Teachers often feel overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks at hand, the never-ending lessons they have to plan and the piles of marking they have to do. Chia Suan Chong offers ten tips that could help teachers manage their time.
I often hear teachers in staffrooms complaining about students who are late for lessons and claim they have no time to complete their homework tasks, and yet spend their waking hours on social media and binge-watching series after series on Netflix. Then there are teachers who sneer at me when I talk about CPD (Continuing Professional Development) and categorically tell me that they have time for no such thing. There is no doubt that time-management is a skill that we are not born with and like any other skill, takes time (ironic, I know!) to hone.
In the recent issue of English Teaching professional (114), I took a brief look at how we could (and should) include the teaching of time management in our classes, and suggested that many teachers could do with some help in this area. As a teacher/teacher-trainer, a writer, and a mother of two very young children, I find myself in a constant act of juggling my responsibilities and regularly feel overwhelmed with the amount of work I have to get done in the few hours of the day available to me. Ever since my older child started school, I’ve found my working hours cut shorter, but my working responsibilities have been on a steady increase (through my own volition). In an attempt to gain better control of my life, I’ve had to go right back to the basics of time management and re-learn and re-apply some of those skills again.
And so, for the teachers out there (and this includes all teachers, not just English teachers), here are my top ten time-management tips that I’ve found incredibly helpful.
- Set clear goals
It’s easy to go from day to day ploughing through your workload, putting out constant fires and feeling like there’s never an end to all this. But what are you doing this for? Where are you going with it? What is the ultimate objective?
Consider the things that you have to do and the things you want to achieve. Think short-term as well as long-term. And using the SMART model, set yourself some clear goals.
Your goals should be:
Now consider the activities and tasks you spend your time on everyday. How do they go towards helping you achieve those goals. Which ones are time-wasters? What can you do to reduce the amount of time you spend on activities that don’t go towards helping you achieve your goals?
- Plan your time
With clear goals, you can now go about planning how you spend your time and organising your days. For longer-term goals, consider a longer-term plan. Download a monthly planner or use a planner app to help you get a better overview of the steps you need to take to achieve those goals.
It also helps to be able to look ahead each day and know how you will spend your day achieving your goals. Plan your day either the night before or the first thing that morning. Know what is important and what isn’t, and be conscious of what contributes to helping you achieve your goals as you prioritize your tasks for the day.
Have a to-do list and enjoy the satisfaction of ticking each item off the list. You’ll feel more productive, and consequently, more confident when you have a clearer overview of what you have accomplished.
- Learn to say no
Don’t feel like you need to take on everything that is given to you. Consider your priorities and how a task might or might not contribute towards your goals. How would this new task or activity fit into your plans? If you are unsure, ask for time to decide by saying, “Can I think about it and get back to you on that?” It’s good to be helpful, but not to the detriment of your own health and sanity.
- Be smart about lesson planning
A lot of the teachers I meet complain about the amount of time they spend planning their lessons. While it’s good to plan your lessons, spending hours upon hours planning a 30-minute lesson, and then doing that day after day can really sap the life out of any teacher.
The fancy PowerPoint presentation that took you three hours to make might be really impressive and that Cluedo-esque card game that took you two hours to create and another hour to print, cut and laminate might be great fun, but how much learning is really taking place as a result of those activities?
Ultimately, our students are in class to learn and although it may be difficult to actually measure learning, it is nevertheless important that we consider the time-to-learning ratio: is the time we put into preparing an activity actually going to result in learning that is worthy of that input? Would an impressive PowerPoint actually result in more learning than if that lesson were to be delivered on the whiteboard?
While I will not hesitate to applaud the creativity and originality of creating the Cluedo-esque card game, for the overwhelmed teacher, those two hours might be better spent elsewhere. There are plenty of lesson materials freely available online for the busy teacher to print out and use, so keep an eye on relevant Facebook groups and Twitter accounts that regularly post links to downloadable teaching materials. Bookmark useful websites and keep an organised folder of printouts/handouts that you’ve used so that you can re-use them again in the future.
