Last academic year I became a union rep. It was quite a surprise to find myself in such a role as I do not have strong political beliefs or tendencies. Even if I passionately believed that we teachers, trusted with such a crucial role, should be afforded pay and conditions commensurate with the responsibility we hold, I had always been uncomfortable with the brash certainties of the unions. To convince me to take on the role, my predecessor advised me that it was about ‘standing up for the common teacher at the chalk-face’.
We all want to do a decent job. We all want to make a difference to young people in the one shot they have at education. Most of us want to become better teachers. The problem is, though, we never seem to have the time to fulfill this. Even the most inspiring CPD sessions can have a counter-productive effect, adding a sense of impending failure to the five-period day we have tomorrow. We become deflated by the realisation that we will not have the time to implement the ideas we were so excited by yesterday. We cross our fingers and hope that our coping strategies will be good enough to see our students – and us – through to the end of the year.
I have become more and more convinced that time-management strategies should play a central part in CPD. How better to sell professional improvement to your colleagues than by presenting them with a win-win scenario? You can have more impact in the classroom and you can save time. It is exciting to imagine that the two ideas might not necessarily be mutually exclusive.
To set my quiet revolution humbly on course, I have been working on the following strategies.
Organising 15 minute time-management ‘forums’ on INSET days. I originally suggested this idea from a union viewpoint, but have enjoyed taking responsibility for it myself. The idea is that a member of staff – preferably a teacher with a full timetable – shares a strategy with the whole staff that is time saving yet also improves the impact of their teaching. I delivered the first 15-minute session on marking in November – discussed here – and it seemed to go down very well.
Always on the lookout for quicker options. In meetings and informal discussions, I have made it my business to question strategies that might have quicker, simpler alternatives. Fortunately, this has been made easier by having a department leader who thinks in a similar way to me. It takes a bit of courage to question at first, but if we remain non-confrontational and focus on the solution rather than the problem we can be remarkably successful. Questions such as I love the idea, but is there a quicker alternative…? or Would it not be easier to do it like this? should be at the forefront of our discussions. Ultimately, new pedagogical ideas are much more likely to be taken up if teachers can see that the issue of time has been addressed.
Being wary of how I influence others. Like many teachers, I enjoy the challenge of designing tasks and lessons that both engage and instruct. Sometimes these lessons take a while to plan. We need to consider carefully how we share such ideas, especially if we are in the presence of inexperienced teachers who are still getting to grips with the basics and will be eager to please. We should constantly remind colleagues that the weekends and evenings are theirs, and – something I have too often been guilty of – avoid ‘negative boasting’ – do you know, I was marking until midnight yesterday. I would dearly love to see teacher standards and lesson observation crtieria that take manageability into account. Should a teacher be judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ if the observed lesson is clearly not replicable day on day?
Marking and assessment. I have been experimenting with using symbols instead of written comments for years, but over the last few months I have taken it to a new level by using symbols to help me plan strategically for student improvement – see here. If you are struggling to write out endless repeated comments, may I suggest you consider switching to a symbols approach? My marking has never been as fast and effective as it has this year.
Behaviour. Purposeful, effective behaviour management is absolutely key. It is our bottom line. The better we enforce routines and expectations in our classrooms, the less time we need to spend following up bad behaviour. I am lucky enough to work in a school where expectations are well supported by SLT; I feel for colleagues in other schools who do not have this safety net. My main advice would be that you keep detentions short. Just keeping a child back for a few minutes can make your point as effectively as keeping them for an hour.
Planning. The trick with medium-term unit planning is to always have a destination in mind. How will they be assessed? When will they be assessed? What will they be assessed on? In my NQT year, I used my holidays to religiously plan every unit in advance, lesson by lesson. I saved the plans onto carefully labelled CD ROMs in the genuine belief that after two years of teaching I would never have to plan again. Oh, how wrong I was! Every class is different, every day is different, the best laid plans of mice and men… We need to be responsive teachers, listening to the needs of our children and adapting our plans – within and between lessons – to suit them. We must learn to rely on the skills at our fingertips, and remember that there is often little correlation – and sometimes a negative one – between time spent planning and the quality of learning. If our plans are over-detailed, we may lose sight of the needs before us.
Being strict with myself. We cannot escape the reality that during term-time teaching presents us with a heavy workload. It is too easy to blame others for our own shortfalls. Having a couple of ground rules which we diligently stick to is probably the way forward. Firstly, I always treat Friday like any other day and avoid the urge to go home early. Secondly, I hardly ever take marking home – I try to stay at school until it is finished. I rarely work at the weekend. Alex Quigley’s blog from the weekend (here) on New Year’s resolutions is well worth a read. Don’t worry about how others manage; find ways that suit you and the particulars of your life.
Dealing with the guilt. ‘Teach your bad lessons well’ was once my refrain. Bad lessons were classed as ones where I spoke too much, where there were no collaborative tasks, where I spent most of the lesson reading to the class, where I missed out the starter and/or the plenary or the students were just working on one task. Often they were the lessons I spent less time planning. Recently, I have started to ask a new question: what if my under-planned ‘bad’ lessons were really my good lessons? Reading pedagogy has really helped to assuage my conscience. Take Kirschner et al (2006), for example:
This evidence is a godsend to those of us who have spent hours and hours of our careers planning activities and resources with the aim of helping students construct their own meaning. While I am no enemy of engagement and independence, surely we can all feel a little less guilty about teaching from the front. Ofsted, thankfully, appear to have seen sense in their new subsidiary guidance.
This is the argument of one ordinary classroom teacher and the difference, however small, I am trying to make. Shaun Allison, Deputy Head at my school, has written a great blog – here – calling for us to focus on simple principles, instead of wasting away our time on unnecessary frivolities. Let us hope that more school leaders follow suit.
‘Lost time is never found again’ – so wrote Benjamin Franklin. If we are going to genuinely improve both the life chances of our young people – not to mention our own life expectancies – we might need to rethink our relationship with time in 2014.
And with that I wish you a Happy New Year!
Michael Tidd has been re-blogging excellent time-management articles here.