Classroom schedules can make or break a teacher's year. Give even the hardiest of teachers a tough timetable - perhaps one that involves teaching German for four straight hours to the same class, or teaching in five classrooms each separated by several flights of stairs, or always taking the school's most challenging class on a Friday afternoon - and you will soon zap their enthusiasm. But no matter how hard you try, it is almost impossible to make a great timetable.
Class scheduling is a complex optimisation problem. Even mathematicians with sophisticated computer algorithms struggle to make everything fit neatly. This is because a timetable must put teachers and children into a finite number of rooms in such a way that each person is only ever in one room at one time, and each of the rooms is only ever in use by one group.
Where a teacher has only one class and they teach that group all of their subjects (as tends to be the case up to the age of 11), scheduling is reasonably straightforward. The difficulty arises when "subjects" are added to the mix.
In most secondary schools, schedulers must take into account the complexities above, plus the fact that students need a certain number of different lessons each week, and those can be provided only by a certain band of teachers. Mathematicians call this list of elements a tuple, and have used formulae derived from genetic engineering to create computer programs that can timetable optimally. Unfortunately, what a computer thinks is optimal does not always match what teachers think.
To a computer, if there are seven classrooms and eight teachers it makes sense to have seven teachers each in their own classroom and one moving around. For the lucky seven, this is perfect. For the eighth, it means running from room to room carrying a back-breaking melange of equipment, struggling to reach the next destination before students arrive. This difficulty is compounded by school expectations that teachers greet their class at the door and set immediate "starter" tasks. As one secondary teacher who taught in 17 rooms across a two-week timetable says: "It went badly. Exhausting. So I left after six months."
Even when teachers are given their own room, it may not be suitable. Examples include a modern language teacher given a woodwork shop and another asked to teach maths out of a drama studio. Even finding the rooms can be a challenge. One teacher recalls the year that the school's maintenance team renumbered classrooms but forgot to inform the scheduler, leading to students turning up to a computing class only to find that the location was now a cupboard.
Resentments and anxieties
Anecdotes aside, timetables can have a serious impact on teacher turnover and student learning. As one school union representative explains: "Nearly every teacher cares tremendously about their timetable. The people who create (it) almost invariably have a large number of non-contact periods, so a badly designed timetable can create a very strong feeling of 'us and them' and create a profound sense of resentment."
The representative also describes the anxiety caused by timetable problems if they limit a teacher's ability to complete tasks reviewed in performance management. For example, if a teacher sees children several times in quick succession and then not for long periods of time, this can affect their ability to grade work or follow up on problem behaviour.
Regrettably, school leaders are not always able to iron out such quirks. One ex-principal I know, Nicole Spencer, inherited a rural elementary school in Missouri where the day started at 8.12am and all the subsequent lessons ran at equally jarring times. "It was the tradition," she says. "I guess in the past it had been decided because of directives about how much time we had to spend teaching certain things."
Spencer also realised that the school's lunchtime occurred in the middle of a class period. "Teachers had 20 minutes with the kids, before taking them off to lunch and then having them again for 25 minutes. It didn't work," she says.
She tried to change the lunchtime but faced complaints from parents, lunch staff and even teachers. "It took the best part of a year to make that change. After that, it didn't seem worth addressing the other problems."
But if a school's schedule is completed before the students arrive, then it is already doing better than some. In 1999, a high-profile "turnaround" school in London opened its doors to students and the media, only to find that a timetable had not been organised.
Staff complained that in the ensuing months they were given more than 20 revisions to their timetable. One colleague endured so many changes to his that it was not unheard of for him to travel the mile from one school building to the other, only to learn on arrival that his schedule had been updated during his journey and he was now needed back where he had started.
In an ideal world, all teachers would be given their own classroom, evenly spaced planning periods and the quietest class on a Friday afternoon. Unfortunately, the practicalities of school life make this unattainable.
So, cynical as it may be, perhaps the most realistic maxim is one that a principal passed on to me. "The only way to make a teacher happy with their schedule," he said conspiratorially, "is to give it to them after the resignation deadline. That way, they can't run for the door."
Laura McInerney is a PhD student and a former teacher in East London, England.