Time management is an underrated skill, not least for teachers. Like all relatively autonomous jobs, tasks can expand to fill the space given to them. And when the emotional demands of the job are high (and not considered in national policy), procrastination and workaholism are always possible paths to slip into.
A caveat on those two terms needs to be made: every teacher needs time almost every day where they do very little, and/or nourish their creative/imaginative lives; also, being a workaholic isn’t the same as working hard. Workaholics are often ineffective in what they do, and do not see the wood for the trees.
Speaking to trainee teachers (and even some of those with decent experience), I often hear the phrase that ‘I worked all weekend’. Of course, actually working all weekend is very rarely (if ever) what they have done. What they have done is speak and think about work that entire time, perhaps even counting such tasks as pushing paper around a desk and perfecting font types on a PowerPoint as work. Of course, there are certain times when you need to work extraordinary hours (especially near exam time). But even then, it is likely to be effective and planned rather than simply the act of working incessantly.
Working life has a rhythm rather like in sports-fitness. It is not effective to dive immediately into work that pushes you to your mental and physical limits. You need to build up that kind of work over several weeks. And if you know you will put in 70+ hour weeks, you need to taper where possible (that is, lay off on the hours prior to those big weeks). Within those weeks, you need to have busy days, and less busy days. The mind, like the body, recovers in the periods of rest (while it absorbs the fatigued and ‘damage’ of work during periods of action). Without such rest (which might be as simple as an hour or reading a night, a game of football, or even just a shared dinner), the hours of work matter not – you will become increasingly inefficient, and increasingly unable to refresh yourself.
One rule I had during my PGCE that I have referred to often is to never work past 9pm. Of course this was sometimes broken (especially prior to exam or observation requirements). But not much so. I always nurtured a feeling that I should have finished at that time, even if the task needed more time to complete adequately. The effect on me was to feel a sense of urgency that allowed to complete the task, and to leave time to relax afterwards.
I write about these thoughts because my planning and marking has become proficient to the point where I want to influence those who were/are in the positions I have been in. What once took me many hours can be completed rapidly. This could mean that, at times, more time is left for relaxation and recovery (and a sharper with which to interact with the students). At other times, it means that the same amount of time allocated to that task yields even better/more results. Therefore, you can see below some of the transitions in my use of calendars:
a) PGCE: daily calendar printed out from Google that I added tasks to by hand. Tasks were often allocated to specific time-slots. When very busy, I would simply complete tasks in hand. As my lesson allocation was less than that of an ordinary teacher, I would plan lessons in detail on an evening-by-evening basis, ensuring that the content and focus was decided already. Saturdays were often dedicated to chores not completed during the week, and Friday and Sundays evenings reserved for social relaxing and fun.
b) First few years of teaching: digital calendar via outlook linked to a PDA. The PDA, despite being HP and windows-based, crashed often. However, I was able to easily add tasks where necessary and (to a degree) organise them by urgency and importance. My calendar was synced between home and school and I would often allocate tasks to do during the day.
c) Main Scale teaching: I began to use my calendar increasingly less, and instead used My Life Organized (MLO) increasingly more. During free-periods, I would select tasks of importance (rather than urgency) to complete for a length of time, and feel better for it. I found myself completing more work very early in the morning and on a Sunday, leaving my evenings freer for reflection and relaxation.
d) Current practice: I have upgraded my PDA to post-it notes. They have a paste and delete function (throw in bin!) and come in various colours. From meetings (both formal and informal) I have begun to use my post-its to record tasks (using active verbs rather than noun phrases) before placing them onto a mat. I have one in my study and at work. The mat is split into:
– to do from meetings (often used for messages I need to pass on)
– to do now (for tasks that are quick and can be completed that day)
– to schedule (useful tasks that can’t be completed today).
Each day (or so) I aim to clear the post-it notes and transfer longer tasks into MLO. MLO is useful for important tasks, but it is less effective for prompting urgent ones (an inherent issue in electronic time-management solutions). Therefore, all tasks require some ranking in urgency and/or due date.
I have two calendars: digital and physical. My physical calendar is the classic purple Cisco. Ideally, this should be beside a door so you can share it with others. It is also something to record the day-by-day passing of time (as a digital calendar doesn’t truly provide this quality. It is mostly for social events, holidays, sporting events and Parent Evenings (!) as it provides the framing of the day in that week or month.
My digital calendar has not received much use. One of the reasons behind this is that my to-do list software is not outlook based (and outlook is, of course, links tasks to a calendar). Having just reviewed outlook, its absolute lack of creating a task heirarchy means that MLO is still my to-do list of choice.
I use my Google Calendar for seeing my timetable, but I have several physical manifestations of my timetable (at work and at home) so this is not so useful. It is effective, I think, to sync with my phone when I have to organise a series of essential tasks/chores. However, two issues arise with this:
1) The calendar requires you to allocate tasks to a certain time. I don’t know the time that I want to complete a task. One of the issues of calendaring (!) a task is that allocating it to a specific a time means that if the time passes without the task being completed, it is ‘lost’ in the system.
2) Equally, if the task is calendared and on my to-do list, it would also need to be ticked off on the list once completed. Such duplication is unnecessary.
Therefore, I think that the digital calendar is most useful for the following principles:
a) Allocated time to complete important tasks on a once per after school/evening basis.
b) Structuring essential and busy days for free cognitive capacity elsewhere.
c) Sharing my time-management with others.
For all else, it is difficult to see a better system than using MLO and post-it notes for the tasks I need to complete. I can organise them during the day. It is only those important tasks that aren’t possible to complete in 15-60 mins and that encourage procrastination that should be calendared digitally.