The perks of working smarter, not harder

Achieving a work-life balance can seem an elusive dream, but our time-saving tips will help you to claim space for yourself

Ask a teacher if they have a spare second and, if you are lucky enough to get an affirmative answer, you had better speak quickly. They will time you. This is not rudeness. Between the teaching, marking, planning, data sorting, extracurricular commitments, mentoring, admin, resource-making, research, meetings and countless other demands made on teachers' time, a second is likely to be all they have.

Ask them the same question at 11pm on a Wednesday or 5am on a Monday and you will probably get the same answer. They are still working. Sleep? There's no time for sleep. A social life? Don't be silly.

It doesn't have to be this way. Although the workload of a teacher is as ridiculous as it is heavy, to be the best you can be both professionally and personally, you need to find a way through it that allows you to have some free time. This may seem impossible but there are many things you can do to manage your time more effectively. Below are five key areas to focus on.

1 Prioritise

The golden rule of managing a large workload is learning what to prioritise. It sounds simple, but the best place to start is to list the things that need doing alongside the date they need to be done. This enables you to sort the immediate issues from the long-term concerns and the large jobs from the small ones. Once you have this list, start plotting when you can complete each task. Decide how long each task will take and allocate a free period to it. This will mean that you are more likely to make use of time in school and thus take less work home with you. Identifying your priorities in this way can take place on a weekly or termly basis and you should regularly review how successful you are at meeting your aims.

2 Sieve your work

The next step is to rid your timetable of pointless tasks. This is not to say that you should ignore any job that doesn't seem big enough. Sieving is about eliminating tasks that might feel important but which, on closer reflection, are not worth the time that you spend on them. Ask yourself what you do that is of low value - then ask why you are doing it and what you need to do to change the situation. For example, if you always hand the books out at the start of a lesson, why not ask one or two trustworthy students to do it instead? This will free up your time for other things. Think about the tasks you repeat and consider whether you can save time by combining them or doing them all at once. You may not be able to take all your registers in one go, but you could save time by creating two card-sorting resources for two different classes at once.

3 Delegate

Wherever you are in the school hierarchy, there are two ways to delegate: positively and negatively. The latter involves foisting work on to other people so that you don't have to do it. This is unfair and should be avoided. The former involves sharing responsibility and giving people a sense of purpose and ownership - be it students, department colleagues or fellow year group teachers. Not only does this increase efficiency but it also increases the stake that people have in the process or event.

To delegate effectively, you need to be specific. Clarify what you want done, who you want to do it and when it needs to be completed by. You also need to communicate clearly. Talk to the person you are delegating to and ensure that they fully understand what they have been asked to do. Remind them to check with you if they are unsure about anything. Finally, provide a structure but allow for creativity. This is best done by explaining what end result you would like and what constraints exist, while allowing the person undertaking the work to decide how to make things happen.

4 Mark in lessons

This is a great way to save time. Of course, marking in lessons does not mean that you should sit at the front of the class buried in a pile of books while your students are left to their own devices. But there is no reason why you can't set the class off on an independent task and then select specific students who would benefit from a conversation as you mark their work.

For example, I was teaching a lesson recently in which my students had to complete a group task for half an hour. After the first five minutes it was clear that everybody knew what to do and how to do it. I therefore took the opportunity to mark two students' work, talking to them as I did so.

The first student had been underperforming recently, so as I marked his work we talked about what he had been doing to turn things around. At the same time, we found examples in his book to support this. The second student was simply lacking confidence. This was therefore an opportunity for me to highlight all the things she was doing well.

5 Plan your marking

Providing good feedback is essential if we are to help our students make progress. However, personalised formative marking takes time. Although it is definitely worthwhile, marking a stack of books in this way is no small feat.

To make your marking workload more manageable, it pays to plan ahead and decide what you will mark and when. You can set up a rota for each set of books, taking into account when you will need to prioritise marking assessments, coursework or mock exam papers. Planning in this way will avoid unmanageable pile-ups. Grouping similar tasks together is also more efficient than trying to complete different tasks at the same time. If you teach the same topic to more than one class of the same age, you will save yourself time if you mark all their work together instead of swapping between different topics or year groups.

I know what you're thinking: don't a lot of these things take up time too? Well, yes, I can't deny that. Saving time is a bit like making money. You have to spend a little to begin with if you're going to get what you want. The key thing to remember is that if you spend a little time on developing systems to save time, the benefits you will accrue over a week, a month or a term will be far in excess of the initial outlay.

Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published a number of books on classroom practice. He shares his resources on TES Connect and expands on this article in his booklet Time-Saving Tips For Every Teacher, which is available to TES Pro subscribers at

What else?

In a Teachers TV video, staff share time management advice.


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