Race against time

30th August 2013 at 01:00
Your job may seem to swallow up ever more hours, but with careful time management could you regain a work-life balance? We called in the experts to examine three teachers' timetables

According to research undertaken for the UK government, the average classroom teacher works about 50 hours a week, in excess of many other occupations. Indeed, heavy workload has long been cited as a reason that people leave the profession. So what can be done? Some argue that this is not so much an issue of workload as time management. Is this true?

To find out, TESS asked three teachers to share their average day with a productivity expert and an experienced teacher, who offer advice on how they can make the most of their time.

Katie Blood

Katie is a full-time deputy headteacher of Laughton Community Primary School, a small school in East Sussex, England. She has two daughters, aged 3 and 8, and runs a Brownies group in her spare time.

She struggles to manage her day and always tries to do too much. She finds it hard to concentrate on one task at a time.

"If I write a really good list and stick to it then I'm fine, but I don't feel I'm good at dealing with things that come up unexpectedly," she says. "I also find myself checking emails halfway through a task and then that gives me 26 more things to do. I add them to the list and try to get started straight away."

Katie has one non-teaching day a week to complete management tasks, during which she works in the school's computer suite. On these days her "very supportive" principal allows her to arrive later than usual, so that she can take her children to school. She makes up the time during the rest of the week.

Tuesday 18 June (a non-teaching day)

8-8.40am: Prepare my children's breakfast, clean the kitchen, drop the children off.

9am-3.15pm: Throughout the day I check and respond to emails and questions.

9-9.30am: Respond to a school governor regarding a report - this includes adding detail and emailing documents.

11-11.20am: Speak to a teaching assistant about their work and print appropriate documents.

11.20am to lunchtime: Write a letter for parents about sex education and address a behaviour issue (both 30 minutes).

Lunchtime: Eat lunch while dealing with another behaviour issue (30 minutes).

End of lunch to 3.15pm: Make a list of this term's important dates for parents (45 minutes). Arrange a date for a school council chat regarding mathematics (10 minutes) and spend an hour planning for the week ahead.

3.15-4.45pm: Staff meeting.

6pm: Brownies.

8pm: Dinner.

8.15pm: Plan and order family food online and send emails about a Brownies meeting.

The Experts' View - Mike Gershon, experienced teacher

Katie is juggling the competing pressures of work and home - a common situation for teachers. Not only is she looking after her children but she is also facing a heavy workload at school. Yet she is achieving a great deal during an average day.

It is clear from the diary that she keeps on top of matters, deals proactively with a range of stakeholders and acts as a problem-solver and point of contact for a wide range of individuals. All while making extensive time available for her children.

I would suggest taking five to 10 minutes at the end of each day to reflect on what has been achieved, particularly in relation to helping and supporting others. Doing this regularly will help to develop an attitude in which success and hard work are acknowledged.

One and a half hours for a staff meeting is a long time. What could have been done via email? Could the meeting be held standing up to encourage a quicker conclusion? Who chairs the meeting and how tightly do they keep to the agenda?

Another suggestion is to group similar tasks together - for example, writing the letter, sending emails and responding to the school governor. This would allow Katie to maintain a greater degree of focus since her brain would not be switching from one thing to another. It would be more efficient.

In terms of systems, Katie should define when she will respond to emails. If anything is urgent, colleagues can come to her in person. Emails can easily break up your day and cause you to waste or mismanage time.

Katharine Vincent, productivity expert

My first suggestion would be for Katie to make a time plan for her non- teaching day, either in advance or during the first 15 minutes. For the first few weeks, she should record the time when she starts and finishes a task. She will then have a good idea of how long particular jobs take, so in future she can make a plan with specific time slots for each one.

Another approach is for Katie to divide her list of tasks for the day into three columns representing different types of work: operational, strategic and developmental. Of course, there are some things that simply need to be done, such as dealing with behaviour issues when they arise, but if Katie finds herself spending most of her time on these tasks, it may be necessary to reassess the way she is managing her workload.

Email can be a real time thief: it is impossible to concentrate if you are constantly distracted by a beeping inbox. She should allocate half-hour slots at the beginning and end of the morning, and the beginning and end of the afternoon, to deal with it.

