‘Never off duty’: productivity and prioritisation in teaching.


My son’s current cartoon hero is Fireman Sam.  Sam is a workaholic for sure and is well known for always being at the emergency.  In his words, ‘A good fireman is never off duty.’  Teaching can often feel like that.  The steps up from Phase One up to Phase Two and Three during a PGCE course; from PGCEer to an NQT and from NQT to NQT+1 are daunting.

A question that I often get asked is how it’s possible to cram it all in.  The question comes from trainee teachers, NQTs and experienced teachers alike.  Now, I consider myself to be very disorganised and quite forgetful.  Most of the time I rely upon what’s in my head.  Not a great system many would say!

This post is an attempt to summarise my approach of organisation and prioritisation in my professional life.  I should add a caveat which is I operate under the assumption that people will shout at me if I forget something important.  I also take the approach that a teaching team exists to help each other out, so there’s no room for shirking and delegation (or the dynamic management of colleagues’ CPD as I like to think of it.)  It’s also a secondary geography teacher’s point of view.

In the words of Hugh Grant’s character in About a Boy: ‘No (teacher) is an island.’

Consider the below some kind of ‘inbox’ exercise favoured by some schools during recruitment.  It’s not an ideal system at all. So, in some sort of an order..

1. Marking If you don’t know where your students are, how can you plan effective lessons that move them on or address their misconceptions?  In my view, you can’t set learning objectives without knowing where young people are.  A main scale teacher may teach up to 500 individuals each week.  As an SLT member it’s around 200 for me.  There is no way around this and many studies suggest that the most effective way of improving students’ progress is effective marking with clear, individual and subject specific targets.  You have to mark. End of.

To manage marking, it’s all about systems.  Our Schemes of Work stagger assessment points, and each week we all mark the same year group.  I monitor the marking, and my team have a look at my own.  This not only shares good practice, but ensures that the team aren’t wasting time.  Also, we use some stamps, and get the children to do some of the marking.  But that’s another story.

I mark in school.  I never take books home.  Mainly because I’ll lose them.
2. Planning I have to be ready to teach the classes I have.  There’s no way around that. 

The key here is not to plan a mental all singing lesson every single time.  I’d simply die.  Instead, Schemes of Work suggest a variety of activities – remember to use a wide range of teaching approaches, including (un)planning ones.

Plan clever. Use and tweak existing materials.  Learn how to search the web efficiently and have a set of criteria for evaluating sources of information.  Keep a file.  I have a ring binder, a filing cabinet, dropbox folder structure and use an exercise book to keep track of what I have done.  Do it right once and the next year is a case of tweaking rather than whole scale re-planning.

I ignore lesson observations.  I just carry on as usual.

I tend to do most individual planning at home. Mainly because I enjoy it and it doesn’t take too long these days.
3. Parents If a parent gets in touch, I respond as soon as possible.  They are the ‘customers’ after all.  I find that a pro-active approach limits the number of queries.  Communicate through student planners (I know, it’s the 21st Century right?); texts; emails; phone calls and standard letters.

If you engage home, many issues can be resolved.  Be pro-active in secondary schools and parents quickly become assets in the classroom, especially when chasing that homework project.

This includes reporting and data entry.

4. My Team People make the department vibrant and successful and a nice place to work.  I operate an open door department and you’re more likely to find me popping in and out of lessons to support or catching up with a member of my year team or support staff than in my office when I’m not teaching.

This would include setting cover and checking in on supply teachers and cover supervisors in the department. 

My aim is to have an actual conversation with those I line manage every day.

This includes email communications from my team – they are all set up with their own alerts and filters.

5. External requests and communications Stuff like examination entries, external speakers, trip risk assessments, trip consent forms etc….  This is usually high stakes stuff or impacts on the reputation of the school or department.  By this I mean getting back to them and meeting deadlines, getting people in is always open to negotiation.  
6. SLT / internal emails I hate email.  No, scrap that, I hate how most people use email.  If it’s life or death must answer now, it won’t be via email.  A request from SLT will need reflection.  If they haven;t given me the time, I’ll say so and ignore it.  Similarly, requests from other members of staff aren’t urgent.

Mainly, if it’s not clear in the title what the email is about, it’s binned. 

7. Meetings Bad meetings really are the bane of my life.  Meetings should have an agreed focus and agendas should be set well ahead of time.  We use Google Docs to create a living agenda that is contributed to by the whole team.  If a meeting doesn’t have an agenda, I won’t turn up.  In addition, meetings are for making decisions, not for thinking (that’s something else) and it should be clear what decisions will be made and any material relating to those should be circulated with the agenda to allow reflection. To be honest, if it’s a rubbish meeting with no focus I tend to get on with something else so that there’s no ‘dead time’  

I try to maintain a decent balance between work and personal life.  This is difficult to achieve as I love my work and it, erm, doesn’t feel like work.

  • I run now 4-5 times per week and this allows me to reflect. 
  • I read novels during my 50 minute commute. Mainly thrillers.  This is relaxing.
  • I try to read (or dip in to) at least one educational book / journal once a week.  This is a source of new ideas.

I’m sure that there are loads more.

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