Accepting failure: managing time better as a teacher

Accepting failure: managing time better as a teacher

Some years ago, I spent a year teaching in a rural school in South India.  It was perhaps a mile’s walk to the nearest village, not that there was anything one could do there, except catch the thrice-daily bus.  Occasional trips into town were necessary, exhausting and stressful.  Most frequently I visited on a Saturday afternoon, leaving after the morning’s lessons and returning by five.  I had a list: email my family, continue my application for Teach First, photocopying, pens and supplies for class, anything for myself, like toothpaste, washing powder, snacks; perhaps some beads for the necklaces I made in my spare time.  India has been stalwart in resisting the supermarket; few shops stocked more than one of my desired items.  I walked around in the heat and the dust, the weight of the elapsing minutes before the jeep returned to school building into something approaching panic.  I never, ever completed my list.  Eventually, I learned to live with this, reconciling myself to a new rule: completing half the list was success; it was worth doing less and joining my fellow teachers for a bite to eat before returning.

Practice in failing to achieve all I would have wished proved good preparation for teaching: I’m thinking of time management in particular although the point could easily be extended.  If I consider everything I would wish for all my students, I am forced to conclude that their needs are infinite, while my resources are finite.  For each of my classes I could list a day’s worthwhile work in a moment: better planning, clearer differentiation, more & more thorough marking, developing my own knowledge of the topic, talking to their other teachers, individual conversations with some of the students, indeed with all of the students.

Managing time as a teacher seems similar to using language effectively: its a teachable skill which is often left untaught.  Teachers share tips and tweaks: keep everything in a box like this, arrange your marking like that, always write down the other in your planner.  You can find dozens of such ideas online, many of them useful; I can think of embarrassing moments searching for worksheets or students’ reports that such tips might have prevented.  The starting point for this post however, is that none of this solves the underlying problem: this tinkering frees you to move on to the next task, but the list of tasks remains infinite.  Must we be left like the White Rabbit, on the run just to keep still?

White rabbit

Over the last couple of years, I adopted a kind of system to manage my time.  I rotated between tasks (mostly because I found it hard to maintain my interest in marking through a whole class set, so I would mark five books, then do a bit of planning, then do something else, then go back to marking).  If I had a couple of frees on a particular day I would try to make time for something extra, beyond the run of the mill.  Most essential things got done in time; occasionally I managed some important extra things, like working on my professional development.

The second year working in a new school seems harder than the first, so it is this year I have had to fix my shoddy time management.  I started with tweaks, for example, I met the challenge of teaching out of four classrooms in two buildings (with the staff room in a third) by making a massive folder which holds everything required for eight classes.  However, tactics like clever folders don’t address the need to juggle (complete, even) a raft of lessons, duties, ‘Ofsted-readiness’ activities, preparing trips, leading CPD and an external review of my department (I’ve dodged the internal review for the time being).  Recognising the effect this was having on me and some of my colleagues, in the spirit of trying to solve problems, not just complaining about them, and in order to fill a gap in the CPD programme, I decided to lead a CPD session on time management.  I didn’t intend to pretend any expertise, given my travails; I hoped to share ideas.  In preparation, I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which is oft-quoted (but rarely read, it seems) in this context.  Within, I found some kind of solution – at least one which has worked for me:

A strategy for managing time


It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?”
   Henry David Thoreau

From a selection of quotations I offered my colleagues to begin our the time management session, this was voted the most patronising.  Fair, but Thoreau has a point!  Needs are infinite…  in the classroom, teachers learn not just to rush around helping those who clamour for support, but also those who do not ask – that is to choose who to help depending on their assessment of need and priority  What about outside the classroom?

Covey’s writing on time management builds on his earlier chapters, which invite the reader to identify their principles and values (something I tried to do at the start of term).  It is then possible to identify the actions which are most important in pursuing those principles.  Covey suggests using four quadrants, a strategy I suspect most readers will know:

I Urgent and Important                    II Not-Urgent and Important
Fight in the corridor                                         Getting to know your form better
Planning your lesson for Period 2               Planning next term’s unit
Answering your headteacher’s                      Preparing long-term strategy
angry email

III Urgent and Unimportant           IV Not Urgent and Unimportant
Some emails & requests                                   Complaining!
Some conversations                                          Some emails
Some administrative tasks                              More administrative tasks

Covey argues that the most successful people spend most of their time working on things found in Quadrant II.  Given the examples I’ve used above, this makes sense: by planning and resourcing a unit in advance, individual lessons become less of a task.  Taking time to build relationships with students makes it more likely a teacher can identify and prevent incipient trouble.  Ensuring that documents are up-to-date, obligations fulfilled and communication with the head is good makes it less likely they will walk into a classroom or meeting and be surprised and unhappy with what they see.  In short, the more time spent in Quadrant II – working on long-term issues which build towards success, the less it is necessary to ‘firefight’ unexpected problems and crises.

I would rather not dwell on how much of my career has been spent in Quadrant I; I suspect that may be true of many teachers.  I think the hardest step in addressing this is the first one – setting aside an hour for next year’s curriculum seems absurd when you already have so much markin
g to get done.  Thankfully, Covey has a mechanism for putting these principles into practice.

Principles into practice

1) List roles

I stuck within my professional life and listed teacher, head of department and head of CPD; this could equally be holistic and include aspects of life outside school: partner, parent, friend, volunteer?  Blogger?

