Friday, November 23, 2007

Teacher Stress Relief: Outsourcing Your Life

In the final part of our three-part series applying the lessons from The 4-Hour Workweek to teachers, I wanted to share Ferriss' intriguing ideas about outsourcing your life. In the book, Ferriss discusses outsourcing your time-consuming tasks to a personal assistant in India (which is easier and cheaper than you might think).

Obviously this arrangement can't work for teaching, grading, or attending mandatory meetings. However, this idea reminded me that I wasn't outsourcing enough work to my students, a common stress reducing tip for teachers. After reading the book last summer, I made outsourcing a top priority this year.

I used to believe I had to personally check each individual answer on every assignment and return it to students promptly in order to assure student success. Consistent, constructive feedback is absolutely important, but what I was doing was just madness. Often I was doing more work grading than many students had done to complete the assignments in the first place!

First, I do less grading. I still grade tests, quizzes and projects (although the structure of those have changed as well) because these are the real assessments that tell me if they have mastered specific objectives. As far as daily work, homework, extra credit or "Do Now" grades, we review and correct most of that work in class. Thus when I check the work, almost always during independent practice in class, I'm looking primarily for completion--there's no excuse for anything to be missing or incorrect because we went over everything together in class.

"What if they're just copying or cheating?" This is a valid concern, addressed primarily through constant checks for understanding, active monitoring throughout the class period, and (most importantly) instilling a strong sense of responsibility in your students. If, despite your efforts students they are still trying to manipulate the system, they will inevitably fail the assessments because they don't know the material, and their grade is weighted 70% towards the tests, quizzes and projects. This doesn't mean you don't care about, teach, or reteach your students, nor that you are lazy or doing any less work. Your hard work will be more productive because you can spend more time analyzing data and designing the most effective lessons possible.

Next, you should also involve your kids in organizing, cleaning and other daily procedures and repetitive tasks in your classroom. It is part of the collective knowledge base of teachers that students young and old love to be given important jobs, whether they want to feel needed and respected or they just enjoy helping the teacher. Have students in charge of distributing and collecting materials, updating bulletin boards, cleaning up, and yes, even as graders on the occasional quiz. Just make sure to follow the book's Golden Rules for delegating work:
Golden Rule #1: Each delegated task mus tbe both time-consuming and well-defined. If you're running around like a chicken with its head cut off and assign your [helper] to do that for you, it doesn't improve the order of the universe.
Golden Rule #2: On a lighter note, have some fun with it... Being effective doesn't mean being serious all the time. It's fun being in control for a change. Get a bit of repression off your chest so it doesn't turn into a complex later.
For the teacher, having fun with it could mean having a student bring funny notes to other teachers to try to make them bust out laughing in the middle of their class. You get the idea.

I have cut my work outside of school by about 90%. I don't spend entire weeknights or weekends grading any more; I take work home maybe once every two weeks. The rest is done at school because I am more productive while I'm there (see my other articles on stress relief).

I cannot recommend this book enough. Get it at The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.

This is the final part of a three-part series about teacher stress relief based on ideas from The 4-Hour Workweek.

Teacher Stress Relief: The Low-Information Diet

In the first part of my exploration of the ideas in The 4-Hour Workweek, we discussed eliminating wasted time and useless activities during the school day. The next step is to take on what author Tim Ferriss terms a “low information diet”. He argues that just as we feed our stomach a lot of junk food and empty calories, we feed our minds a lot of junk information:
Most information is time-consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, and outside of your influence. I challenge you to look at whatever you read or watched today and tell me that it wasn't at least two of the four.
This idea jumped right off the page at me. I already knew I read a lot of useless information, some of which I thoroughly enjoyed but most of which I just used to kill time. I often used my planning period to check my email (work and personal), click on the fluff news posted on the front page of portals (Have you ever noticed how little actual news is posted as the main feature on MSN or Yahoo!? Go ahead and click those links if you don't believe me.) or do the same at a news or sports website. It was bad enough I was wasting time that could be spent grading, doing necessary paperwork or preparing lessons and materials for the rest of the week. It was worse that I was wasting this time at all—in or out of school.

