Time management: is this approach the silver bullet?

In teaching, the job is never 'done'; there's always more work to do. So how can teachers manage their time? Mark Enser shares his approach
14th January 2022, 2:21pm
Time management: is this approach the silver bullet?

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Time management: is this approach the silver bullet?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/teaching-learning/general/time-management-approach-silver-bullet
Mark Enser

Last term I enjoyed reading Oliver Burkeman's latest book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It. The central premise of the book is that the knowledge of our finite time - for example, if we live to be 80 we will have experienced just over 4000 weeks - should drive our decisions about how to live and ultimately, our happiness. 

Once we acknowledge our "finitude", Burkeman argues, we become outraged if someone wastes our time or if they try to hoard time as though it were a resource to be saved up and spent at a future date. 

This attitude makes it easy for us to be sold the lie that if we could only be more productive, work harder and smarter, then we can get work out of the way and spend the rest of our precious store of hours on things that really matter to us. 

The first problem with this is, as Burkeman explains, time doesn't behave as a resource we can accumulate and spend as our leisure. Time moves on at the same pace regardless of what we do. We don't stand outside it. We can't control it.

The other problem is that, as the famous axiom goes: work expands to fill the time allotted to it. In teaching, this is certainly the case.

The problem we face in teaching is that the parameters of the job are so ill-defined that the job can never be "done". Finish planning your lessons and there are books that could be marked. Finish marking the books and there are parents who could be contacted, pupils who could be spoken to or colleagues to meet. Finish that and then there is CPD to attend, subject knowledge to improve and emails to wade through. It doesn't matter how hard you work, there will always be more to do. 

On top of this, we add the strange mix of autonomy and accountability. There is the expectation that we will manage our own time and work out when everything should be done. But running alongside this is the micromanagement of various leaders, inside and outside of school, who then attempt to direct you towards their own priorities and dictate how outcomes should look. 

It is no wonder that teachers spend so much time feeling exhausted. When we finally get to "spend" the time we have saved, we end up slumped in front of a TV show that barely holds our attention, whilst doom-scrolling social media, unwilling to risk our valuable store of minutes or hours on anything else. 

Reading Burkeman's book has helped me to see the futility of "productivity". The harder I work, the more work there is. The more I try to save time, the less I enjoy doing anything with it. As a result, I am trying to be better about defining for myself how much time I am willing to spend working and then figuring out, realistically, what I can get done in that time. This has helped me to prioritise the things that I feel are genuinely important and to sideline the things that I don't think make as much of a difference to my pupils.

Recognising that no matter how hard I work I will never get the job done has also helped to make me feel less guilty about saying no to things - and to see that things not being done isn't a personal failing, but a symptom of a system where too much is being crammed into too small a container. All I can personally do is decide what to put in it and what to discard. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book, The CPD Curriculum is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

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