Our plates are full! Teachers everywhere, at all grade levels, agree that there is too much to do in too little time. Is this a new problem? No. Are overworked, stressed teachers less likely to deliver effective lessons and react positively with students? Yes. Is this concern keeping talented young people from entering the profession, or causing current teachers to leave our schools? To some extent. Is there a solution? Yes.
The cynics have flippantly suggested getting a bigger plate. Other staffroom comedians have proposed the idea of having two plates, or a more creative possibility—a double-decker plate. The problem may elicit dark humour, but there are some things that can be done. By looking more closely at the various players in the game, we can choose a number of strategies that should help. Teachers, other school staff, students, parents, school trustees, Department of Education members, and the public can all play a role. Our first, best hope is ourselves. By setting priorities, reflecting on personal idiosyncrasies, sharing, creating routines, taking small steps, planning and organizing, establishing a mindset, taking advantage of structure, and through mental and physical preparation, this problem of “too much to do” can be tackled.
Saying “No” and Being Supported
It is easy to say, “I should just learn to say No.” But we are in the helping profession, we are problem solvers and rescuers, we see ourselves as indispensable. We’re not. If we compare our workload to our charitable donations in the real world, we should be able to see the parallel. We simply cannot give to every worthy cause that asks for our help—monetary or otherwise. In my own life, I have finally come to know which charities my wife and I will donate to, which causes we are able to support. This determination enables us to say “no” (with a relatively clear conscience) to the others. Trying to do this at school would help. It also helps to have a partner at home who will listen to the choices made in the world of school and who will discuss and support those choices. Start small. Say “no” to just a few things and see how much it helps. It takes time to discuss these choices, but time spent wisely can ultimately save time.
Busy Being Busy?
When I was teaching, I always found myself being incredibly busy. As I look back, maybe I was just busy being busy— working harder, not smarter. Had I taken the time to do more professional reading, I may have learned some helpful techniques. Now that I’m retired, is it too late? I recently listened to an audiobook, Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey, 1989). One particular suggestion rang true: “Check your email only three times a day.” I’ve tried it; it works,. even though I felt like a little kid waiting for Christmas. I use to check my email far too frequently, always hopeful to see the little red flag that said, “You’ve got mail.” I realize now that there were things that I could have done while I was teaching, despite my busy-ness. The trick may be to take a closer look at your own time management skills and see if one or more of Covey’s principles might help.
Junior Assistants & Routines
As well, far too late in my career, I realized that I was not making sufficient use of the 30-or-so teacher assistants that I had in my classroom. Hander outers, picker-uppers, fish/plant caregivers, decorators, cleaners and tidiers were there at my disposal. I just had to create a routine to put them to use. Having students make their own phone calls home after a successful test or assignment is an excellent labour-free public relations tactic. It is this idea of routines that offers even more help. My good friend and colleague, Jerry Williamson, taught me the value of his daily “work routine.” When we shared a class of grade fives (he was the librarian and I was the vice principal), he made it a practice to arrive at school by 8:00 a.m. (school started at 9:00) and leave at 4:00 (school got out at 3:20). The secret was that he did it consistently—with the sole exception of Friday after school. I was used to hauling things home—and too often hauling the same things, untouched, back the next day. In my early days of teaching, I tried to plan and mark on a TV tray as I multi-tasked, watching a bit of television while doing my schoolwork. When I finally adopted the “Jerry Method,” I was shocked at how much more productive I could be.
Being productive, for me, usually results from small steps. Like the slow and steady tortoise, I believe that grandiose initiatives and great leaps forward are not the way that most things get done. The trick seems to be in taking the aforementioned small steps continually. It is amazing how far you can get by inching forward. There are skills in all subject areas that students could practise in bite-size chunks: in Math, basic computation, in Science, classification, in Social Studies, worldview, in P.E., ball skills, etc. In my Language Arts classes, it became a routine and a small part of each class to have the students write in their journals. A maximum of five minutes of writing time was allowed each day. To avoid having the task become tedious, I always provided two writing prompts but left Choice #3 as Y.C.—Your Choice. If the student didn’t like my scintillating offering, a personal topic of interest could be made. Further, we hit the Journal Writing hard at the beginning of the year—daily if possible—but then eased off to Tuesdays and Thursdays later in the year. Because I had a plan and a routine, my plate became a little less full; I didn’t have to plan for that part of each class.