It is hard to go to CNN, for example, without clicking on the most irrelevant news. Just check the “most popular” stories of the moment and the stories will usually fall into one of these categories: bizzare, celebrity gossip, or cutesy “lighter side of the news” type stories. The same goes for sports news and even more “serious” newspaper websites.

Following the principle of selective ignorance, I stopped all web surfing during my planning periods, despite the urge to relieve stress by taking a break during the school day. Quite simply, I accepted that I would be much more stressed if I took work home than if I used my planning period to get important tasks done.

The next challenge I had to deal with was email. Ferriss tells us to check email only twice a day, around noon and then late afternoon so that there is enough time for all the responses you are awaiting to arrive. He also advises us to never read email first thing in the morning, because you'll use it to put off the more important tasks you should do first.

Using Ferriss' advice as a jumping off point, I went straight to my personal mailbox and unsubscribed from almost a dozen newsletters, then read, responded to, and either filed or deleted everything in my inbox. I stopped checking it every free moment and resigned myself to doing so once a day at most. I did the same with my school email, and thus freeing up future hours of otherwise wasted time.

I also took the low information diet idea further: to help curb myself from stressing over useless information given at department, team or other unavoidable meetings. At these meetings, we are often told to start thinking about things to maybe do in the future, or given vague, overly general directions to do more of this or less of that in the classroom with no specifics or guidelines. In the future, no one will check to see if we have done or not done these things, because these ideas come and go with the wind. We are told about these new things everyone is going to do, only for it to be forgotten about within a week or so. I don't worry about these things anymore, and because of my focus on selective ignorance, I am better able to discern what's really important.

Following the same line of thought, one of the best ways teachers specifically can avoid useless information is to avoid unnecessary meetings. This could mean avoiding eating lunch with other faculty, since it seems to be so hard for many to avoid gossiping about the latest trivial “news” at school. It means never going to meet with anyone unless:
  • You have a clear agenda (chit-chat is not part of the low information diet)
  • You know you won't be sitting outside the office for more than a few minutes. Set up a specific date and time to meet via email first. If all else fails, be sure you have necessary work to do while you're waiting or don't wait. Get up and go back to work.
  • You don't have a more important task to do first.
This part about unnecessary meetings is admittedly hard for me to follow. As a caring, responsible teacher (or so I like to think), I feel compelled to bring concerns to my administrators quite frequently. Unfortunately, just dropping in for a word quickly becomes a period-consuming monster. Even worse is when my good intentions have already been addressed or when I come to realization that this issue that won't or can't be addressed. In other words, I still need to learn how to pick my battles. When I follow the ideas in The 4-Hour Workweek, I avoid a lot of the stress that comes with trying to be a responsible citizen.

If you're wondering how to start, Ferriss provides a guide for a one-week trial “information fast” to give yourself the best idea of what it's like to escape the burden of unnecessary information: No newspapers/news websites, magazines, any audio that's not music, TV (except for 1 hour a day), books (except for 1 hour of fiction a day), or web surfing unless absolutely necessary for work. Do this for the week and tell me you don't feel better!

I tried this and had so much free time I didn't know what to do with it. It was like the school day had turned into half days because I had that many more hours free after school. I also felt pretty dumb for spending so much time at school doing non-school-related things for so long. Now I know better, and so do you!

This is part 2 of a three-part series on teacher stress relief. Read Part 1 or go on to Part 3: Outsourcing Your Life.

DISCLAIMER: I am in no way associated with Timothy Ferriss or The 4-Hour Workweek. I just really love it and hope you buy a copy to support the author. For more information on the book and author, visit

