Getting Your To-Do List Under Control
Building routines around recurring tasks can help new teachers save effort and focus on what really matters.
Teaching is a big job. From early morning setup to after-school grading, teachers are constantly making decisions, multitasking, and hustling through lengthy to-do lists. For new teachers, it can be especially hard to get everything done and still have much-needed time for personal wellness.
This year, take a page from successful veteran teachers who rely on smart, purposeful routines to get things done. These teachers often adopt routines in order to save time, eliminate unnecessary decision making, and prioritize what matters. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, points out that creating routines allows us to focus on what matters instead of sweating the details on when to accomplish a daily or weekly task. In other words, adding purposeful routines is a way for teachers to save effort and still get stuff done.
Instead of planning the night before or hauling home unneeded books, use the power of routine to create a sustainable planning schedule. Start by making a list of all your planning requirements. Include everything—if you make homework packets or need to plan a new math center each week, add those tasks to your list.
When you have an idea of what you need to accomplish every week, take a realistic look at your calendar to decide what time slots you’ll dedicate to planning. List your school planning period and available after-school hours. But if you usually use your planning period on Friday to tidy up your classroom, leave it off your list—it’s taken already.
Then schedule your time off. If you love sleeping in on Saturdays or hitting up trivia night with friends on Tuesdays, block those times off. Consider picking at least one day of the week when you leave school as early as possible and one day to work late. A scheduled early leave time each week makes it a little easier to complete errands and schedule doctor’s appointments without shifting your entire planning routine.
When you have your basic time slots ready, the next goal is to create a schedule that batches similar work together for efficiency. If you teach science every day, block out a time on Monday when you can prep the entire week. If you make daily bell-ringer activities, complete a full week’s worth at one time. You’ll save yourself time and effort when you can group similar tasks together. Making all your copies at once, for example, is faster than doing a batch each morning. The goal is to find a routine that allows you to effectively plan without dominating every moment of your life.
Your first planning routine may require a few tweaks. If you end up feeling stressed when you’re prepping homework packets on Sunday night, adjust your plan until it’s comfortable. If you find yourself waiting in long lines at the copy or lamination machines, schedule your office work for low-traffic times or save it all for the one day you stay late at school.
Parent Contact Routines
Parent contact can seem like a big task until it’s broken down into small routines. First, figure out what kind of contact you plan to have. Personal notes, phone calls, class newsletters, or Remind texts are just a few options. Then, figure out a time you can use each week. Perhaps you’ll dedicate the 20 minutes between the after-school bell and the faculty meeting to making parent phone calls each Monday.
In some cases, class time can work for a parent contact routine too. During my first year in the classroom, I wrote a quick card or two to parents during daily independent writing time. While students dug into their own writing, I knelt next to a desk and jotted a few positive sentences to parents.
Whether you choose to dedicate an entire planning period or a few minutes each day to this task, track which parents you contact so you can slowly work through the entire list.
Time-savvy, get-it-done routines can be applied to out-of-class responsibilities too. Dedicate a specific time to managing email, and consider using the OHIO (Only Handle It Once) method. When you read an email, reply or act immediately so you aren’t constantly checking back in on old emails or forgetting tasks altogether. One smart colleague of mine keeps a whiteboard by her desk where she records all email to-do items so she never misses one.
Use routines to streamline any areas of work that seem daunting, disorganized, or time consuming. If the moments before school are a little stressful, create a priority list to complete each morning. If you find yourself scrambling to complete important tasks or missing personal activities, consider creating routines to help you reliably fit these things into your work week.
Teachers have long lauded the importance of routines for student learning, and we can develop some useful ones for ourselves too.