If you are lucky enough to have a preparation period built into your teaching day, you know how easy it is to fritter it away by checking email, wandering to your colleague’s classroom, stopping at the teacher’s lounge to see if anyone has a piece of chocolate, or dealing with challenging students. Of course, you want to decompress during your prep period, but the work still has to get done sometime—and you want to take home as little as possible.
Whether you are a recent graduate or a 25-year veteran, you will benefit from very disciplined planning of your preparation periods—almost like you plan a lesson. So, whether you get 20 minutes or 90 minutes per day, here are some tips on how to use that time as efficiently as possible.
1. Make a list of your work responsibilities OUTSIDE of actually teaching students.
Grading—both formally and informally
Family contact—initial and ongoing
Field trip planning
Lab material inventory
Changing bulletin boards
And don’t forget to list the unexpected, like addressing student behavior. Not sure about all of your responsibilities outside of teaching? Download a Teacher Time Tracker (available for free at www.thetogetherteacher.com/resources) to help keep track. You get bonus points if you write down how long each of your tasks takes you each week.
2. Plan in advance.
Don’t just scribble a to-do list on a sticky note in the morning. . . Sit down on a Thursday or a Friday with your list and use it to map out how you’ll use each prep time during the following week. Grade the 6th grade set of essays? I’ll slot that into my prep at 2:40. Call families? Schedule that right after school. Check email? I’ll limit that to 15 minutes each morning. Change a student work display? Enlist a student! Don’t see a spot to fit something in? That happens. And now you can ask for help or for permission to adjust a deadline—in advance of missing it. You can plan in advance using Google® or Outlook™. Or you can download a free template at www.thetogetherteacher.com/resources
3. Mind your energy levels.
Know yourself and be careful about what tasks you assign to which time slots. Did you just monitor a cafeteria of 200 middle school students for lunch duty and then plan to do deep unit planning during your prep right after? Hmmmm . . . Perhaps not. Probably better to use this kind of time for more mindless tasks, like photocopying or grading multiple choice tests. On the flip side, if you have more energy before school (and most of us do, let’s be honest), plot your biggest brain work at that time. When you do the right work at the right time, you’ll accomplish so much more.
4. Prepare for small pockets of time.
No one is ever going to offer you two uninterrupted hours per day to get all your work done. So you’ve got to be prepared to use those 5, 15, and 30-minute little chunks of time. At Together Teacher, we spend our days watching effective and efficient teachers—and these folks are PREPARED. We’ve seen everything from always having grading materials in a special tote bag to carrying a file folder of things to be copied (so when you see an open photocopier, you can swoop in!) To filling three water bottles at the start of the day so you don’t have to traipse up three flights of stairs between classes.
5. Protect your prep.
Are you thinking this all sounds fine and good, but worried about the people constantly knocking at your door for your time? Have an honest conversation with your department or grade team about how much you are trying to accomplish during the school day. Let them know they can interrupt you for emergencies but that if your door is closed or you are wearing a purple tiara (or whatever you want to do to nicely show you’re not available), you are in focused-productive-please-don’t-interrupt-me mode. Who knows? You just may set a new norm for your team—or your school.
As teachers, we will always take work home—whether it’s by physically grading papers or subconsciously thinking about our students’ lives. But, we need space and time for ourselves. By getting really disciplined about how we use our prep periods and other little pockets of time, we just might get some free time back—and become better teachers in the process!
Ms. Heyck-Merlin is the founder and CEO of The Together Group and author of The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized and Save Time! She gives workshops around the country to help teachers and administrators maximize their instructional and personal time. Maia taught fourth and fifth grades and served on the staffs of Teach for America and Achievement First. For more on Maia, and to access helpful resources, please visit her at The Together Teacher website: www.thetogetherteacher.com