Never has Robert Burns’ oft-quoted "the best laid plans of mice and men…" been more apt than in a school.
You can start at 8am on Monday with a week’s lessons planned, your resources printed, and your observation lesson ready…and by 9am you’ve now been offered a surprise assembly to lead, an unplanned day out for a school trip and have been asked to cover two lessons because a vicious bug has swept the school.
While you can’t plan for the unplanned, you can make space for surprises. As an NQT you’ll want to please and people will throw opportunities your way. Sometimes, knowing you have more free time than more experienced colleagues can prompt you to volunteer for extra responsibilities. Remember that extra 10 per cent PPA time exists because you’re still growing into the role: it’s yours to use towards your own development. Having a well-run calendar will let you know when to say yes – and perhaps more importantly – when to say no.
Saved by the (Outlook) bell
So where to begin? Firstly, decide where this calendar will live: I’m a huge Google fan because it synchronises across all my devices, but Outlook (which most schools use as their email provider) is fantastic too – particularly helpful is its notification system which doesn’t leave you alone (forcing you to not spend hours prettying up resources instead of marking) and how quickly you can add events from your emails to your calendar.
Whatever calendar service you choose, create a colour-coded system with a colour for each year group, assessment/data/exam dates, extra-curricular events and parents’ evenings.
The next step is to grab a copy of your school’s assessment and data calendar. If you haven’t been given one, your head of department should have one. Go through and put every single data drop, assessment period, and mock exam in your new calendar: these are non-negotiable dates, so your entire half-term should be planned backwards from here.
Then add in any other unmoveable dates: parents’ evenings, open evenings, extra revision clubs, etc. Remember that as an NQT, you’re entitled to a timetable reduction and this time shouldn’t be used for other things, such as cover lessons, unless it’s an exceptional circumstance. Block out those hours too: they’re as non-negotiable as exam dates.
Teaching can lend itself to short-term thinking if you’re not in a leadership role: instead of seeing your work life as lesson to lesson, or term to term, try and see it as a 39-week spread: what do students need to have completed and learned over that time? Where are the obvious sticking points in the year?
Book into your calendar when you’ll assess classes and how you’ll assess them – do you need to do whole papers or long essays?
Can you use some low-stakes quizzing or single paragraphs? Could students do a discussion as an assessment? Try and think outside of the box a little and spend your energy where it’s most needed (which will probably be your exam classes) and pop your plan into your calendar. If you’ve colour-coded your year groups, potential marking meltdowns will also instantly stand out as weeks that need a rethink.
Save your weekends
Full-time teachers have a maximum of 1,265 hours of directed time over 195 days (which works out to around 6.5 hours a day); this covers everything from PPA time and lessons, to CPD and parents’ evenings. However, it doesn’t include marking or preparation time outside of this, so using those hours effectively is key. Try to imagine that weekends don’t even exist on this calendar. where you can slot in marking periods to ensure you get an alarm free Saturday? Blocking out time in your timetable for this will make you much more productive (and help you avoid wasting frees in the staffroom chatting).
Finally, you’re going to need some admin time. I like to tell myself that "half an hour on the list means no sleep missed". While the rhyme is terrible, its message is true – putting aside 30 minutes on a Friday afternoon to make sure everything is scheduled, ticked off, or rescheduled if necessary, allows me to work more efficiently the next week and enjoy my weekend without that looming niggle that I’ve forgotten something.
It’s never too late…
If you’ve found yourself in this space already, it’s not too late to fix it! Put aside some time on Friday and start from next Monday – eventually it becomes habitual and you’ll be so grateful it does.
The reality of teaching is accepting that you’ll never reach the bottom of that to-do list. But by managing your non-contact time as well as plan your lessons, you’ll be able to stress less, rest more and deliver fantastic lessons day in, day out.
Lauran Hampshire-Dell is a secondary English teacher