Teaching Strategies

4 Keys to Dealing With Interruptions During Your Off Period

Hopes of grading during a planning period can be derailed by chatty colleagues, but there are polite ways to avoid these interruptions.

October 12, 2023
Dima Berlin / iStock

Has this ever happened to you at school? You’re sailing along with a task such as emailing, planning, or grading at your desk, and you hear the words, “Do you have a second?” It might be a colleague popping by to chitchat or an administrator needing a quick clarification. In either case, you are going to stop what you’re focused on to engage with them. Yes, it’s an interruption in your work, but you certainly don’t want to be rude or dismissive to your colleagues.

If this happens frequently, it can be disruptive to your workflow and become frustrating. Fortunately, there are ways to stay in your workflow while also avoiding a potential rude rejection toward a well-intentioned coworker.

Consider the following tips to get uninterrupted work done while not appearing standoffish or unavailable to your colleagues.

4 Ways to Handle Interruptions at Work

1. Find a work hideout on campus. It makes sense to work at your desk in your classroom, where all of your materials are. However, if a colleague is trying to find you for a “just a quick second,” your classroom is probably where they will go.

Is there an unoccupied conference room where you can get some quiet work done? Are there other spaces on campus where you can hide away? An administrator at my school would occasionally ask teachers if she could camp out in the back of their class with her laptop to catch up on her emails. This was not considered an “observation,” but rather a space where she would not be interrupted and she could halfway listen to what was happening in class.

If there is no such place where you can hide away to get work done, advocate for a quiet work space on campus. Some schools have “quiet zones” such as teacher workrooms where casual conversation is discouraged. A quiet zone must be designated by a school leader and communicated with appropriate signage to avoid awkward interactions when a colleague jovially asks, “Did you have a good weekend?”

2. Express your commitments at the beginning of the conversation. When a well-meaning colleague asks if you have a second, there are ways to respond without dismissing their need. If you are deep in thought on a task, reply with, “Yes, let me finish this quick email.” If they really need you, they will wait for you to finish. You might also reply, “Actually, I have a deadline, but I have a minute or two.” This is a clear and honest way to let them know you’re there for them, but you also have a pressing task.

If your colleague is seeking casual small talk, then it’s polite to engage with initial pleasantries and conclude with, “I’d love to chat, but I really need to get these quizzes graded before the bell rings.” They, too, are busy educators who will most likely understand that you need to get some work done.

3. Give the same respect to others when you want to chat with a colleague. If you’re like me, you value your quiet, dedicated work time, but at times it is nice to catch up with a work friend. Be mindful if you’re the interrupter. If you see someone who appears to be deep into their work, send an email or wait for another time to pop in. If you are not sure if they are open for a casual chat, give them an easy out by initially asking, “Is this a good time, or should I come back later?”

4. Accept that interruptions are a part of work life. School is a social place. Relationships are far more important than checking off tasks on our to-do lists. We work with a combination of introverts and extroverts who have different needs for socialization during the work day. We all need to work together to find a balance.

UC Berkeley’s Human Resources publication People & Culture wrote in their “The Impact of Interruptions” post, “Think of the impact you will have the next time you are tempted to interrupt a colleague, who is busily working away, with a quick comment. Instead, pause… stop yourself (before any words escape your lips); control your impulse to blurt out a quick question or non-related comment, instead save it for a more opportune time. Self-control isn’t rude; it can actually be one of the most respectful things you do. Trust me! Your colleague will thank you for it.”

We all know that educators just do not have enough time in the day. We are juggling paperwork, planning, meetings, emails, phone calls… the list goes on. Interruptions are only one hindrance to educators’ productivity. Self-interruption is a major issue as well. (Case in point: I received at least five email notifications while typing this paragraph!) To learn more about time management at school, check out these Edutopia posts on the time-saving strategy of batching lesson planning and how to most effectively use this method.

Share this article with your school leaders or print it and post it in the teacher workroom to help raise awareness about well-intentioned interruptions at school. We can all be more mindful about when to interrupt a fellow educator trying to squeeze as much productivity as possible out of their “free” period.

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