Ten Effective Ways to Use a Word Wall in the Secondary Classroom

Here are ten relatively simple ideas that you could easily use in your next class (assuming you already have a Word Wall):
  1. As a weekly "Do Now"/"bell ringer"/start-up activity. Ask your students, "Pick two words from the word wall that you know and write a definition or example for each one." This can be done weekly (at least), and make sure to have them do a different word each time! This is a quick and painless review that reinforces the importance of the vocab.
  2. Create an children's alphabet book. Students create a page for a vocabulary word from each letter of the alphabet, with a picture or drawing and simple explanation for each term. This is better to use at the end of the year, when you'll probably have vocabulary from A-Z already on the word wall. Don't turn this into a scavenger hunt where the students find random words from the textbook--that's just wasted time. You can replace this activity with any differentiated product--a story, song, poem, etc--that requires the students to understand and use vocabulary correctly.
  3. One-page posters. Drawing on the idea I posted last month, the one-page poster is one of the most effective and easiest to implement. Students create a mini-poster on blank unlined paper that shows one vocabulary word, a simple definition, and an example problem. The problem must be solved and explained. Afterward, the work is posted in the classroom as a reference for students and referred to by the teacher constantly.
  4. Bilingual Glossary. If you have a large number of ELL/LEP students in your classes like I do, these types of projects are important for them to build not only their content-area knowledge but their overall English reading skills. Students create a glossary of a set number of word wall terms that includes the word, a definition, and example. The word and definition should be in English and their first language. Internet access might be needed in classrooms where you have many different primary languages spoken so that students can translate words. You can also make most of the other ideas here into a "bilingual" assignment.
  5. Include "test question" words on the Word Wall. For example, besides content-area vocabulary like slope, y-intercept and linear function, my students need to know what to do when they are asked to simplify or evaluate something. In addition, there are terms for processes or methods, like using the vertical line test to determine if a graph is a function, that are often overlooked. Include all of the most frequently used ones in your list.
  6. Give your Word Wall list to other teachers. Keyboarding, business and computer teachers are often happy to incorporate core area vocabulary into their curriculum. If they're not very open to it, ask them to offer it as an extra credit assignment. Ask English teachers (especially if you are teamed) if they could incorporate it as well. Make sure you give them something ready-made too: they don't want extra work any more than you do.
  7. Incorporate Word Wall terms into daily assignments, tests and quizzes. This is easy if you use some kind of Interactive Student Notebook, but make sure to put some typical vocabulary exercises into your other assignments and quizzes. The easiest way is to do some fill in the blank, short answer, or matching. I use fill in the blank about the previous day's work as a "Do Now" often.
  8. Create a team or grade level Word Wall. Work with your team or across the disciplines of your grade level to have common terms on every word wall. This way students will see (and hopefully use) the words repeatedly. This requires a bit of coordination and cooperation--like idea #6 above, you'll have to have some ideas that everyone can use quickly and easily use ready to give to reluctant participants.
  9. Students create a Crossword Puzzle using Word Wall terms. See my previous post.
  10. Use it and refer to it constantly. This means that you should refer to it during your lesson ("What's that word for a graph that's a straight line? It's on the word wall."), update it frequently, and incorporate it one of the ways described above (or come up with your own). It also means that words need to come off the wall periodically--they might be important for one chapter or unit, but not for the big picture. The other side of this is to be judicious in which words you put up there in the first place--you don't want a huge turnover every grading period either.
Share your word wall ideas in the comments.

If you like this idea, you can find more about it and nine other adaptable, classroom-tested lessons in my book Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom.

Project Idea: Word Wall (Vocabulary) Project

Last year, my school pushed the idea of putting a "word wall" in every classroom. A word wall, for the uninitiated, is basically a vocabulary bulletin board. This is widely used in elementary classrooms (especially early elementary) for sight words, words that a reader should know on sight without having to look it up or think about it. I am all for anything that incorporates more literacy into the classroom, but there are two big challenges:
  1. Using word walls in high school classrooms is uncharted territory. Most resources (websites, books) about word walls are designed for elementary students--far too easy for high school students.
  2. In two years of use, no one at school has ever told us how to use a word wall. The administration wants one on every classroom wall in case anyone from the district wanders in to see what we're doing to help our LEP students (the group did poorly on state tests last year and thus we did not make Adequate Yearly Progress). It also gets written into our campus plan and other plans of action to say "Look at all of the things we are doing," whether they are actually helping or not.
Instead of dismissing the word wall as meaningless and useless (which I do with a lot of harebrained ideas thrown at the teachers), I have been adapting elementary-level ideas, high school vocabulary-building ideas and successful ideas from my years teaching social studies to turn this into something positive.

Instead of starting a new topic on our short week before Thanksgiving Break, I used that time to do a Word Wall Project to review all of the relevant vocabulary we had covered so far. All of the words are included or are part of a concept covered on our state-mandated TAKS test. Best of all, this project can be used for any subject and most grade levels, although this is probably most appropriate for middle and high school students.

