TM4T NQT - A Teachers Guide to Weekends

There are two classic time-awareness exercises which may be of immediate value to busy teachers. The object of these exercises is to realise - really understand - just how much time is available to you, and where your time-management issues really lie.

The first will be familiar to you from sombre assemblies: the one minute silence. Just try it: one minute doing nothing can make us realise just how much capacity we are given, sixty times each single waking hour. One minute is certainly enough time to come up with a lesson idea and mentally sketch out how to develop it (ten lesson ideas in ten minutes is a different thing entirely).

The second exercise involves a 24-Hour Weekend Plan - a partly completed version is given at the end of this guide. Obviously, your life-timetable may differ from this example, but probably not by much. This teacher's school-day lasts from 08:30 to 15:30 each day, which means each weekend contains 65 hours of undirected time. Subtracting three eight-hour sleeps (your numbers will be slightly different of course) this means that there are still 41 hours left to account for.

Now, let's assume for the sake of argument that 20 minutes is a logical period of time to spend on a single activity without a break. That means that if we were asked to plan this time - prepare a schedule of activities for a single weekend - we would have to consider 123 time periods. Many teachers would be dismayed at the prospect of planning activities on this scale.

This, however, is what we do routinely, instinctively - and frequently thoughtlessly - every weekend: allocate 123 time-slots to various activities: walking the dog, reading the paper, cooking lunch. Now don't get me wrong: dogs need to be walked, it helps to keep abreast of the news, and everyone needs food. There may also be necessary therapeutic benefits involved: exercise, awareness, creativity. These aspects are all important, but they do not have to happen in an identical form each weekend, and they are all negotiable; you really do have one-hundred-and-twenty-three 20-minute time-slots to play with every weekend.

OK; all you mums can stop shouting at me now: I know I haven't mentioned, children, families, partners; flatmates, elderly relatives or friends or any of the other people who have legitimate demands on your time. Few of us really have the independence to plan our weekends without taking others into consideration. To be fair, I did mention a dog.

But, this brings us to the central point of this help-sheet: time itself is very rarely an issue. Every weekend, every teacher has more than enough time to catch up on any backlog of work, and to prepare for the weeks that follow, even allowing for the necessities of life. There is no shortage of time - the real shortages are more subtle:

a) A shortage of energy. We mentioned that one minute of uninterrupted thought is enough to generate a good lesson idea, whereas ten ideas in ten minutes was virtually impossible: this problem applies to all creative work, and - to a lesser extent - to all work. We can either sprint or run marathons; not both, not simultaneously.

b) A shortage of support. Many teachers have emergency support, who can help with childcare, with housework or with just about anything if the circumstances demand it; however, this support is rarely routine, and rarely factored into a teacher's work planning. You cannot plan your time without some degree of independence.

c) A shortage of relaxation. We have Unions for a reason. The 24-working-hours-in-a-day logic underpinned the mentality of slave owners, and it can be a route to physical and mental breakdown. This shortage is different to the 'shortage of energy' described above. Many teachers do in fact combine a sprint and a marathon and burn up their weekends in a frenzy of catch-up, frequently cramming in childcare and laundry as they go. This is ultimately counter-productive - relaxation is a non-negotiable requirement for a fully functioning teacher. Stress and burnout represent the only alternative.

So: if these are the real problems, what are the answers? This is a tricky question, as the answer will depend largely on the circumstances of the individual teacher, but here are some guidelines to using your acres of 'spare time' effectively.

1. Recognise that there is a fixed overhead involved in organising your spare time - try to do it in large focused chunks, rather than a lot of small work-slots spread over time. These (small work-slots) are valuable in themselves, but do not help much in busy periods or let us clear backlogs.

2. The first 'fixed overhead' involves getting as much support as possible from family, friends, partners: tell them you need to work, and get them to walk the dog, mind the kids, and read the paper for you. Buy them a takeaway at the end of the day and share a thank-you meal. Those who love you will be delighted to help: the first time. This enthusiasm is likely to wane if it becomes a regular occurrence.

3. Be crystal clear on what needs to be achieved, and what 'stuff' you need in order to achieve it. The second 'fixed overhead' involves planning your logistics with care: this may involve crate-loads of marking, printing out classlists, downloading specifications, taking text-books home, etc...

4. Use your Time-slot plan (like the example at the end of this guide) to plan your weekend. Schedule your health necessities first: this means sleep, food, relaxation, exercise (ideally outdoor exercise) regularly. Schedule these in 20 minute slots (apart from sleep, obviously). Choose relaxation activities which are genuinely enjoyable, and don't occupy too much time. A stroll around the park is likely to be better than a visit to the gym. If you need to start the weekend with a Friday night slob-out-and-unwind, that's fine: but aim to go to bed an hour earlier than you would on a school night.

5. Then: use the same plan to schedule what work you are going to do. Break tasks down into 20 minute chunks and actively seek variety, flip-flopping between different bits of work if necessary. Make sure there are 20 minute breaks at least every two hours. Don't beat yourself up if you don't follow your plan exactly; you may think you know your limits, but few of us really do.

6. Recognise your own chronotype and tailor your work pattern to match your preference: this frequently means decisive, creative work in the morning, simple routine tasks after meals, longer more arduous work in the afternoon and evening.

7. Build rewards into your plan, only for the routine, tedious tasks. Creative, decisive work should have completion and achievement as its sole reward. The boring stuff, however, deserves chocolate as a minimum, possibly cake.

8. Separate 'rewards' (described above) from 'environment'. For all your home-work, arrange background music, comfortable surroundings, well-equipped workspace, a friendly view. As far as possible, avoid making it all a chore.

9. Build reviews into your plan: review how much you are achieving (vs how much you have to do); review how you are feeling (vs how a healthy well-motivated professional should feel); decide if you need to change your plan: more relaxation, longer breaks, different tasks. Obviously, if the intention is to change-your-plan-if-necessary, you need to do these reviews early and regularly.

10. Add one last task to your diary (NOT on this weekend): review how and why you got in this mess, and consider how to prevent or minimise recurrence. Sometimes, work backlogs are unavoidable - ill-health is a frequent cause; at other times, the backlog indicates something wrong in our working life, which needs to be fixed.

For an example of a time-slot plan, click here.