Have you ever received a piece of advice from a colleague that made your life as a teacher so much easier? Maybe it was a recommendation that fundamentally reshaped how you deal with disruptions in your class—or something much smaller, like a hack for how to get marker stains off your whiteboard. We bet that advice has stuck with you and made you want to high-five your colleague every time you pass them in the hallway.
Edutopia wanted to crowdsource and bottle that feeling so that teachers everywhere could celebrate little changes that feel like big classroom victories. On social media, we asked our audience of teachers to share the most unexpectedly helpful teaching hacks they’ve discovered over the course of their careers. We heard all sorts of advice, from assigning pencil sharpening as homework to the benefits of periodically faking amnesia, and collected them into one list.
As you look through this resource, keep in mind this bit of wisdom from educator Coleman Bruman: Not every single tip will work for you, nor will any one individual hack turn your classroom into a utopia. For the greatest chance of success, try combining a variety of strategies.
“That strategy from PD will pick up 5 kids, while that closing from the book you read will get 6 more, the joke you said grabs up 2, and the connection to real life brings in 10,” Bruman writes. “Everything you do helps kids grow.”
Rephrase how you ask for questions: Educator Megan Battle says a small shift in the way she asks for student questions has worked wonders. Instead of “Are there any questions?" she now uses the prompt, “Okay, what are your questions?” A number of educators in our comments agreed that this tiny change in wording can show students that it’s natural—and expected—to have questions about newly learned material.
All kids love stickers: Want a quick motivator for students? Look no further than stickers: “All ages love stickers. *All* ages. 🤣,” emphasizes educator Christina Cawdery in a well-received Instagram comment. Eighth-grade math teacher Megan Williams adds fragrance to the mix: Her students took their time jumping into warmups “until I started handing out scented stickers to kids who finished.”
Challenge students to complete a task without asking questions: Periodically giving students problems just beyond their reach can “activate prior knowledge and motivate students, clarifying what they know and what they don’t know,” learning scientist Manu Kapur told Edutopia in 2022. Twitter user wondercentric suggests allotting five minutes at the beginning of an in-class activity when students must attempt the activity for themselves without talking or asking questions—which “builds autonomy and gives students a chance to rely on themselves before others.”
Try faking amnesia: If you want to elicit deeper responses from your students when asking them to explain or summarize what they’ve learned, a bit of playful deception might help. Educator Maliha Akbar feigns amnesia: “I walked in one day telling them I was totally blank and didn’t remember what we had learnt in math class since last week. They taught me the whole concept.”
Call on a student to repeat your instructions: Want an easy way to ensure that students are listening to your instructions? When you’re finished, “ask a couple of students to re-explain the instructions to the class,” writes educator Connie Radbourne. “They never know who I will ask! It helps them to listen closely.”
Pair up students for peer review based on grades: “Next math test or quiz, correct and rank order the papers,” suggests teacher Denise Oh. “Grab the top and bottom scores, and pair them up” for peer review. Do this through the entire stack, Oh suggests—middle scores paired with middle—so that striving students can help struggling ones, and students in the middle can learn new approaches from each other.
Try creative reading summaries: Summaries of a text are a staple of ELA classes—but students don’t always find them particularly engaging. Instead of asking students to summarize a text like Beowulf, educator Barbara Murray suggests “reinventing” your assignment to something more engaging—like asking them to write a eulogy to deliver instead. “They write summaries without realizing it, add flourishes, get good grades, and we all have fun,” Murray writes.
Have books ready for fast test-takers: If younger students finish an assessment quickly, they can tend to become a distraction to those around them. So, during a test, “have books the fast finishers can read so they don’t disturb the others who are still working,” writes educator Louette McInnes.
Use hand signals: To decrease verbal disruptions during class, teach your students hand signals associated with particular needs. For example, use distinct hand signals “to indicate restroom, tissue, and pencil needs,” suggests educator Beth Pierce. Holding one finger up might indicate a request to use the bathroom, for example, while two fingers up means a student needs to sharpen a pencil.
Get quiet, not loud: When students get loud and rambunctious, teachers can be tempted to get loud right back. But many teachers say the opposite approach is more effective. “When they are talking too much and it’s too loud, I start whispering and they quiet down,” writes teacher Bethany Meyer.
