S1 E20 - How to Look After Yourself During Report Writing (It's not what you think)

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Hi there, everyone. It's Jocelyn here from the Structured Literacy Podcast, and I'm so pleased to welcome you to this episode. I'm coming to you from Tasmania, the home of the Palawa people, and the sun is shining today, even if the wind is a little cold.

This time of year lets us know that reports are approaching if you are teaching in Australia, and if you're listening to this episode when it was released at the start of June 2023, you may well be knee-deep in reporting.

Report writing is that special, biannual time of year when we have the opportunity to provide an update on our students' learning. People feel differently about this depending on what it looks like for them. In some schools in Australia, teachers are required to provide a grade and a personalized comment for every child for every subject. In others, just a grade for each subject and a general comment meets the requirements. What reporting looks like for you will depend largely on what type of school you work in; whether that's government, Catholic, or independent, and what state you teach in. Regardless of where you are, though, reporting is an additional task on top of your existing teaching load. If you're lucky, your school will give you some additional time away from face-to-face teaching or declare this time of the semester a non-meeting time. If only that time was sufficient to actually get all of the work done by the due date. In case you didn't realize, it's really not.

Today's topic.
So this podcast episode is dedicated to all teachers who are currently working away writing their Semester One reports and the leaders who are reading them. I've worn both hats, and I have to say that there were days where I thought that it was actually much easier to write the reports than to read them. This episode is not about how to write great reports. Your system and your school will have specific guidelines for you around that, but rather around how to make the whole process and time of the year a little bit easier.

Let's start with how to make this busy time of the year not quite so hard. I'm not going to talk about getting enough sleep and eating well, although those things are important. Today I'm going to chat about boundaries, cognitive load, and using time to maximum efficiency. And if you are currently listening to this podcast episode because you are avoiding your reports, turn it off, go do what you were doing and then come back.

Setting boundaries.
Not many people like boundaries being placed on them, but everybody needs them. And when it comes to your time, especially when things are super busy, it's perfectly okay to put boundaries in place for other people. It is 100% acceptable to say to someone, "Nope, I just can't do that right now". I'm not talking about telling your principal that you can't come to work because you're at home writing reports or refusing to work with your school's deadlines. I am talking about feeling okay about saying to a colleague that you can't chat the afternoon away today and not feeling guilty about not being able to babysit your nieces and nephews on the weekend. You only have so many hours and minutes in the day. It's all right to be protective of them at such a busy time of the year.

The other people who need to place boundaries on themselves are actually us. Yes, that's right, we need those boundaries too. Getting distracted by social media, procrastinating with unimportant creative tasks in Canva or on your cricut machine, or deciding that you'd really like to bake a cake for the staff room might all be fun, but they're not going to get those reports finished.

Reducing distraction.
If you struggle to stay on track with reporting because you'll just check Facebook or just have a quick look at emails, take the necessary steps to remove those distractions from your workspace. Turn your phone off, put it in the wardrobe, and I'm going to say something kind of shocking now. You might even consider removing the most distracting apps from your phone, at least temporarily.

On your computer you can find a plugin that's called self-control, which has a skull and crossbones as the symbol, where you type in the site you want to keep away from and for how long. You can also use your computer's clock to help you. I have a feature that's popped up on my computer called Focus Period, where I can say I'd like to focus for this amount of time, and it shows me a clock. So you might set it for 20 minutes at a time, you have a five minute break, then you set it for another 20 minutes. Of course, all of that requires you to actually click the button to start the plugin or the focus period timer. But if you do it, you will be doing yourself a favour.

Time blocking
When it comes to using time wisely, blocking is a great technique. Choose a day each week to focus on some type of task, and this works because switching between tasks every five minutes is a great way to reduce your productivity substantially. When you can reduce the need to task switch, you give your brain the chance to get in the flow with what you're doing. You can help yourself further by making sure that you have everything you need and nothing else on the desk around you. When it comes to reporting, you might choose to focus on Maths on Monday, English on Tuesday, science on Wednesday, and so on.

Timetable your life.
Another way to tighten up your use of time is to literally timetable your life during these busy weeks. I love Google Calendar because it allows me to include tasks, events and reminders and actually put a timeframe on them. Remember, a goal is not a smart goal unless it is time-bound. So when I go to the day view in Google Calendar, there's a little red line that shows me where I'm up to and how I'm tracking. And that visual prompt is super helpful and motivating to keep me moving forward with a sense of urgency.

Solve it Grid. 
It's not just time, though, that needs to be considered, cognitive load and energy levels too. I was recently introduced to a system of considering energy called a Solve it Grid, which is an idea aimed to help adults with ADHD, and I think that the Solve it Grid can be of benefit to all of us. This grid is four boxes spread over two axis. The X axis is all about fun, and the Y axis relates to how stimulating something is, and you can find a link to a Solve it Grid here. The four boxes are colour coded.

source www.adept.org

The red box is for tasks that are not fun but are emotionally stimulating. This box is called fires. Think about tasks that you haven't finished yet, even though the deadline is, say, tomorrow. (You know, like your draft reports.) We approach these tasks with an enormous sense of urgency. We get the things done, but it's not fun. 

  • The green box is for tasks that are emotionally stimulating and fun, and this one is called Fueling Fun, so that might be spending time with friends.
  • The yellow box is for tasks that are not emotionally stimulating and not fun. Also known as boring. Officially, they're called the oughts and shoulds. That might be things like cleaning or report writing. 
  • And the blue box is fun but not emotionally stimulating. This is called passive fun. I put watching television here.

