When “Going to Work” Means Staying Home

By the end of my twelve years teaching in a school, I was skilled at packing to leave for school. I had a well-stocked classroom pantry with hot chocolate mix, a few granola bars, and a stash of candy. I had a nice mug on my desk and, some years, a change of clothes in my car. I was prepared to be gone from breakfast to dinner, like most people who work outside the home. But when I started tutoring online full-time, “going to work” came to mean “making sure my shirt was clean and my water bottle was full before sitting in front of my webcam.” It has become more important than ever to find ways to get organized for online OG tutoring so my day goes smoothly.

Be Mentally Prepared

Know Your Schedule

Anticipating your schedule for the day is one of the first, and most important, steps to get organized for online OG tutoring. Start off by creating a schedule that gives you time for transitions, bathroom breaks, or a cup of coffee in between students. This buffer time can either take the the form of offering 50-55 minute lessons that begin on the hour, giving you 5 or 10 minutes in between students, or it can take the form of seeing a couple of students back to back and then having a longer break. 

In the early days, these breaks came naturally because my schedule wasn’t full, but when I had a full caseload, I had to start deliberately making time in between students. Before I got it right, I found myself hoping at least once a day that a student would run late or take a bathroom break so I could just step away for two minutes and fill up my water! Now I schedule 55-minute sessions. 

It also helps to prepare for the number of hours you’ll be working. Some days, even though I’m only feet from the kitchen, it’s not realistic for me to chop the vegetables for dinner, or put on a pot of water so we can eat as soon as I’m done. Do your time-saving prep work in the morning or on the weekend, just as if you were going out to work.

Have a Checklist

Can I tell you how much I love checklists? I have daily and weekly paper lists, as well as a mental checklist for sitting down for a session.

Daily

This includes lesson prep for each student I’m going to see the next day, post-lesson emails to parents and responding to incoming emails. It also includes checking my social media (for business stuff, I don’t need reminders to look for pictures of my niece and nephew!). I also have reading for professional development on my daily list. I don’t always have time for it, but I keep it on the list because it’s something I want to stay aware of.

Weekly

My weekly list includes preparing blog posts, scheduling my social media posts for the upcoming week, and checking in on my business finances. It also includes any projects I’m working on, like organizing my office or prepping a new resource for use. I used to handwrite a fresh list every Sunday for the new week, but these days I type it and it’s on the back of my daily sheet.

Pre-flight

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande (who – fun fact – was my doctor before he was a nationally famous author, and who is a very smart and extremely kind man) writes about all the ways that professionals use checklists for safety and efficiency. He describes the crew of an airplane going through their pre-flight checklist. They do everything out loud because sometimes hearing what you should be doing jogs your memory. He advocates for checklists for surgeons, too, to ensure that everyone is present and prepared for a safe procedure. 

So if it’s good enough for pilots and surgeons, it’s good enough for us! 

Here’s what I have to do when I sit down for a successful online tutoring session:

  • Something to drink – tea and/or water
  • Bathroom break
  • Laptop is freshly restarted
  • Office is brightly lit for video
  • Headphones are connected
  • Chrome tabs for that student’s session are open
  • Paper materials and notes page are open
  • I have a pen
  • Join Zoom meeting (I have done everything else and not connected, then wondered where the student was!)

Having a pre-flight checklist for your sessions will help you feel confident, and not flustered, when your session starts. You can write it on a sticky note on your desk, type a pretty one for the wall, or use an app like Google Keep on your phone.

 

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Be Physically Prepared

Fed and Watered

When you’re working in a school or an office, some of your choices are guided by the building schedule, or by what your coworkers do. When you’re working at home, alone, you are all on your own to make choices for the day. Sometimes that’s totally overwhelming. I forget to plan my breakfast and lunch because, hey, I’m at home and I can just grab something from the cabinet. I don’t fill my water bottle until I realize my tea is long gone and I’m thirsty in the middle of a session! So that’s why planning for food and water is an important part of getting organized for online OG tutoring. 

Food that fuels you

For some reason, sitting down at the computer makes me immediately look for a snack. Make sure you keep some snacks on hand that are quick, filling, and not too crunchy, sticky, or crumbly that you can eat on short breaks. I keep a bag of trail mix in my office and if I have time to grab something from the kitchen, I like cheese, dried fruit, or crackers with peanut butter for snacks. 

Be thoughtful about what you plan for lunch, too. I have learned that I can’t do salads at lunchtime because they just take too long! And heavy leftovers like pasta or rice dishes leave me feeling slow and heavy in the afternoon. I like a quick sandwich or a bowl of soup, depending on the weather. And bonus, I don’t have to worry about garlic breath because I don’t have students face-to-face. So garlic hummus is back on the lunch menu!

Water with a lid

I’m a regular adult human. I’m capable of drinking from an open cup. And yet, when I sit down at my computer and start waving around binders and headphone cords, I tend to spill things. Make sure you drink plenty of water during your sessions to keep your mouth and voice in top shape. But use a water with a lid that is quick to open and close, or something like a Camelbak bottle with a drinking spout, so you aren’t at risk for spilling on your electronics!

Carafe for tea or coffee 

My office is chilly. One of the best investments I made was a stainless steel carafe for hot tea in the winter. I schedule 55-minute sessions for most students, and 5 minutes is not enough time to make a fresh cup of tea. So in the morning, I make a pot and either bring it into the office, or leave it on the kitchen counter. Then I can top up my mug and add milk when I get a chance to step away from my desk, without waiting for the water to boil each time. 

