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Setting a Work Schedule to Make Us Better, Saner Teachers

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Post Image--Work Schedule

I want to share something that gives me hope for the year to come: a weekly routine for getting the work done within set working hours. I piloted this schedule for two weeks before Winter Break, and it seems poised to do well for me in 2015, which seems like it could be my busiest year ever.

First: Why we all need set work hours

Once upon a time, Dr. Seuss’ publisher made a bet with him: “I bet you can’t write a children’s book using only 50 words.”

Most writers would have balked at the idea of undertaking a project with such constraints — Cat in the Hat, after all, had 225. But Seuss was a pro; he knew that constraints aren’t our enemy. He answered the bet with Green Eggs and Ham — one of the best-selling children’s books of the last century [1].

The point? Constraints can create breakthroughs we wouldn’t otherwise have had without the constraints in place.

This is an important point for teachers because we often balk at any constraints placed on us. What, you want me to teach the same curriculum as the person down the hall? Wait, you mean all of our students have to take the same unit test on the same day?

I’m not saying all constraints are created equal; if you’re an administrator or department chair who’s in charge of decisions that constrain other teachers, make careful decisions. You know this.

But we teachers can save ourselves a lot of stress by determining to promote the long-term flourishing of our students within some of the curricular or assessment constraints placed upon us, rather than constantly seeking to buck them.

This blog article, however, will take a different tack toward the constraints idea because it focuses on how I’m going to intentionally constrain my work hours when we head back to school on Monday. (Setting work hours is an idea I briefly discussed in my last post.)

Why I am personally motivated to live by set work hours

First of all, I want to continue doing things I got better at in 2014, largely through using set work hours:

  • Being an engaged, joyful husband and dad. 2014 marked the start of weekly date nights with my wife (something we haven’t done since our first year of marriage), the entry into the world of our third little girl, Marlena, and the institution of new Stuart traditions like the family-dinner-thanksgiving-clapping game and the wrestling-around-on-the-living-room-rug-after-dinner game (the titles need work but the traditions are there).
  • Being a more efficient, more excellent teacher. I got better in 2014 at figuring out what work is worth time and attention and what work just needs to get done with brutal efficiency. I’m still growing here, but I’m convinced that efficiency is key if I’m to remain engaged in my work and on the upward climb to Excellence.

In 2015, I also want to get better at two things — and this means forcing myself to do one thing much more frequently. Both of these are very important to me as a teacher who also writes and speaks for teachers.

  1. Improve my writing. I always wanted to be a writer, and I sort of stumbled back onto the passion through this blog and the beautiful community of teachers that have formed around it. And even though 2014 marked the release of my first traditionally published book, I see that I’ve got so much more room to grow. To become a pro, I need to do the same thing professional athletes do: work out every day. Toward that end, I’m placing a simple constraint on myself: publish blog articles every Monday Tuesday and Saturday. I need to do this because:
    • I learn a ton every time I write, and a key thing that keeps me motivated to do the work of teaching is learning new things.
    • I am a horrible judge of which of my blog articles will be the most useful to our community. The solution? Force myself to write more articles and leave the usefulness-deciding up to you all.
    • Thanks to your answers on surveys like this one, your comments on my blog posts, and your interactions with me on Twitter and Facebook, I feel closer than ever to knowing how best to serve our small community of dedicated educators. You guys want to know how to deal with time scarcity, testing pressure, initiative overkill, skill deficits, and paperwork monsters. I want to write about those things.
  2. Improve my speaking and PD. My all-day literacy workshops (which I adapt for both Common Core and non-Common Core states) are easily the most well-reviewed and impactful things I do apart from teaching. While I’ve found that my writing can be powerful for isolated folks within a district, my speaking style seems to resonate with, empower, and encourage a much greater percentage of entire departments and districts. So from an impact perspective, every workshop I give is a win.
    • To be totally transparent, workshops are also a great source of extra income for my family, and with goals like adoption, world travel, and philanthropy, that income is something we don’t take for granted.

In short, I need to write more and speak more so that I get better at both — and the number one way for me to do both of these things is to write more!

So here’s the thing: just deciding to write more and deciding to speak more doesn’t really matter all that much. It’s easy making decisions like this from the comfort of Winter Break and moderate caffeination.

As I’m learning in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, getting things done requires way more than motivation or drive — it requires habit. And that’s where my routine comes in.

