May 17, 2022
I grew up in a military family and served myself, so we were always taught to “work smarter, not harder”. But, by being efficient, I found myself throughout my working life getting things done way faster than expected, which usually meant I was assigned additional tasks or responsibilities.
Now that life has slowed down, I don’t have as many things to do, which means less distraction and less rushing. Recently, I found myself stretching out my to do list to fill my time.
I was checking all the boxes, but I recently sat down for a monthly chat with my principal and realized I was working too hard to get it done.
I lost a lot of sleep that night. Kicking myself for not being efficient–something I had always been good at. I realized that, with our new lifestyle with less demands, two things happened: I stopped rushing and I started spreading things out to have enough to do to fill my time. It sounds good, until the downhill takes an upswing and now I am no longer getting done in a reasonable amount of time.
If this sounds familiar, let me share with you what I figured out and have put back into practice since that call. It has reclaimed my life so I am less worried about punching a clock and more about having meaningful interactions, both at work and home.
First, you have to break your tasks down into categories. For educators that is Planning; Teaching; Grading; Follow Ups and Communications; and Projects or Additional Tasks.
Next, you need to figure out how much time should be spent on these. For most workers, we are paid and expected to work an 8-hour day. For salaried employees, the expectation is to work until it all gets done. It is possible to do both, with few exceptions like major deadlines. For educators, this is going to be beginning and end of terms.
Finally, you need to learn to schedule your time for tasks daily, weekly, or as needed, and use a timer or calendar to stick to it. I have found through the various fields I have worked in, we tend to spend way too much time on things that don’t have the most impact. The same is true in teaching. Many educators spend way too much time doing all the things other than teaching. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.
For my fellow educators, here is the breakdown I found that works for me as a virtual teacher. It varies only a little from when I was a brick and mortar teacher–you can check out my previous blogs on managing time in the classroom.
PLANNING & PREPPING – 6% of your time should be spent on this and that can vary depending on how your schedule is spent. This translates to 45 minutes of an 8-hour day or between 3 1/2 and 4 hours a 40-hour work week. In the classroom, this is going through curriculum maps, gathering resources and prepping lessons plans. In most districts, this is pretty well mapped out so don’t overthink it, which is where most teachers put in so much overtime. For me, my curriculum is already online and established, so this when I am preparing resources for my students to help them and running my weekly reports then filtering and highlighting the areas that need my attention to plan my calls. I also run my progress report filter in this step since I am already there, but I send them in a later step.
TEACHING – 70-75% of your time should be spent on this since it is our primary responsibility. In the classroom, your class periods are planned out for you and you already prepared your lessons and resources, so it should run on autopilot. For me, this is my student contact time. This will be calls based on the report I prepared, teaching a live lesson or conducting a tutoring/help session with a struggling student.
GRADING – 6% of your time should be spent on this, just like planning and prepping (so 45 minutes of an 8-hour day or between 3 1/2 and 4 hours a 40-hour work week). This could mean grading all of one type of task a day for or grading for one class period a session. With the exception of major projects or tasks, this should go pretty quick. If you are finding all your work is time consuming to grade, say for language arts, think about ways to still check for learning and understanding in other ways that are quicker, especially in the ‘I do’ or ‘We do’ phase–walk around and spot check or partner work and matching/multiple choice. For those bigger tasks, plan for extra time or borrow from another category and be sure to not let it fall behind.
FOLLOW UPS & COMMUNICATIONS – 6% of your time should also be spent here, although it may not be needed every week, so this category could get used elsewhere when needed, just be sure to plan ahead. In the classroom, this may be checking in on students that aren’t submitting, have been absent or their grade is slipping, as well as behavioral calls (good and bad–don’t forget those praise reports!). For my virtual classroom, this is when I send my progress reports to my parents. It is also when I reach out to my students that are not working but are fine in the other categories, as well as my grace period check ins for new students and finalizing communications and grades for students that are finishing the course (my students are in different places based on personal progress, so it’s not unusual to have both in the same week). Responding to texts and emails can fall in this category, although for me, it often falls in my grading category since some of my communications will be written.
PROJECTS & ADDITIONAL TASKS – 6% of your time is also spent here, and this one is also easy to go over on. I use this category for professional development; additional duties and responsibilities I took on; meetings and professional developments to attend; and emails that have a follow up task attached to them. In the classroom, many of these same tasks are present, so it will be very similar.
Another tip that can really help you succeed is front-loading your week. That means you are getting the biggest tasks, or the ones most likely to go over time, done first. In the classroom, that was under the ‘I do’ category where I spent must of my time chunking and checking for understanding so I was doing more work than the kids. Then, when we moved into ‘We do’, it was a little more balanced. By the time we got to ‘You do’, the grading was lighter since I had checked for understanding along the way and retaught as needed, so was able to give a task or mini-project that they spent more time working on and I could evaluate quickly. In my virtual classroom, this means I contact the students that had flags in multiple categories (a monthly call due within 5 days for a non-worker that has fallen behind pace and their grade has slipped below a C) or were time sensitive early in the week (a monthly call due, a failing student, or a non-worker for over 7 days) and worked my way down to other tasks (students that skipped a lesson, students 80% complete and need a nudge to finish instead of procrastinate, students with a call due 6-14 days out).
Realize that not every week will look the same. Sometimes these categories will fall into a daily routine and sometimes they will rotate. I may need more than 45 minutes on a project, so I will spend 90 minutes grading one day, then 90 minutes on a project the next. Likewise for planning. I used to plan a unit or week at a time, so would spend all my non teaching time one day getting it done, then would work the other categories into that time the rest of the week.
It is all about finding balance while also being flexible. Each new term brings new goals or obstacles, so be flexible, but also set boundaries. Keep a running list for a week or so of time on tasks to help you analyze. Sometimes just seeing it written down helps you see it. If you find yourself constantly working extra hours and you can’t figure out why or where, schedule time to talk to your principal, team leader or coach and bring your time on task list.
Just seeing it written down and calling it out, then having a plan has already eased my mind. Hopefully, it will be the same for you.