2) Identify three goals for each role, each week

A recent week for me looked something like this:
Teacher: teaching lessons (cop-out, since I had to do this?), responding to Year 7 reflection sheets, planning extensions to current Year 8 unit.
Head of Department: planning upcoming trip, responding to my curriculum review, planning the next Year 7 unit
Head of CPD: planning the next Teacher Learning Community, checking details for CPD for the rest of term, working out ways to improve CPD for support staff.

3) Block out time for each goal across the week

This looks far easier in Covey’s imaginary example than for a teacher, who begins the week with twenty or twenty-five unavoidable obligations rather than a blank easier.  All I do however, is write into each of my frees one of the tasks I’ve given myself for this week.

4) Stick to the schedule

Then you just follow the week’s plan…  Easy?

Does it work?

Yes.  And/but:

Resisting short-term pressures – getting the important things done
I use my time much better: more important stuff gets done, to a higher quality.  I can sit for an hour focused on my intended task and avoid frittering half the time on emails, incidental tasks or last-minute changes to the next lesson.  I’m sometimes a little less clear about what I’m teaching until I walk into the room (because it was planned earlier in the week, not the lesson before), but lessons are better because they are thought-through in advance.  I get more things done comfortably ahead of deadlines; I even complete tasks which are important but have no deadline.  I also feel in charge of my work: instead of waiting for a colleague to set a deadline for something I know I’ll have to do, I now find myself chasing them to get the process started, because I’ve set time aside for the task and intend to complete it.  And I’m better at resisting surprises, because I believe pretty firmly that whatever I don’t know about on Monday morning, when I make the week’s plan, is unlikely to be that important; if it’s truly critical, the school will have to consider reducing my workload elsewhere to get it done.

Resisting external pressures – how do I keep space for my priorities?
We did an exercise choosing words to describe ourselves and each other recently at school and the word most commonly applied to me was ‘strong-willed.’  My instinctive reaction to authority is bolshie, so pushing back on external pressures comes pretty naturally to me.  This is a different kind of resistance, a more principled one.  Before, my resistance to an idea, policy or task would be because either a) it seemed a bad idea or b) I didn’t have time.  There is no change to (a) but with (b) I am much clearer in my own mind as to the consequences of the time lost with additional, last minute tasks than I was before and of the sacrosanct nature of the goals I have chosen for the week.  I have priorities and a schedule, so I will have to be convinced that an additional, imposed task is more important and more urgent than what I have planned to do.  This is a more useful conversation than simply claiming that I’m busy: everyone’s busy.

Reconsidering my principles – what do I value?
This exercise helped shed new light on my values and how I use my time  Perhaps the most profound and most useful realisation, certainly the most pleasant, related to taking breaks.  Last Thursday (the heaviest day of the fortnight, although not by much), I taught five hours, ran an hour’s enrichment, supervised lunchtime detentions and had a half-hour meeting; that left one free, in the middle of the day.  As anyone who has ever taught a full teaching day will know, by 5pm I was invariably less patient with my students than I would have wished.  The treadmill mentality of getting as much as possible done had me using that one free hour to complete another task or two.  Considering what mattered, rather than a list of tasks, helped me to recognise that actually, to be the teacher I’d like to be, that time is best used taking a break – if the weather’s nice, I go for a walk – and I feel rested and refreshed by the time I’m back at school.

Reconciling myself with Quadrant V – how do I deal with unavoidable tasks?
Stephen Covey never grappled with Quadrant V, unimportant but unavoidable.  Mostly, these are accountability-focused things that I can’t escape but which seem unlikely to significantly affect my students’ learning; sometimes they are things I don’t want to do but should.  Covey might argue that you should pursue your principles and enter into debate on the need or the execution of each task, but time and stamina for this discussion is limited.  I began by ignoring these tasks and then having to fit them in around my priorities.  Now, instead, I set myself one ‘unavoidable’ action each week – and allot a slot to it too.  By ensuring that it is only one action a week and the unavoidable tasks are done, I maintain the underlying integrity of managing my time effectively.

The conclusion?
I’ve habituated this now: the first thing I do on Monday morning is now plan my tasks and block out the week for them.  Frequently, as in India, I fail to meet my goals.  However, with an achievable, meaningful list of tasks, I get more done and I have a clear conscience about the tasks I’m not getting done – they were never that important anyway.

The line which has stuck with me most strongly from Good to Great is this: “The enemy of great is not bad, it’s good.”  I wasn’t sitting around all day checking facebook and bad-mouthing students all day before and I’m not super-teacher now.   I was doing good things: marking, teaching, planning…  but as Covey says: “Keep in mind that you are always saying ‘No’ to something.”  By prioritising differently, by saying ‘No’ to some of those tasks in the short term, I have more time for great things: finding ways to mark more effectively, planning further in advance more effectively and more precious time to make longer-term investments in my own learning which will help make me a better teacher.

The crux – I am a professional: I choose how I spend my time
This is not just reorganising my diary, it’s bigger and bolder; it increases both the power and the pressure I feel in doing my job.  In choosing only three tasks within each role, I am accepting that I will not do – will never do – a vast array of other things.  If I say I will resist external pressures to meet my priorities, I’d better be certain they are right.  To me, this represents another small piece in the jigsaw of professionalising teaching: professionals do not implement the directives imposed upon them, they use their judgement to decide where they will focus their efforts.

I’ve written before about trying to maintain a work-life balance – and deal with the guilt – here.