The project requires students to recall or look up the definitions of about 25 words from the word wall, write clues (definitions, examples, pictures, or graphs) in their own words, and arrange them into a crossword puzzle. The crossword puzzle could be replaced with a word search or anything that would require giving the clues a second and third look. The important part of the project, though, is that students create the clues in their own words, ensuring some level of understanding.

I also included five reflection questions which, besides insuring they wrote more, reminded them the importance of such work and helped me learn which concepts still need reteaching:
  1. List the words that you already knew the definition for in your head.
  2. Why is it important to write definitions in your own words?
  3. Why do we need to know these vocabulary words?
  4. Which words do you understand better after doing this project?
  5. Which words are you still confused about?
As you can see in the project directions, each day had a specific task to keep students focused and on track to finish. The first day was devoted to creating the clues, and the second day was for creating the puzzle and answering the reflection questions. I also included a checklist to make sure they completed everything before turning it in.

I created a 20 column, 20 row table of .25" by .25" squares to give to students on day two, to avoid time wasted drawing boxes and fiddling with rulers. Any grid paper would suffice.

20 words may be too much for students to complete in the allotted time--cutting it down to 15 should give classes that are working diligently but need more time enough to finish it in class. You may also keep the 20 words but allow students to work in pairs so they can split the work.

Extension Ideas
  1. Give students standardized test questions that include each term or concept.
  2. Pick out the best puzzles from each class and give them back to the students in that class as an extra credit assignment.
  3. Have students write 1-2 of the definitions they created as a "Do Now" assignment in subsequent class periods.
If you like this idea, you can find more about it and nine other adaptable, classroom tested lessons in my book Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Project Idea: Students Create the Test

Looking for a way to break the monotony of weekly quizzes? I have an alternative assessment idea that I believe is actually more effective at ensuring your students know what they need to know. I don't claim this is an original idea, but like all good teachers, I beg, borrow and steal.

Instead of giving the students another quiz, have them assume your role and create a quiz. You provide the topic, source material, and as much or as little guidance as you think appropriate to start them on their way. They are forced to think about the type of questions you would have asked them anyway and how to answer them. If they create a multiple choice quiz, they also think about the type of mistakes students would typically make in order to create logical, challenging answer choices.

Last year I had students become Teacher for a Day and write a multiple-choice quiz on adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing integers. Since that group of students was complaining and stressing out over the work, I geared the assignment toward assuaging their concerns. They would create a quiz, and to make it a bit easier, I borrowed a trick from my favorite teacher, Mr. Cosgrove. Cos (as we called him), my 10th grade US History teacher, would always throw a few jokes into his tests:
This is where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the end of the Civil War:

A. Appomattox Court House
B. Gettysburg
C. Bull Run
D. In a steel cage match
Even better, sometimes he just made sure you were paying attention:
A result of the French and Indian War was that King George III declared:

A. The Proclamation of 1763
B. Go back to answer A.
C. Seriously, check out A again.
D. Why are you still reading this? The answer is A!
This made the arduous testing schedule a little easier for last year's students to swallow. Being the "Teacher for a Day" was fun, different and most importantly effective.

This year, my students seem to be much better prepared for Algebra I work, so I used "joke" answers as an example of an ineffective assessment. I used the "Create a Quiz" project to assess them on slope-intercept form. The day before, I gave them the Slope-Intercept Study Guide consisting of 5 multiple choice questions, each of which had a hint guiding them towards the answer. These are the questions I would have included on a quiz, and would serve as examples for the project.

The next day, the Slope-Intercept Project worksheet included answers to the study guide, which we went over in class. The quiz they create would follow the same format and wording; they would supply their own equations, numbers and answers. I pointed out work we had done in two separate workbooks and the textbook as sources for other questions, but noted they could also create their own.

Besides the obvious benefits, there's a small bonus: students see how much work goes into creating even a small assessment and learn it's not easy to be the teacher. Hopefully, they come out of this with a little more appreciation for what you do every day.

