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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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5 Ways to Make the Most of Your Non-Teaching Time

Maia Heyck-Merlin

Teaching is the hardest job in the world. As the founder of The Together Teacher, I care about two things: your success and your sanity.

Time. It's the thing every teacher needs more of, and no teacher has enough of. Whether you wish to get deeper into student data analysis or want to spend more time with your own children, no teacher has enough hours in the day to do it all. But with very careful planning of their non-teaching time, I've seen thousands of teachers get more time back in their lives. Here are the top five ways you can make the most of your limited "free" time each week:

1. Start with a Detailed Plan

Whether you map out your week digitally in Outlook like Heidi Reed or on a paper planner like Hollis Hyland, start with a plan. 

Both Heidi and Hollis, middle school teachers at the same school in Washington, DC, map out their weeks the Friday prior. Yes, you heard right! The Friday before the week ahead! As they plan their weeks, Heidi and Hollis carefully consider their non-teaching time and what they want to accomplish -- both personally and professionally. This way, they head into the weekend with clear heads and way less stress.

2. Batch Process Your Work

Most prep periods end up being a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and by the time you've used the restroom, filled your water bottle, and decompressed for a second . . . wait, who are those 30 children walking in the door already?

Try this instead. Look ahead at your entire week and determine which prep periods are dedicated to planning, to grading, to family contact, to student tutoring, and so on. If you do your "like items" all at once, you will get into an efficiency groove. And while you're at it, try packing your lunches for the entire week at the same time! Don't Kate from Denver's lunches look amazing?

Kate's lunch.
3. Consider Your Energy Levels

Let's be real. At the end of any teaching day, you're exhausted. Instead of staggering around your school at 4 PM in search of a cola or chocolate, become mindful of when you are capable of doing higher-level work and when you just need to check something easy off your list. Plan your lower-energy work, like data entry, quick emails, or erasing the whiteboard, for when you really just want to crash. There's just no sense in trying to write an awesome unit plan when you are dead-dog tired.

4. Bite-Size Your To-Do's

See those plans from Hollis and Heidi? See those teeny tiny to-do's, like print these documents or create those materials? Making a task specific and bite-sized helps ensure that it gets done. When to-do's are too big, they have a tendency to sit there like heavy bricks. Break it down and make it small. Yes, it will make your to-do list look longer, but it also makes it easier to take advantage of those teeny tiny five- or ten-minute pockets of time that materialize before staff meetings or when you're waiting for the copier (not to mention the satisfaction you get from all the checking and crossing off). And speaking of small pockets of time . . . 

5. Use Small Pockets of Time

Since a half-day of time to plan, grade, and analyze data is not going to magically appear any time soon, be physically prepared to use those little blocks of time that do pop up in your day. One of my favorite teachers, Sue Harmon, has two nifty tote bags packed and ready to go at all times. Her first bag is full of grading materials, including sets of essays, stickers, her grade book, and her special grading pens. At a moment's notice, she can knock out a set of papers. Her second tote is packed with planning materials, like the book for an upcoming novel unit, Common Core Standards, and diagnostic data. When she has a moment to get some planning or grading done -- voila! -- her materials are right there waiting for her. And while you're at it, make a folder of everything you need to copy, and carry it with you at all times. You never know when you may see an opening in the copy line.

Teaching is a unique (and awesome) profession that doesn't lend itself to much "work" time. It's constantly changing, and we're always "on" with other people, be they students, parents, or colleagues. It's too easy to end every day feeling like the to-do list is never done. Take advantage of the tips above to get a few minutes back in your day! 

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Maia Heyck-Merlin

Teaching is the hardest job in the world. As the founder of The Together Teacher, I care about two things: your success and your sanity.
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Petra Claflin's picture
Petra Claflin
Manager of Digital Media and head blogger for YES Prep Public Schools.
Blogger 2014

These are incredibly helpful tips, Maia! I was definitely guilty of wasting enormous amounts of time during planning periods my first few years and just ended up doing most things at night or frantically before school started and planning things out more strategically definitely would have helped me.

Mary Jones's picture
Mary Jones
second grade teacher from michigan

I missed the part where you told me when all this extra time would occur. I can see that using my prep period for marking/planning/whatever would be a better use of my time than taking a breath, getting a drink or using the bathroom, but I'm not sure how it would benefit me mentally or physically. Maybe without the drinks I could schedule my bathroom breaks for Monday, Wednesday, Friday. The day you outline here seems insane to me. Teachers are exhausted and stressed because they are given more and more to do - much of it a waste of time - with fewer resources and more children. And less pay, of course. Instead of trying to accommodate ourselves to these unrealistic demands, we should be pushing back.