Even if you can make a pot of coffee, you might want an insulated carafe so it doesn’t sit, cooking on the warmer, and you get fresh cups throughout the day!

Set Up Your Space

I’ve written previously about setting up your workspace for online tutoring. Here are some highlights about the most important things to think about when setting up your space for online tutoring.

Comfortable

Make sure your desk and chair are a comfortable fit for you. Consider a laptop stand, monitor riser, or even a box, to raise the screen up so you’re looking directly at it, not bending your head down. Plus, you look better when you’re looking straight or up at the camera than when your chin is scrunched down to look down into the camera and screen. 

An external mouse and keyboard let you keep your wrists in a more comfortable position and avoid repetitive stress injuries. 

If you can, set up options so you can move between sitting and standing while you teach. I have a laptop stand that can be raised when I’m standing and lowered to eye level when I’m sitting.

Lighting

Lighting was one of the most challenging things for me when I started. My desk was set up for good lighting of my desk surface, so I relied on ceiling lights and light that shined on the desktop. That meant lots of shadows on my face. Lamps pointed towards my face shined in my eyes and put a glare on my glasses.

I eventually got a softbox light for filming videos and set it up so it sits behind my computer and points at my face. In the meantime, I used a bright desk lamp pointed at the wall, so the diffuse light reflected off the wall lit my face. 

Play around with lighting a bit and consider a ring light or a softbox if you’re going to be tutoring online long-term. Make sure you’re not sitting in front of a bright window or other light source, too, as your webcam won’t be able to handle the difference in light and your whole face will look shadowed.

Arm’s reach

When you set up your desk space, think about the resources you want to have within arm’s reach. For me, it’s my notebook, my data collection binder, sticky notes, and my copy of Equipped for Reading Success by David Kilpatrick. I have a bookshelf I can reach from my desk, and a shelf behind me for storing books I use often but not daily. 

Desk space

Having plenty of flat space on or near my desk is a must for me. I use an old dining room table for my desk and I gave up having drawers to have lots of flat space. (You can have drawers, too, but I was choosing from furniture pieces I already owned.) I have room for my laptop, a second monitor, a small storage caddy for office supplies, an external keyboard and my tutoring binder. I even have an extra, smaller, table next to my desk so I can spread out a little more.

Use Your Breaks Wisely

I usually have so many different things I could do on a break that sometimes I waste precious minutes deciding or end up just checking Facebook. Oops. So just like your pre-flight checklist, it helps to have a break routine. Here are mine, in order of priority.

Water/Bathroom

Physical needs come first! I actually had to relearn this after teaching in a school for years. I had a habit of ignoring my body until I couldn’t anymore, and I realized I had a headache from dehydration or found myself running desperately to the bathroom! So any time I get a break, I make a point of walking into the kitchen (and past the bathroom) whether I think I need to or not. Once I get there, I’ll definitely find something I need, like a cup of tea, a drink of water, or a quick snack.

Movement

The side benefit of getting up and walking into the kitchen any time I have even a few minutes between students is that I get a movement break. If I tough it out and sit still for a couple sessions in a row, I am stiff and sore when I get out of my chair, and my brain isn’t as sharp by the end, either. Make sure to take the opportunity to stretch, bend, do a few jumping jacks or, best of all, walk outside and get a little fresh air, whenever you can.

Chores

For me, the next order of business is usually catching up on something in the house. I love that I can take a few minutes during my work day to put in a load of laundry, chop the veggies for dinner or sweep the floor while no one else is home! This is a benefit of working online from home and I try to take advantage of it when I can!

Get ahead on work

The last thing on my list between students is to check off items on my daily to-do list. This includes emailing parents, planning lessons, and prepping materials. I don’t usually feel like I can get anything productive done in 5 minutes between students, so I try not to start anything more serious than an email in a short break. Otherwise, if I’m not finished when the student logs in, I’m dealing with extra materials and browser windows and I have to try to remember where I was later! It usually turns out that it doesn’t save me as much time, or make me feel as good as getting up and doing something else in the house when I have a short break.

 

Working from Home is a Double-Edged Sword

I absolutely love working from home. I love not having a commute, working in comfy clothes, and not having to  be away from home all day. I’m able to check in with my son as he’s distance learning, stir something in the crockpot or put laundry in the dryer in between students. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. I love seeing my own kids during the day, but when they are both home, any I hope I had of getting work done is quickly derailed. When I’m not seeing students, I definitely struggle more to use my prep time well at home than I did at school. Sometimes I end up deciding I might as well mop the floor right now or run to the bank while it’s open, which means I’m leaving planning for the evening. I usually regret it!

I’m working to set better boundaries around my work day. Even though I work from home, I think it’s important to have a firm schedule of work hours, even if it’s different every day. For me, it’s easiest to set aside an hour or two either before my first student or after my last to get any prep or follow-up work done.

It can be difficult to get yourself out of work mode at the end of a work-from-home day, especially when you can just pop back to your desk at any time to finish something up or check on something. Make sure you end your work day with some kind of routine that helps you reset your brain and get ready for the next part of your day. When I worked at a school, my commute was a break for my brain between work and home. Now, it’s the ride to pick my daughter up or the time I spend in the kitchen by myself making dinner. 

Working at home is awesome. I love having a flexible schedule and not having to iron or pack a lunch! And I’ve been able to build a schedule that is just the way I like it…I just had to figure out what I wanted first!

 

What’s your biggest challenge when you’re tutoring from home? Comment below and tell us!

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