Create a Quiz project examples

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Aligning Our Textbook to State Standards

After adopting a new textbook earlier this year, Holt, Rinehart and Wilson's Algebra 1, 2 and Geometry, my school district hired a company to evaluate it. The company, Evans Newton Inc (ENI), found the correlation between the textbook and our state standards. When I heard that we would have a training where they would report their findings, I immediately had a question: Why didn't we do this before we bought the books? Doesn't it make sense that we should have known six months ago whether or not our textbook actually covers state standards?

"It is very expensive," I was told, and thus we couldn't afford to do the same with the different textbooks we were considering in the spring. Great, I thought: we're short on teachers, instructional technology and quality software to help students catch up on basic skills and we're spending thousands of dollars to tell us whether we should have bought the book we're stuck with for just under a decade.

Luckily, learning our textbook was only 67% "highly" correlated to our state standards was not the only point of the training. After absorbing the details of the report, we would try to "fill the gaps" that were poorly covered by the text with other resources over several more days of training. Unlike many of the trainings I've attended in my career, this one is absolutely necessary and beneficial. We do need to spend some time going through the resources we have available to supplement the textbook, and it's nice to be paid to do so. This is, of course, something good teachers do all the time; most textbooks across the content areas are useless as teaching tools by design.

Unfortunately, there were some inherent flaws in this process:
  1. ENI looked only at the textbook itself and left out all of the supplementary materials that are, in reality, part of the textbook (standardized test prep, videos, websites, lab manuals, reteaching and assessment workbooks, etc).
  2. Some of the objectives that ENI said were completely covered by the textbook, were, in my opinion, severely lacking. For example, some sections we've already covered just didn't have enough practice for challenging objectives, and I actually have been using the student workbooks from our old Prentice Hall textbook!
  3. On the other hand, ENI said the textbook was lacking in several areas that are simply not a priority for us because they're not tested, which leads us to...
  4. The evaluation process compared the textbook and each subject's state standards, not the objectives that are actually tested in grades 9 to 11. So a lot of what's supposedly lacking is in areas that aren't tested until the next year or in some cases not at all.
This doesn't mean the training isn't helpful; most of our math teachers were coming to the same conclusions and adjusting what they were doing to focus more on what we need to help our students succeed on April's TAKS test. We will continue our work and put together some excellent resources to help our students.

Overall, I can't help but be bothered by one overarching issue: Why aren't the states, colleges and universities, or education-focused non-profits doing this work for free? Isn't this particular service directly beneficial to student learning by facilitating better curriculum through research and collaboration? It angers me that the public cannot see fit to create the kind of curriculum materials or professional development our educators need for free and that education profiteers jump at the opportunity to fill these needs and extort districts out of millions of dollars every year. This is not an indictment of ENI for doing their jobs, but if this country really cared about education, their jobs wouldn't need to exist.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Teacher Stress Relief: Lessons from The 4-Hour Workweek

There's a warning on the back cover of The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss: "WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK UNLESS YOU WANT TO QUIT YOUR JOB". Now, I didn't want to quit my job, but I wanted to quit the way I was doing it. Ferriss provides a map for escaping the sort of 9-5 corporate job that we don't have, but he also provides a blueprint for "living more and working less," which every hardworking teacher needs to do. It is because of this book that I started this website and have been enjoying a life outside of school. There's so much in this book that can change your life, so let's get started.

Forget Time Management: Eliminate Time Wasters

The idea that jumped out at me immediately is called Parkinson's Law. In short, Parkinson's Law states that the more time you devote to something, the more important you think it is and the more complex you make it out to be. In other words, you invent ways to make yourself busy, creating extra work when there's no need for it instead of finding the most efficient way to get things done.

I used to use this principle to my advantage in high school and college: when I had a paper or project due, I usually gave myself only the night before to complete it, thus insuring that I would have no choice but to do only the most essential work. This worked out pretty well for me: I can't remember failing anything (although I do remember one D on an 11th grade poetry anthology). Ferriss gives a similar example with similar results. Why does it work?
It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it's six days of making a mountain out of a molehill.
This also applies for the time you give students to do assignments in your classes!

