Take Time to Make Time

We learned in our methods courses, from Harry Wong, and from the teacher next door the importance of establishing and practicing procedures in the classroom.  From bellwork to bathroom passes, establishing a concrete procedure from the start of the school year helps both teachers and students.  I began drafting this post with a focus on student procedures, but as I reflected back on the conversations I had with teachers in my building last week, I realized that teacher procedures might be where we need more help.


The expression “go slow to go fast” is used to describe the process of teaching procedures—take the time (more time than you probably think is necessary) to teach, practice, and reteach your important procedures to ensure your classroom runs smoothly throughout the rest of the year.  The expression is also used in business, and the way it is used in that context reflects the way we should apply it for ourselves as teachers.  We don’t need to repeat our own procedures again and again to get them right; we just need to slow down and refine our procedures, reflect on our processes, and focus on what is truly important in order to accomplish our goals.

Time is one of the most important commodities for a teacher; we never have enough of it.  Too often we steal time from our families and personal lives to give a little more to our schoolwork.   I hope these five strategies will help you to refine your teaching practices so the time you spend at work is more productive, allowing you to spend more time with those who matter most outside of the classroom.

Ten-Minute Tasks.  Many times we realize we have just a few minutes before we have to report to a meeting or before the students will be coming in for class.  It’s not enough time to start a project, but it’s valuable time that should not be wasted.  Make a list of tasks that can be accomplished in ten minutes (or fewer)—responding to a single email that you have already read/flagged for future response (see below), refiling folders, taking down a bulletin board, or straightening a bookshelf.  Then, when you find yourself with just a few minutes to spare, scan the list and find a task you know you can complete in those few minutes.

End of the Day Review & Reset.  When you deal with as much paper and as many different people as we do in our daily routines, it is essential to spend ten or fifteen minutes at the end of each day setting things in order for the next day.  Straighten the areas where you keep your lesson plans and student handouts; refile any folders you will not need again.  I am notorious for putting things down wherever I’m standing, so I end up with papers all over the classroom.  It just takes a few minutes to sort, refile, or recycle.

Back at my desk, I review my to-do list to make sure I accomplished everything I needed to do and add any unfinished business to tomorrow’s list.  I paper clip that list to a bright red folder labeled TODAY.  I place any paperwork I’ll need to complete those tasks (including copies I need to make), inside the red TODAY folder so that everything is easy to find.   I review my calendar to make sure I am aware of any meetings or conferences scheduled for tomorrow, and place needed paperwork in the TODAY folder, too.  I try to leave each day with a clean and organized desktop.

Now-Later-Pending.   After a trip to my mailbox, I used to just stack papers on top of a filing cabinet to sort through later–usually when someone sent an email asking for that form they put in my box last week!  Now, I use a system of stackable trays to keep myself organized.  The top tray is for things that must be done this week (the emergency contact form that needs to go to the school secretary, the copy of the article I said I’d share with the band teacher, the grade report I’ll need at the IEP meeting on Thursday).  The middle tray is for things that need to be completed later—the instructions to access the new data management system, the list of grant opportunities I want to review, and a sticky note I wrote to remind myself about school pictures .  The bottom tray is for paperwork that requires another step or more information before it can be completed.  This is where I store the forms I’ll need for the observation of the teacher I’m mentoring and the volunteer sign-in sheets to reference when students come to me weeks later to sign their community service logs.  (Don’t forget, too, that other big blue filing tray in the corner!  Put the papers you know you will not need into the recycling bin immediately.)

Each afternoon, I sort through the NOW tray and remove papers that I’ll take care of tomorrow (and place them in the TODAY folder on my desk).  By Friday, my NOW tray should be empty.  On Friday afternoons, I sort the LATER tray, moving anything that is due next week into the NOW tray.  I also review the PENDING papers to make sure there is nothing that I need to follow up on next week to ensure that it is completed on time.

Don’t Be Controlled by Email.  Everyone wants a response right now.  Nothing in email is that urgent—if it’s an emergency, the sender will call.  We’re conditioned, though, to want immediate responses to emails and therefore feel that we should respond quickly.  The problem is that in the time it takes to respond to one email, three more have arrived and then we want to respond to those, too.  The first step to breaking free from email is to turn off the new-mail alerts.  Don’t be tempted by the chime or the preview message to go see who it is and what they need; if you’re in the middle of responding to one email, keep your focus on that message only.

The other “rule” I have established for myself is that I do not open my email in the morning until I am sure I am 100% ready to start the school day.  (If I’ve done a good job reviewing and resetting yesterday this is easy, but still, some of those tasks on my to-do list need to be completed before the day officially starts.)  Our priority should be to prepare for the kids who will be walking in the door shortly, so let’s make sure we’re ready for them or else we’ll play catch-up all day long.

Instead of reading/responding to email whenever you have a free second, schedule set times to review and respond to email (after every other class period, at the start of lunch).  Set a timer to limit yourself to only the most important emails.  Use those precious minutes wisely by developing a system:

  1. Delete all junk mail.
  2. Read and respond to messages that take only a yes/no or one-sentence reply. (Make notes on your calendar of anything you schedule or agree to do.)
  3. Flag other emails that are going to take more time to respond to and add them to your to-do list.

Schedule Time for Reflection and Planning.  It seems as though this would be easy for teachers—we have a planning period, that’s what we’re doing in those 47 minutes, right?  Probably not.  Track how you spend your planning period for a little while.  How much time is spent waiting for the copy machine?  Grading papers?  Returning phone calls or emails?  While necessary, those tasks are not going to help you accomplish your instructional goals if you do not make time to really plan.  Slow down, get organized (using some of the steps above) and be intentional about your planning time.

Yes, one day of the week might have to be devoted to the copy machine, but if you have planned well, you won’t have to be there every day.  By planning when and how you are going to assess students, you will not have to collect papers as often, which will cut down on grading time.  The best lessons are those that are well-planned.  Think about it—even though we’re nervous when we know the principal is coming in to observe, we have planned every step of that lesson and it shows.  When we “plan” on our way to school, we find ourselves rushing to the copy machine before school, waiting in lines, and stressing about the papers on our desk that still need grading.  Had we planned in advance, we could be enjoying a quiet cup of coffee and the satisfaction of checking those essays off of our to-do list.  Instead, we’re already behind when we start the day and today’s papers will be stacked on top of those that should have been graded this morning.

Time is valuable and it is limited.  When my district reduced staff and took away a teacher-planning period last year, the time crunch hit us all really hard. However, when you compare test results, athletic achievements, and other student accolades to previous years, my school performed better last year, across the board, despite teachers having less time and more students.   As we got better at managing our time, we learned to focus on what really needed to be done–and made it happen!

As you begin this school year, take some time to reflect on the procedures you use to manage your own time.  What works?  What doesn’t?  Go slow to go fast.  Reflect and plan at the start of the year so that you can breeze through the coming months.  Consider trying out some of my strategies to help you make the most of the time you have.   Do you have any time-management strategies to share?  I’d love to hear what works for you!  Please post any super techniques in the comments below!

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