NQT Special Edition: Getting time-management right

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

An NQT’s guide to keeping the plates spinning – Steve Burnage offers trainee and new teachers some tips on managing workload and wellbeing

Some would argue that it doesn’t matter how long you have been teaching, “workload” and “work/life balance” are not easy bedfellows.

However, if any teacher is to get the most from what we know is a rewarding, challenging, sometimes frustrating, often exhausting career, workload and wellbeing need to be effectively managed right from the start in order to maintain our effectiveness as teachers, the degree of support we can provide for our learners – and the quality of our lives outside of our schools.

There is no real secret to being able to manage teacher workload and, thus, achieving a good work/life balance. However, there is one key skill that should be mastered right from the start of a teacher’s career: the ability to plan.

Failing to plan is planning to fail

So, here are 10 key tips to effective time-management:

1 A helping hand: Use free time management software. This link will take you to some of the most highly recommended and, best of all, they are free to use: http://bit.ly/2rOStep

2 Use a paper planner: You could use a “page a day” academic year diary, print off planning pages using MS Outlook or other similar software, or produce your own A4 weekly plan broken into hours of the day. Once you have done this, add your working commitments for the year and then your personal commitments for the year. You might decide to use separate colours for different types of commitments to make things visually clear. A little time spent on this will save hours of time and frustration later. This link will take you to a great free site for customised paper planners: http://bit.ly/2sS0qzi

3 Get a copy of your school’s calendar: Most schools will produce their own calendar of events both on paper and electronically. Make sure you copy all of these events across onto both any electronic planner you might use and onto paper planners or diaries. Put in a reminder for each event two weeks before the due date – do this for professional and personal commitments.

4 Time for fun: Make sure you build “fun stuff” into your weekly plans too. When are you going to visit the gym, prepare and eat meals with friends, go out for a drink, visit family and friends etc? These are just as vital to effective time-management as your professional commitments. Remember, you work to live you don’t live to work.

5 Review your workload: Check that you have realistically balanced the needs of lesson preparation, marking, meetings, and professional development commitments. This is particularly important in the early stages of your teaching career. Be quite ruthless about this since, to over-stretch yourself will lead to sleepless nights, stress and burn-out. If you need to, move work onto next week’s plan or even later so that each week becomes balanced.

6 Stick to your plans: Having planned your working week and personal activities it is vital that you stick to them! It will keep any stress at bay and will ensure you are a person in your own right, not just a teacher. Put a copy of your plan up at work and at home. Hold yourself to account and encourage others to also hold you to account.

7 Know when you work best: The best NQTs are not necessarily those that get to school first in the morning. Know when you work best and, if you are a morning person, give yourself time in the morning. Otherwise, give the “night owl” free rein. Just don’t get yourself locked in the school building!

8 Consider the impact of your work: When time is limited always ask yourself “what will make the greatest difference to my pupils’ learning?” and prioritise that first.

9 Avoid the black hole of perfection: Will that perfect image that you spent three hours trawling the web for really have an impact on year 9? Will a primary class notice whether your clip art is perfectly coordinated across all of your resources? Design is important, but high-quality learning and teaching is more important.

10 Remember ‘you are a person not a job’: It will be easy to forget that a world exists outside of dry-wipe boards, Post-it notes and green biros. You might be tempted to spend your lunch break setting up for your next lesson, but it’s imperative that you get to know your colleagues, too. So, don’t be a stranger to the staffroom. And the same goes for spending time with your friends and family. Make sure that you plan and take time to be you.

Knowing how to say ‘no’

Learning to say “no” can take a lot of courage, particularly for NQTs, but developing the assertiveness to say “no” is a vital component of good time-management. So how do we do it?

Many people are uncomfortable saying no because they do not want to disappoint others, have had negative experiences saying no in the past, or don’t want to be viewed as uncooperative. This can especially be the case for dedicated professionals such as teachers.

For many teachers, and particularly those in the early stages of their careers, saying no directly can be especially challenging, so here are some alternatives:

  • “Thank you for considering me for this. Let me check my diary before I commit.”
  • “I appreciate you asking me. I need to take time to fully consider this...”
  • “I disagree with that decision. I would like us to talk through some of things that concern me.”
  • “Have you asked anyone else?”
  • “I have some professional/ethical reservations about taking this on.”
  • “Have we considered the larger implications of this?”

Remember that you’re saying no to X so that you can be better at Y and Z. As an NQT your colleagues and line manager have their own lives and their own issues, and are not likely as focused on you as you think. Having a good perspective of the “big picture” can be tremendously helpful – schools in the UK are under significant pressure to prove themselves and to show improvement. However, just because they are under extreme pressure, this is not a reason to put you under even more pressure. Effectively managing saying no is just one of many steps in ensuring that your workload is well managed and you move towards a better work/life balance.

Managing your wellbeing as an NQT

To thrive in your NQT year (and not just survive) you’ll need to actively think about your wellbeing, but what does this look like in practice? As well as planning your time effectively and developing the skills that enable you to say no, here are five things that will contribute positively to personal and professional wellbeing:

1 Keep learning: Beyond the rollercoaster of what you will learn as an NQT, try to find personal time to learn new skills (a new language, craft or sport for example), or take up a new hobby and commit to it. Both of these can give you great satisfaction and boost confidence

2 Give to others: Whether this be time/availability or giving to a charity (something that resonates with you personally that will make you feel good for it).

3 Connect and maintain relationships: It’s important not to forget who you are and keep contact with friends and family as this will help you maintain a work/life balance; don’t lose yourself in your work

4 Be active: Find an activity that you enjoy and make it part of your life. The commitment is important so make it something that you can do easily and regularly. It could mean joining the local gym but it could just as easily involve walking in a local park, swimming or playing a team sport.

5 Be mindful: Being mindful of you and how you are feeling is important as you need to recognise when things are perhaps getting too much and when you simply need a “breather”. By taking time out, this will allow you to refocus and return to teaching with a fresh head. This link will take you to some great free resources for mindfulness and meditation: http://bit.ly/2rBxzLl

Keeping the plates spinning

Starting out on a career as a teacher can be one of the most rewarding decisions you will ever make; life as an NQT can be filled with joy and excitement as well as challenge, demand and exhaustion.

You will have made the decisions to teach because you want to make a difference to children, you love your subject and you want to share what you know, understand and can do with the next generation.

In order to do this well you need to follow the primary rule of first aid – “put yourself first”. If you manage your time effectively, develop the assertiveness and confidence to occasionally decline a request or two, and give yourself and your wellbeing time and attention, then you will become a well-rounded, well prepared and successfully NQT with the tools to handle the challenges that this demanding role will throw at you.

  • Having spent more than 25 years teaching and leading challenging secondary schools across the UK, Steve Burnage is an expert practitioner, consult- ant, trainer and author in building positive parental engagement, improving senior and middle leader- ship, developing outstanding learning and teaching, positive behaviour management, and coaching and mentoring. Email him at simplyinset@gmx.com

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 29, 2017, 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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