NQT Special Edition: Effective time-management

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Time-management is a vital skill for teachers, especially those new to the profession and certainly for those beginning life as an NQT or RQT. John Dabell offers some advice

Many of the teachers I know are good at stealing. In fact, some are really good at it, prolific even. They say that stealing is good for their wellbeing because it helps them manage their workload and keep life in balance.

Becoming a professional time-stealer is an essential part of being a teacher, as teaching is so multi-faceted and demanding. If you are regularly working 12-hour days then you are not doing yourself nor your school any favours. To be a time-stealer means taking back what belongs to you – your life! This is especially important for NQTs and early career teachers.

Time-management skills also come with experience and as you move into your second year you will begin to learn how to steal and do it well. Every teacher will have different personal and professional demands that “eat” into their time, but there are some tips we can share:

Pressed for time

Teaching is inherently busy with no real finishing line to flop over, which is why we have to make time-management our business and learn some ways of surviving and thriving. We can either waste it, make it, save it, spend it or abuse it.
I have a colleague who appears to have all the time in the world. He never gets in a flap, he has time for everyone and I’ve never heard him complain about being “snowed under” or say he “doesn’t have time to breathe”. He even manages to find time for a social life and he enjoys his weekends.

What is his secret? He puts himself first, not students. He openly shares his passion for good mental, physical and emotional health. He is fully focused and prepared, he is fit and he has a positive outlook and attitude. All these make a difference to how he approaches his work and how he manages his day.

He avoids the toxic conversations, moans and groans and he gets on with the business of teaching with a smile on his face. He gets by using natural chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine rather than overdosing on caffeine.
Is he superhuman? No but he is an expert in unbusying himself and stealing minutes here, there and everywhere. He works damn hard, he’s a change agent, strives for challenge, evaluates his impact –.and he’s also lazy. He saves time by live marking, giving verbal feedback, using marking codes and making clever use of his highlighter. He leverages free and online resources, recruits his own students as teaching assistants and doesn’t complicate things with over-administration or over-committing.

It’s high time

We all need to be lazy teachers not workaholic burn-outs. If this troubles you then perhaps your view of laziness is associated with being idle and slothful. This isn’t the same sort of lazy.

The Really Lazy Teacher’s Handbook by Jim Smith (Crown House Publishing, 2017) is a must-read for any teacher and the premise is simple. This isn’t about cutting corners or kicking back, but working more intelligently so that you are in control of your workload and your stresses, and crucially, learners are working harder than you are. The idea is that students go home exhausted, not you.

Being a lazy teacher, is being a “canny teacher” who employs a variety of strategies and techniques that get the learners to do what they should be doing: learning.

‘Eisenhower’ yourself

There are never enough hours in the day but you can prioritise and reclaim control by stealing time. Lazy teachers are good time-stealers because they decide which tasks need doing.

There will be lots things we just have to live with because we can’t change them, but there are parts of the day we can have a greater influence over.

Your core activity is the students’ learning and so tasks that take priority are those that will have a direct, positive and visible impact on this learning. Make a clear distinction between what is urgent and what is important and weigh up the demands.

The Eisenhower Matrix and the 4D strategy is an excellent approach – a time-management system named after Dwight D Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States from 1953 until 1961.

As president, Eisenhower had to unceasingly make some exceptionally tough decisions about which tasks he should focus on each day. He invented the Eisenhower principle and this is something we can all use to help us prioritise by urgency and importance and whether we do, decide, delegate or delete. As Eisenhower once said: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Learn to practise the four Ds of do, delegate, ditch and delay for prioritising tasks and take a look at this video for an explanation of the Eisenhower Matrix: www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/

Eat that frog

For fast-acting relief, eat a frog. In the words of the author Mark Twain: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Brian Tracy has adapted this idea and written about it in his book, called Eat That Frog (Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2007). He says: “What is your ‘frog?’ What is the one task that you despise doing each day? Once you have chosen your ‘frog’ make it a habit to wake up every morning and do that task first.” The Eat That Frog approach involves three aspects:

Don’t dwell: If you want to get something done then get on and do it. Looking at the frog isn’t going to help so we just need to eat it up without delay. Brian Tracy says we need to get in the habit of attacking what’s most important – eating the major task helps us reach high levels of performance and productivity.