When it comes to clearing your plate, being sick or disabled can be quite wonderful. Being a little bit sick is preferred because then you can still do school work even though you can’t be at school. A gift, albeit a left-handed one, from my mother’s side of the family, was the gift of varicose veins. After one of several operations that I have endured, I was laid up for two weeks—virtually no walking, and definitely no teaching. As I lay at home convalescing, I made the best year plan I have ever had. As a bonus, this particular operation occurred when I was nearing retirement. (One of the many things that I have always loved about teaching is that you get a fresh start every year. Every September is a brand new beginning.) I gave up a principalship and returned to the classroom with three years left in my career. I knew that I had only those three years to “get it right” because I had ended every other year with the thought that it may have been good but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. I am not suggesting that you get sick or that you have to wait until near retirement, but, please, take it from me, those last three years were clearly the best of my career. I took the time to plan my work and then work my plan. A big part of my planning and the resulting success came from my revised mindset. I was determined to go out smiling.
Teach Like It’s Your Last Year
Another book on tape that I have listened to while walking the dog is one called The Last Lecture (Pausch & Zaslow, 2008), the story of a college professor who is dying of pancreatic cancer. He gives his last lecture, literally, but emphasizes to his audience, that it is a lecture of hope—hope that he can give them some advice that will make a difference in their lives, hope that his life will prove to have been as worthwhile as possible. In the book, Professor Pausch notes that the idea of the “last lecture” is a common one at Carnegie Mellon University; professors are encouraged to give a lecture as if it were the last one they would ever give, and the difference is amazing. If we, as teachers, could teach as if we would soon be denied the privilege of working in a world of energetic, enthusiastic, interesting, challenging young people, it would make a difference in how we saw our plates.
But the plate is still too full. As teachers, we have the ability to control a number of variables. Some we don’t. The beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth over the ones beyond our reach is a useless, tiring, stress-inducing enterprise. One of the areas that we can control, one that has caused considerable grief in my life, is organization. If I could amalgamate all of the hours that I have wasted looking for something, re-doing something because I couldn’t find the original, doing something myself at the last minute because I was too embarrassed to ask others to help me and admit that “lack of organization on my part should constitute a crisis on theirs,” then I would have much of the valuable time that I complain about not having; I would have that extra hour during the day.
Organization can come from structure. As one small example, during my last three years of teaching, I was lucky enough to work at Eastview Middle School. The “structure” in the grade eight pod was to have two teams. Each team consisted of four classes, and here’s the “take something off your plate” part: the four teachers in the team-taught one subject to each of the four classes. I taught all of the Language Arts, Rachelle was in charge of Social Studies, Geoff handled the Science, and Steve did the Math. Not only did this save on prep time, it allowed the team to meet and discuss the same students. Tasks could be divided: student concerns could be addressed, congratulatory school postcards could be sent home to deserving students, integrated activities could be organized, parent-student-teacher conferences could be set up, and monthly “Lunch with Your Teachers” could be planned without fear of duplication and overlap.
The structure, in the bigger picture, created a helpful framework—and it provided, on a weekly basis, the opportunity for sharing. It is my belief, that we, as teachers, spend far too much time reinventing the wheel. This may seem like an unrelated parallel but bear with me. I like to tell jokes. When I hear a new joke, I share it. I have what I refer to as a “joke trap line.” There are certain people in my circle of family, friends, and acquaintances who like to hear a new joke, who often have a new joke—or both. By the time I have traveled along my trap line and shared my latest tidbit of humour, I have certainly embedded the Joke of the Day into my memory, and quite likely, have picked up a new joke as well. What a difference it would make if we could establish a “sharing trap line.” Through conversations, emails, telephone calls, or whatever other methods seem appropriate, we could let other teachers know what has worked for us and learn what has worked for them. For me, the first and most important hurdle is making this kind of sharing a habit, setting up the structure so that it becomes routine.
As I look back on my years in teaching, I realize that routines did play an important role in making more efficient use of time, and if not taking things off my plate, at least in helping to organize the things that were on the plate. Perhaps best of all was the concept of the “anticipatory set.” Thank you, Madeline Hunter.