- Be smart about marking
The other time-consuming activity that I often hear teachers complain about is the marking of homework and assignments. Unfortunately, there isn’t much about marking that is enjoyable, and the best thing to do is to be smart about it.
- If the marking is objective (e.g. there is a right or wrong answer), then have your students do the marking. You can have them exchange papers with each other to ensure fairness. The added benefit is that our students will probably learn more from marking their own papers as it forces them to consider possible mistakes and the reasons behind the right answers.
- Don’t give out lots of homework at a go. Plan and spread out the deadlines for homework/assignments you give out so that you’re not left with multiple piles of work to tackle all at once.
- Plan to mark a small load at a time, rather than leaving them all till the last minute. Having the psychological burden of knowing you have a large pile of marking to do is not only soul-destroying but will more than likely make you procrastinate further.
- You don’t have to mark everything. Consider only focusing on certain points when marking an essay and let students know beforehand. Say things like, “For this assignment, I’ll be specifically looking at how you organise your paragraphs.”
- Be smart with technology tools
There are plenty of tech tools out there that can lighten your burden. Look into using Google Forms and their add-ons to help with homework and marking. Look into Jing to audio-record your feedback to their assignments, instead of having to write everything out. Nicky Hockly’s regular feature in each issue of ETp recommends some of the best ways to use technology tools in teaching while Russell Stannard’s Webwatcher on the ETp website gives detailed tutorials on some of the most useful teaching tools online.
- Eliminate time-wasters
What do you waste time on each day? Is it browsing on eBay for things you don’t need? Is it checking Facebook updates, looking at Instagram photos, or watching cute YouTube videos of cats? Or is it getting involved in unproductive chats and email chains that cause nothing but frustration? Do you find yourself splitting your attention between trying to watch something on television and playing a game on your phone, and then feeling deeply unsettled by the stress levels caused by dissatisfying multi-tasking?
It’s important to (a) know what it is you’re wasting your time on each time. Remember that if you’re truly getting rest and relaxation from doing that activity, then it isn’t a time-waster and can be categorized as having ‘me-time’. However, if the activity isn’t really relaxing you, then it’s time to cut it out of your day.
Then, (b) proceed to set certain rules that will help you eliminate these distractions. For instance, decide that you will remain off-line when you are marking. Or have a no-multi-tasking rule when you’re meant to be relaxing.
- Apply the Two-Minute Rule
In David Allen’s book ‘Getting Things Done’, he proposes applying the two-minute rule to everything we do, i.e. if it takes less than two minutes to complete, then get it done now. It would take more than two minutes if you were to come back to do it later.
I apply this rule to answering questions in emails and online groups (e.g. WhatsApp, Ning, Google groups), dealing with admin requests, photocopying/printing out handouts, and even daily household chores (e.g. taking the bin out, washing up).
In addition to the traditional two-minute rule, I also apply a variation of it to tasks that take a lot more than two minutes. When there is a bigger task ahead of me (e.g. marking a pile of papers, writing a blogpost) and I’m lacking in motivation to do it, I tell myself that I would start the task and do it for only two minutes. I often end up doing it for more than two minutes, and when I am confronted with the task the next day, I’m pleased to see that some of it has already been done and am more motivated to finish the job, thus solving the problem of inertia.
So my addition to the two-minute rule is: If you have a task that would take more than two-minutes, start it before the end of the day and do it for two minutes.
- Practise being mindful of what you do and enjoy what you’re doing
When you are trundling along from one task to the next, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lose sight of what it is you’re actually doing. Pay attention to what you are doing and how you are feeling. Focus on the parts of the tasks that you enjoy and remind yourself of why you’re doing it and how it relates to your goals. Remember that the journey is often more important than the destination.
(I’ve written more about mindfulness in teaching here.)
- Allocate time for yourself
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Allow yourself time to relax, time to exercise and time to sleep. Keep a check on your work-life balance and engage in activities that nourish your body, your mind and your soul. And remember that a happy teacher will inspire happy students.
And if after reading those top ten tips, you are still overcome by panic as you think about the mountain of work ahead of you, allow me to share with you this fantastic piece of advice my friend and colleague Emma once gave me: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Chia Suan Chong looks at how you can teach time-management to your students.