“But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near…” (Andrew Marvell)
Regular readers of the Secret Teacher column will be familiar with the themes of teachers and time. There isn’t enough time to do everything, or to do most things to the high standards decent professional educators would like to maintain. Coming up on 10 years in the profession, however, I do still believe it is possible to have a reasonable work-life balance in the job. Every mentoring relationship I’ve experienced as a teacher – either as mentor or mentee – has seen time management as a hot topic, so I am writing this post to share the approaches that I have come to rely on myself, and seek to pass on to my mentees. I hope some of it helps you wrestle with your own teacher time demons.
I should add a bit of context here. I’m head of an English department in an 11-16 school. I’m a wife, sister, aunty, daughter but not a mum. Those who balance teaching with their own offspring, I salute you. I hope some of these ideas might still help you but feel free to snort at how self-centred I am when it comes to allocating my time.
I must also pause at this point to credit the Give Up Busyness For Lent campaign for shaping a lot of these ideas, and recommend that you read more about it here. The campaign’s ebook was hugely inspiring for me; I will attempt to emulate its quick-read/summary style by condensing my key ideas into the first 2 sentences of each point, (as writing anything about saving time, which takes time to read, is kinda daft) but brevity has never been my forte!
So, how do I manage time and cling on to my work-life balance as a teacher?
- Get on with it!
Ask yourself: am I about to spend time moaning/fretting about a task, which could be used to actually do that task?
I frequently find that once I start a job I’m dreading, it’s not as bad as I first thought. Even spending 10-15 minutes starting it a little bit makes me feel immeasurably better as then I know where I’m going with it.
- Harness the power of the list
Replace ‘To-do lists’ with ‘Must do’ and ‘Might do,’ break larger tasks down into smaller bits, and tick things off with a flourish (in colour. With your fanciest pen).
Being a stationery addict, I use a pretty book for my lists, one page per day. (I like the Orla Kierly range with tear off pages.) I often used to get to the end of the day and copy 5 items from today’s onto tomorrow’s list, feeling inadequate in the process. Writing a list instead of what HAS to be done today and ticking all those things off, then a separate list of what MIGHT be good to achieve today but CAN wait, is a much better approach for me. Boy do I feel smug when I tick off things that don’t have to be done yet.
Each holiday I tend to find I’ve got a lot of quite large jobs to do and so I’ll use a mind map or table to break these into smaller steps (e.g. a scheme of learning might break down into: decide assessment foci; gather resources; outline lessons week by week; create first week’s lessons; write assessments; plan homework.) Way more manageable and upping the ‘tick to job’ ratio. The what? Let one of my favourite contemporary poets, Jude Simpson, explain here.
- Guard your non-contact time carefully.
Leave meetings on time with your bag packed, plan how to use your ‘frees’ in advance and signal when it’s not OK to be interrupted.
You know how it goes in schools. There’s the main meeting. Then there’s the meeting after the meeting. The gathering of colleagues in someone’s classroom or the staffroom where people say what they really wanted to in the main meeting, but didn’t dare to. It often goes on as long, or longer, than the main meeting. It’s hardly ever positive or constructive. So, pack your bag and shut down your computer before the main meeting, and aim to leave school straight away at the end. It’s your evening, which often means precious time with family/friends/yourself that you’re protecting. Spend an hour dealing with your workload or looking after yourself, not an hour listening to someone grind their axe.
Another reality of school life is that you rarely have the luxury of working in your own classroom uninterrupted during a ‘free.’ If you’re not careful, you can spend about half of the non-contact time gathering your belongings and moving to another space to work, deciding what you want to get on with, finding materials you need etc. If you plan in advance what you will do with that non-contact time and get everything ready, you can sit down and get on.