Eat the ugliest frog first: Sometimes we have a monster task in front of us and it takes no working out that this is the frog we need to consume first. But then there are plenty of times when we have a couple of big jobs to do – which one do we tackle first? Eat That Frog suggests, in the spirit of Mark Twain, that we get rid of the ugliest one first. He says: “Discipline yourself to begin immediately and then to persist until the task is complete before you go on to something else.”

Make it an addiction: The book also suggests that we commit to “doing” because we feel better about ourselves and this positive mindset is addictive. When we “eat that frog” each day we start to automatically do what needs to be done. Teachers always have 101 things to do but there will be plenty that can be put on the back-burner. There are also plenty of frogs that need eating. So take the advice and get your day off to a good start and eat the biggest and ugliest frog, because once it is out of the way you will be on top of the day rather than being victim to it.

Use a Pomodoro

The “Pomodoro Technique” is a time-management method that was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. “Pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato.

This technique might come in handy for managing your marking or assessment projects. It’s also a good one to share with students when studying. The methodology is simple – when faced with any large task or series of tasks, break the work down into short timed intervals spaced out by short breaks. To get started, all you need is a timer that can count down from 25 minutes (you can use your phone or computer) then follow these steps:

  1. Choose a task (marking, planning, answering emails etc) to work on.
  2. Set the timer for 25 minutes and start working.
  3. Keep working on your task until the timer goes off and try to avoid switching tasks or getting distracted.
  4. When the timer goes off, take a five-minute break to stretch or grab a drink. This built-in break helps ensure that you don’t get burned out on a particular task.

Each 25-minute block of work is a pomodoro. Once you’ve completed four pomodoros, take a longer break of around 20 to 30 minutes. This will help your brain to relax and refocus. The time you set can be less than this.

This is a cyclical system and because you work in short sprints and take regular breaks, you are consistently productive and this boosts your motivation and keeps you creative. Frequent breaks keep your mind fresh and focused. It eliminates multi-tasking, gets you to focus on the task in hand and avoid fine-tuning everything. See https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique

Be more Toyota

Toyota can teach us a thing or two about being time efficient. Professor Jeffrey Liker in his book The Toyota Way (McGraw-Hill, 2004) lists 14 principles that make up the car manufacturer’s way of working and these make a lot of sense to time-starved teachers.

One of these is not to run around like a headless chicken trying to do everything. Haste makes waste, slow and steady wins the race. Principle 4 states: “Level out the workload (work like the tortoise, not the hare).”

Trying to do too much and plate-spinning every day will ensure you have a smashing time but will have you picking up the pieces in the process. Procrastination is not really an option, but a little creative delaying is sometimes necessary to get other things done right.

Time to say ‘no’

This is easier said than done when you are in the first few years of teaching but it is doable and requires nerve. Saying “yes” to everything isn’t good for your health. Learning to say “no” early in your career is worth it and will mean that you won’t be taken advantage of or seen as a soft touch.

Obviously there has to be a balance and we can’t say no to everything, but the importance of speaking out and standing your ground to safeguard your own wellbeing cannot be emphasised enough. This also means purging a few tasks, such as mega-detailed lesson plans.

No time to waste

If you are looking for a time-management toolkit then good luck with the search as there isn’t one.
The good times will roll – but only if you manage your commitments and learn what works best for you. Remember, not everything needs doing at the same time and perfection is a time-waster; sometimes a job only has to be done well enough.

Being a perfectionist means you can put in too much effort, energy and time into minor things that have minimal value. When something needs doing, focus on the most critical aspects rather than the trivial pieces. Unreasonable self-expectations can gobble up your time and accepting less than perfection will steal you hours.

Out of all the professional skills that enable teachers to be effective and operational then time-management is probably the most critical. 

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2gBiaXv

NQT Special Edition

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NQT Special Edition. The publication offered eight pages of specialist best practice advice for NQTs and trainee teachers across the UK. Supported by the NASUWT the special edition published on June 28, 2018, and the eight pages are available to download as a free pdf from SecEd’s Supplements page: www.sec-ed.co.uk/supplements


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