The trick to using this grid is to align it with what you have going on in your calendar with the ultimate goal that nothing ever reaches the firebox. Deal with the yellow boring tasks when you have the brain space to concentrate. Perhaps spread them out a little each day and give yourself enough time that you're able to do that.
If you don't deal with these things, they will 100% become red box fire tasks, and this is where stress comes from. We really do need to allow ourselves a range of colours every day. This helps us keep balance and flow. As you think about how you can organize your life, make sure that you have a little of each colour represented with as few tasks in the red box as possible.

Reduce your cognitive load.
When it comes to making space for ourselves to do what we need to do in report writing time, it's important to recognize that we have cognitive load too. Just like children, there is only so much that we can hold in our brains at any one time. When our heads are full of report writing, trying to write your own units and prepare all of your own teaching resources really just isn't necessary.

I'm a believer in having a balance of pre-prepared and self-created units and resources that you use in strategic ways. When you have more time on your hands, such as in non-reporting terms, you might well create or adapt your own text-based units. But when you are under the pump with a large task such as report writing, it's great to have quality units and resources at your fingertips that you can just take and teach with. In The Resource Room, we have a range of text-based units and other resources ready to go for every grade. 

Long-term measures.
So far, I've outlined some short-term things that you can do to make your report-writing time a little easier. But now I'd like to shift gears and discuss some long-term measures that will really help you do what you need to in the most efficient way possible.

Streamline reports by teaching well.
The most important thing you can do to streamline report writing is to teach well. Now that might sound obvious (or not), but when you plan for student learning using a backward design process, so many issues are solved. Have you ever reached the end of the semester, sat down with the achievement standards for your grades and thought, "Oh geez, I haven't exactly taught those things."? Many people have, and it's not a fun feeling. This puts your end-of-semester assessment straight into the red fires box.

Be familiar with the achievement standards.
Ultimately, we report on the content of the achievement standards of the curriculum that our state or system uses. If we haven't been familiar enough with the various achievement standards in the curriculum to really use them well, there is a very real risk that we will be engaged in lots of teaching activities but have missed the point of the learning. Then when it comes time to grade, we realize that we can't really do it effectively because we didn't plan well enough to teach what was needed.

Are your teaching tools aligned with the curriculum?
The other reason this can come about is because we are using teaching tools and curriculum that do not align to what our curriculum is asking for. These programs often come with a scope and sequence that does not match what the achievement standard will be asking for. So you've taught from one thing and assessed from another, and they simply don't match up, this makes reporting really, really hard.

In a backward design process for planning, we:

1) examine the curriculum,

2) reflect on our students and what prerequisites they will need to engage in learning and

3) plan the assessments that will help us know that the students have learned what we hoped they were going to

4) then we plan for a sequence of lessons that will help students get there.

This is quite different from other ways of planning. Very often, we'll start with a curriculum, plan the sequence of lessons, and then later on think about what kind of assessment might be good. The decision for the assessment might even come right at the end of the teaching. By that stage, we're trying to get all fancy and over-complicated with the assessment, and then it's really easy to go off track with a so-called 'creative assessment' task that places way too much load on students working memory and cognitive load.

An example of this might be having students create a movie or write a book to assess their knowledge of what we taught in history. Another example of this is when we assign independent research tasks to students. This happens particularly in upper primary. We take a core part of the curriculum that we are hoping to teach, and then we hand it to the students to research on their own. Some students will be fine with this, but many will not.

In a backward-designed method of planning, we've already decided what the assessment task will be. Now there may be some kind of research or reading involved, but open-ended tasks such as this do not support us because the students who are not able to do it cannot show that they are able to meet the requirements of the achievement standard.

Creating assessment tasks that directly assess what we need them to involves pairing back carefully considering what's needed, and planning for adjustment as required. We need to plan both for instruction and for assessment when it comes to adjustments for different students. When we make assessment decisions nice and early in the planning process, we ensure that our students will be able to demonstrate the knowledge and skills outlined in the achievement standards.

A real-world example of this comes about with text-based units. We choose a book because it links with a theme, or we think the students will enjoy it and examine it for what learning can come from it. Then we do a series of lessons before asking students to write a full genre-based text. The students haven't necessarily had an opportunity to build their skills throughout the unit, so the assessment task almost sits separately from the teaching that's come before.

Then when it comes time for grading and reporting, we realize that there are gaps in our assessment of the achievement standard and that because we haven't planned appropriately for adjustment to the teaching and assessment both up and down, we can't give anyone a grade beyond c because we didn't give them the opportunity to perform at that level.

And if you are listening to this and thinking, geez, Jocelyn, I wanted you to talk to me about self-care. Now you're giving me another thing I have to get on top of. Well, never fear; we've got you covered. Our text-based units are written with care and will help you teach in a way that makes reporting simpler. And if you've previously completed our Writing Success course that is now found inside our Evergreen Teacher membership, you'll already have a system for writing robust text-based units using a backward design method.

In conclusion...
Please remind yourself that the experiences of discomfort or frustration you have during grading and reporting is really just feedback about the systems and practices that are in place. They're not a comment on how good a teacher you are. If you are thinking that you just don't know why these things feel messy or out of control, or you don't know what to do about it, please know that you're not alone. If you're a Resource Room or Evergreen Teacher member, you have access to a live forum and regular catch-up sessions where you can ask the questions you need and find support. 

Wherever you are up to in this report writing season, I want to wish you my very best as you set boundaries for your time, maximize efficiency and seek to teach in a way that provides the most direct path to success for your students. This teaching caper is not easy, but it is incredibly worthwhile. Let's work together to make teaching and reporting that little bit easier at the same time as we boost student learning. 

See you in the next episode. Bye.

Looking for some high quality, engaging, prepared units and resources? You'll find what you need here.


Sue Kokir

Some great advice. Thank You for giving your time.

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Alison Fahey

Yes I am looking after self. Reports done, week ahead planned for someone else and I am on the Sunshine Coast. Needed a circuit breaker.

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