As students entered my classroom, usually stopping to say something like, “Good morning, Mr. Mackenzie, and what is it that I can do to make your life just a little bit easier today?” I did my best to ensure that there was something on the board or on the overhead that directed them to some kind of activity. Frequently, my anticipatory sets were a combination of a “getting ready physically” as well as a “getting ready mentally” activity. For the former, a typical request was that each student get his or her file folder from the holders on the back counter. Each class in the pod had a name. One year, in an effort to emphasize Social Studies, each class chose the name of a native tribe; we had the Iroquois, Mic Mac, Tlingit, and Gwich’in. My file folder holders were labeled accordingly. Each holder had “row” dividers to make it easier to get the correct folder. If it were a journal that I was asking each student to get, these were in a box on the back counter. If I had time, I would spread these out along the back counter to avoid the line-ups and the “pawing through the pile” routine that resulted if a group arrived at the box. Since retiring, and while sharing some of my organizing ideas with teachers at a professional development day, a particularly helpful idea was offered by one of the teachers in the audience. She said that the routine in her classroom was for the first student to arrive at the box to simply take the book/booklet/ duotang on the top of the pile and deliver it to the appropriate desk. What a simple but effective idea!
The “getting ready” mentally ideas were usually puzzles or questions. When I was teaching the plot of the short story, my anticipatory sets were incomplete sequences. Starting with some as simple as 2, 4, 8, 16, ___ (and later more challenging sequences) or the first letters of a song (Happy Birthday To You) would get things going. For poetry, I might ask for a list of rhyming words. During a novel study, I may have asked that students discuss how their own lives related to the theme. Getting the students in the zone took some of the stress of discipline from my plate as they all transitioned into Language Arts, the best class of the day.
In the spirit of sharing and of effective ideas, I almost always ask teachers in my sessions to give as well as take. What opportunity could be greater to get knowledgeable educators together and share strategies that work than at a ProD gathering— and how often is this opportunity missed as we listen solely to the “brought him/her in from elsewhere” professional who is the sage on the stage? Even if staff meetings could start with a few minutes of sharing, we would all benefit.
Who benefits and who else can help?
The people who will benefit from teachers having less on their plates are all of the stakeholders, but most importantly, our students. Teachers are closest to the action and have the greatest opportunity to decide, in this wonderful smorgasbord of teaching and learning, what goes on the plate and what stays on the buffet table. Other school staff—department heads, team leaders, school administration—are important. So too are students, parents, school trustees, and the public. Ah, so much to do, so little time. A look at the other players must be saved for another day.
A teacher’s plate will never and should never be empty. It should be less full. What remains on the plate should be palatable, interesting, a mixture of old favourites and tantalizingly new possibilities.
1. Say “no” to just a few things. 1. Discuss your “my priorities do not allow me to accept these things on my plate” with someone close to you.
2. Check to see if you are “busy being busy.” Try to be more effective with strategies like checking your email only three times a day.
3. Look for assistants. Students in your room who would love to be helpers.
4. Establish a “daily work routine.” Come a bit early, stay a bit late, find a quiet place. Make your work time “quality” time.
5. Establish routines. Perform tasks until they become ingrained, part of your day that is almost automatic.
6. Take small steps. The repetition of key elements in bite-size chunks makes for a more satisfying and lasting result.
7. Take time to plan. Consider planning for an entire week with all back-up materials (photocopying, etc.) done. This necessitates a time investment but, as the week progresses, you will likely save at least double the time you invested. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
8. Teach as if you will soon be denied the privilege. Use a “this could be my last chance to get it right” approach.
9. Get organized. Find a system that works for you—and then work at the system.
10. Look at the structure in your school. Do your grade partners have prep periods in the same time block? Can you “team plan” and avoid overlap? Do you have a department head?
11. Create a “sharing trap line” that works for you. Find like-minded people who are excited about helping themselves while they help others.
12. Find ways to prepare your students “mentally” and “physically” at the beginning of each class. Getting started quickly, efficiently, and enthusiastically is critical.
Pausch, R. & Zaslow, J. (2008). The Last Lecture. New York, NY: Hyperion.
Covey, Stephen R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jock Mackenzie was a teacher and administrator in Red Deer, Alberta for over 30 years. Jock believes that practical, “use ‘em on Monday” ideas are needed by teachers everywhere. Through his books, his blog, and his speaking, he does what he can to share a lifetime of techniques that worked well for him. He is currently volunteering one day a week at Westpark Middle School to help students with reading and writing. See Pembroke Publishing and jockmackenzie.wordpress.com
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s November 2009 issue.