My final suggestion is that Katie should consider whether some of the tasks she does should be handled by an administrative member of staff. Printing documents, drafting letters and arranging dates are important, but may not be the best use of her skills. It is difficult to find extra resourcing, especially at a time when school budgets are stretched, but it is not really in the best interests of the school for a deputy headteacher to be spending the majority of their time on these kinds of tasks.

Katie's reaction

Our school secretary is pretty amazing at helping me with administration tasks, as is my teaching assistant. I think I'm really good at delegating things to them, but sometimes it is quicker to do something myself.

The idea of working out how long tasks take before making a list is a good one, as when I make lists I often put too much on them. I also like the idea of grouping tasks together - I'll try this out in September. I think the idea of checking emails less often would be really beneficial for me.

Henrik Viftrup

Henrik is a teacher in suburban Copenhagen, Denmark, at a school for students aged 5-16 in a wealthy district. He works primarily with one class of 11- to 12-year-olds but he also teaches three other classes and runs gym lessons for older students. "Some of our classrooms can be quite small and stuffy, so students often ask to go outside or elsewhere to work," he says.

Monday 10 June

6am: Wake up and get a cup of coffee. Check my school email.

7.30am: Arrive at school. Talk to another teacher about how to fix a problem with two girls in my class.

8am: Mathematics. I make a short introduction to the group.

8.30am: My class works in two different locations with different materials. I run between locations to help and to make sure the students are getting their work done.

9.30-9.50am: Morning break. Move my car to another car park because of parking regulations.

9.50-11.20am: Gym class. I organise five different activities for 28 children in the schoolyard, while it is full of other children on a break.

11.20-11.40am: Eat with the class.

11.40am-12.05pm: Midday break. I talk to a colleague about some of the boys, who have had a water fight. We decide that I should write to their parents.

12.05-1.40pm: Science. We make models of famous buildings. I clean up some of the classroom with the children afterwards.

1.40-2.10pm: Clean up the rest without the children.

2.30-3pm: Answer emails from parents.

4-5pm: Prepare mathematics and swimming lessons for the next day.

5-5.30pm: Call a colleague so we can prepare our gym class for the next day.

8-8.20pm: Speak to a parent I wrote to earlier today.

The Experts' View - Mike Gershon

It is clear from Henrik's diary that he has a high level of commitment and is conscientious in wanting to achieve the very best for the children in his charge. This comes through most clearly in the time and effort he puts into planning and refining his teaching.

Henrik notes that the children left the science class without finishing cleaning up. He then spent half an hour doing this. A great technique is to train children in tidying up and finishing off. This can be done as a game where students have to get faster and faster through repeated iterations. It is fun and breeds a sense of achievement.

Henrik makes use of repetition with his gym class, saving himself planning time. Looking for similar opportunities throughout your day is a great way to save time in the long term - all the small benefits add up and you tend to notice a difference fairly quickly. Henrik should always save any letters or documents he creates, storing them in clearly labelled folders. This way, he can amend and adapt instead of having to work from scratch on every occasion.

I feel that Henrik is trying to do too much with some of his classes. For example, could not the mathematics students have all worked in the same location, or could the gym lesson have had fewer activities? Either way, facilitation and control would have been considerably easier to achieve.

Another option is to appoint student leaders who can help him to set up and run activities; once they have done this a few times they will become skilled in the role and increasingly efficient.

Katharine Vincent

It seems Henrik is well organised, but he does have a lengthy working day that involves completing work in his own time, so it is worth thinking about whether there are any ways of saving time in order to alleviate this pressure.

Having to spend 20 minutes moving his car seems like a waste of time. I wonder if it is necessary for him to drive to school. If driving is the only option, could he car-share?

There are several points in the day when Henrik speaks to colleagues about things that have happened in the classroom. This is obviously important but it seems to take up quite a bit of his time, so I wonder whether there is a way to do this more efficiently. Perhaps he could arrange to meet with them once a week to discuss issues that have arisen.

Henrik spends at least an hour and a half preparing lessons in the evening. Is there a way that he can fit this into the working day? He seems to spend most break times talking to colleagues or to parents. Holding weekly meetings instead would free up time to do planning within the school day.

I would also recommend trying to plan in advance, so that it is not necessary to spend time every evening doing this. A more efficient way of working is to make plans for the term, then make minor adjustments when necessary.