My daily and weekly work schedule for 2015

(The following work schedule is an excerpt from my most audacious self-published book to date, Never Finished: Continually Becoming the Teachers We Want to Be & Staying Sane in the Process. That book launches on the 15th of this month, at which point its price will double.)

7:00-7:30am, or The Calm Before the Storm

Unless a student has an appointment with me, my door is closed during this time. Note: I allow myself to begin working as early as I’d like. I’m not a “get up psychotically early” kind of guy normally, so this doesn’t lead to me overworking.

Tasks for this time chunk:

  • Final prep for the day’s lessons
  • Write objectives on the board. Or learning targets, or essential questions — depends on what they’re called this year 😉
  • Write and send an email or note of appreciation
  • Review calendar for the day and week
  • Tutor students (by appointment only)
  • No email checking

7:30-11:50, or Flow

I teach periods 1, 2, 3, and 4, alternating between English 9 and World History.

Tasks:

  • Um… teaching
  • Address limited student questions during hall breaks
  • Sprint to get coffee or go to the bathroom during hall breaks

11:50-12:20, “Lunch” time

I am bad at eating lunch.

Tasks:

  • 3 days per week, I tutor students by appointment during this time. My days are Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday
  • 1-2 days per week, be social with other colleagues for at least part of lunch
  • Bite-sized tasks: grading a group of papers, doing email, responding to phone calls

12:20-1:20, “Prep” period

Ideally, this time is dedicated to what its name implies: preparing for future instruction. Meetings can sometimes contribute to this, but meetings alone can’t get it done. That’s reflected in the limits I place on my meeting availability below. Remember: we are professionals. Professionals aren’t incessantly available because, you know, they have work to do.

Tasks:

  • A maximum of two meetings per week. I have one meeting with my grade-level team that happens weekly, leaving one slot for the impromptu parent meeting, administrator meeting, colleague meeting, or what have you. If someone requests a meeting (or just says, “Hey, we’re meeting”) after that two meeting limit has been reached, I just say, “Shucks! All the rest of my preps this week are booked — how about we set something up for next week or chat briefly after school?”
  • Up to 30 minutes of “bite-sized” tasks (see previous section)
  • Lesson planning, unit planning, course research, formative and summative assessment review, and next steps

1:20-2:30, Last class

I teach 6th hour.

2:30-3:30, Intentionally interruptible time

My goal with this single hour after school is to be available for impromptu meetings, student needs, collegial banter and such, yet at the same time to remain focused on maximizing the productiveness of the hour. Toward that end, I’ve started doing something simple: while I’m in my room during this time, I lightly play some classical music.

What’s up with the music?

  • For the record, I know nothing about how to appreciate classical music.
  • I feel like classical music in the background 1) makes kids a little less excitable (important for after-school) and makes colleagues a little less likely to sink into “Yo, I’m going to sit down in your room so we take turns providing counseling services for one another for the next 3 hours” mode (also important for after-school because we all feel like slipping into that mode by this point).

Tasks:

  • Tutoring students
  • Providing a productive work environment for students
  • Grading
  • Phone calls
  • Conversations with colleagues (ideally with a set purpose)

Enter “Dave is functionally gone from work” time

It’s 3:30pm. At this point, a lot of teachers go home. I don’t because I’ve been in the place where teacher work bleeds into everything, and so I no longer bring work home. When I go home, I want to relate, to connect, to just be. There is one exception to my “no work at home” rule: as you’ll see, on Sunday evenings after the kids are in bed, I do pre-week prep and any last-week stuff that didn’t get done.

However, simply staying at work doesn’t mean you get anything done. Many teachers stay at school until 5:20 like me, but they get next to jack done on a regular basis. The key, I’ve found, is treating yourself as if you’re gone. Shut and lock your door, cover the door window or dim the lights, and work on those most important things that must get done for you to get better at this job.

During my first years as a teacher and my first years at my current school, this meant planning and curriculum work. Now that I’ve been at my school and teaching the same classes for a few years, I use this extra time to develop myself as a professional reader and writer.

3:30-4:00 — “Social” reading

I read something in my stack o’ PD books for 30 minutes. I’ve written an article about how to read PD books, but in addition to the tactics I share in that article, during this block of time I’ve also started sharing any insights I gain from my professional reading on Twitter and Facebook. This is appreciated by my community members in those settings because it’s short, actionable or thought-provoking stuff that I don’t share anywhere else; it’s also useful for me because, scrolling back through my tweets and posts, I’m able to remember past insights gained from my professional reading.

