Teachers’ time is our most precious resource

I’m lucky to work in a school that invests in freeing up teacher time for the important things. We have centralised detentions, whole class feedback and we are building centralised schemes of work around our own textbooks for reading and Shed Loads Of Practice. Teacher time is too precious to be spent chasing detentions, writing comments in exercise books, or doubling up on planning.

Teacher time is our most precious resource and we must use it wisely. Leaders are responsible for making this happen but there are things we can do as individuals too, things that make a big difference even when your leaders and systems are great.

There are five principles I use in order to protect my time and get the best from it:

  • Hornets and butterflies – such an important concept from Joe Kirby here
  • The Pareto principle – the 80:20 rule
  • Economies of time
  • Environment management
  • Attention management

Below are some of the ways I apply these principles to protect my time.

  1. Can it be crap?

For every task I ask myself: What would happen if this wasn’t really good? The answer, for many things, is absolutely nothing. For these cases I can do them very quickly and not be concerned about it not being my best work. As per the Pareto principle, I can spend 20% of the time on these tasks and achieve 80% quality. This is a difficult thing psychologically – as students at school ourselves we were always exhorted to do our best – the virtues of “not perfect but done” are seldom lauded so emphatically. Nonetheless, it is an essential skill so I have mastered my fear. I have now submitted hundreds of “20% tasks” that were good enough but no better and literally never has anyone come back and complained.

 2. Replace for ratio

Some things can be replaced with a different thing altogether that takes less time. The replacement may be seen as less good but if it is still good enough then the ratio of time to value makes the replacement a good choice. An example of this is that I almost always give a praise postcard instead of a phone call. The phone call is nicer but the time:value ratio is bad so it has to go.

I do the same for end-of-unit tests for KS3 – we’re not required to do them (we have termly summative assessments) but I think it’s good to have them for a number of reasons. To mark them would not be a good time:value ratio so I scan them and sort into low, medium and high. I was surprised at how easy and quick it is to do this; at the same time I know it’s fertile ground for well-documented cognitive biases to interfere so a measure of caution is needed. After sorting and recording (15mins) I return the papers to the students and we go through. I can follow up concerns over poor tests and I have got time to do this because I didn’t mark them properly.

2. Finish now; perfect later

Other things I really would prefer to have perfect but even more important is that we have them done quickly. A good example here is practice booklets for my classes. I’ve been making booklets for each unit with a selection of past paper questions, a self-quizzing sheet and a concept map starter template for the unit that students can copy and complete. These booklets are great for training students to carry out three highly effective revision strategies, and I use them for DIRT time with great results. The quiz sheets I made a while ago and the past paper questions come off exampro, but the concept map templates take a little while to make, maybe 15 minutes. This doesn’t sound like a lot of time but it adds up. So for some of these practice booklets, I didn’t make a concept map. But there are booklets for all units – and this is more important.  In gained time I will go back and add the missing maps, but for now my students can benefit from all the other useful parts of the booklets.

 Economies of time

In business, an economy of scale is enjoyed when many units are made but the cost per unit is reduced because of a saving made by the increased scale of production. These apply in two ways in teaching. Firstly, in making something in a big block and then using it in pieces. It’s much quicker to plan all the questions for a unit (see here for how we do Shed Loads Of Practice) and then the Do Now retrieval practice slides than to plan individual lessons with starters, mains, and whatever other restaurant-inspired “phases”. It’s also much more appropriate since an AfL approach means that we can’t really know what each lesson should include until the lesson before.

Here’s a more prosaic application: Each week I buy 5 posh pot noodles, 3 different packs of breakfast biscuits, a multipack of crisps and a bag each of apples and pears. I bring them all into school at once and keep them in a cupboard.

The added benefit of economies of time like this is there is an attendant economy of energy/ attention. I haven’t got to hold in my head thoughts like “what sandwich” or “remember to bring lunch- otherwise will be hungry”. I’ve got a buffer supply in my cupboard so if I ever did forget to bring my supplies in, nothing bad would happen, so none of my mental energyis taken up with this concern. More on this below.

