Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

teacher burnout

Every minute of planning time that you waste is a minute you will have to work some other time. So if you want to cut the number of hours you spend on teaching, do not waste a minute of your planning time.

Many teachers do. Angela Watson, in her 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, calls them “unintentional breaks.” Over at Smart Classroom Management,  Michael Linsin says, “Most teachers prepare inefficiently. They get distracted.”

We tell ourselves we’re working all day but sometimes we’re actually chatting with colleagues, making personal phone calls, checking personal emails or Facebook, or just sitting there staring off into space and trying to catch our breaths. It’s understandable. Teaching is exhausting and sometimes we just want a break.

But if your goal is to cut down on the amount of time you spend on the job so you have more time to spend on the rest of your life, then maximizing your planning time has to be a priority. You can’t do anything about the number of hours you are required to spend in your classroom with students. So if you’re looking to eliminate taking work home, then a large part of that has to be optimizing your planning time.

Personally, I hate donating time. Unlike money, I can’t make it back. So I protect my hours vigilantly. For me, that means making the most of the 45 minutes my school district gives me, as well as using class time to complete some of my professional responsibilities (a topic I’ll address in Part 10 of this series). Here is how I optimize my planning time:

Make a To-Do List Before Going Home

The last thing I do before walking out the door is sit down at my desk and write down the things I will do when I arrive the next morning. That way, as soon as I roll in, I can get right to work and start checking off items. Remember to consider each item carefully and ask the three questions all time-saving teachers must ask:

1. Is it necessary?

2. Is there a more efficient way to do it?

2. Could students do it instead of me?

To read about slashing your to-do list, see Part 4 of this series.

Come In Early

Most days, I have two planning times. The first is contractual. I get 45 minutes of planning time when my students are in specials. The second is voluntary. While this series is about avoiding burnout by cutting your hours, the one part of the day where you will need to donate some time to your district is before school. No matter how efficient you are, there just isn’t enough time in the contractual day to do everything you need to do. But if you arrive an hour before school and leave within 30 minutes of dismissal, you’ll still be on track to work 40-hour weeks, as long as you don’t take work home and remember to say no to additional responsibilities that will sap your energy and detract from your effectiveness in the classroom.

Here’s how my schedule breaks down:

8:00  Arrive at school

8:50  Students enter

8:55  – 9:40  Contractual Planning Time

9:40 – 12:20  Teach

12:20 – 12:55  Lunch

12:55 – 3:51  Teach  (20-minute supervised recess included)

4:20   Go Home

Each day works out to eight hours and twenty minutes, minus a duty-free 35-minute lunch, which puts me at seven hours and 45 minutes. I usually have one 45-minute staff meeting every Wednesday morning, so altogether I typically work 39.5 hours in a week.

Coming in an hour early means I have an hour and 45 minutes each day to do all the parts of my job that don’t directly involve kids (planning, checking papers, sending and replying to emails, finding and gathering resources, making copies, assigning things online, etc.)

If at all possible, your voluntary planning time should take place before school. That’s because one hour in the morning is worth two in the afternoon. As I explain in my book, Exhausted, people are more productive in the morning. They benefit from a full tank of willpower. They’re less likely to give in to distractions and temptations. They also benefit from Parkinson’s Law, which states that work will expand to fill up the time available. By coming in before school, you are up against a deadline. The students are going to arrive at a set time. This will force you to be more efficient.

Prioritize your to-do list

Upon arriving at school and reviewing my to-do list, I put first things first. Anything I can’t do while students are in the room gets done first. This usually includes all the copies I’ll need for the week and assigning things in Google Classroom. It may involve preparing resources for social studies or science for that day. I may need to locate a picture book that introduces a new unit of study. Goals for the day are written on the board, since my district cares about that sort of thing.  If I’m making a video for a flipped lesson, I usually make it before school on the day of the lesson.

There’s a concept Angela Watson shares in her 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club that saves enormous amounts of time. She calls it “task-batching,”  and all it requires is some organization and preplanning. A lot of the time, teachers do things as they pop up. They need 25 copies of a math worksheet, so they hit print and run to the copier to get them, only to repeat the process seven or eight times throughout the week. Angela recommends batching similar tasks together. If you’ve planned out your entire week, you ought to be able to make copies for everything, all at once, saving yourself endless trips to the copy room. Same goes for digital assignments. Assign everything for the entire week in Google Classroom and use a numbering system to keep track of them, as Alice Keeler recommends in this post. Do the same with email. Instead of replying as you receive them, schedule time in your day to do nothing except read and respond to email.

Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do with students in the room.  In the last article of this series, I’ll explain how I create time during the day to chip away at work I used to take home.  Grading papers, providing students feedback on their writing, and digitally assigning things can all be done at nearly any time of the day.

Be Antisocial

My wife is a lot nicer than me. She has one of those friendly faces that induce strangers to walk up to her and ask for directions. They never ask me.  That might explain why teachers rarely swing by my room to talk, while, if my wife wants to get any work done, she has to go somewhere else or hide in her room with the door shut and the lights off.

And that’s just what you may have to do. If you’re a friendly person like my wife, it’s going to be harder for you to optimize your planning time. Coworkers like to chat and planning time seems to be a favorite time. If you’re an antisocial grump like me (especially in the morning), people tend to avoid you. Which means you can work without being distracted. Set clear boundaries, either with your words or your actions, and you’ll be able to use your planning time to get work done.

Remember the goal. If you want to cut hours off your workweek, you’ll need to make sacrifices. Save the socializing for lunch. Get your work done during planning time.

All of the articles in this series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves

Part 2: Making a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time

All links to Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club are affiliate links.



2 Replies to “Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 5: Optimize Planning Time”

  1. I love your blog. It has validated so many of my feelings. However, your advice on arriving an hour before school is next to impossible for me. I have a 45-minute commute and teachers have to be there at 7:20. This means I would have to get up at the very least by 5am to make this happen. Add in that I’m a single parent and have to get three kids to school. As I said, I adore your website, but getting there an hour early is not likely to happen. It’s a nice idea but probably not practical for more teachers than just myself.

    And that brings up another topic of contention: school start times. They are ridiculously early. I’m sure you know the research on adolescent brain development and sleep patterns. I advocated for this years before all the recent research was published, but of course, it fell on deaf ears.

    Thank you for your insight and your willingness to be “real” when it comes to being an educator.

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