4:00-5:00 — Write to publish

During this time, I write for one purpose: to help teachers become better and saner.

Tasks:

  • Writing for my blog (remember: I’m aiming at a post every Monday Tuesday and Saturday)
  • Writing for other blogs or publications (e.g., this year I want my work to appear in at least two print journals)
  • Working on projects (e.g., traditionally or self-published books or starter kits)

5:00-5:20 — Sweep up, set out tomorrow’s work

I have one aim here: walk out the door feeling some semblance of, “Okay — today’s as done as it’s gonna get. Here’s what’s on for tomorrow.”

Weekly work schedule

Monday through Friday look like the schedule above — here are the exceptions:

On nights when I have to leave the house after dinner (e.g., every Tuesday I have a men’s Bible study I’m part of), I leave school by 4:55.

On Saturday mornings during especially insane weeks (e.g., in two weeks, I’ll have final exam grades to input), I’ll leave the house early (i.e, before anyone wakes up), head into school or to a coffee shop, and work until 11:30am.

On Sunday nights after the kids are in bed, I put a couple hours into feeling ready for the week or getting caught up on grading.

Those are my exceptions.

What’s your schedule?

I sincerely urge you to invest some time before break ends to start thinking about a schedule you can use to force you into greater efficiency, effectiveness, and sanity as a teacher and a human. Feel free to share your work or ask questions in the comments. Cheers!

Footnotes:

1. Thank you to James Clear for first telling me the Dr. Seuss story.

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23 Responses to Setting a Work Schedule to Make Us Better, Saner Teachers

  1. Classroom Liner Notes January 3, 2015 at 9:36 am #

    GREAT tips, Dave! And you’re totally in my head. I have been thinking of how to maximize my in-school time so I can be with my kid–fully present, not lesson planning in my head, doing things that I love with him. Thus, this article is a great motivator. You’ve got some fantastic goals. They’ll happen. Happy New Year!!! NCTE proposal deadline is coming up. Hope you’ll submit!

    • davestuartjr January 4, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

      Thank you, Kim! 🙂 E needs his mom 🙂 I’m planning to submit to NCTE; thank you for your gracious friendship and encouragement, Kim!

  2. Jen Krause January 3, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    These are fantastic ideas — and I appreciate how transparent you are in sharing them. This is also a goal of mine this year, so I know I’ll be channeling you a bit as I face the temptations to “just complete one more task.”

    I don’t know how old your kids are, but as my daughters have grown older, I’ve found that I’ve had to switch my “after school” schedule a bit to accommodate their needs. Now that they’re being assigned more significant amounts of homework, I leave school as early as I can to be with them as they complete it. (In our house, homework is done directly after school — without exception.) If they need assistance, I’m there; if they don’t, I am free to finish my own homework: lesson planning, grading, replying to emails, etc.

    Best yet: they see me working alongside them, muscling through challenging tasks with dedication.

    • davestuartjr January 4, 2015 at 7:49 pm #

      Jen, those days are ahead of me — thanks for giving me the heads up! My kids are 4, 2, and 6 months; no homework yet. Your kids are bound to pick up some of the character strengths you’re exemplifying alongside them during after-school work time!

  3. Karen Ruiz January 3, 2015 at 10:08 am #

    I noticed a huge difference in my teaching when I made time to go to the gym. I had tons of energy and was more receptive to students, which is due to the happiness factor. I used to feel guilty about fitting in things like that or date night with my husband. Now I realize how important it is. Happy teacher, happy class. I recently added something we call “Write Society” (everybody is too young to recall the film “Dead Poet Society”) when I write with students on Friday afternoons. I know – Friday afternoons sounds like the worst day to do something extra. But it isn’t – it’s only every other week and on the off weeks they meet together on their own. It is my response to an extra, unpaid, goal request from our school’s “freak out” and I’m not sure how it will affect the numbers they want to improve. We’ll see. But the students and I write for fun and we plan to share strategies with students who don’t realize writing is fun. Maybe we will create a magazine in the spring. The interesting piece is that they inspire me to remember why I liked to write in the first place. I will note that if this tactic does help our “freak out” goals I will have proven to myself that freaking out is unnecessary.

    • davestuartjr January 6, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

      In that case, Karen, I pray it does help your freak out goals (great term, by the way). My hunch is that it will, even if it’s not directly measurable back to you.