You are entitled to this PPA time, even if you are in a position of leadership, so learn to say/signal if you need to get on. I often use my headphones to politely show that I’m working and wish to be undisturbed. In the past, I’ve also discovered various hiding places (like the librarian’s office) which provide a haven from interruptions. As long as there are other times of the day/week when you signal you are open to conversations and interruptions, I think that’s OK. Try saying “I need to mark these books now but I can talk properly at____ instead.” (If you’ve planned your ‘free’ as in Point 3 above, this becomes easier)
- Learn your own patterns of productivity
Work out if you’re an early riser or a night owl, a short burst or long slog worker, and don’t fight it.
I’m most alert at my desk in the early mornings, particularly if there’s sunshine and dew on the grass. I’m OK in the evenings. I’m hopeless at working between 2pm and 4pm (coincidentally the traditional school meeting slot – Zzzzzz). Once I’ve sat at my desk, I am better going for quite a long stint.
As a result, I often try to get to school early and tick a few jobs off the list before school starts. If I’m working at home in the holidays/at weekends, I’ll try and get up and get on with things. I’ll work all morning but then give myself the afternoon off. If I try to keep working between 2 and 4, I will take ages doing things not very well and will get frustrated. No point.
Think back over your recent experiences and when you have been most productive and energised. Then go with it! Likewise, find the places that suit you best for different tasks. I like marking in a busy coffee shop as I feel more relaxed and less isolated (and can reward myself with caffeine and baked goods), but prefer to plan in school where I can spread things out on tables and use whiteboards to sketch out a big picture.
- Rewards and incentives.
Sometimes we all need a carrot so practice the art of delayed gratification and treat yourself once the jobs are ticked off.
Back in days of yore, I marked Y9 SATS. One day, even the thought of the extra money I was earning (which would go on to fund a holiday and a new sofa) was not enough to motivate me. So I worked out how many papers I had to mark to buy the ridiculous pair of shoes I currently hankered after, marked them, and went off to buy the shoes.
This is my most extreme example, but I often use the promise of a cake, a TV programme, a visit from friends and family, time for a hobby, (or something in the White Stuff catalogue) to motivate me. “When I’ve completed w, x and y, I will reward myself with z.”
- And finally, marking.
It’s a fact of life so divide/conquer and speed it up.
If you’re going to moan about marking to the point where this really has a negative impact on your mood, you’re going to make yourself miserable. You have to mark. Get on with it. (See point 1).
Of course, I’m not going to leave it there. There are ways to make it much, much more bearable. For me, marking a pile of 25-30 of anything is overwhelming. Instead, I divide this task into smaller units. If it’s a class set of books, 7-8 at a time is bearable. Then I go off and do something else, before resuming. (At the end of 14-16 or even 25-30, I’ll have a reward in mind. See point 5.) If marking longer essays, I go with a pile of 4-5 at a time and put a strong student’s work at the bottom of each pile so I can look forward to that. I am a bit sad, yes.
I’ve blogged here and here about my own approach to speedy marking. Whatever you do, find a way to stop writing out lengthy comments and above all, make sure students respond to your marking. That way, you’ll know that the precious time you are investing is going to have an impact on their progress, and therefore on your performance.
So, to summarise:
- Get on with it! Ask yourself: am I about to spend time moaning/fretting about a task, which could be used to actually do that task?
- Harness the power of the list. Replace ‘To-do lists’ with ‘Must do’ and ‘Might do,’ break larger tasks down into smaller bits, and tick things off with a flourish.
- Guard your non-contact time carefully. Leave meetings on time with your bag packed, plan how to use your ‘frees’ in advance and signal when it’s not OK to be interrupted.
- Learn your own patterns of productivity. Work out if you’re an early riser or a night owl, a short burst or long slog worker, and don’t fight it.
- Rewards and incentives. Sometimes we all need a carrot so practice the art of delayed gratification and treat yourself once the jobs are ticked off.
- And finally, marking. It’s a fact of life so divide/conquer and speed it up.
I’d love to hear your own ideas on the same topic. If you can spare the time… 😉