to take over one of your scheduled supervision duties.

They may be able to pitch in and cover a difficult class for you.

They may be able to quietly excuse you from an after-school event.

Think of it this way: your administrators win when you win. They’re on your side and they share your goals for success.

It may feel humbling or embarrassing to send that text or knock on your administrator’s door, but it shouldn’t. Trust me — they’ll be glad that you did.

Let your administrators know when you’re struggling.

8. Connect with other positive teachers on social media.

Social media can be a powerful source of energy, encouragement, and inspiration. Tap into it.

Personally, Twitter is always my first stop. I live there as @MisterCavey, and what I’ve found is that in a matter of 1–2 minutes on the app I can count on interesting, helpful, motivating content in my feed, guaranteed.

Twitter can also be an amazing resource when you’re looking for teaching solutions. I once reached out to my Twitter community for some middle school Math resources, and I was stunned by the number of helpful, practical responses.

Maybe you’re more of an Instagram person. Or maybe it’s Facebook or TikTok or YouTube. There are vibrant teacher communities on each one.

Not sure how or where to get started on one of these platforms? Find me on any of the above, and start by following who I’m following.

By tapping into the right people and building a positive professional learning network, you’re inviting more joy, optimism, and practical resources — even if it’s only for a few minutes each day.

9. Invest in activities of personal passion and joy.

About five years ago, I started leaning harder into personal passions outside of school. Things like hiking, paddleboarding, drone flying, writing, podcasting, and YouTubing.

And do you know what I noticed? I started to love teaching more.

You see, when we live and breathe teaching and nothing else, we’re actually not very interesting people. We’re living monochrome lives. We have little to offer others and less emotional bandwidth to do the work itself.

But when we invest in personal passions, when we give ourselves permission and space to engage in life-giving activities of personal joy, some really good things happen.

Our emotional health improves.

We model the learning life that we ask of our students.

We gain new knowledge and expertise that we can bring back into the learning community.

We need to change this idea that time spent on personal passions is somehow selfish. It’s absolutely not.

Wherever your personal passions lie, your colleagues and students need you to invest in them. You’ll be better for it. And so will they.

Final Thoughts

Welcome to the profession, colleague. You are in for an emotional ride like no other, and you will experience human rewards that few careers can match.

Between the tears of utter exhaustion and indescribable joy, remember this: you are more than your work. You are only as effective as you are well.

We’re in the learning business, but we’re also in the people business. You are more than your work, so take care of yourself first.

Wishing you an incredible year,

Tim Cavey


How to Record Your Computer Screen with Canva

Hi colleague. You already know that Canva is amazing. But did you know that Canva offers a POWERFUL picture-in-picture screen recorder?

Check out this tutorial to see where to find it and how to use it.