      Also, happy teacher, happy class — a lot of truth to that.

  4. Hannah January 3, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    I really appreciate seeing more models of sustainable teaching, especially recognizing that retention is a huge concern for retaining and developing teachers for the long haul, where they can really make an impact. But, unfortunately, this example feels very unrealistic for the school environments where it is most needed. In unbalanced school cultures teachers’ preps are filled with extra duties, increased response and involvement for student misbehavior, extra time and effort writing curriculum and gather materials when the school is under-funded and can’t provide them, and general time sucks that include chasing down administrators who are overwhelmed and thus often don’t respond to emails. I think deliberate boundary setting is an important conversation to have in all schools, but I think the conversation misses the mark a bit when it implies that balance is possible in all environments as long as you have enough individual discipline. I’m asking myself what I, and my school, need to do so this may be an eventual possibility. (Unfortunately, many stake holders seem to believe it’s not feasible)

    • Marla January 3, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

      I totally agree with Hanna. At our school and many in our district we lose a significant amount of prep and after school time to school required tasks. For example, at our school we are on teams which means our team is required to meet once a week during our prep period. Our team also has about 25 kids on IEP’s so we must attend the meeting and stay the entire time. Other meetings include 504’s and parent meeting as well as PLC time until the end of the contract day on Wednesdays. As a team, we are responsible for motivating our students which means determining which students earn which rewards, etc. The list is endless. I too work long hours but my time does not include professional reading or writing. Mine is filled with the above AND making photocopies, grading writing. posting at least two grades per week, finding materials, responding to parents, etc. The teachers in my school are all struggling as I am to stay sane. Many of us have made a resolution to walk out the door at4:00 regardless. By 4:00 we have worked 9:00 and are exhausted. Enough is enough!

  5. Leslie January 3, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    I agree with Hannah as I am not sure how to tell other teachers, etc , in my building that I am only available for meetings on particular days/times. However, I do like your suggestions about making the morning before school my time and students are only allowed to see me if they have made an appointment. I, too, have gone to not taking work home with me in the evenings so that I have the me time that I so desperately need. I do need to find a balance of my time as I feel rushed and tired all of the time. Thank you for your blog.

  6. imkateb January 3, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

    I’m doing a study about the impact on students who see their teachers reading. Very, very interesting research, the gist of which is that the effect on student performance if they see teachers reading, if teachers share what they’re reading with students, if teachers read what students are reading and talk about it … is enormous. Whether one reads a YA novel with a group of teachers and then goes back into the classroom having read and discussed it already, or, if one reads a YA novel during reading time and talks (or not) at that point with students who are reading it — you set it up the way it works best for you — any way you can model reading to students and you can talk w/ them about what you — or they — are reading has dramatic results, immediately and long-term. Be in touch if you want to know more about the research or how-to’s. Meantime, somehow try to make time during your day to make the fact that you read and/or your reading time obvious to kids. Doesn’t have to be professional reading, though that’s good too; read novels, the newspaper, non-fiction … at your reading level or theirs. Pick something you know your kids are reading or introduce something different by reading it ahead of the pack. From what I’ve discovered, it won’t take long to see positive results among both your readers and non-readers!

  7. Fatuma Hydara January 3, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Hi Dave,

    Thank you for your post. It really made me rethink how I’m spending my time. If you are able to leave work by 5:30 each day, why am I leaving at 6pm each day and still creating Smart slides at home, even with having TWO prep periods? (Though, working at a charter school, my day is much longer.)

    Here’s my schedule and if I stick to it, not only will I have so much completed each week without bringing any home, but I may even limit the amount of work I bring home each weekend!

    Before School (7:30-8:10)
    Clock in, Breaskfast, Copies (?), Board, Lesson Set up, Check emails, professional reading

    Periods 1-4 (8:15-11:52)
    Teaching, Log attendance on Teacherease, Hallway Post bet. Periods

    Period 5 Prep (11:55-12:47)
    Bathroom!, Finish logging attendance, future lesson/unit planning (30min), prep for next day’s lesson (handout/slides)

    Period 6 Lunch (12:50-1:40)
    Eat lunch, check emails/social media (15-20 minutes), finish next day prep or log student work/grade (30 min)

    Period 7 Advisory (1:40-2:25)
    SSR (read with students–personal or professional), Study Hall (grade)

    Period 8 Prep. (2:28-3:20)
    Eat snack, Check emails, finish next day’s prep/grade

    Period 9 (3:23-4:15)
    Hallway Post, Teach

    Student Dismissal (4:15-4:30)
    Yell: “Go home and do some HW, read a book, and watch Netflix, in the order” in the hall to facilitate dismissal.
    Walk students who have detention down to cafeteria

    After School
    4:30-5:15
    Student assistance, finish next day’s prep if more time needed, make copies, classroom environment (update student work boards, organize library, update word wall etc)

    Work Day Ends (5:30)
    Clock out & leave the building!