The other way we can benefit from economies of time is by making renewable resources. It’s hard to teach using someone else’s lesson plan or PowerPoint. In fact it’s hard to even use your own again a year later after making them. But what’s easy is teaching using someone else’s set of SLOP questions , or a great graphic to support an explanation. So I and other colleagues of a similar outlook approach all our planning this way. The time making them is spent once and they are reused a lot because they are easy to use. So the time:value ratio is good.

My next tip isn’t strictly an economy in this sense, it’s more an application of critical path analysis, but you would find them both in the same aisle of the library so… the tip is: an am-fm transmitter for my car. This cost about £25 from Amazon and it allows me to listen to my phone through my car stereo. I spend an hour in my car every day and now it’s an hour every day of glorious CPD thanks to Mr Barton and Audible.

 Make time for Perfect.

Some things do need to be really great, this time around. Although this isn’t really a time-saver I have included it for two reasons. 1: I wouldn’t want anyone to be misled by all this time-saving talk to think that everything could be slashed in this way, and 2: I think psychologically it can be hard to “let go” and do the crap versions of some things, but if you keep in mind that you are making time to do these other things really really well, you can feel more confident being ruthless with the other stuff. Things I include in this category are preparing explanations, questions, and exemplars for lessons, CPD for staff and presentations for parents.

Manage your Environment

If your desk is a mess then I guarantee you are wasting time looking for things. The same goes for your classroom.  The easiest way to keep a tidy desk and classroom is to make the kids tidy up and also to just put a lot of things in the bin. If you find you need something later you will be able to get it off the shared drive 99% of the time. The time it will take you to look up the thing you threw away is negligible compared to the time you save every day by having a tidy room. As well as the bin, there are other containers that should be your best friends. I have got a concertina box file with no lid to file the various things I do need to keep. Each class has a Gratnells tray for exercise books and another one for resources. I have taken the doors off my cupboards so the trays can go in and out with the least possible effort.

Managing  attention

The thing is about productivity is that it’s not just your time that runs out so easily, it’s your energy and attention. One thing I strongly believe is that trying to remember things is a massive drain on energy/attention. So I write things down on lists and I manage my lists so I can manage my priorities. Productivity gurus call these lists “your second brain”. Adding to that, I know when my energy and attention is best and worst. In the evenings I’m often not good for much except marking test papers or reading exercise books for whole-class-feedback (see below). So that is when I do those things. I’ve learned that I work best early in the morning, so I get up and have one or two hours in the morning before I leave for work where I know I will not be disturbed and I can give challenging tasks my full attention.

Tying it all together: Whole-class-feedback

We use whole-class feedback in my department and it’s great. The execution of it is rather a neat illustration of many of the principles and ideas I have described above.  I have a timetable for my feedback so that I can keep track of when I need to do what class so I never fall behind (second brain). At the end of the lesson on the day I need to mark a class’ books, I ask them to hand them in open at that lesson’s page (Manage environment). I can then sit down and very quickly stick the feedback sheets in. I give a quick swish with the glue stick – the edges of the sheet will lift up as it will not be stuck down all over and THAT IS COMPLETELY FINE (can it be crap?). I stick the sheet in every book first, then go through and complete the feedback (economy of time). I do not write any comments in books. No “good”, “well done” or “see me”. No ticks. Underline for spellings etc. If there is excellent work I make a note on my DIRT slide and share it in the DIRT lesson using the visualiser if appropriate. If I need to speak to a student I make a note on my slide and speak to them in lesson. We do immediate feedback and self-assessment in lesson for SLOP work. If students lay their work out well it is easy to scan their work quickly – you don’t have to carefully read all of their work to see if they have achieved what you intended. This is a low-attention task so I do it in the evenings when I know my attention is lowest (attention management).

I hope there are some ideas in  this blog that people will find useful. I’ve got two young children and I get into work at 8 and leave by 4:30 every day, I never work at the weekend in the day and I feel like I have a great work-life balance. I love my job and I love having time for my family and hobbies* too. Please get in touch if you have any more tips or if you try anything I’ve described here. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and load a noodle stash into my car for tomorrow.

*My hobby is Twitter

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