The teacher across the hall from me is in her classroom before me every day, head bend over her laptop. “Good morning!” I call into her door every day.
When I leave at the end of the day, she’s still there, head bent over her laptop. “Have a good night!” I usually yell into her room. But yesterday, instead, I stopped in the door and asked her if everything was ok.
She looked up. Her face was tired. She was slumped. Her desk was covered with papers, a half cup of coffee, three text books, a pile of photocopied worksheets, a pile of ungraded work, her cell phone, and two water bottles, one of which was lying on its side. “What’s up?” she asked me, a very tired but friendly smile on her face.
“Just heading out. Do you need a hand?”
She looked surprised and I felt badly that I hadn’t offered before. “No,” she said looking around. “I’m just catching up.”
I’m not a lecturer, but she needs to hear this, and you might, too. The work of a teacher is never done. There’s always something else you could be doing. But you don’t have to work constantly. You can walk away before everything’s done. In fact, you have to walk away before everything’s done because everything is never done.
There are tricks to time management for teachers, but we don’t always do a good job communicating them to new teachers. You can set boundaries and develop a strategy that allows you to go home at the end of the day without bringing work home. Here are the tricks to time management I wish someone had told me when I was a new teacher.
Why do teachers need Time Management?
Teaching is all consuming. I’m contracted to work for 8 hours a day, but I could easily spend double that and still never hit the bottom of the to-do pile. Even if all of the grading and planning and parent contact and administrative paperwork and student supervision were done, I would still be able to find piles and piles of training and development and decorating and organizing tasks to keep me busy for the rest of my life. No one is surprised that teachers around the country are feeling record breaking burnout, and there are obvious structural changes that need to be made on the administrative and district level, but individual human beings occupying the role of teacher have a responsibility to their families, their students, and, most importantly, to themselves to make sure that they don’t get sucked into the black hole. Managing the hours that you are at work helps create structure and reduce overload and, hopefully, reduce burnout.
12 Secrets to Teacher Time Management
Must be done but not necessarily today:
- grade papers
- contact parents
- administrative paperwork
- clean and put away used lab materials
- decorate my classroom
- professional journals, workshops, trainings
- volunteer supervision of students
3. Set a schedule. Once you know what your priorities, decide when you will do them. I teach 5 or 6 classes a day and have a prep period and a lunch period every day. The mandatory things I must do today are the things I do on my prep period. Some days, there isn’t enough time to get everything done. If they don’t get done today, then they will get done tomorrow! Some days, there’s extra time so I can chip away at the next lower priority items. The key is to be very purposeful in your prep time. My classroom door is shut, my email is turned off, and I do the things that I have to do. If I want to chat with a friend or make a phone call, I do that during my lunch period.
4. Pomodoro it. To help me with my focus, I use something called the Pomodoro method (I’m using it right now as I’m writing this article!). If I have a 50 minute block, I set my timer for 20 minutes and I work for 20 minutes. When my timer goes off, I take a 5 minute break or spend 5 minutes doing something lower priority but different. For example, if I was grading papers for 20 minutes, I might spend my 5 minutes cleaning lab supplies or making photocopies. If my 20 minutes of work time was intense lesson planning, my 5 minutes of break time could be filling out administrative paperwork or calling a parent or stapling up part of a bulletin board. The key is to do something different – a change is as good as a break. If you need a break, go for a walk around the school or have a cup of coffee in the courtyard, but keep it to 5 minutes. then, return back to your workspace and put in another 20 minutes of intense work time. Using the Pomodoro method – work for 20 minutes, break for 5 minutes, work for 20 minutes – I can get more done with better focus. Working for 20 minutes at a time is far less draining than working for 50 minutes straight, and I end up getting more done because I haven’t had a loss of focus.
5. To Do Lists. I use my old fashioned hand written plan book for my to-do list. In the spaces on my plan book where my preps go, I fill in tasks that need to be done. This accomplishes three things. First, it reminds me of what I have to do which is important because we juggle so many tasks that it’s easy to forget. Second, writing the task in the plan book sets it as a time bound item. This activity (call Johnny’s mother, write sub plans for personal day next week, whatever) will get done during that time because I’ve planned for it. Third, writing the task gets it out of my head. I don’t have to think about it until the time it’s schedule for, freeing my brain for all of the other things I need to think about. Another benefit is that I really enjoy crossing things off 🙂
6. Build routines. This is more of a mindset than an actual teacher time management trick or tip. To help me accomplish more in the time that I have, I set up certain routines that work for me by pairing activities together. For example, I do my photocopying on the way to the restroom. I pick up my coffee when I sign in in the morning. I take attendance while my students are doing their bellringers. I check email three times a day – when I first get to school, at lunch time, and before I leave in the afternoon. I’ve never missed an “urgent” email.
7. Collaborate. I work closely with other middle school science teachers in my building. We plan lessons, labs, and enrichment activities together and write assessments together and make copies for each other. We even share lab supplies. This serves a few purposes. First, it reduces each of our personal work loads. I don’t have to do my lesson plans this week because the other teacher did them. I don’t have to make copies because someone else made them for me. The DNA extraction lab is already set up on the cart. A second purpose of collaborating with my colleagues is that the administrators, guidance department, and special services LOVE that we’re all on the same page all the time. Parents never call to say this teacher gives more homework than that teacher. Every seventh grade science student has a test on the same day. Everyone’s work is easier. Time management for teachers often means working with other people who can manage your to do list.
8. Use self-grading assessments. I can’t stress this one enough. My own personal teacher time management has been 100% better since I learned how to use self-checking assessments. I use them for formative activities like do now and homework and I use them for summative assessments like tests and quizzes. Although they started as an answer to remote teaching in 2020, I will never go back to paper and pencil assessments because of how much time I’ve saved.
9. Use Doctopus. For lab reports and essays, the management and organization of them is just as hard as grading them, but I found an easier way. Doctopus is a Google extension that imports your assignments from Google Classroom and organizes them in way that makes them easier to grade.
10. Use small chunks of time. Students are finishing a test? Grade some papers. Assembly or hall duty? Bring your laptop and do some planning or write some parent emails.
11. Use teacher made activities. You don’t have to recreate the wheel. There are literally millions of resources on TeachersPayTeachers (and a few hundred on the JustAddH2OSchool store, too!). Teachers before you have created labs, worksheets, handouts, lessons, slide shows, and assessments and most are very inexpensive. If you’re running short of time and need a lab, spend $2-3.
12. Ask for help. When your supervisor asks you to do something additional – volunteer for a committee, help create a workshop, design a school wide program – be sure to ask for clarity. For me, it sounds like this: “Can you help me identify which of my responsibilities are priorities this week?” I want to send the message that I’m a team player – I’ll do what it takes for my students to be successful – but my plate is only so big. If you add to my plate with something new, then you’re going to have to take something off my plate. Suggest that you’ll work on this additional task instead of your non-instructional duty – hall duty or cafeteria duty or bus duty maybe, or attending a faculty meeting or supervising during an assembly. Teacher time management in this case is really just administrator management.