  8. Julie January 3, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

    Great articles

  9. Ica R. January 4, 2015 at 1:53 am #

    Thank you for sharing your schedule!! I’ve been struggling since my kids were born to figure out a schedule that allows me to keep up with grading and not get too overwhelmed. For one blessed year they went to bed around 7 p.m. most nights, and I actually felt mostly sane during this time period. Now it might be 9 or 10 until they finally are asleep, and that doesn’t leave any time for me to get work done at home. I’m really hoping that if i can be more intentional about the work I get done at school, that I can minimize the work I have to do at home to still keep my head above water. Thanks so much for sharing what has worked for you!

  10. Kristy January 5, 2015 at 12:17 am #

    Finding a balance is so difficult in this profession. My children all attend the school I teach at, and after school they are supposed to have a snack first, then start on homework. By the time I get inside from dismissing my class, they have questions and/or need help, or redirecting. =) They usually get their work done and don’t have to take any or much homework home. The tricky part is that this eats into my time to clean up the room and take care of my school work. We usually leave by 5:15, depending on sports of other activities. So, I end up taking LOTS home. Creating a schedule, or maybe writing things down on lists again, will help balance the time at home working on school work. This is such a struggle. The paper work never ends and the list only stays short until the next day. I don’t know what the solution is, but I appreciate your tips, realistic approach, and encouragement!

  11. Beth January 5, 2015 at 10:18 am #

    Maybe I’m a terribly slow grader, but with two essays a week for two AP classes, I find I can’t get it done in my at school time. 🙁 I’m usually up till midnight grading every night.

  12. dawn January 5, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    Great tips however we don’t have contract hours anymore. We are told we are to do all of our paperwork on our “own” time. We are told well that’s what your evenings are for. You are salary. Meeting and IEP’s are scheduled without seeing if we are free. They are scheduled after our work day used to be over. Workaholic behavior is encouraged and valued I’m afraid,

    • davestuartjr January 6, 2015 at 12:49 pm #

      Dawn, that sounds like a heckuva cruddy work environment — seriously. I’d have my resume polished and would be applying to other jobs. While there, I’d do my darnedest to make the system as long-term flourishing promoting for my students as possible.

  13. martinkat January 6, 2015 at 1:29 pm #

    Dave,
    Thank you for your wisdom… as an administrator, I never thought I would long for the days of waiting until recess to go to the bathroom. There is something to be said for the “set in stone” type of schedule! Being a building principal entails about nine-minutes per task before a parent phone call, “emergency” email from the DO, naughty eight-year old, barfing kindergartener or sobbing (but fabulous) teacher provides a turn. The most important (and my favorite) part of my job is visiting classrooms and supporting teachers and students. For this, I block out time… not to say that it isn’t often interrupted, but those visits, whether they be flybys or time to sit on the floor and play a math game are invaluable! For those that treasure “Divine Interruptions”, there is a app called “Soul Revolution” that will send your mobile device a verse every 60 minutes for 60 days. The verses “pile up”, which is good, as we might get in trouble for checking our phones every hour.

  14. Erica March 14, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

    Thank you for writing “Many teachers stay at school until 5:20 like me, but they get next to jack done on a regular basis. The key, I’ve found, is treating yourself as if you’re gone.” That has been me, and I thought I was the only one with that problem. I will try your tips.

    I just came across your blog this year and have thoroughly enjoyed it! Thankful.

    • davestuartjr March 14, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

      Erica, thank you. I’m so glad it’s been enjoyable. Take care, and good luck.

  15. Ica R. September 21, 2016 at 6:11 pm #

    Hi Dave – I revisited this post when you linked to it in a recent article. I think it’s a good reminder as we’re establishing habits for this school year. I’m curious if you’re still using this work schedule, and if it changed at all when you started teaching an AP class. Have you had to spend more time planning, reading course material, etc.? If you’re looking for future topics, I would love you to revisit this. 🙂

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