If you’ve ever found yourself overwhelmed with your workload as a teacher, you’re not alone. It turns out, it’s not just you. A few of the major reasons why tackling your to-do list is so challenging are a function of the job itself.
For all grade levels, the majority of the teaching day consists of managed time—that is, time when your schedule is dictated, including time spent teaching classes or attending meetings. Even secondary teachers typically have, at most, an hour and a half of unmanaged time throughout their school day, in which they’re expected to get all of their nonteaching tasks completed: grading, lesson planning, making copies, calling home, and more.
What’s more, that unmanaged time isn’t structured for the type of creative or analytical work that teachers need to do, including lesson planning and analyzing student data. That type of work requires flow, which can take a minimum of 10–15 minutes of focused time to achieve. For most teachers, planning time comes in 10-to-45-minute chunks, making flow difficult—if not impossible—to achieve.
Teachers also have many different types of work to do. There are creative tasks like lesson planning, logistical tasks like making copies or sorting student work, and analytical tasks like grading. The variety of tasks leads teachers to task-switch by default, which decreases productivity.
The good news is that there are ways to increase efficiency and productivity in the way teachers plan and execute their day-to-day work. And hacking your schedule to work for you can result in working less without compromising effectiveness.
How much time do you actually have?
The first step in taking control of your schedule is understanding how much time you have and how that time is structured. Start by conducting a time audit, which consists of two parts: observation and analyzing your findings.
For three to five days, record how much time you spend on different activities. This doesn’t have to be detailed—jot down quick notes in your planner or even on sticky notes. Try to do this in real time—for example, you might record that you used 20 minutes before students arrived to make copies, grab a coffee, and get slides loaded.
After the observation period, analyze your time by reflecting on the following questions:
- Where is your time actually going? What’s taking up the most time?
- Do you want your time to be spent on those activities?
- How much time do you have? Add up your unmanaged time—does the number surprise you?
Map out your schedule
Using Google Calendar or your paper planner, lay out your schedule for the upcoming week. This includes times you’re teaching students directly, as well as any meetings or duties you have. Some commitments—like class coverage or individualized education program (IEP) meetings—may not fall on the same day from week to week, but do your best to account for that time. You should end up with something like this example.
Next, take time to analyze your schedule by noting the following:
- Where are your blocks of time? How long are they?
- Where do you typically have high energy or low energy?
- Where do you think is best for creative work?
Hack your schedule
Now that you’ve identified your unmanaged work time, it’s time to figure out your plan of action to work most efficiently. Do this by adding your unmanaged workload into your schedule. Here’s how:
Create a list of all tasks you do regularly: This includes lesson planning, grading, making copies, calling home, and creating assessments. The goal is to capture your habitual tasks.
Assign a time estimate to each task: How much time do you typically spend on each? It may be helpful to further break down larger tasks (like grading) by class period or subject.
Batch your work: Batching refers to grouping like tasks together, a productivity strategy that works by minimizing task switching—task switching is very common but has been shown to be unproductive. Batching helps to lessen the cognitive lift associated with switching between different tasks. For this step, you’ll categorize your task list based on task type. Some categories may include the following:
- Creative tasks (like lesson planning or writing parent emails)
- Decision-making/analytical tasks (like analyzing student data)
- Logistics tasks (like making copies or completing paperwork)
- 15-minute-or-less tasks
Use your time estimates: Calculate how much time each group of weekly tasks typically takes you. Using your mapped schedule and time audit information, assign your work to time within your schedule.
It’s helpful to have a list of 15-minute-or-less tasks, since teachers often have five, 10, or 15 minutes of unmanaged time. Knowing what tasks fit into these time slots can help you work through your to-do list more efficiently. When you’re done, your schedule may look something like this illustration.
What to Do If You Have Too Much Work and Too Little Time
The reality of teaching is that teachers often have far more than 40 hours of work a week. A 2012 report from Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation stated that teachers work an average of 53 hours a week. If that’s you, here are three tips to work more reasonable hours while feeling good about it:
Know that your to-do list will never be fully done: The nature of teaching is that there’s always more to do. A great strategy is to focus on getting clear on what work is most important and doing those tasks first.
Decide how much you want to work and commit to it: If you choose to work outside of your contract hours, set boundaries on your time. Schedule appointments for when you want to leave each day, or choose to work for a set amount of time or only one day on the weekend.
Involve your administrator: Your principal or department chair is your manager, and teachers should feel empowered to involve them in helping to prioritize work. Make a list of all the work on your plate, along with your time estimates, and share that you don’t have enough time to get it all done. Ask for help identifying the most important tasks (and which ones might be able to shift off your plate).
Aiming to work even a few hours less each week can have a significant impact on your overall well-being.