Henrik's reaction

I have been moving my car in protest because there is a permit system in the area and I think that having to pay to park my car isn't fair, so I have been trying not to pay. But I might get a permit this winter.

I do try to get students to clear up after themselves, but that can result in valuable teaching time being lost. We don't always make that much mess - on that occasion we were making models.

I sometimes have classes running in different rooms or outside because the classrooms are small and can get hot. I should sometimes be stricter about where the students go to work. I also realise that I do run a lot of different activities in classes, but I'm just trying to make my lessons exciting for students.

Stuart Race

Stuart is subject leader for drama at Kesgrave High School in Suffolk, England. He describes himself as not a "list or diary person", but manages to juggle many activities. These include leading a department, organising school productions and teaching.

He tutors a Year 9 (aged 13-14) form group, which involves coming up with activities for the students every day.

"The only way I get everything done is to arrive early," he says. "I do sometimes think I don't have enough time to lead a department properly. I can work two to three weeks ahead but I would like to have more time to think ahead.

"I do a lot of head of department work in the evenings, when I can't be interrupted."

Monday 1 July

7.45am: Arrive at school. Eat breakfast while replying to emails. Set up my whiteboard ready for assessments in period 1.

8.30am: Staff briefing.

9am: Registration with my form group.

9.10am: Assembly.

9.25-10.55am: (period 1) I teach Year 8 (aged 12-13). While they work on their assessments I set up the drama room for performances.

11.15am-12.50pm: (period 2) Non-contact time. I get down to paperwork, planning timetables and putting together a departmental development plan. I also prepare for the Year 7 (aged 11-12) show tonight, which includes heading out to buy sponges to apply face paint. A trainee teacher in my department comes with me and we treat ourselves to Marks amp; Spencer sandwiches to make lunchtime more exciting.

2-3.35pm: (period 3) I teach Year 10 (aged 14-15).

After school: The Year 7 annual drama performance. We have four forms - 120 students - performing tonight and the next two evenings. The technical run-through finishes at 5.30pm. Then it's time for costumes and face paints. I've organised the Year 10 prefects to help out, too. It's all go, but the Year 7s love it.

6-7.30pm: The show. Parents are happy and proud.

7.45pm: Out of the car park and going home. I've worked for 12 hours but it doesn't and never feels like it.

The Experts' View - Mike Gershon

It is clear that we have an excellent teacher here - someone who gives a lot of time and energy to his job. However, there is one strategy he may find useful for improving his efficiency.

Stuart implies that he prefers certain types of jobs to others. All of us do, it is perfectly natural. But in the long run this can lead to putting things off or producing work that does not reflect your true abilities. A good technique to help yourself do things you find less enjoyable is to remember the adage attributed to Mark Twain: "If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first."

Taking such an approach helps to avoid procrastination. The upshot will be increased efficiency and more headspace.

Katharine Vincent

As head of drama, Stuart evidently has many demands on his time. During this particular week, he seemed to be working unusually long hours, owing to his involvement with the drama performance. It is great that he feels so positive about his job, and he certainly seems to fit in a lot.

Stuart is very committed to his school and his students, and takes part in many activities that might be considered beyond the call of duty. Some tasks are less productive ways for Stuart to use his time. For example, he mentions that he pops out to buy sponges before the drama performance. It would be more appropriate for this kind of task to be done by an assistant than by a head of department, although Stuart does manage to combine the shopping trip with buying lunch.

Nevertheless, if someone else had gone to buy the sponges then perhaps Stuart could have used this time in a more productive way.

Stuart's reaction

Some of the comments made are very interesting and helpful. I can relate to Mike's Mark Twain point. However, rather than doing the tasks I dislike first, I do them at home. I certainly don't put them off. When in school I want to be with the students and with my team. I enjoy working at home in the evenings or on the weekend, so I do a lot of this departmental work at home to release me to do the other things at work.

Let's talk

If you would like tips and advice on how to manage your time more effectively, join us for a webchat on Monday 2 September at 5pm. For more information and to find out who will be taking your questions, go to www.tesconnect.comtimemanagement

Meet the experts

Mike Gershon is an experienced teacher who writes about education

Katharine Vincent is a lecturer in education at the University of London's Institute of Education.


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