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April 16, 2012

For You and Your Students: Make Every Minute Count

Katie, a third grade teacher in Wisconsin, has already attended TWO Together Teacher workshops in her two-year teaching career!

Katie chose to attend a Together Teacher workshop shortly into her first year of teaching because she felt unproductive, overwhelmed, and pulled in a million different directions. Sound familiar?

I had the chance to meet Katie again when she came to her second workshop in February of 2012. I was blown away by her shift in mindset regarding her VERY LIMITED free time. In particular, I was so impressed by how she models her efficient use of time for her students.

Like many of us, Katie described her first year of teaching as a whirlwind of planning, instruction, grading, responding to behavior challenges and conquering classroom management issues. She spent her prep periods dealing with student issues that arose throughout the day. It should come as no surprise that Katie was taking a massive amount of work home each night.

Like I said before, sound familiar?

Katie had no problem with working at home, but she also knew she would need more discipline to remain in the teaching profession (and alive!). Katie used the summer between her first and second years to reflect and plan thoughtful changes.  She shared the following revelation with me:

I needed to operate with the same values with which I train my students. Time is valuable, no matter who you are, and it keeps on ticking. I really care about my students, but that doesn’t mean that all of my free time can go to solving student issues.

Heading into her second year of teaching, Katie prepared to shift the paradigm.  At the time of this blog post, Katie proudly reported, “While I’m still doing work at home, I’m happy to say I have cut it in half. I look forward to cutting it back even more by continuing to model that every single minute counts.”

How She Did It (and how you can, too!):

  1. Create a Plan for Your Flexible Time

    Many teachers have opinions about how they like to use their prep periods, but Katie takes it to another level.

    Take a look at her example: Katie clearly lists what she will accomplish during her before-school time, lunch, after-school time, home time—and preps! She stacks the beginning of her week very full, which allows her to have a Thursday TV date with her fiancé and an outing with friends on Friday night! She even takes the extra step to map out her weekend work so she can see ahead of time when she’ll be free.

  2. Make Small Chunks of Time Count

    Like many teachers, Katie has several 5 – 10 minutes chunks of time throughout the day when it feels hard to actually accomplish anything beyond using the restroom and filling her water bottle. Even during her sacred prep periods, she doesn’t get the long block of uninterrupted time her schedule promises.

    Katie’s students receive extra services from First Stage, an outside group that facilitates Reader’s Theater activities. Even though her third graders are technically supervised during this time, Katie, like any good teacher, likes to keep a close eye and maintain presence.

    Katie knows that First Stage comes on Wednesdays. So, at the beginning of the week, she plans out several 5 – 7 minute tasks for that day’s prep. This way, she can duck out of the room for small errands but she isn’t gone the entire time. When I asked Katie how on earth she got so disciplined about this, she told me, “5-7 minutes really matter. Every second of the day is so important.”

  3. Prepare for Interruptions

    When I discuss planning out flexible time with teachers, the most common reaction I get is, “Yeah, right!!! You know I’m going to be interrupted, distracted, and pulled, right?!”

    And my answer is usually, “Yes… but how many of those things are true emergencies?”

    I asked Katie if she was ever interrupted or had her plan thrown off.  She wisely responded, “Yes, absolutely! But I realized 90% of that is student behavior, and I can control how I react to those situations.”

    Continuing to model that both teacher time and student time are incredibly valuable, Katie described how she now responds to students struggling with their behavior during the day. She may hold them back out of a specials class and calmly say, “Let’s use this time to cool out. I have things to get done [she shows them her to-do list], but you are important to me. Rather than talk about it immediately, write down your thoughts and feelings, and we will discuss it during the last five minutes of the period. If you finish early, you can read your independent reading book. My hope is that you can turn your day around, and I’m eager to talk about it with you after you do some thinking.”

    Many of you may be thinking that sounds harsh, but in fact, it’s just the opposite. Katie is showing her students she will not just toss her plans to react to misbehavior; instead, being a planned and prepared teacher is the most important thing she can do for them.

    None of these ideas is revolutionary but they each take a tremendous amount of intentionality to pull off. This isn’t just going to happen – you have to make it happen! It’s worth it.

    Katie has seen benefits for herself (both personally and professionally) and for her students. Her students see her weekly plan sitting on her small group instructional table, and they notice it. She told me proudly, “They see I take my own plans just as seriously as I take their homework!”

Together Teacher Reflection Questions:

  1. Are there any small chunks of time during your day when you could cross things off the list?
  2. Are there any ways you could reduce interruptions to your prep periods?
  3. How can you map out how you will spend your preps in advance?

If you are interested in creating a template for your flex time like Katie’s, click here!

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