How teachers can stay organized in a data-rich environment

Less is more

As a data specialist I am often behind a computer screen, on a spreadsheet or interacting with data scientists and data analysts.  A few times throughout the year, I have the pleasure of working directly with teachers, counselors and administrators in relation to collecting and interpreting data.  A few weeks ago, I was given a wonderful opportunity when a teacher reached out to me for some coaching on best practices for collecting data to be a more effective teacher.

Sean Smith is a 5th grade teacher at Singapore American School.  He felt that the way he was collecting and arranging all of the data and information coming in as a teacher was flawed.  

He wanted to explore better ways to stay organized and to look at possible solutions for collecting both formative and summative data that could be all in one place.  He was frustrated with data coming in from different platforms and using different devices to record and collate data.  It was getting messy and confusing. He was spread across too many different systems.

Organization is half the battle

How teachers can stay organized in a data-rich environment

As teachers, I think a lot of us feel this way.  We have information coming at us from so many places.  This could be from the school and administration with standardized tests and demographic information or internal common assessments and record keeping.  Sometimes these data are given to us in a PDF.  Other times it might be in a Google Sheet or an online database.  It could also be on a piece of paper that has a printed report from a learning support teacher.  

This, on top of our own personal notes, makes it a huge challenge to track and monitor. Sometimes you cannot control the information coming in. You have to find a way to accept data in a variety of forms and input those data into your own system.

Trial and error

How teachers can stay organized in a data-rich environment

Earlier in the year I had given Sean a template of a digital planner that I had used for many years.  This was a planner that I customized to match my rotational schedule in the classroom.  It was a weekly planner that aligned with the school’s calendar and covered the entire school year.  Sean took this template and used it as inspiration for personalizing it to meet his own needs.

How teachers can stay organized in a data-rich environment

At the same time, he was also becoming more comfortable with using Apple Notes and editing PDFs with his Apple Pencil on iPad. He wanted to combine the spreadsheet calendar schedule system with the ease of a stylus and tablet.  Sean tried to do a customizable calendar based off of the spreadsheet template.  He did this by creating the template in Google Sheets then exporting a tab as a PDF.  

He would then write out daily notes in a simplified version through a quarterly calendar version.  Sean wanted to try and get an entire school quarter on one page.  Using symbols and shorthand style notes for things that were happening in the classroom was a method Sean used at first. However, this soon became difficult because the spaces available for writing were too small and the layout became overwhelming to look at and use efficiently.

How teachers can stay organized in a data-rich environment

Back to spreadsheets

With a recent move to online learning and most resources being created in the cloud, teachers at school were more and more sharing ideas and resources through links instead of making paper copies of documents. Since it is easy to share links, this was great for accessing information quickly, but there are a lot of links.  Sean decided to make a resource that would align with his calendar and it would have all the resource links for the unit all in one place.

Sean found this simple guide to be quite flexible. In his original system, he enjoyed the simplicity of being able to quickly jot down notes, it wasn’t the cleanest or easiest to process. One nice thing about the quarter view with links is being able to see the big picture.  Sean states, “as teachers, sometimes when we’re overwhelmed and inundated with information if we don’t have the big picture all the time, then you lose sight of the end of where you’re actually trying to get the students, whether it’s power standards or whatever else.”

Attempts at organization and innovation are not just one and done. We need to continue to try new things, see what works, and then make modifications.  You see what other people do and then you take it on and you experiment and you try. And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and then you just keep going. I like how Sean took the idea of a weekly or a yearly calendar, but then you’ve modified it to meet his needs.

PDFs and Stylus for daily notes

Because of the ease and portability of a tablet and stylus, Sean didn’t want to give up this resource.  He found that creating class checklists for subject areas in a spreadsheet then saving those as a PDF gave him the flexibility to hand-write notes and keep them all in one place. Being able to do “on the fly annotations” has helped him document in the moment organically. 

Doing this has made it easier to see where the students are at and if they know the subject content or not. Through doing this, as a teacher, you are constantly reminding yourself where your brain needs to be, where the kids need to be and where the conversation focus should be in the classroom.

Moving forward

Starting next year, Sean’s plan is to use spreadsheets to create the layouts for tracking and monitoring systems.  He will also use these for record keeping for scores and grades.  He will also create templates in spreadsheets that will be downloaded as PDFs and accessed on his iPad.  

He finds Apple Notes to be a great way to organize his PDFs, photos and handwritten notes about students. These hand written notes will capture day to day information and provide for quick anecdotal note-taking in each subject area and about each student’s progress.

His next step is to find a way to easily share individual student progress directly with the students.  This will be our continued project together throughout next school year.  I’m looking forward to seeing what we come up with! You can find out more about what Sean is doing by following him on Twitter @seansmithedu or on his website at