Only after reading this did I realize and accept how much time I have wasted creating work where there is none, or doing necessary work in the least productive way possible. How else could I explain the 2-3 hours minimum I used to spend in my classroom after school? I would invent meaningless tasks, even meaningless procedures and systems for my students, that would distract me from what I really needed to do. I would clean out and rearrange file folders, grade things that didn't need to be graded, spend hours deciphering students' notebooks or just plain waste time reading and re-reading school email. My health, personal life and ultimately my students fell victim to my desire to be "busy" and thus convince myself I was doing everything possible to do a good job.

A recent example was a system I created my first year teaching. Every student had a file folder, color coded by period, where they could store papers I turned back to them or anything else they desired. Oh the countless hours I would spend labeling, relabeling, and of course filing the huge stacks of papers that I had graded. The problem of course was that 99% of the students never looked at these papers, even as intended (to help them study for unit and standardized tests and as a portfolio to keep). When I taught US history, students already had a quality portfolio of their work: their interactive student notebooks. In Algebra, I have realized this is not as useful anymore. So this year I finally got rid of the student folders, and saved myself hours of work in doing so. Along with other steps inspired by the book, I think I've cut my time spent working outside of school hours by about 80%.

Ferriss provides guiding questions throughout the book to help stir the reader to action. Here are questions from this chapter:
  1. If you had a heart attack and had to work two hours per day, what would you do?

    I had to do this Thursday and Friday last week (working two hours a day, not having a heart attack). I was sick but had to go in early in the morning to set up two self-directed lessons in less than two hours each day for my students. There was no reason for my students to fall behind due to my absence; I have already established that all the work done when there's a sub is to be taken seriously. I had to quickly adapt what I had already planned into something they could do with no help (because believe me, they won't get any from the sub) but still allow them to learn and practice what they needed to know. I was also forced to stop toying with an idea for an assignment to bridge this week's and next week's activities and I just got it done. Everything I would have done with them if I was there was still done, just without the guidance that I would normally provide.

  2. If you had a second heart attack and had to work two hours per week, what would you do?

    I don't know if any teacher could answer this question without deciding they couldn't be a teacher. Don't miss the point of the question, though: what kind of opportunities to follow your dreams could you facilitate in only two hours per week? Ferriss gives a lot of easy-to-follow advice to get your started.

  3. If you had a gun to your head and had to stop doing 4/5 of different time-consuming activities, what would you remove?

    I'll talk about this more in parts 2 and 3 of this series, but I can list most of them right now: redundant grading, writing detailed lesson plans, filing, email, and sitting in “waiting rooms” before unnecessary meetings.

  4. What are the top-three activities that I use to fill time to feel as though I've been productive?

    Cleaning up after students, constantly reorganizing my filing system, writing a detailed lesson plan when no one really reads the details.

  5. Learn to ask, "If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?"

    Ferriss advices is to use a to-do list with no more than two critical tasks to guide your day. I have always been the kind of person to make to-do lists to keep myself focused, but I often put time wasters on the list and give myself hours to work.

  6. Put a Post-It note on your computer screen: "Are you inventing things to do to avoid the important?"
This is part 1 of a three-part series on teacher stress relief based on ideas from the The 4-Hour Workweek. Read Part 2: The Low Information Diet and Part 3: Outsourcing Your Life.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Fix Your School Computer and Prevent Problems for FREE

UPDATED 12/25/08
Is your school computer running extremely slow (or not at all)? When you try to use Internet Explorer, are there multiple toolbars that you don't remember installing that ironically have no useful tools? Do you have popups, popunders and unexplained new annoyances in the system tray (the little icons next to the clock) no matter what you're doing?

Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news: you have spyware and/or viruses. The good news: You can probably clean up everything by yourself, today, for free.

The sad truth about commercial antivirus (McAfee, Norton, etc), spyware removal (anything you can buy at a store), and firewall software (like the one Windows now has built-in) is that they usually don't catch everything (or anything). Even worse, these programs are so big and bloated that they make your system slower than the threats they are supposed to protect you from!

Even if your system is running smoothly, you need to prevent future problems by following all of the steps below. Obviously you can only do this if you have administrator privileges on your computer, which means you can install software yourself. If you don't have the ability to do that, you probably don't have a lot of these problems to begin with, but you may need to ask if your system seems slow or buggy.

Step 1: Get Rid of Spyware

First, download these two free programs (you'll need both):

Close anything like Internet Explorer or Word that you might be running before you start.