Maia Heyck-Merlin's picture
Maia Heyck-Merlin
Teaching is the hardest job in the world. As the founder of The Together Teacher, I care about two things: your success and your sanity.

Hi Mary, I hear you. Teaching is THE most exhausting job in the world. I know first-hand. And you are right that we all should be very conscious of how much is being asked of teachers. At the same time, structural changes will take a long time to make happen. It may be a decade until someone realizes that with planning, teaching, grading, relationship building, data analyzing and more, that it is truly wild how much is asked of us. In the meantime, I have found that with some behavioral adjustments on our own parts, and a good dose of serious planning and managing expectations of others, it is possible to get it all done -- and have a life. Structural changes don't seem to be around the corner, so until then, we have to take things into our own hands. My suggestion: Try planning for a week like these teachers do. I've trained over 15K teachers and other educators on time management -- and mapping things out by the minute truly helps! Best, Maia

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

BATHROBE HUMOR

During the exam period, which started Tuesday and lasts until next Tuesday, you don't have to come to school on the day your free period has an exam.

The school wants you to call it your planning period, but you're actually free to leave the campus on a regular day and do whatever you want during your planning period so I call it a free period. Say free period around Principal Lurlene and she goes nuts. She'll say you're supposed to be in there planning for what's coming. I always say I've already done that because I have. This usually leaves the woman speechless, and that's always a big moment in the history of American education.

So guess what today is? Exactly. My free period. I don't have a third period. I didn't get out of my nasty bathrobe until ___ o'clock in the dang ___.

Free to do what, though, I have no idea. You go four hundred miles an hour for almost ten months so it's hard to slow it down and think about your own strange and embarrassing desires for too long. But do something healthy, maybe, like a long jog, followed up by weight lifting and some time with the heavy bag? Or something nutritious, like a long afternoon nap?

I performed one of the four aforementioned items and then I watched a DVD that new substitute teacher, Charla, who looks like Tammy Wynette, had given me a few days ago with a sticky note stuck to it that said, in her curly-girly letters, that there were people in this movie like people in our families. Charla is very, very much from Tennessee.

Anyway, the movie is called Sordid Lives, and it's about a bunch of loveable and eccentric people with necks that are sun burned...sort of like mine.

So there I am, late in the afternoon during my all-day free period, in my nasty bathrobe, laughing at the TV screen all by myself. I felt like a lunatic and it felt pretty dang wonderful.

....

Todd's teaching memoir, at sharp turns hilarious and heartbreaking, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

Maia Heyck-Merlin's picture
Maia Heyck-Merlin
Teaching is the hardest job in the world. As the founder of The Together Teacher, I care about two things: your success and your sanity.

Hi Dixie Diarist, How lucky you are to get some off-campus time! That is something so many teachers DREAM of! I remember at one school where I taught, we only received one prep period per WEEK, but it was for 3.5 hours, and it was blissful to drink a cup of coffee AND get my planning done for the week ahead! Cheers, Maia

eguittar's picture
eguittar
French Teacher

I am a first year teacher this coming fall, I am hoping that between teaching 4 levels and taking a grad class that I will have time to get everything done. I will have to be on a STRICT time schedule! Thanks for the tips!

Maia Heyck-Merlin's picture
Maia Heyck-Merlin
Teaching is the hardest job in the world. As the founder of The Together Teacher, I care about two things: your success and your sanity.

Hi Eguittar, Congrats on your upcoming first year of teaching. It is a true learning experience. This tips will help you maintain your sanity! Maia

Monica55's picture

Fantastic tips! I have not thought about considering my energy levels but this seems to be a great idea.

Corinn's picture
Corinn
4th Grade Reading/Language Arts & Social Studies Teacher

For the upcoming school year, I have been pulled out of the classroom and will now serve as the Instructional Lead Teacher for reading. While I am extremely excited for this position, I know that as much as I'd like to pretend my time won't be as limited as a classroom teacher, I know that it will be.

This post comes just at the right time being that I was just saying to my friend that, as much as I love what I do, I sometimes envy my government employee roommate who can come home after work and completely veg out while I am grading papers, entering grades or writing lesson plans. Currently, I only plan out my meals for the week, but I never considered planning my non teaching time. I've always been a planner and can't believe that I have never come to the conclusion to plan my time.

My favorite part about this post was determining which prep period will serve a specific task. I have always gone into my prep periods blindly only thinking "I have to copy this" or just run to the bathroom. A lot of times I spend my specials break socializing with my teammate instead of getting things done. If I plan in advance, something is sure to get done!

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