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Protect Your Prep: 5 Ways to Avoid Ambushes, Interruptions, and Procrastination

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The prep period. Sigh.

If you are lucky enough to have one, you know how quickly it can become a dumping ground for last-minute meetings, interruptions (welcomed and unwelcomed!), and procrastination.

Before you throw up your hands and give up on getting any substantive work done during the school day, here are five tips to protect your preparation period. All of them require trust, upfront communication, and a little dose of courage -- and only you know your particular school's culture -- but I have seen great success when teachers give these strategies a try.

1. Have Upfront Conversations Around Protecting Work Time

You can do this as a school, a grade or subject team, or with co-teachers. One elementary school in Rhode Island does a whole set of role-plays around teacher interactions at the beginning of the school year. Here's an excerpt from the role-play about "interrupting teacher friends":

You have your prep periods planned out to the minute. You want to be very intentional about how you spend your time at school so that you don't have to come in on the weekends. Penelope, however, often interrupts your work during your common prep periods. She will ask about students, tell funny kid stories, vent about her day, and just generally chitchat. You try to give her hints about how busy you are (i.e. nodding and saying "mm-hmm" while still typing and looking at your computer screen), but she doesn't pick up on them.

This school's entire teaching staff held a proactive conversation to brainstorm actions teachers could take when this situation inevitably occurs (more on those below). If you can't influence your whole school, start with your department or grade level. Better to get ahead now than land in an uncomfortable or unproductive situation in November.

2. Create a Visual Cue

I recently saw an Austin-based middle-school teacher’s humorous yet effective door sign that describes how she is focused on intense planning or grading work. She explains why she hangs it during certain prep periods: "I created this sign to signal when I absolutely have to focus." Her colleagues understand that she isn't anti-collaboration or unavailable -- she is simply trying to get some of those report card comments in before deadline. You could make a funny sign that says, "Mr. or Ms. ________ is grading/planning/phoning families. Please return at ________.” Or hang out a feather boa as a signal. You get the picture here.

3. Develop a Party Line

You may also want a few sentences in your back pocket that you can state simply and neutrally when hit with an interruption. This may feel hard at first, but if you practice, it gets easier with time. No one wants to come across like the stereotypical DMV clerk to his or her colleagues, but all of us want to take a little less work home. I like sentence stems, such as:

  • I'm buried in finishing these progress reports. Can I stop by later?
  • I'm in a zone with this unit plan. Can you leave it in my mailbox?
  • I'd love to help, but I'm cranking over here on this pile of grading. Will you drop me an email?

And if you do get pulled into a conversation, gently remind people that your day is run by a clock -- and children. Stephanie S, a DC-based teacher, says she notes at the beginning of meetings, "I want to remind you that I'll need to leave the meeting by XYZ time to set up for my next class."

4. Discuss the Impact of Lost Prep Time with Your Principal

I get it. You're often hit with last-minute meetings or emergency deadlines. And we all have a responsibility to deal with "known emergencies," such as a last-minute coverage for an absent colleague or an urgent student discipline meeting. It happens, and we do what we need to do in the moment to get the job done. However, if this happens in circumstances that your principal can control, and if you have a positive relationship with your supervisor, initiate a professional conversation, with real data, about how often this happens and the impact it creates. Claire S, another DC-based teacher, offers, "If possible, advocate for standing regular weekly meetings to avoid the sporadic pop-in!" Administrators, too, are often subject to dozens of unforeseen emergencies. Once yours realizes the impact of the constant pull, he or she can often help the entire staff protect their time during the workday.

5. Make a Clear Plan for How to Use Your Prep

You will inevitably swing to the emergency, interruption, or fun distraction if you're not sure what else you'd be doing. Take the tips and templates from my previous post to map out your week at a high level of detail. Sometimes it's best to change your plan and pivot to what "comes up," but it's important to be conscious of the tradeoffs you'll make. And remember, sometimes we have to protect our prep from ourselves! Ever found yourself cyberloafing away a weekday prep, only to spend Saturday afternoon grading papers?

No one is going to gift you a million free prep periods (though wouldn't that be nice?). We just have to use them wisely. Otherwise, that tote bag of work and good intentions is coming home with us.

If all else fails, find a supply closet to hide in!

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


I wish I could have talked to Lamar's parents before they got all squirmy and made him, but having a parent-teacher conference this morning works okay, too.

Come to find out, Lamar's mother doesn't have asps for hair, fangs for teeth, claws for hands, hooves for feet, or yellow eyes. She pretty much gave us the lowdown, in the calmest and most articulate tones, on Lamar from birth to today. She wasn't Jerry Springer material at all. She was about as far away from being on the Jerry Springer Show as Margaret Thatcher. Anyhow, after her remarks, I took in a deep breath and thanked whatever god Lamar worships for getting him this far. I don't know why Lamar's dad wasn't there. Maybe he was home hiding in his gun safe.

Once Mr. Squirm the science teacher butted in there was no subtle, or even obvious, gesture we made that would make him shut up, so we ended the meeting with Mr. Squirm still talking as we all stood up and walked out of Mr. Warbird's classroom. I was one of three other teachers ready to talk to Lamar's mother and start a plan to help Lamar get better and be happier. We never had a chance. Plus, Mr. Squirm's got a weird voice and he wears dumb shoes.

While Mr. Squirm was walking away...through the commons room in his dumb shoes...telling Lamar's mother how long he's been teaching and how he's working so diligently to apply all of his incredible knowledge of behavior and emotion management into the head of Lamar, Mr. Warbird said Mr. Squirm sure does know how to high jack a parent-teacher conference so nothing really gets done, doesn't he?

Miss Velvet said he sure does.

Mrs. Yinyang said he sure does.

I said he sure as hell does.

Then we went to our classrooms and started our day, without having gotten anything done in the important last hour of our lives. Good manners ain't science, rocket or otherwise.


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

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

The most important part of this post is this: 5. Make a Clear Plan for How to Use Your Prep

It's so important to have a plan for how you're going to use your time, and to be intentional about the way you make the plan. For example, I know that I'm most productive first thing in the morning. As the day goes on, I get less creative, less focused, and less able to complete complex tasks. That means that I need to plan to do my "grunt" work (copying, filing, sorting emails, etc) to the afternoon and do my most important work (lesson planning, grading, writing) in the morning. Exceptions exist, of course, but once I got clear about how I worked most effectively, I was amazed at how much more productive I could be.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

See, Laura, I think the most important part of this post is #1: proactively discussing school culture with your peers. Maybe it's all the most important!

I think it's great to do those role-plays both from the perspective of how to give feedback to coworkers, but also for people to consider how their actions might impact others. At the same time, I think it's essential to make space for teachers to talk to one another, process their experiences, and make meaning together. If there's a pattern of teachers using prep times to do this on an ad-hoc basis, I think that says something about the school culture that needs to be addressed on a larger level.

Great post on being proactive and planful in order to maximize the time we have!

Karen Bell's picture

A teachers prep time is so crucial. Making the most out of that time is so important. Many spend their prep time emailing students or professors or even parents. Like Laura said it is so important to plan out your prep period so you make great use out of every minute.

This reminded me of a blog we wrote at Ving. It talks about the importance of 3 key relationships in education.

The Ving app allows you to track your messages and upload video and audio so you can send a message to a parent or student and know your message was received but not have to waste your planning period on the phone with a chatter box.

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