Install Ad-Aware first. Follow the installation instructions, and click "OK" when it asks you to update your "definitions" (the list of bad stuff it will search for). When it has finished, start a full system scan. This may take a while to finish, especially if there's a lot of bad stuff on your computer. When the scan is done, Ad-Aware makes a weird noise and a little flashing bug appears if it found something bad. Right click on the list, click Select All, and then click Next to remove the threats. Close the program. [Ad-Aware Product Manual (PDF)]

Then, install SpyBot S&D. You will have to click through a similar installation process and approve updates. When you're done installing and updating, click Check for problems to run the scan. When it's finished, click Fix selected problems and approve removing the bad items. [SpyBot installation tutorial]

These two programs compliment each other; SpyBot will find things that Ad-Aware didn't, and vice versa. Sometimes these programs will say they have to reset the computer or scan it the next time you start up. This is no problem. In fact, after you finish the rest of the steps, I recommend running both of these programs again to make sure every last problem is fixed.

Step 2: Get Rid of Viruses

Spyware and viruses are different types of threats, so they require different types of programs to get rid of them. If you already have a virus scanner like Norton or McAfee and can uninstall it, do it (this goes for your home computer too). Replace them with one of these more effective free options:

Install one of them, following the directions and allowing it to update if needed. You might need to restart the computer and let it scan at startup, just like the spyware removers. Both of these programs are fairly easy to use and don't slow down your computer, all the while keeping you safe. Unlike the spyware removers, this program will keep running all the time to help fend off threats. [AVG User Manual - Avast! Installation Guide (both in PDF)]

Step 3: Install a Firewall

Most people still seem to think that as long as they don't visit certain websites or open certain emails that there's no way they'll get anything. Unfortunately, you don't have to do anything for a lot of bad things to happen, because as long as your computer is connected to the Internet, is it vulnerable.

To protect yourself, you need a firewall, a program that blocks access unless you approve it. Having your computer always on the Internet without a firewall is like leaving your house with the doors and windows unlocked: anybody can "walk" right in. The anti-virus and anti-spyware programs only help after you've been infected, so you need to protect yourself from ever getting infected as well.

The best firewall available is also free: ZoneAlarm Firewall.

Once you install it, it will ask you to approve any program trying to access the Internet for the first time, and will block incoming requests from computers trying to connect to yours from afar. The warnings might be annoying sometimes, but they're not that frequent and they're the best protection. As a bonus, even though it will be running all the time, ZoneAlarm doesn't slow down your computer like more expensive security software will. [ZoneAlarm support and user guides]

Step 4: Other Tips to Prevent Future Problems

  • Keep your anti-virus and firewall programs running at all times.
  • Run both spyware removers and a full anti-virus scan at least once a month, or any time your computer seems a little buggy.
  • Spybot S&D has an option to protect you from programs that try to change Internet Explorer's settings called TeaTimer. It runs in the background and doesn't have any popups or icons. Turn it on. Read more about TeaTimer here.
  • Better yet, replace Internet Explorer with Mozilla Firefox. Microsoft's programs are the most widely used (and the most buggy) and thus the target of most attackers on the Internet. Firefox will crash less, is just as easy to use, and less vulnerable to attack. Download Firefox here.
  • Keep your students off your computer as much as possible, and monitor them when they do use it. They are generally less knowledgeable about the security threats out there, which means they are more likely to download things from shady websites and emails that will mess up your computer.
  • Be suspicious. Learn how to spot malicious email in this slideshow from PC World magazine and this advice from the Anti-Phishing Working Group. Keep up with the latest security threats at CNET Security Center.
  • Turn on Automatic Updates for Windows, which will make sure that the latest security flaw found in Windows will be patched before anyone can exploit it. Again, having a firewall and the rest of the software above will keep you well protected between updates.
What to do when nothing works

If your computer is so messed up you can't even access the Internet to download these programs, try downloading everything on another computer and saving the files to a flash drive so you can still install them.

If you're at a total loss with how to use these programs, or you tried everything and you still have problems, now is the time to call for help. Your school technology staff is probably overburdened and hard to get in touch with--find a knowledgeable colleague or trusted student and ask them to help.