Assign pencil sharpening as homework: Tired of pencil-related disruptions? In educator Anne Craddock’s classroom, students’ homework includes sharpening six pencils at home. “This cut down on disruptions and excuses for not working,” Craddock writes.
CLEAN AND ORGANIZED CLASSROOMS
Give class objects human names: Several teachers in our community pointed to a post from English teacher Miss B that recently went viral, suggesting that teachers should name classroom objects: “Does a student care if a glue stick goes missing? No! Do they care if DEREK the glue stick has not been returned? ABSOLUTELY. It’s like a manhunt until Derek has been returned to his rightful spot.”
Save your knees: One of the awkward moments of teaching is figuring out how best to position yourself when interacting one-on-one with a student. Should you crouch over their desk, kneel down next to them, or what? “I carry a small folding camping stool when my students are doing independent work,” writes educator Austin Pinckney. “When they need help, I pop it open and sit next to them.” Other commenters opt for rolling stools or even yoga balls. Ultimately, use whatever helps you protect your knees.
Velcro is your friend: Are you hanging stuff this year? (That’s a rhetorical question—for a teacher, hanging stuff is kinda part of the job.) Well, if you haven’t already, consider Velcro. PE teacher Cindy Colman says Velcro makes “changing out signs, posters, etc.” a breeze. Likewise, Candyss Woodberry uses Velcro to make an easily reordered lineup chart for her students.
Use electrical tape for labels: Tired of sticky residue from labels? “Put down electrical tape on mailboxes, cubbies, desks,” or anything else that needs a label, writes teacher Bri Miller. “At the end of the year just pull the whole thing of electrical tape up and no residue or half peeled labels!”
Use a utility belt: If you’re tired of not having the stuff you need on hand, it might be time to take a page out of Batman’s playbook. “I wear a gardening belt and carry everything I need as I help students in my STEAM lab: pencils, dry erase markers, a few pens, sticky notes,” writes educator Mary Phillips. Or, instead of a utility belt, you can opt for a deep-pocketed apron, comments Elle Be Cee Zee.
Use a “hyperdoc” to compile all assignments in one place: Middle and high school teachers have probably heard this excuse before: “Oh, I didn’t know we had homework.” To ensure that students know what’s due, compile a “hyperdoc”—“a running Google doc that everyone has access to with the day’s assignments” and relevant links, writes educator Misti Gil. Besides helping all students keep track of what’s expected of them, this document is particularly useful for students who miss class, Gil writes.
Compile a document to support substitute teachers: Teachers can make life easier for their subs, too, by creating a running document with all the key information they need to know. “It included all the info the sub would need about my room, school procedures, the schedule, resources, etc.,” writes educator Colleen Windell. When crafting this document the first time, make it reusable by leaving a blank section for the day’s lesson—then you only have to fill that part in each time you’re out, writes Windell.
Create a forum for anonymous questions: Teacher Kate Lizzie recommends “having a place where students can ask questions anonymously.” There might be some important questions (about class content, class structure, or even their relationships with peers) that students are too embarrassed to ask face-to-face; an anonymous Google Form can be a great way to field those questions.
Steal from colleagues: “Theft is my best hack, like a bandit 😆,” writes Facebook commenter Rin Tin. “Walk into my colleague’s classroom... Oh I like that, I’m stealing this idea. I’m the Thomas Edison of teaching. Brilliant at theft of great ideas. 💰💡😆”
Watch yourself teach: A great way to improve your craft is to film yourself teaching and watch it back, writes educator Laura Miller. You might be surprised by what you find: “It’s eye opening to see what your habits are,” Miller says—like starting too many sentences with “So” or “All right.” “I also learned a lot about the frequency and type of questions I was asking,” Miller writes, which allowed her to adjust accordingly.
Save lesson planning for Monday night: Rather than planning your weeks in the traditional Monday-to-Friday sequence, consider planning Tuesday-to-Monday, several teachers in our community suggested. That is, rather than doing your lesson planning over the weekend, you can do it on Monday night. “It’s lessening my ‘Sunday scaries,’” writes educator Mary Beane, and the slight shift—covering new material on Tuesday—turns Monday into a helpful day to review the material from the previous week.
HELP OTHER TEACHERS OUT!
We’d love this article to be an evolving document of best practices, so please use the comments to add any unexpected teaching hacks of your own. If we see something we love, we may well add it to the list!