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An outlook where less is definitely more

Win effectiveness training for your school and declutter your inbox forever. Renata Rubnikowicz sees time-poor teachers try it out

Every time Rachel Crouch opens her inbox she sees 300 emails stacked up, Fran Bottoms feels that if her electronic communications were replicated on paper they would just make a huge heap, and Sally McIlveen doesn't even have a laptop at school yet - she has to monitor emails from student volunteers for her school mentoring project from home.

So the three teachers pay attention when Michael Beasley of personal effectiveness training company Priority Management says he can help them be "more in control" and "a little less stressed" using Microsoft Outlook software. This is no computer training course, he says, but a demonstration of what he calls "personal productivity" skills that can enable busy teachers to move between working on computer and paper, between home and school, and use the time saved to concentrate on the quality of their teaching, or, indeed, the quality of their own lives.

Michael Beasley starts by asking the three to identify "productivity pirates" - activities that take up more time than their importance warrants. The answers come fast: the need to log everything, says Sally McIlveen, a key stage 3 senior manager preparing for a move from Bayswater middle school, Oxford, to a fully-broadband secondary in September. Rachel Crouch, literacy and ICT co-ordinator at St Nicholas primary, Oxford, is also preparing to move to a bigger school, and wears so many hats she feels she sometimes has to be in several places at once. And all agree they have to keep far too much in their heads, and are sometimes in danger of forgetting things during a busy school day.

Working in a Milton Keynes secondary school (Stantonbury Campus) with more than 2,600 students, economics and business studies teacher Fran Bottoms appreciates the value of "being able to email a head of year about a difficult Year 10" immediately a problem occurs (she carries her laptop with her). But, as Sally McIlveen points out, a report of an incident will always need follow-up information about what's being done about it.

"This is where the four Ds come in," says Michael Beasley. "Do, Decide when, Delegate or Dump." The idea is to look at each email once only and act on it there and then. "Your aim is to end the day with an empty inbox."

The teachers look disbelieving. "You have to change your habits," he insists, "and that's difficult. But if I can show you the value of a different way of doing things, within 20 or 30 days you can change your way of working."

His theory is that if you use Outlook to plan ahead, you can clear your mind of trying to remember the clutter of detail and free yourself to be more creative. He demonstrates how to file emails and group correspondence using the contacts book, so one click can bring up all the material relating to a particular student or issue. To plan ahead, for national curriculum milestones or lesson planning, teachers can use the calendar, which can be customised to help arrange school meetings or events. And the "to do list", which Rachel Crouch does on paper at 11pm each night for the next day, can be logged in Outlook as the tasks crop up, so they will present themselves the next day, week or term when they need doing, without becoming a nagging worry in between.

The teachers are won over when Michael Beasley shows them how Outlook can organise everything they have to remember for any particular day, incorporating lists of tasks and meetings, which can be printed out and scribbled on during the day when away from the computer. The chief benefit of planning in this way soon becomes clear: just like the captains of industry Michael Beasley usually advises, teachers have to face up to how much they can realistically cram into one day. When they can show they have planned their time, it will be easier for them to identify and refuse impossible demands. This means they will be better able to complete the jobs they have agreed to do and so will be seen as more reliable. Result? Less stress all round.

Is Michael Beasley a magician whose Outlook wand will help teachers prise themselves out of their seemingly endless succession of tasks so they can get to the ball (or at least to a dance class or the pub occasionally)? Well, no. As always, teachers have to do it for themselves. "If people know you will always follow up - whether it's a student's homework or getting colleagues to a meeting," says Michael Beasley, "they will change their behaviour."

"If only," says Sally McIlveen, who has more experience of schools and their inhabitants. But she seems eager to give it a try - when she finally gets her school computer.

Win a free training session for up to 20 staff to find out how Microsoft Outlook can save teachers time. Just tell us in no more than 50 words what you would do with an extra hour in the day. Microsoft and Priority Management will provide a two-hour seminar at three winning schools during summer term 2003, using the schools' existing resources. Email your entry to marked Microsoft Competition, or send a postcard to Microsoft Competition, Friday magazine, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, to arrive by April 30

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